Pokemon Masters Review: Gotta Friend ’em All

If you want out of a Pokemon game is the experience of catching, naming, and raising Pokemon while clearing the gyms of a fantastical region then no, Pokemon Masters is not a great Pokemon game. The new mobile game from DeNA doesn’t even provide the Pokemon Go portion of the “what if Pokemon were real” experience, allowing players to wander the countryside searching for wild Oddishes or whatever. 

Instead, Pokemon Masters is, perhaps, one of the greatest works of Pokemon fanfic since the Pokemon Musical that implied that Giovanni is Ash’s dad.

Let’s take a step back to look at the premise of Pokemon Masters. The game is set in the new region of Pasio, an artificial island where essentially every named trainer ever from every Pokemon game or TV show just sort of hangs out, training their one partner Pokemon as part of a “sync pair” and competing in three-on-one battles. The man-made island mirrors what is Pokemon Master’s artificial, extremely good conceit — what would happen if all of the characters from all the Pokemon stuff you like could just kick it?

More Pokemon:

This Is Pikachu… They’re, Uh, My Partner

The answer, as it turns out, is not much. The Masters story mode largely revolves around the player (paired up with a Pikachu, of course) getting progressively stronger, beating other characters and adding them to the broader roster of trainers willing to fight alongside you. So far, so normal. And the actual battle gameplay of Pokemon Masters, a real-time system that replaces the classic Power Points with a timed move gauge, isn’t super groundbreaking. That, combined with the gashapon-loot box elements of the game, in which players can pay to get more “gems” to unlock or upgrade their sync pairs, perhaps suggests why many of the reviews have been mixed at best.

The parts of Pokemon Masters that aren’t battling are mostly told in sync team stories, extended cutscenes in which the player interacts with the various trainers who will eventually make up their team. In keeping with the original season of the Pokemon anime, you start with Brock and Misty as your partners, but as the story progresses — or as you spend more money — you can recruit more trainers. The roster includes everyone from actual player characters in past Pokemon games (Kris, the default female player character in Gold, Silver, and Platinum, sporting a Totodile) to members of various Elites Four (Karen and her Houndoom). 

A Pokerap Posse Cut

The cool thing about Masters really, is the way it acts as a sort of mashup of every possible Pokemon setting. Sure, there have been games where the various gym leaders, professors, and Elite Four members interact in limited capacities, but nothing as comprehensive as this. Masters asks what would happen if all of these disparate trainers took each other on — and what would happen if they opened up to you.

Sync team stories aren’t the most developed narratives we’ve seen in a Pokemon game — after all, there’s no mention of Giratina or Pokemon Hell or any other elements of the weirdly complex Pokemon cosmology — but there’s enough to suggest some depth to the characters that, in a game setting, you’d normally only interact with once or twice. For example: In Gold and Silver, Janine is introduced as the new Fuschia City gym leader and Koga’s daughter, but there’s not much more to their relationship than that. In Masters, she talks to you, the player, about her anxiety about being as good a ninja as her father.

Dutifully Returning To The Pokemon Wars

This is pretty close to adding an actual role-playing element to the Pokemon games, especially in the way Masters actually gives some (very) lightly divergent dialogue options. More importantly, it’s another step closer toward being able to hang out with Lance, Lorelei, and all your other friends from the games that you never get to talk to. How did Lieutenant Surge survive the war unscathed? (What war was he fighting in?) Is everyone else in Unova constantly humiliated by Iris, a literal child, kicking all of their asses?

Sure, Pokemon Masters isn’t the best “game” qua game. Sure, it’s bringing me dangerously close to spending money on an F2P game because I’m pissed I haven’t gotten Blue as a sync pair yet. (That’s Gary for you anime heads.) But is it a narrative experience I find at least relatively satisfying as an alternative to catching up on a decade of the Pokemon anime where everyone stays the same age. Also, you can play it.