From a corporate, money-making perspective, this seems like a brilliant, almost nefarious scheme to part parents from their paychecks. Unfortunately, the potential of marrying the addiction of Pokémon with the appeal of physical toys loses much of its appeal in the face of overly simplistic gameplay - even for a Pokémon spin-off. Once you've sat through the introductory sequence - a simple series of still images barely animated to tell the story of a group of toys that are desperately seeking to return to their toy shop - you're immediately introduced to battle sequences. These missions make up the bulk of the experience in Pokémon Rumble U. Each Pokémon can wield up to two different attacks based on those it would most commonly have in the main Pokémon series. One attack is activated by pressing the A button, while the other is assigned to B. Press a button, launch an attack, rinse and repeat. It's exceedingly simple.
Adding a bit of strategy to the mix are the elemental affinities each toy possesses and items that periodically appear during battles. Fire attacks are super-effective against Grass Pokémon, while water attacks douse fire. In other words, if you're familiar with the core mechanics of the Pokémon RPGs, you'll be right at home in Pokémon Rumble U.
Unlike most Pokémon games, battles in Pokémon Rumble U are not simple one-on-one or two-on-two affairs. Instead you control a lead Pokémon while three others trail behind and offer what scant assistance they're able. This should add variety to the battles, but your teammates are rarely useful and are best left to the task of mopping up enemies you don't want to chase to the other end of the stage.
Items randomly appear in each stage and carry effects ranging from simple bursts of healing to increasing your toy's size and power. Most useful are Master Balls, which can be toted around a stage and thrown at enemy toys. This guarantees that you'll capture whichever toy you've targeted, and with all 649 current Pokémon represented in Pokémon Rumble U, you'll need to use these Balls strategically if you ever hope to complete your collection.
The alternate method of capturing every Pokémon involves completing all of the optional tasks in every stage, but many of these are so esoteric and require such careful planning that only the most devoted Pokémaniacs will ever catch 'em all. One stage might ask you to complete it in a certain amount of time, which is simple enough, but it then may also ask you to do so with only a certain type of Pokémon, or only using Pokémon below a certain power level – and the later stages only add to the complications. That could potentially boost long-term appeal, but many players will likely find a core group of Pokémon they prefer and stick with it until the end, leaving the in-depth forethought to those with raging Pokémon addictions.
But the biggest draw for Pokémon Rumble U, obviously, is its action figures. Nintendo has lifted a page from Activision's Skylanders playbook by pairing the game with real-world toys, though surprisingly the Pokémon Rumble U figures are even easier to use. By scanning a figure with the Wii U GamePad's Near-Field Communication sensor – which seems less finicky than Skylanders' Portal of Power – you're able to play as your favorite toy in any of the game's modes. These aren't necessary to complete the game or capture all of its Pokémon, but the characters generateed by the toys are the only ones whose stats can be upgraded within the game. When you're done upgrading a character, all changes are saved directly to the toy. Further, these figures often feature Pokémon equipped with attacks and traits that you would otherwise never encounter, such as the Extremespeed Genesect. If Nintendo's goal was to create an optional yet wildly addictive scavenger hunt for colorful pieces of plastic, that mission at least appears successful.
Then again, maybe that's the point. Maybe Pokémon Rumble U should be viewed as an entry-level course on the Pokémon franchise. No group is more capable of forcing their parents to buy largely useless toys than young children, and the graphics in Pokémon Rumble U have Nintendo's trademark happy, colorful aesthetic that has always been a hit with youngsters. The relatively low complexity should appeal immediately to kids – even those new new to video games – and few demographics would otherwise have the free time and motivation necessary to complete a full 649 Pokémon collection (which isn't to say a grown-up like me wouldn't try).
Ultimately, Pokémon Rumble U is a divisive experience. It will alienate fans hoping for something as engrossing as the handheld Pokémon RPGs, but it certainly holds promise for anyone trying to introduce the next generation to the wonders of Nintendo's addictive franchise. The addition of real-world toys is well-implemented and they easily double as adorable decorations, but without substantial gameplay to back them up, there's little reason to summon Pikachu from his Pokéball yet again.
Unless Pokémon are an essential part of your toy-based video game equation, you'll find better, more engrossing options in the Skylanders series or Disney Infinity.
This review is based on a Nintendo eShop download of Pokémon Rumble U, provided by Nintendo.
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