Pokémon GO is nothing short of a paradoxical phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon, quite simply because it’s taking the world by storm in an unprecedented way. But it’s also a puzzling paradox: the app is so broken at times, yet it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had with a smartphone. It can be frustrating for all the wrong reasons, yet it is ultimately rewarding. My mind tells me I should be disgusted with such a buggy game missing so many basic features, but my heart tells me it’s what I’ve always truly wanted: a way to be the very best.
The short description is that Pokémon GO is Nintendo heavyweight series Pokémon smashed into smartphone game Ingress. In fact, the company behind Ingress, Google off-shoot Niantic Labs, developed Pokémon GO, so the similarities are intentional.
The long description is much more in-depth for what is seemingly such a simple game. Pokémon GO revolves around catching, training and battling Pokémon like the core games in the series. It differs because instead of taking place in Hoenn, Johto or some other fictional land, it takes place right here on Earth, on the lawn outside your window and everywhere beyond.
The app takes advantage of GPS signal to track players in the real-world and combines it with Google Maps data to create an augmented reality landscape. Churches, historical markers, tourist attractions and other points of interest in the real world have been transformed into PokéStops stocked with essential potions, Pokéballs and more. Peppered among the PokéStops are Gyms, where trainers can travel to fight others for various benefits.
But the keyword to know about Pokémon GO is the “GO” portion. Pokémon spawn into the real world based on location: players have a better chance of finding Water-type Pokémon near water sources, Grass-types can be found in open fields, and so on. On top of the basic segmentation, different areas of the real world will populate different unique types of Pokémon. In practice, all of that means players need to actually go places to experience the game to its fullest.
For example, I was lucky enough to do some traveling the weekend after Pokémon GO launched. At my rural home, I catch a lot of Eevees, Pidgeys and Nidorans, along with the occasional Staryu thanks to a nearby creek. At the college campus almost an hour from home, I seem to catch more Rattatas and a greater array of random Pokémon, such as a Rhydon, of which I’ve only seen one. But on my trip to Cincinnati (the biggest city I’ve hunted in so far and over 100 miles from home), I encountered a Dratini, a Poliwag, a Haunter and a handful of Abras that I’ve never seen anywhere near my home.
When a player encounters a Pokémon, it will either appear in a virtual landscape or overlaid onto the real world (via augmented reality) at the player’s preference. He or she can then flick Pokéballs at it to catch it or run away. As usual, the Pokémon will either escape or be caught when a Pokéball is thrown at it. There is no battling involved with catching a Pokémon: just flinging the Pokéballs. The process is delightfully simple and accessible, yet high-level Pokémon actually require a bit of work and strategy to catch.
Each Pokémon has a certain number of Combat Points (CP) rather than standard levels. The CP can be raised for each Pokémon by feeding it a specific candy (Rattata Candy for Rattatas, Eevee Candy for Eevees, and so on) and stardust, both of which are gained with each successful capture. For a larger sum of candy and stardust, a Pokémon eligible for evolution can be transformed into its more powerful iteration.
Then comes the battling portion of Pokémon GO. In the world, gyms are scattered about. When a player encounters a gym for the first time (and assuming he or she is at least Level 5), he or she will be asked to pick a team: Team Instinct, Team Mystic or Team Valor. Once the player has chosen a team, he or she can interact with gyms. At friendly gyms, trainers can battle to gain XP and raise the gym’s Prestige. At enemy gyms, trainers can battle in hopes of lowering the gym’s Prestige. Battles are fought by tapping the screen to attack, swiping to dodge enemy blows, and holding the screen to unleash a secondary, more powerful attack once its meter has been filled.
Once a gym’s Pokémon have been defeated and it has lost all its Prestige, the team holding it is kicked out and the attacker can come in. He or she can place a Pokémon there to guard it. Teammates can do the same: of course, a gym with more Pokémon guarding it will be more difficult to take down than a gym with only one fighter. The Pokémon will stay at the gym until they are defeated, at which point they will return to their trainers, wherever they may be in the real world.
When the gyms work as intended, they are incredible. It usually takes a bit of teamwork (or a lot of persistence from one player) to take down an enemy gym, and it takes a hefty amount of teamwork to actually hold one for an extended period of time. Gyms are always in flux: Pokémon GO is a worldwide warzone where the battlegrounds continue to change hands daily. I say that this is only true when gyms work as intended….unfortunately, this is where the slew of issues with Pokémon GO comes into play.
The game is incredibly buggy. The main issue is that the servers are constantly crashing. I expected server trouble on launch day, but the overload was so massive that servers were down for several hours at a time. Even a week after launch, I sometimes lose the server connection or the game stops functioning. The server woes are absolutely game-breaking, as the game cannot be played during these times.
In reference to gyms, it means that the game can lock up and kick a player out halfway through a fight. Oftentimes, the gym leader will be locked at 1HP, and no amount of attacking will kill that opponent’s Pokémon. Sometimes when this happens, the gym leader manages to win and leaves the attacker’s Pokémon injured and fainted, at no fault of the opponent. The options to leave the battle or switch Pokémon don’t work, and the entire game just locks up until it is closed and reopened. Then the attacking trainer will have to spend Revives and Potions to heal Pokémon that fainted simply because the game screwed him or her into defeat.
Sometimes Pokémon will appear and disappear on the map. PokéStops will register as having items to dispense but will never actually give them. Occasionally, Pokéballs will capture the Pokémon but will freeze at that point, never giving the player the prize. Battery Saver mode is supposed to allow the player to turn his or her phone upside down to dim the screen while still playing, but it often freezes the game when the phone is turned right-side-up again.
These bugs are just some of the ones I’ve encountered, and I know there are plenty of others. At times, the game is utterly broken and refuses to function properly, which is unacceptable for a title, free or not. (Yet I continue to play, like everyone else, so can I really cast judgement?)
Furthermore, the game absolutely annihilates phone batteries. I have an Xperia Z3 Compact, and I can last two entire days of moderate usage before charging it. I’ll usually come home from a full day of work and still have between 50-70% battery remaining. But since I’ve started playing Pokémon GO, I can’t even go a full day without needing to charge my phone, and it’s not simply because the screen is on more often: my phone’s settings tell me that the process of running the Pokémon GO app actually uses more battery than any other process on my phone, including powering the screen.
Because Power Saver mode is broken, it’s not an option. The game does not run in the background when the screen is turned off, so that isn’t an option either. Furthermore, hatching eggs found in the game requires the player to walk several kilometers (usually 5km), which simply isn’t feasible considering how quickly the game drains the phone’s battery. Unfortunately, there won’t be a workaround until either a patch is issued or the Pokémon GO Plus peripheral is released.
Pokémon GO also lacks any sort of team chat feature. Let me be clear: for a team to succeed at locking down an area in the game, that team either needs a lot of luck or teamwork (especially for the under-populated Team Instinct). There’s no real way to work together without any sort of team chat, and turning to a group of friends until the feature is added isn’t an option since they’re likely to all be on different teams anyhow. Of course, meeting other random trainers in person is an option, but exchanging contact info is tedious, not always safe and requires group texts or a third-party app. Long story short, team chat is an essential feature found in Niantic Labs’ first title, Ingress, but is painfully absent in Pokémon GO.
Another painfully absent feature is any sort of direction. Pokémon GO quickly explains the most basic functions of the experience but leaves the player to figure out the rest. It doesn’t do so in a playful, “oh, the adventure is figuring it out for yourself!” sort of way. It’s more of a lazy, “we don’t care” sort of way that doesn’t even begin to point players in the right direction or offer any sort of structure on how to take down gyms, how to effectively catch Pokémon or how most items or mechanics even work.
Character customization in Pokémon GO is minimal. There are a small handful of clothing options to choose from, but they aren’t enough to keep most players from looking more or less the same. It isn’t essential, but a little variety would go a long way.
Finally, Pokémon GO also lacks trading. From what I understand, it will be coming in a future update, but it is an essential feature the game should have launched with. Neither Pokémon nor the hobby of collecting are quite the same without the core aspect of trading. As a result, part of the magic of collecting Pokémon is lost because they cannot be traded.
On a more positive note, Pokémon GO does feature the highest resolution, most adorable sprites and character models of any handheld/mobile Pokémon game to date. The art style and color pallete are beautiful, and the soundtrack falls in line with others in the series. There really is a lot to love about Pokémon GO.
In fact, that’s why I keep playing. Even though the game is at its core broken and missing fundamental features, it’s also a glimmer of hope. It’s this close to being what Pokémon fans have always wanted. It answers the 20-year-old question: “What if Pokemon were real?” Sure, the answer isn’t exactly what us Millennials expected, but with a couple patches, it really could be.
At the end of the day, the concept of Pokémon GO just works. From the process of catching to trading to battling, it’s all simplified and streamlined to create a perfectly accessible mobile experience that can be enjoyed during a midday walk. It provides an incredible way to meet new people as they congregate at PokéStops and gyms while adding a new social aspect to gaming that’s never been done in quite the same way before. Gaming sessions don’t take place from the comfort of a couch with a headset: players are meeting each other and interacting in a way that even Ingress didn’t quite manage. It’s truly a welcome, remarkable, refreshing experience.
So, Pokémon GO is currently fun but frustrating. I can point out its glaring faults, but I’m totally unable to stop playing. Pokémon GO is the most organic, mesmerizing, addicting and fun handheld or mobile game I’ve ever played, even if it is flawed in so many ways. My only hope (besides catching ‘em all) is that the game quickly becomes what I and so many others have always dreamed of. Until then, I’ll wait patiently and fill my Pokédex.