Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: Pokemon Rumble Blast (3DS)

You have to hand it to Nintendo. For some six months 3DS owners have had to get by with very limited support for the console. From Nintendo itself we’ve had a few (very good) ports of classic games we’ve already finished a hundred times, and from third parties we’ve had virtually nothing since the initial launch.

The third party situation will have to wait until next year before it starts to improve, but the good news is that Nintendo has come out with all guns blazing this Christmas. A new Mario game, a new Mario Kart game and a Pokemon game.

Who cares that it’s not a “real” Pokemon game. Pokemon Rumble Blast is a hell of a lot of fun, and carries with it all the addictive qualities that make the Pokemon games themselves so compelling.

If you’ve already played the WiiWare game, then you know what to expect – this is the exact same game, just with ten times the content. For the uninitiated, Battle Royale is what happens when you meld Pokemon and Dynasty Warriors together; it’s a slaughterfest, just cute.

The game kicks off with you in control of one tiny, weak Pikachu. The aim of the game is to wander through levels, knocking out the swarms of Pokemon that stand between this Pikachu and the next exit. Usually, when you knock out an enemy Pokemon it just disappears. Every so often, though, the Pokemon will instead fall to the ground, and when you run over it, you will “befriend” it and it will be added to your growing team. You can only bring one to battle at a time, but you’re free to swap between them.

Levels are split into short-and-sweet regions, joined by a central overworld hub. These regions are themed – one moment you’ll be running through a grassy plains, the next a fiery cavern, and predictably the Pokemon you’ll find within match the theme. At the end of each level is a “boss” Pokemon, which is bigger and tougher than the others.

Usually when you run through a new level, the newly befriended Pokemon is slightly more powerful than the one you’re using, which is how the game’s power creep happens; Pokemon don’t get better, you just find better Pokemon. This is both a blessing and a curse on the game. On the one hand it does mean that the game escalates at a nice, snappy pace. There’s some grinding involved to track down all the Pokemon as you’ll need to run through the many levels multiple times to “catch” the rarer ones. But as no level takes more than 10 minutes to run though, the grinding doesn’t feel like a grind.

On the downside, it becomes hard to stick to your favourite Pokemon types. The Pokemon in this game (they’re all modelled on wind-up toys, as fits the game’s theme) are seriously cute, and just like in the “real” Pokemon games, you’re likely to become attached to some.

For me, it’s Ducklet. Ducklet is awesome. But a few levels later, my Ducklet was useless. This saddened me and forced me to use Pokemon I was less interested in instead just to progress. In the real Pokemon games, if I liked a particular Pokemon, even if it was statistically inferior, the game offered the wriggle room to allow you to grind them up a few levels and be competitive.

The whole game tends to pass by in a blur. You’ll find yourself with over 200 Pokemon very quickly, so thankfully the in-game management system is sound. Every so often you’ll compete in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it arena battle. Winning those unlocks the next set of levels and horde of Pokemon to befriend. The entire game has been so carefully crafted to provide bite sized chunks of fun that it’s wholly appropriate for the 3DS, but at the same time maddeningly difficult to sit down at for hours at a time.

The combat itself is highly simplistic, but effective. Each Pokemon can have up to two attacks, and each attack is based on the “real” Pokemon equivalents. There’s some strategy involved in picking the right attacks for each Pokemon, as there’s a handful each can learn to choose between, but ultimately the game becomes one of trying to marry the strongest Pokemon you have with the strongest attacks you can find.

That’s not to say the game is easy, though. There are moments that will definitely test your patience if you go in with the intention to button mash your way through. Working the Pokemon into a position to attack and dodging the enemy attacks are just as important as hitting things as hard as possible.

That’s about all there is to the game; it’s thoroughly charming, wholly entertaining and a very dynamic experience, but it’s also ultimately a lacking one. There’s no online play (this game would have loved that), and the StreetPass features are superfluous at best. The lack of a community and multiplayer is a stark contrast to the socially-heavy “real” Pokemon games, and a reminder that Pokemon is best experienced with friends.

Still, the quality of the game is undeniable, and its charm sees it through to the end. Pokemon Rumble Blast might be little more than a stop-gap for the next real Pokemon game, but it’s anything but a lazy cash-in.

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