Gacha games, games focused on acquiring collections of characters through random pulls, have become synonymous with the mobile market. Much like the toy collections from vending machines they are named for, gacha games draw in huge amounts of money for relatively low cost as people try to collect them all or look for their favorites.

Pokemon Masters

DeNA
Android, iOS
August 2019

It’s no surprise, then, that big franchises have gotten in on this moneymaking: Fire Emblem, the Tales series, the Fate series, and Animal Crossing are just a few that have lent their intellectual property to gacha content farms. The Pokemon franchise has already outsourced for more than one mobile game, some of which (Pokemon Go) have had better success than others (Pokemon Quest, Pokemon Rumble Rush). Could Pokemon, which has at least one quality game in the mobile store, breathe some life into a tired cash-grab concept of gacha games and make a game deserving of the Pokemon name?

Nope!

At first impression, everything about this game feels like a resounding “meh.” If it didn’t have the Pokemon franchise attached, Pokemon Masters would be overwhelmingly average, lost in a glut of other mediocre gacha games. The graphics, done in the Pokemon style at a similar quality to the 3DS generations, are really nothing to write home about. The combat is a riff on the Triple Battle from generation six, only realtime instead of turn-based. Unlike regular Pokemon, where you can customize your Pokemon’s move set, abilities, and stats, the only thing you can do with your fighters is level them up and unlock their single set of four moves with exponentially increasing numbers of items. Even the standard evil team, Team Break, feels like a cheap pastiche of Team Rocket with a bit of Team Skull’s goofiness.

Misty stating that some of Erika's admirers take it "a little too far" and even become her bodyguards.

They’re lesbians, Misty.

The writing in this game is also middling at best, which feels especially egregious. In a market where gameplay mechanics are largely similar to each other and the graphics are of comparable quality, writing is often one of the few places a gacha game has to distinguish itself. Pokemon Masters has an opportunity to give us time with prominent characters who don’t get a lot of dialogue in-game, such as the gym leaders, and has wasted it with cutscenes and dialogue that are of two varieties: generic “I want to get strong and love my Pokemon” talk, and something that hinges on the single personality trait established in the game. Misty is more than happy to yak your ear off about water Pokemon and Skyla will wax poetic about being a pilot, but there’s no sense of progression or character development. It’s just missed opportunity after missed opportunity. Let Lt. Surge come to terms with his PTSD! Let Barry (and Brandon, probably) talk about their absent fathers! Let Erika acknowledge being the lesbian icon she obviously is!

You might think, “Well, Pokemon is a kid’s game, it can’t deal with heavy issues.” And 1, it absolutely could, and 2, this makes the next part all the more frustrating. The gacha part of this game is one of the worst and most exploitative I’ve seen. The rates for the premium currency, banking on the Pokemon name, are worse than average. Unlike pretty much every gacha game I’ve played, there is no benefit to saving gems for a ten-pull in the hopes of getting a guaranteed four-star or five-star. The only special pricing running is a once-daily pull for 100 gems (instead of the usual 300) and a ten-pull for 3000 with a guaranteed five-star, but both of these specify that you have to use paid gems, the same currency but bought with real money, making the free ones for completing objectives only useful for single pulls. All of this is disguising a pay-to-win (or at least pay-to-not-get-crap) setup coupled with an exorbitant rate. If this game is aimed at children, the producers should be ashamed.

It’s not even as if the gacha options are that great. The game currently has 65 obtainable characters, but a number of notable characters are missing (like, say, most of the characters pictured on the starting screen). Each one comes with a single Pokemon, most of which either can’t or won’t evolve: good because you don’t have to spend ridiculously expensive items to have a chance at evolving them, bad because what the hell is the point of a Pokemon game where most of the Pokemon can’t evolve? I’m sure this is to allow for future limited events and expansions, but it’s hard to get excited over pulling Ramos and Wulfric and other gym leaders I barely remember. It seems doubly silly not to put out more big names when the existence of two Brocks seems to imply they’re more than willing to rerelease the same characters with different skins and different Pokemon. There’s also no mechanic to prevent duplicates: drawing the same character again just increases their level—not their in-game level, but some level out of five that does, well, something the game wants you to think is beneficial, but really, are you going to actually see five duplicates without dropping a fair bit of cash?

Official artwork depicting several Champions and player characters.

Currently available: two.

It’s not that I hate the concept of gacha games—Pokemon’s “gotta catch ‘em all” is pretty much the same concept. But the main series of Pokemon games work because the battle mechanics are interesting, the Pokemon are customizable, and you can catch all but a few with some time, dedication, and a friend with the complementary version. The implementation of gacha in Pokemon Masters is not only predatory but poorly executed. Nothing in this game is actually worth shelling out money or grinding mindlessly for, even for nostalgia’s sake. If you really want to spend a lot of money on Pokemon trainers from the games, best to just buy some figurines instead. They’ll last longer.