Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! (Switch) Review
As someone born in the mid-90s, Pokémon has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, I woke up early every morning to watch Pokémon on Cheez TV, with a deck full of Pokémon Cards by my side and my Game Boy in my hands as I watched, so I could find the Pokémon that featured in each episode and say “I have this one!” Catching,collecting, and battling Pokémon has been my life-blood for 20 years, from the very first time I picked up and played Pokémon Yellow, to playing Pokémon Ultra Sun for review last year, and absolutely everything in between. Each generation of Pokémon brought improvements and additions, changes to the formula that fundamentally, but subtly, kept the series feeling fresh and unique for two decades. So you might, like I did, think that stripping back all those changes for Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee would result in an experience that feels stale, outdated, and old. In my experience, you’d be wrong. While it’s far from perfect, Let’s Go delivers a breathtaking experience that feels as fresh and unique as the series ever has, while taking trainers on a sentimental tour of where it all began.
And so, like the games themselves, let’s start at the beginning. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu is the latest game in the Pokémon series, and the first main-series game on Switch. It’s the story of a kid and their partner Pokémon, either a Pikachu or an Eevee, as they journey through the utterly gorgeous Kanto region, defeating gyms, catching all 151 (yes, just 151) Pokémon, and dealing with the once-mysterious but always villainous Team Rocket. In every practical sense, it’s a remake of Pokémon Yellow, which took a little more inspiration from the anime than the original games, which means that your partner Pokémon is always by your side (or rather, on your shoulder), regardless of if it’s in your party. It also means that fan-favourite characters such as Jessie, James, and Meowth will show up at various points throughout the story, and you’ll even see Brock and Misty outside of their gyms… if only briefly. It’s a moderately faithful remake, following the story and progression of the original pretty closely, though in some aspects it might be a little bit too faithful. We’ll talk more about that later.
Aside from being a remake, it’s also something new. Designed to tie in to the massive success of Pokémon GO, Let’s Go borrows a lot from the wildly popular mobile game. There’s no more wild battles, replaced with a catching mini-game ripped straight from GO, in which you toss dozens of Poké Balls at a Pokémon, feed it berries, and hope for the best. This is almost entirely based on motion gestures, and it’s a little bit gimmicky, but it can be incredibly fun. While docked or in tabletop mode, catching Pokémon consists of selecting your ball and berries, getting ready to throw, and then tossing your hand forwards as if throwing a Poké Ball. It can be frustrating while using Joy-Con, as it’s a little hard to gauge the orientation of the ball as you’re throwing it, leading to some dodgy throws every now and then. The Poké Ball Plus accessory fares a whole lot better, providing a physical representation of the ball you’re throwing that’s easy to manipulate, and providing cute, rumbly feedback sounds that make you feel like you’re actually holding a real Poké Ball in your hand. It’s incredibly cute, though its small size led to some discomfort after prolonged play in my decidedly not-small hands.
In handheld mode, things are a bit of a simpler affair, and honestly a lot more enjoyable. Instead of throwing your Switch forward like a madman who cares not for the well-being of their very expensive console, you instead have to tilt your console in the direction of the Pokemon and simply press a button to throw the ball. It’s a much better control scheme for prolonged play, and it’s a massive shame that this control scheme isn’t available in docked mode using the Pro Controller — sadly, the Pro Controller is totally unusable here.
I’ll admit that I was a bit iffy about the focus on catching before I played Let’s Go — battling has been a core aspect of the series since day one, and my experience with GO’s catching system was not always positive — but I was genuinely surprised at how well it worked and how much fun I had. That said, it’s something that could only really happen in Kanto.
See, while wild battles are gone for Let’s Go, trainer battles aren’t, and there are a lot of trainers to battle in Kanto. So even if you’re not battling wild Pokémon, battles are still a huge part of the game. In fact, in my time with the game, I’d wager I spent more time battling than I did catching, to the point I started avoiding trainer battles just to have a break from fighting for a while. That’s not something that really holds true for other regions — regions like Sinnoh and Unova have a much more balanced mix of exploration, story, and battling, so removing wild battles from any of those would lead to an experience that felt a little bit thin.
The trainer battles themselves are more or less the same thing you’ll get in any other main-series game, though a few mechanics are missing. Abilities are gone, as are held items, and a number of moves and field effects like weather have gotten the boot, too. This is what I meant earlier when I said that this remake might be a little too faithful. I understand the desire to simplify the battle system for new players and GO converts, and I expect there will be many of both, but it seems like a strange choice to strip these mechanics out of the game while leaving more complex mechanics like IVs, natures, and Mega Evolutions. Of course, the removal of abilities also affects Megas, many of which rely on abilities as their main gimmick, leaving many with little more than a minor stat boost. This won’t mean much to most players of the game, and many won’t even notice their absence, but for some, this simplification will be a dealbreaker. For me, though, I’m more perplexed than upset or annoyed, and it won’t be weighing particularly hard on my conscience to say that I didn’t really miss them.
With all that said, there’s a surprising amount of challenge to the battles in Let’s Go. They’re not all difficult, and it might be symptomatic of the way that I play, but most of the gym battles and much of the late-game was a genuine challenge, with my Pokémon fairly consistently under the level of my opponents. Sometimes by just a couple levels, and sometimes by 10 or more, but consistently under nonetheless. The game goes a way to alleviate this by placing certain requirements to the entry of some gyms, so rest assured that kids playing won’t be thrown into difficult battles before they’re ready. These entry requirements vary a bit — one gym requires a Pokémon of a certain type, another requires a Pokémon above a certain level, and some just require certain story events to be completed. Some will call this hand-holding, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but in the vast majority of cases you’ll already have met the requirements before you even reach the gym, so it’s not likely to be an issue for most people.
There’s also a co-operative mode that makes things considerably easier, adding a second player, which turns every battle into a very one-sided double battle, and adds a considerable catch bonus when both players toss their balls at the same time. This co-op mode can be turned on or off at any time by shaking the second controller. It’s a little bit shallow, and the second player can’t interact with the world at all, save for temporarily stunning a Pokémon when they run into it to make it easier to encounter. But that’s okay! It’s clear that co-op isn’t meant to be a fully co-operative experience, and more something to help parents guide their children through the game. For that, it does a good enough job.
If there’s one thing that stands out about Let’s Go, above all else, it’s the world-building. Unlike the Kanto games of old, this version of Kanto feels alive, it feels lived in. Pokémon encounters appearing on the overworld are a huge part of this — seeing Pokémon wandering around and interacting with the world in their natural environment is nothing short of magical — but it’s also the interactions with NPCs that make the Pokémon world feel like it never has before. It’s the little things that make a difference, like a woman asking you to play with her Slowpoke while she checks out the museum, or the Chansey aside Nurse Joy at every Pokémon Centre, or your following Pokémon finding a berry in the bushes as you walk by. These moments might be small, but they add up quickly, resulting in an experience that oozes charm and believability.
I do have to note that I fully recognise that these games aren’t made for me. They’re made for the fans who fell out of Pokémon a decade ago and only got back into it when Pokémon GO hit the market. They’re made for the children of people like me, whose parents grew up with the series and who can experience Pokémon for the first time with their parents. And they’re made for people who’ve never touched a Pokémon game before, a new audience whose first Nintendo console might be the Switch. It’s with this in mind that I can give a little bit of sympathy to some of the less-than-desirable design choices. Things like the omission of held items and abilities, and the gym entry requirements, aren’t choices made with super fans like me in mind, they’re choices made for the people who need it most. And if that means more people get to enjoy a series that I so deeply love, I’m more than willing to put up with things that don’t interest me.
Pokémon GO interactivity is also a major feature of the game, allowing you to transfer your Pokémon from GO into Let’s Go and catch or play minigames with them in Go Park, located in Fuschia City in place of the Safari Zone. Unfortunately, this functionality was not available in Pokémon GO at the time of publishing, meaning I didn’t get to check out how well this works and how the minigames play. I’ll be sure to write about these features at a later date, when they become available. That said, the Poké Ball Plus has a few interesting features that were available during the review period — it can act as a Pokémon GO Plus, allowing you to spin PokéStops and catch Pokémon without having the app on your screen at all times. You can even put a Pokémon from Let’s Go into the ball, which will spin PokéStops automatically for you, which is a nice little touch.
Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! is likely to be a divisive game. It has many of the hallmarks of a main-series game, but also features many aspects taken directly from GO. But surprisingly, against all odds, this grand experiment in Pokémon’s core mechanics delivers an experience that feels fresh and unique. It’s not perfect, and it won’t be for everyone, but if you’re willing to put aside your preconceived notions of Pokémon for just a second, you’ll find an excellent game that’s fun, approachable, and even a little magical.
+ Gorgeous visuals
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Surprisingly challenging
- Unwieldy motion controls
- Shallow co-op mode
- Stripped back battle system