Pokemon Masters Review (Soft Launch)

Pokemon Masters Soft Launch Review

Pokemon Masters is out—kinda. There’s a limited soft-launch in Singapore and soon™ Canada, but eager superfans are already playing in other territories via VPNs and the usual tricks. Here you’ll find my evaluation of the game in its current, early state as I’ve completed all the content currently on offer and talked the game over with many other direly impatient Pokemon fans. My efforts to keep things simple has failed—so be ready for a fairly complete look at what the game is like today!

If you wish to play the game or just read up on how it all works in detail, I also have a Pokemon Masters guide on this here site or you can pop in our Discord server to chat about the game!

Editor’s Note: The game’s full release is upon us! The final release fixes a couple of bugs, changes gem prices slightly, adds 5 free trainers to the roster, and has a minor intro event with some similarly minor rewards. It’s nothing that really affects my judgement of the game, so I’ll be leaving the rest of the review as-is.

What Is Pokemon Masters?

Pokemon Masters is perhaps a Gachapon Mobage-style mobile game first, and a Pokemon game second. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but rather I mean that this game was clearly designed to reinforce its goal of being an accessible, stand-alone mobile title before all else. A few tried-and-true Pokemon design choices and rules have been left behind in this process—which occasionally makes things a little confusing for long-time players.

Instead of catching Pokemon, this time around you’re “scouting” for Sync Pairs; a Trainer and Pokemon pair that you actually use to battle. All battles are 3v3 in Pokemon Masters, so you can choose 3 trainers and their Pokemon . Sync Pairs aren’t like normal Pokemon ; not all unevolved Pokemon can evolve to their final form, and Types are tied more to Trainer than they are to the Pokemon; most dual type Pokemon are single type, all pokemon only have a single weakness, and resistances and immunities don’t generally exist.

janine & Ariados pokemon masters
Yep, it’s Gachapon

Pokemons’ Stat growth and Base Power for Moves are also freely re-balanced, moves are tied to a Sync Pair and can’t be changed. There’s no IVs (thank Arceus) or EVs, level 100 is level 100. It’s a drastic overhaul but mostly results in a smoother, simpler experience still largely recognizable as Pokemon. It also offers a balance setup more similar to the usual mobile gachapon-fests; a Treecko can be stronger than a Serperior because they say so, that’s why.

There’s no PVP (possibly a blessing due to power creep and other pay to win nonsense common to these games), but there is co-op play unlocked after beating most of the main story.

3v3? Yeah, You Know Me

pokemon masters combat
Ingame battle

The best thing about the game is definitely the battle format. It’s close to a mix of Rotation and Triple Battles from the main series, but all Pokemon can be hit and target other Pokemon at once; nothing only targets “adjacent” creatures. Pokemon’s moves  charge in “real time” but attacks are still cued up for an almost-turn-based battle closer to Final Fantasy’s famous ATB system.

The 3 Pokemon simultaneous match up offers strategic possibilities beyond the usual on-on-one fights, without the more time intensive complications of a full team 6 versus 6 one-at-a-time style of traditional Pokemon . And more importantly, many new “Trainer Moves” were added to the game with the 3v3 format in mind, adding many buffs that hit the whole party. Skills like this are pretty rare in the mainline games.

As a long-time Pokemon fan it does bother me just how much the AI cheats though; in the mainline games you’re always fighting “real” Pokemon that you could have on your own team right down to the moves and stats. In Pokemon Masters however, enemy Sync Pairs have extremely overpowered Sync Moves (but charge them much more slowly than you usually do) that hit the whole team and often include a Haze effect to remove your buffs. It’s something that would be fun for raid bosses, but feels excessive and cheap in regular battles. It really reduces the feeling of fair competition that’s very big in Pokemon, both in gameplay and story.

All in all I really enjoy the new format, and I really hope Pokemon Sword and Shield will offer a variation of it for play. Addition of online co-op battles to Pokemon is also very welcome. I’ve often wished I could play Battle Tree etc. in Co-op, but only local play has been offered so far, and the peak of having local friends with the latest Pokemon release was grade school for me.

Little Story, Lots of Personality

It feels like everyone hates Pokemon storylines; they’re simple, very little happens, and you can see most of the twists coming a mile away. Pokemon Masters veers little from the usual formula, though it does feel a bit closer to the Pokemon Anime than Pokemon Games at times. There’s lots of meeting new trainers and adventuring with them briefly until the plot kind of forgets them forever.

The story may not be great, but the writing is actually pretty good. Characters are given a lot of personality, especially the ones that show up in the main story. Rather merely having a “pre fight” line and a “post fight” line, characters have multiple possible lines in the Pokemon center, a few voice clips for battles (not full voice acting of story lines however), and even a special mini-episode per-character where you get to talk to them almost like a tiny dating sim.

Pokemon Masters Rosa Dialog
My favorite trainer dialog in the game, from Rosa

The personalities of the trainers really flourish and it reinforces the game as a Trainer-collecting/”dating” sim almost as much as it is a Pokemon game. It’s clearly meant to make you want to spend more money on the gachapon to meet more characters, but it’s a welcome injection of personality into a lot of much believed but rarely vocal characters. For example Wulfric has kids—who knew?

Back On That Grind

Like most gachapon-RPG mobile games, most of the gameplay is grind, rather than strategy and beating the story. You’ll do most story fights only once, and you’ll be hitting up the Training Courses many, many, many times.

pokemon masters story
There’s unfortunately no map exploring; story is traversed through menus only

The core loop is basically a mix of a Level Up grind, a Level Cap Breaking grind, and a Move-Learning grind. They use largely the same materials, so to get a Pokemon into fighting shape, you’ll find yourself repeating the same couple stages several dozen times at least. Pokemon players are no strangers to grind—but again this is a distinctly Mobage-flavored grind more so than the classic “beat the elite four 50 times”, for better or worse.

You won’t need to grind an incredible amount to beat the main story content, especially if you keep your enhancement items for a few choice Pokemon. The end result is an expected but still kinda boring grind. The plus is you do generally get to improve your characters by leaps and bounds once an upgrade is reached, rather than the more traditional level by level, EV by EV stat creep.

Events, which are not out yet due to the soft launch, will likely be the main hook that keeps more casual players coming back. I’m very interested to see how they’re handled, though short of raid bosses or drastic divergences from the core game’s gameplay, I don’t see them offering a huge switch up from the usual. Personally, I’ll mostly be playing to see the new dialog and story segments—and hopefully some free Sync Pairs?

It’s Simple—Too Simple?

Typing in Pokemon is one of the greatest—and most complicated—aspects of Pokemon as a competitive game. Who among us has not used Thunderbolt only to be dumbstruck that the enemy was in fact, part ground type and thus immune? Memorizing the entire type matchup chart is no simple task even for veteran Pokemon players, so Pokemon Masters’ attempt to simplify doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

What may come as a surprise however is how significant the changes end up being. In Pokemon Masters, Pokemon are closer to Trading Card Game rules; each has one and only one Weakness, and the Weakness is determined per Sync Pair, not based on the monster’s types. In addition, Pokemon no longer have resistances at all (certain moves can reduce damage from certain type attacks however).

This greatly simplifies things as you only need to worry about what Pokemon are Super Effective against you, and which Pokemon you’re Super Effective against. Story battles currently always match you against only 2 different Weaknesses and tells you them in advance too, so you’ll always know which Pokemon to bring.

It’s perhaps a welcome change to people who get a headache over why Ice doesn’t resist Water but Water resists Ice, or what the heck Fairy type even is. But until I started using Hau & Alolan Raichu’s AOE attack I didn’t really grasp just how drastically this changes things. All in all, the changes mean type matchups are nearly meaningless if your team otherwise has solid synergy. Without worrying about resistances, it’s perfectly possible to build a single team that can stomp basically all ingame content. In fact, for F2P players, that team is Rosa, Hau, and Skyla and there’s really no question about that fact.

I’m not entirely against the idea of a slightly simplified Type chart a la the Pokemon Trading Card Game, but the removal of Resistance plus the fact that Area of Effect moves like Discharge no longer hurt your allies means that a single strong AOE attacker is pretty much always the best Pokemon in all situations. Though I will note that it’s nice for support Pokemon to be a thing; I love Triple Battles in normal Pokemon, and aside from Status Moves there’s often not a lot of help Pokemon can give each other—it really shows how the game is designed from a 1v1 perspective, while Pokemon Masters was designed for 3v3.

On the plus side(?) the combo of grindiness plus simplicity means you can auto battle your way to large amounts of items if you’re willing to re-start a battle a lot. Which, well, that’s what most mobages are anyway.

What’s The Catch?

It’s a Free To Play mobile game; of course there’s a catch. Every Mobage has it’s hook to get player money. In Pokemon Masters, that hook is definitely the low amount of Gachapon currency. If you want to pull more than once a week after exhausting your Story Mode gems, you’ll have to pay, and possibly lots. You only get about 13 free pulls with all the current content!

On the plus side, microtransactions are simple in this game; you buy Gacha currency directly (Paid Gems, separate from Free Gems) and that’s it. There’s different efficiencies (barely) but you’re looking at roughly 1 USD per 100 gems, so $1 per first daily pull or $3 per pull otherwise. So that’s $3 for a 7% chance of a 5*, not amazingly generous.

Particularly gross is seemingly the only “mercy” mechanic in the Gachapon; Scouting Points. These let you pick any Sync Pair in the current banner…but you’ll have to spend $402 worth of currency (free or paid) within about 2 months to actually claim it. And once that time period rolls over, so do your Scouting Points.

The best way to spend money is by far to buy the 1500 gem pack, then do a single 100 paid gem pull per day for the discount. The daily pull makes your paid gems go three times as far. As for prices, the 1500 pack is the best balance of cheap and efficiency. Only the $80 option beats it in efficiency, and not really by much considering the 6x increase in price.

Pokemon Masters star power ups tutorial
Good luck getting 6 duplicates of anything in this game

Possibly the biggest difference in paying vs F2P is that Star Power Ups, which improve your units to a higher Rarity tier, are only currently obtainable by pulling five Gachapon duplicates of the same character. With F2P gems, it’s all but impossible to actually get duplicates at all, so at the moment only paid players can even consider raising the Star Rating of any of their units, despite this being a notably advertised feature. You actually have to pull at least 6 duplicates, out of a pool of 40 units—good luck.

Fortunately with no PVP, there’s no major need to have the “best” team; you only need a team that can beat the game’s content. At least at present, the Hau/Skyla/Rosa trinity can do that. We’ll see if that holds true in the first Events, however.

This, to me, is the biggest issue in the game to be addressed; unless gems become drastically more abundant for free (even then, getting 6 duplicates is an incredibly tall order). Hopefully events will hand these out often and plentifully, otherwise the system seems extremely F2P adverse. You can give me weaker units or give me less units, but giving me less units and giving me no way to improve them seems a bit much.

What’s Free?

So it’s F2P and the whole game obviously isn’t actually free. So what do you get for free?

Critically, it’s entirely possible to beat most of the stages except the Very Hard level of Super Training Courses (which seem to require nearly level 100 Pokemon) with reasonable effort and only moderate grind. Took me less than a week of pretty intensive play. Getting to the final level cap takes much more grind, but is possible and the current content can be cleared with a F2P level 90-100 team.

As for currency, you get about 4,000 gems by completing all the available Story stages, Sync Pair Stories and basic Missions. That’s enough for 13 pulls in the Gachapon, hardly generous by any stretch of the imagination Even with a 5 star rate of 7% you’d expect roughly one 5 star unit from that.

You get the following 18 Sync Pairs for free, a decent (but not complete) type coverage:

  • Player & Pikachu
  • Brock & Onyx
  • Sygna Suit Brock & Tyranitar
  • Misty & Starmie
  • Whitney & Miltank
  • Rosa & Snivy
    • (Evolves to Serperior)
  • Iris & Haxorus
  • Hau & Alolan Raichu
  • Pryce & Seel
  • Hau & Mudsdale
  • Norman & Slaking
  • Skyla & Swanna
  • Flannery & Torkoal
  • Erika & Vileplume
  • Claire & Kingdra
  • Barry & Piplup
    • Evolves to Empoleon
  • Flint & Infernape
  • Korrina & Lucario
    • Sync Move Mega Evolves into Mega Lucario

Notably, a lot of very popular trainers are here (though Whitney is unfortunately not very good—certainly not the dream-crusher you may remember). It’s a solid roster that makes the miserly currency rate a bit easier to tolerate.

Bugs

I’m not dinging the game too harshly for these as it’s likely these issues will be fixed long before the World Wide launch, but I’ll note a couple bugs in the game have been quite frustrating.

So far I’ve been unable to purchase anything in game; maybe related to the VPN/soft launch, but most players don’t get this issue even then. Others have been unable to scout Sync Pairs. More universally, completing a certain training mission makes grinding stages take longer, as it kicks you back to the menu every time you clear a stage. The game also crashes straight out once in a while.

Edit: Clearing my Google Play store cache & data solved the purchase issue! Probably google/VPN’s fault, not the game.

Verdict

It’s a bit early to call it either way, but the game shows some clear deficits currently. I’m cautiously optimistic (perhaps more cautious than optimistic) as I currently see a very great set of gameplay and well-written personality held back by an all-too-familiar case of miserly rules designed to hold back players.

I’ll be very eager to see how Gacha currency is awarded during events and such after the official launch. If the game isn’t drastically more generous with gems, F2P players are going to be pretty much looking at a single team for the whole game for now, until better free units are released of course.

I’ll note that a lot of the more generous Gachapon games I’ve played such as Azur Lane and Food Fantasy seem to make as much or more money selling costumes/”skins” for units than they do from direct pay-to-spin stuff; the simplicity of Pokemon Master’s microtransactions might not be the best way to go after all. People love buying costumes and it’s a great way to offer more gameplay while keeping more of the paid content cosmetic.

Power Creep is also a scary thought in a game this miserly; pulling this early feels detrimental since when your story and event gems are gone, you’re basically looking at a pull every week at most. 7% rate for 5 star units isn’t half as great as it might sound (I see you FGO players) if you almost never get to actually pull.

Ultimately, if you’re a Pokemon fan I think you’ll enjoy the free part of Pokemon Masters and likely blaze through the story content in a week (or weekend!) or so like I did. The open question is whether the final release will have enough to keep you coming back after that. At present, that postgame is sorely lacking, and I can definitely see myself only popping in to check out new events.

Now again, this is an early look, and mobage games like this are always updating so there’s never even a “final” game to review. I’ll add an update (either an addendum or a new review) after I’ve seen a bit of how the released version handles events and so forth. But these location tests are usually very close to the final product and this isn’t my first rodeo on such a test.

Don’t forget to check out my guide if you play!

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Sir TapTap

Author: Sir TapTap

Gaming guide writer, content creator, streamer, UX designer, web developer, and a bunch of other stuff.