Let’s establish this right away; I am not much of a mobile gamer. Even whilst commuting to a workplace in London for two years, I would more often listen to a podcast or read a novel (I know, shock) than play a game on my iPhone. I am a Pokémon superfan, yet even during the summer of Pokémon GO I wasn’t that absorbed by it; I played it, sure, but I dropped off quite quickly and haven’t really gone back for the numerous events since. The gameplay cycle was too passive for me and I wasn’t gripped by it.
The games of series I am already a fan of understandably have been the ones I have been drawn to on mobile. Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links and Fire Emblem: Heroes have both held my attention for periods of time, but still, I found myself drifting away from them – especially as new console games in those series released for Switch. Yet, now, I am confident in saying I have found a mobile game that is, in my mind, my favourite gaming experience on the platform: Pokémon Masters.
This isn’t a new release, of course; it originally launched in August last year, very much with the public intention of adding to the game over time. If you are not aware, Pokémon Masters revolves around sync pairs, which are a duo of a trainer and a Pokémon. The trainers are either your own character or a known character from the Pokémon series, which immediately brings recognition to the trainers in battle. For a series with as much history as Pokémon, this adds a lot of personality – and is an area where for me, a game such as Pokémon GO is not as strong.
The crossover concept of Pokémon Masters got my attention, but I had been waiting for my favourite character in the Pokémon series to be added to the game before I really dove in. Once Jasmine was in the game, the appeal of her being in a team with characters such as Maylene and Candice was realised! You can also choose a sync pair to be there in the lobby screen, which for me is Jasmine and Steelix. The sense of being welcomed into the game each time is wonderful.
You arrange 3 sync pairs together to form your team for battles against 3 opponents, resulting in really fun combinations of characters. In the battles themselves, each of the 3 Pokémon on your side have up to 4 moves each they can use, depending on how much charge they take up (this increases over time in the battle, as in a JRPG series such as Xenoblade Chronicles). After a certain amount of moves, you can then select one of the three to use a Sync Move, which is a powerful attack accompanied by a cinematic animation similar to the Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves in the main series games. Sounds a lot like Pokémon but with a twist on the characters involved, doesn’t it? Exactly.
Pokémon Masters really feels like a game made for the platform instead of a stepping-stone up to the console games in the series. The battling is both reasonably complex and also suitably less intensive for the platform, and the story – working your way to the Pokémon Masters League (PML) through chapters, meeting many different characters and the new enemy team, Team Break – is engaging and full of fun moments. Away from that you can also go into other modes, where you can train, face tough challenges and also find events bringing in new faces from the series (right now, there is one with Jessie, James, and Meowth from the anime, and one for Serena from X and Y).
It is crucial that there is a lot to do, too – often an issue with mobile games is that foreboding sense that you are being gradually enticed towards dreaded microtransactions. Make no mistake, that option is there, and I don’t necessarily welcome it; however, with all of the items you can earn, and the amount of different battles available where you can earn XP, the game is very playable without paying. The Gatcha element is getting new sync pairs, and your Gems are the way to have a go at getting new ones. If you complete your Challenges and play through the plentiful levels you can rack up the required 3,000 Gems to get x10 sync pairs. I find it is best to save these for when your favourite characters are featured (they have been gradually adding more and more from the series over time).
An element that really draws me in is how the game extends on Pokémon lore; each sync pair character has a story where you can learn more about them (these also build towards Pokémon Evolutions) and these have great references. For example, Gardenia mentions about Roserade being other types, but when the idea of Roserade being Ghost-type arises, she is clearly concerned about the idea – which ties into her uneasiness with the Mansion of Ghost-types in Eterna Forest in Diamond/Pearl/Platinum. These references aren’t just in these sections, either; in the entry lobby area, there was a Black Belt who brought up a Dragonite using Hyper Beam… is this the one there when Lance uncovers the Team Rocket facility in Gold/Silver/Crystal? Callbacks such as this show me that there is an effort being put in to make Pokémon Masters a game that is not only faithful to the series, but one that builds upon it too.
This game has real longevity, as well. You unlock plenty of new types of gameplay as you go, from co-op with other sync teams to in-depth training that reminds me of the complexities of EV and IV training in the main series games. The story is extensive, and can be played on both Normal and Hard difficulties. As aforementioned, this also means more opportunities to get Gems. The regular updating of in-game events and training options keeps those modes fresh too.
Completing the air of cohesiveness is the visual and audio presentation of the game. The graphics and UI design are clear and impressive: the character models are detailed and expressive; the environments colourful and vibrant; and the battles themselves run smoothly on my iPhone, with energetic animations. The sound design has a similar energy, but even more impressive is the use of music from the main series. You get different themes for Gym Leaders, Elite Four, Frontier Brains, etc. which shows me that there is an attention to detail, as this is accurate to the main series – these have also been remixed, too, resulting in awesome new versions of the music.
Overall, this game has an air of being thoughtfully made for the platform and of not just being part of the Pokémon franchise, but bringing new gameplay and story experiences to that franchise. Perhaps I enjoy it so much because there is a focus on characters; in stories I really value great character development, and Pokémon Masters has multiple joyous character moments throughout it – which is just one aspect that keeps me regularly returning to the game. On a platform where I have not found many experiences that capture me, Pokémon Masters has become my favourite mobile game yet.