"Review From Chicago Player (Early August, year of launch)"
Is that much I need to say here? This game has accumulated tens of millions of players in a matter of weeks. Augmented reality has been around, but this is the first time it's burrowed into a nostalgic little niche. Let's figure out whether or not it's worthy of the hype.
Put shortly, Pokemon is a game about catching monsters (hence the name POcKEt MONsters) and using them to fight. By exploring you can randomly encounter different Pokemon on the map, which you attempt to capture using Pokeballs. In the original you had to beat them into submission before lobbing a ball; in this game, you throw the ball as soon as you see it. The Pokemon you capture can evolve into more powerful variants as well.
Pokemon Go plays more casually than an actual RPG, and the main reason is that you can't really train your Pokemon. You collect Stardust from catching Pokemon which you can then use to power up your units, but the extent to which you can do this is limited by your trainer level. Additionally, as your trainer level increases, the combat power (CP) of Pokemon you encounter increases. In practice, this means that it's a waste to power up your Pokemon until your trainer level is sufficiently high. In fact, the same goes for evolving your Pokemon, because aside from filling out your Pokedex with each new species you discover, evolving is no different from powering up your Pokemon with Stardust.
Aside from the Pokemon themselves, two other things will appear on your map as you walk around: Pokestops and Gyms. Pokestops allow you to collect items such as Pokeballs to help you catch more Pokemon, items to heal your units, eggs that can hatch new units, and a few other items to help with the catching process. You can collect from a stop every five minutes, which is important because running out of Pokeballs effectively blocks you from playing.
Gyms are where all the fighting happens. At trainer level 5 you can join one of three teams, which constantly fight for power over territory. Owning a Gym means members of that team can garrison their own Pokemon there. Beating a friendly Pokemon in a Gym means you can put one of your own units in, while beating an enemy Pokemon removes it. KO all of the enemy units and the Gym is yours. Of course, the fighting system itself consists of mashing your screen in (or holding, if your strong attack is effective enough against the opposing unit) while spastically swiping left and right on your own unit to dodge attacks. The lack of any real skill means that victory is basically decided by who has more CP, though of course some types of Pokemon are weak to others (for instance, water is strong against fire.) Commanding a Gym for 21 hours nets you a few Pokecoins, which you can use to buy items that are otherwise exclusive to microtransactions. Most of these can be gotten through other means. Others, such as item and Pokemon storage space, cannot.
So at the end of the day, what is the game like? It plays okay, mainly because it doesn't demand much from the player. The ball-throwing system is simple and intuitive, making the catching process less frustrating than one might expect. Grabbing items at Pokestops is always fun and worth the time since you gain experience toward your next trainer level even if you don't need items. Gyms are simple enough to navigate because all you really have to do is take an estimated guess as to whether or not you can overpower a unit in a Gym.
Annoyingly enough, you spend most of your time catching Pokemon you already have, namely Pidgeys, Ratatas, and Weedles. This system adds faux replayability in that you just have to keep waiting for better Pokemon to come along, but it kind of works. Because you need to catch multiple Pokemon to get candies (which are specific to a species) and you need candies to evolve your Pokemon, it's really helpful to get multiple copies of a semi-rare Pokemon, since it gets you closer to your evolution. The annoyance is that there's never any reason for you to do anything NOW. If you wait until your trainer level goes up, everything you do then will be more effective, again because you want to power up and evolve Pokemon with naturally high CP (that you will only encounter at a higher trainer level.) The one godsend to catching crappy Pokemon (other than your experience boost) is that you can evolve low-tier Pokemon en masse for experience boosts. Combined with items that boost experience gain, you can use this to raise your trainer level faster and be able to compete with other players sooner. But even then the element of competition just isn't captivating.
A few other tactics can make the game a bit more interesting, too. Incense makes Pokemon spawn where you are every once in a while, and is most effective if you use it while you're on a bus or something. Lure Modules are tied to Pokestops but are useful if you're stopping at a restaurant that's a Pokestop, so you can catch all of the Pokemon that are drawn there. The problem with both is that you trade quality for quantity. Because you get mundane Pokemon using both items, these processes are more of a grind than anything exciting. The eggs that you can hatch (by walking around) are of similar fare. You hatch a lot of garbage Pokemon, though with eggs that require you to walk farther, these can often be more exciting than just walking around hoping for something good.
Most annoying is that everything is centered around urban areas. I actually live in a big city, so I can make an excellent haul (both items and Pokemon) by going downtown, but the fact that it feels like shopping takes away the mystique. It makes sense for Pokestops to be in urban areas, but not for Pokemon to be there too. Rare species should be more abundant in remote areas, both to keep things balanced and to give players more pleasant scenery as they play.
The game is attractive. Each Pokemon has a cute 3D model and a sound. The menu is nice. What the game lacks is variety. The landscape you navigate looks very dull, and the default background for catching Pokemon is as well. Some filters or effects would be nice.
The game lasts an artificially long time, but I have to admit it's done in a way that feels fair, or at least balanced. Candies are a good way to make the game last without burning out too fast, but also to give the player a reason to keep playing even if they aren't finding new species.
The game is changing fast and will continue to do so, which is why I put my location and time of writing in the tagline. You'll get a different experience depending on where you live. That said, my experience has been that Pokemon Go is a fun gimmick, but it's the antithesis of depth. Meeting people and walking around with friends is fun, but in the end it just isn't rewarding. Candies do a good job of keeping players interested, but the perks of increasing your trainer level are extremely overpowered, and the effect is that it shuts players out from the actual reason they're catching Pokemon in the first place. Worse, once you can compete, there's no depth or strategy, only mindless predation of a strong Pokemon onto a weak one. Finally, the rewards you get for holding down a Gym are pathetic and only help you catch larger quantities of bad Pokemon rather than increasing your chances of hitting gold.
Overall rating 3.0 Average