I’ve been a Pokemon fan ever since Nintendo sent a copy of the pilot episode to my house because I had an NES, SNES, and GameBoy.  I’ve played every generation from red/blue through X/Y and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire as well as collected the cards, but there’s never been something that tried to actually make you a Pokemon trainer.  There hasn’t been a way to put an actual Pokedex in your hand and send you out into the world, catching and training Pokemon and battling gyms for glory.  I mean, how could something like that even exist?

Enter Pokemon Go, the latest Pokemon game that is absolutely sweeping the globe.  Since it’s release last week, it’s been nearly impossible to avoid news of it and people playing it.  The immediate smash-hit popularity of Pokemon Go has rarely been seen before.  After playing it for the better portion of a week, it’s clear why almost anyone you talk to is trying to catch ’em all.

It's not quite this HD, but it's so much fun!
It’s not quite this HD, but it’s so much fun!

  • TL;DR: Catch and train Pokemon in the real world using your phone.  It’s a childhood dream come to life.
  • Platform: Android
  • Time Played: ~15 hours
  • What I Played: Caught, trained, and searched high and low for all manner of Pokemon, battled my fair share of gyms.

Pokemon Go starts off like any other Pokemon adventure.  Professor Willow needs your help researching the Pokemon in the world.  The catch here is that you aren’t going to Kanto or Johto, but to the real world.  Pokemon Go effectively transforms your phone into a Pokedex, tasking you with going outside, walking around, and becoming the very best.

First off, you need to catch some Pokemon.  After creating your avatar, a 3D map of your current location pops up on the screen.  Pokemon Go currently supports most gen one Pokemon, meaning you get to start with your choice of Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle.  Once you tap your starter of choice, they will show up overlaid wherever you are pointing your phone’s camera.  There is no battling to catch a Pokemon.  Instead, you simply fling Pokeballs up the screen at them until you make contact, wait for the ball to rattle three times, and seal shut.  As far as I can tell, there is no down-B trick to keeping a Pokeball shut.

The whole AR thing is pretty neat.  It literally turns the world around you into a Pokemon region.  You can take pictures of your encounters in-game with a button on the bottom right of the screen to save and look at later, too.  There’s already a subreddit dedicated to just that.  Unless the AR really appeals to you, though, I recommend shutting it off to conserve battery.  I have plenty of fun catching my Pokemon on a generic plains setting.

A Spearow hanging with a Pidgey.
A Spearow hanging with a Pidgey.

When you catch a Pokemon, it’ll register into the app’s Pokedex complete with it’s name, height, weight, and description.  Pokemon don’t level up and battle in the way that you’re used to.  Rather, each Pokemon has a combat power rating, or CP, with a semi-circle gauge.  The number maps to the Pokemon’s strength and the gauge tells you how much stronger you can make that Pokemon.  You’ll receive a generic resource called stardust for actions like leveling up your trainer, catching Pokemon, discovering new Pokemon, and more.  You’ll also get candies for each species of Pokemon.  Stardust and candies are how you both power up your Pokemon’s CP and evolve them.  For example, you’ll need 12 Pidgey candies to evolve a Pidgey to a Pidgeotto and another 50 Pidgey candies to evolve Pidgeotto to Pidgeot.  This system makes every Pokemon you find worth it and keeps you from running away or skipping weaker, low-level Pokemon since you need both the candy (three per catch) and stardust (100 per catch, an extra 500 for never-before-caught Pokemon) to make your Pokemon stronger.  You can also send your duplicates back to the professor for an extra candy.

You won’t find many Pokemon by just sitting around, though.  Pokemon Go wants you to get out in the real world and it entices you to do so with Pokestops, points of interest in the real world that you can visit for trainer experience and items.  Most Pokestops can be found in cities at places like churches, historical sites, parks, or popular bars.  The area around where I work is absolutely flush with Pokestops as is the campus near my apartment, but there aren’t any in the immediate area around my apartment complex or my parents’ house.  To access a Pokestop, you have to physically go there, tap it on your screen, and spin the little icon that pops up.  Items like Pokeballs, potions, revives, and eggs will be given to you for doing so.

Hatching eggs works the same in Pokemon Go as it does in other Pokemon games — by moving.  Eggs come in two, five, and 10km varieties.  In my ~10 hatches, it seems like Pokemon rarity correlates to the distance it takes to hatch an egg, but I did hatch a Pikachu from a two kilometer egg just last night.  Eggs are hatched by placing them in incubators and simply walking.  You are given one incubator with infinite uses and can both find or buy extra, limited use incubators.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was at least considering buying a bike to speed up my egg hatching process.

cap
My local college campus is a goldmine.

Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned after playing for about 15 hours and going on Pokewalks™ wherever I can think of:

  • You can increase the chances of catching a Pokemon by throwing your Pokeball when the circle around it is smallest.
  • Pokemon will avoid and deflect inbound Pokeballs, usually when the circle around them is at it’s absolute smallest.
  • Extra trainer experience is earned by throwing curveballs.  I do them by spinning the ball in a tight circle and launching it at about a 45 degree angle.
  • If you are running out of items, find an area with a decent amount of Pokestops that you can complete a loop of in about five minutes, which is how long it takes Pokestops to refresh
  • You will see a ton of other people playing.  It’s an odd social experience to play a mobile game with so many strangers out in the real world.
  • A menu of nearby Pokemon is on the bottom right of the screen.  Pokemon can be one, two, or three pawprints away.  There isn’t a consensus on how far each represents, but if the number of pawprints decreases as you are walking, you are going in the right direction.
  • If you find a Pokemon, others near you will find the same Pokemon.  This makes going on hunts with others incredibly fun.  A few of my friends were tracking an Electabuzz the other day and set off in three directions to cast a wider net.  One of them found it and called the other two over.
  • Incense lasts 30 minutes and will draw more Pokemon to you.  In my experience, you’ll see about one extra Pokemon every five minutes.
  • Lures are placed on Pokestops and draw Pokemon to that location for you and any other trainers around you.
  • If you are looking to maximize your trainer experience gain, use a lucky egg to double all experience gained for 30 minutes and evolve everything you can.  Keep easy-to-evolve Pokemon like Pidgeys and Weedles, which only take 12 candies per evolution, around just for this purpose.
  • I’m not sure if this is true, but it seems like there are both more and cooler Pokemon found around more densely packed areas of Pokestops.  I’ve had a lot more luck downtown than near my apartment.
  • This app will chew through your battery like none other.  Between the GPS, data, and 3D map, it’s no wonder.  Consider bringing an external battery with you for longer play sessions.

One of the more incredible things about Pokemon Go is just how much it gets you up and moving.  I walked four miles on release day that I wouldn’t have otherwise walked thanks to this app.  I can’t count how many steps and miles I’ve put in since then.  Today was the first day all week that I didn’t go for a few mile walk during my lunch break.

Believe in yourself and your dreams can come true.
Believe in yourself and your dreams can come true.

Catching and training Pokemon is one thing, but what about the glory of being a gym leader?  Pokemon Go has that covered.  Once you reach trainer level five, you are asked to join one of three teams: Valor (red), Mystic (blue), or Instinct (yellow).  I am a proud member of Team Valor.  Certain locations will be marked as gyms which can be claimed for a team by anyone.  If you find an enemy gym, you can view the Pokemon defending it and attack it if you choose.  Each Pokemon that you defeat in the gym will lower the prestige of the gym.  Lowering a gym’s prestige to zero sets it to neutral, allowing anyone to claim it again.  You can raise the prestige of a friendly gym by defeating Pokemon in the gym.  The more prestige a gym has, the more Pokemon can be left to defend it.  If you find a friendly gym with open space, you can leave a Pokemon there to help hold it down.  That Pokemon is gone from your group until the gym is taken over by another team.

Gym battles aren’t nearly as strategic as they are in the mainline Pokemon games.  Each Pokemon has a normal attack and a special attack.  You rapidly tap the screen to use your normal attack over and over which slowly fills a blue bar underneath your Pokemon’s HP.  Once the bar is full, you can tap and hold to use the Pokemon’s more powerful special attack.  Type matchups do matter, so you might want to screenshot or bookmark a type chart if, even after nearly 20 years of playing Pokemon games, you can’t quite remember what poison types are weak to.  You can also swipe left and right to avoid enemy attacks, although the most popular strategy seems to be to just tap the screen as fast as you can.

Once every 21 hours, you can claim your gym rewards.  You’ll get 500 stardust and 10 Pokecoins for each gym that you are currently a part of.  Gyms are in constant turmoil, so I claim my gym reward as soon as I take over one gym in a day as I don’t think it’s worth the risk of trying to capture a second or third gym before losing the first.

No ads and far from necessary microtransactions? Good on you, Niantic.
No ads and microtransactions that are far from necessary? Good on you, Niantic.

Pokecoins are used for, you guessed it, microtransactions.  Niantic has to make money somehow and if it’s not through ads, which it thankfully isn’t, it had to be microtransactions.  There is no pay-to-win strategy in Pokemon Go, though.  You truly don’t need to spend a dime.  You can buy things like Pokeballs, incenses, and lucky eggs.  The only purchase I can see myself making is extra incubators since I am constantly holding the maximum number of eggs while a couple hatch.

A hugely important note is that Pokemon Go doesn’t have any push notifications, so you’ll need to walk around with your phone out and the screen on.  This contributes to the battery drain issue I mentioned before.  You can put the app into battery saver mode which dims the screen when held upside down, i.e. when you are walking, but I’ve had bad luck with the app freezing up whenever I do that.  My suggestion is to set your phone to the lowest brightness you can handle and close any other running apps when you go on a hunt.

It’s no surprise that Pokemon Go is a worldwide sensation, especially when you realize that the target demographic of Pokemon when it released almost 20 years ago was my age group which are the mid-to-late 20-somethings of today’s world.  I do have concerns about the game’s longevity, though.  The most notable absent feature is trading, although the CEO of Niantic has said that it is “a core element” and it is being worked on.  I don’t really mind if there isn’t a way to directly battle other trainers since the “tap as fast as you can” battle method reigns supreme.  But, without a way to trade Pokemon or some other way to link up with your friends, maybe with a friends list or some kind of clan/guild/team system, I can see Pokemon Go fading a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s here to stay as a mobile gaming staple.  But without extra features like the ones I’ve pointed out, walking around the same locations day after day may get boring for some.  I think the floor for Pokemon Go is an app that people turn on when they are out and about instead of an app that they turn on as a reason to go out and use.  The ceiling, though, seems to be the sky.

My top CP Pokemon as of writing at trainer level 15.
My top CP Pokemon as of writing at trainer level 15.

Pokemon Go is lighting the world on fire right now.  If you’ve ever played a Pokemon game, you’ve probably wanted to go outside and catch some Pokemon for yourself.  This app lets you do just that.  Battles are simple and there isn’t a way to trade (yet), but I can’t help but smile when I play Pokemon Go.  The old feeling of catching a Pokemon and telling your friends is just as much fun now as it was when you played Pokemon Red or Pokemon Blue.  The Facebook group I use to talk to a lot of my friends has had daily threads for a week now showcasing our best finds.  I’ve gone to parks and campuses with time I would have otherwise spent on the couch.  Hell, I was going to write this review last night but went out with four other people to play for about two hours.  Catching ’em all has never been this immersive and you’d be missing out by not at least giving Pokemon Go a shot.  If you live in the Albany, NY area, maybe I’ll see you out there.

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