I try to avoid the freemium titles if I can. They seem to be either really great time-wasters, or just overtly disappointing affairs that waste my time (those, you can probably figure, are two very different ideas). When Nick offered me a review of a Pokémon title, I got excited, and then he told me it was Pokémon Shuffle. And I had no idea what that was.
Turns out, like the better side of the freemium landfill, Shuffle is by and large a Bejeweled title: the whole point is to combine like gems—in this case, the heads of decapitated Pokémon—and wear down and capture the character on the screen. There are over 700 characters to find and capture now, so that means there’s plenty of play time that doesn’t even include failing to collect a character and repeating the battle. Once captured, Pokémon can become a part of your team, each with a special ability unique to their play—for example, Squirtle can do more-than-average damage when four Squirtles are combined, and Pikachu can paralyze an enemy so they aren’t able to add obstacles to the playfield.
That’s right, enemies can (and do) fight back by leaving obstacles onscreen at certain intervals. Sometimes they’re breakable brown blocks, which can be broken by clearing a row of Pokémon touching the block, or they might be black blocks that need a special attack to clear them out. Sometimes characters might be frozen in place, which not only makes them immovable for clearing the space, but blocks more characters from falling into the space below them, causing fewer and fewer moves to be available. But not to worry because, in many ways, this is a “lazy” version of Bejeweled as Pokémon can be dragged anywhere there’s an open space to complete a row or set, so they don’t need to be immediately nearby.
Players are only able to accumulate five hearts (representing battles) at a time, but this isn’t too bad since a new heart is available every 30 minutes. So if you play a round, then wait two and a half hours, you’ll have a full set ready to go again. Battles are unique to each Pokémon in the number of moves available, the obstacles put in the player’s way, and which support Pokémon will even be effective in battle. That’s right, the classic rock-paper-scissors battle system is still here.
But there are also three different groups of battle possibilities: Main, EX (the expert levels, higher-powered characters like Dragonite and Blastoise), and Special. Special battles are temporary arrivals like Mew or a one-time-only “payday” version of Meowth (who can’t be caught but can earn in-game money). In EX, the game isn’t set to a number of moves, but rather a time limit. It almost might as well be a limit amount with everything bouncing like Pam Anderson on Baywatch. Combine that with some characters appearing almost the same on the puzzle, and it can grow frustrating.
Speaking of frustrating, the difficulty is scattershot. Most of the battles are easy enough to stumble through without any problem, but from time to time a really difficult, “this doesn’t make sense why it’s such a pain” stage will arise and be painful. The experts levels are expected, but this tends to happen in the main line of battles. Maybe it’s a roadblock designed to force players to go back and level up any characters already caught so they do more damage, but it feels a bit tacky for that. Even using in-game currency to purchase minor upgrades can be wearing.
That point aside, the music is cheery and not overwhelming, it’s cute and nicely animated, and the “recharge” time for another play session is brief enough that it’s fully playable without any financial commitment. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best of the freemium bunch, but it holds its own as a minor time-waster. This won’t satiate the hunger for the next full incarnation of the series, just provide an added distraction while watching old episodes of the animé.