Pokémon Duel does something that Pokémon GO couldn’t: It provides an authentic, full-fledged Pokémon experience on mobile devices. It feels like it fits in the Pokémon family despite the fact that it works on an entirely new set of gameplay mechanics. The turn-based strategy game is fun, strategic, and offers a wider variety of creatures across generations. And unlike Pokémon GO, it’ll keep me coming back for a long time.
Pokémon Duel plays like a board game. Both online players have a “flag” that must be protected at all costs. The goal is to get to the opponent’s side of the board and capture the flag using one of the six Pokémon at your disposal. Each Pokémon is a figurine that can be leveled up and put into customizable teams called decks. Each deck can also have up to six “plates,” which act like pack items from the core games by healing Pokémon of statuses (like Awakening) boosting stats (like X Attack) and so on.
Each Pokémon has its own unique attributes like Abilities, attacks, and mobility, which allows the piece to move a certain number of spaces on the board each turn. When two Pokémon attack, the possible attacks each can use are displayed on spinners that randomly choose which attack each Pokémon will use that battle.
A sampling of the series’ attacks are coded into different categories. Status-based attacks like Smokescreen show up as purple wedges of the spinner. Standard attacks like Cut and Ember are gray, protective attacks like Withdraw are blue, and certain “standard” attacks, usually quick ones like Quick Attack, are gold. The game plays kind of like “Rock-Paper-Scissors,” where certain attacks can beat and are beaten by other colors.
Depending on what attacks are spun, one Pokémon might get knocked out, gain a status condition like a burn, take no damage, or even activate a special ability. For example, if a Pokémon being attacked happens to spin “Dig” on its attack wheel, it’ll burrow under the attacking Pokémon and pop out on an adjacent space, avoiding the attack.
Strategy plays a huge role in Pokémon Duel, and composing a team with good synergy is key. Several strategies abound. Some players prefer to use abilities like Dig and Soar to evade opponents. Others try to use fast Pokémon to get to the enemy flag as quickly as possible. Others try to use strong and slow Pokémon to punch through defenses with brute force. It doesn’t matter which strategy is used. What’s most important is creating a deck with fighters that work well together.
For example, my current strategy is this: I start with my speedy Greninja and dive up the middle, which hopefully lures out either a very fast or very strong Pokémon from the opponent. I back him up with either a Pikachu (with more attack but less mobility) or a Magmar (with the same mobility as Pikachu, not as strong, but can burn Pokémon if he’s defeated). Then while my opponent is tied up with those fighters in the middle of the board, I’ll try to work my way ahead on the edges of the board with either my Wobbuffet, which can’t attack but has a high likelihood of knocking out an attacker with Counter, or an Audino, which has medium mobility but has a strong Pound attack. If my base is threatened, I’ll whip out my tank: Golem. It’s an attack powerhouse and is my toughest Pokémon to beat in battle.
It’s a slightly attack-heavy strategy, and it usually works. But its weakness is that opposing Pokémon using moves like Soar or Dig can tear through my divide-and-conquer approach. Any strategy in Pokémon Duel has a weakness, so winning comes down to how well the opponent can exploit it.
Balance in Pokémon Duel is interesting. There are certainly some Pokémon that are far better than others. Mudkip vs Yveltal just won’t be an equal matchup, no matter how it’s spun. Luckily, the game works on a sort of competitive points rank that allows the player to fight against other online opponents that have Pokémon that are equally matched. New figurines can be unlocked via completing daily challenges, buying booster packs and more, and they can be leveled up in a Fusion process that basically amounts to sacrificing low-level, useless Pokémon to grant experience to better ones. It’s different for the series, but it works.
The game is great for several reasons. First, it doesn’t feel like any part of the experience is hidden behind a massive paywall. Yes, money can be poured into it via microtransactions, but I don’t feel at a disadvantage for not paying into the app. Pokémon Duel also manages to inject a healthy amount of strategy. Each match is a mind game, and it can be tough to decide the best course of action. It’s not chess, but it’s still tricky.
With so many Pokémon combinations, there’s always a reason to keep trying new tactics. Snagging new Pokémon is incredibly addicting because each newly unlocked or purchased fighter can shake up the player’s gameplan and make him or her stronger. Thankfully, there are fan-favorite Pokémon plucked from all across the series’ history, including plenty of Legendaries. The mix is great, and I’m looking forward to seeing more added into the mix.
If I had to pick out one major flaw within Pokémon Duel, it would be that the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining all the abilities, attacks and nuances within the gameplay. Hours into the game, there were still little oddities I’d learn throughout battle, usually the hard way. I’d lose a match and scratch my head, wondering exactly how my opponent did a certain maneuver. Learning by doing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it impacts a competitive rank, it’s pretty annoying.
But long story short, Pokémon Duel is still a blast. It has the depth that many mobile games lack, it gives fans their favorite Pokémon across generations, and it’s a new, yet fitting, concept for the series. Most of all, it’s addicting and fun to work through the ranks and master the strategy the game requires. Pokémon Duel is a great addition to my smartphone and is likely the best mobile game I’ll play this year.