You could always count on the main Pokémon games to be exciting and deceptively deep RPG experiences that appeal to players who may not even like RPGs. The excitement that accompanied the release of Pokémon Black/White proved that the franchise is still going strong more than 10 years since the release of the original games. However, the numerous spin-off titles often vary wildly in quality. The Pokémon Ranger series, for example, is quite enjoyable as were the Pokémon Pinball and Pokémon Puzzle League games. Others, like Pokémon Dash and My Pokémon Ranch, were fairly dull games. Pokémon Rumble Blast is the first spin-off for the Nintendo 3DS and is almost a re-imagining of the WiiWare title . It also happens to be a game that is surprisingly entertaining despite a few things that keep it from being great.
The premise of Pokémon Rumble Blast will be immediately familiar to those who played it on WiiWare. For everyone else, it will be both different yet familiar. Instead of taking control of real Pokémon, you'll be controlling Pokémon wind-up toys that inhabit a living, breathing world of their own inside a toy shop. After a brief tutorial level, you'll wake up on the outskirts of a town where everyone is amped up about trying to be the Battle Royale champion. Naturally, you jump into the fray and go on a journey to become the next champion.
At its core, the game is a top-down brawler. Whether you're on the map or in a battlefield, you use your Pokémon's attack abilities to fight against other Pokémon. The combat is done in real time, so instead of relying on menu commands, hitting either the A or B buttons will immediately produce the attack. These attacks also vary in range and direction, throwing a bit of strategy into the game. The basic elemental strengths and weaknesses still apply here, so Pikachu's electric attacks, for example, might work great on water Pokémon but fail to be effective against grass Pokémon. Most of the time, you'll defeat the Pokémon and be rewarded with coins that can be used later in the game. There are other times when the defeated Pokémon get knocked over instead of disappearing in a puff of smoke and leaving behind some money. Once you touch the fallen Pokémon, they join your army.
Unlike the main game series, these toy Pokémon already have some defensive abilities and stat augmentations incorporated into their attacks, so things like reduced defense can be accomplished by simply executing a successful attack. At the end of each battle area, you come face-to-face against a larger toy version of a Pokémon, complete with his or her minions. Once the large toy is defeated, you gain more money and the ability to challenge the area again to look for and befriend even more Pokémon for your army. While you can switch out your Pokémon as many times as you wish, the action continues during the switch, so there is a good possibility that departing Pokémon can still get hurt before the switch completes. Also, the player has three lives per battle area, with one taken away each time a Pokémon faints. Since there are no healing items in these areas, switching out Pokémon becomes key in surviving harrowing fights.
Towns are safe havens from fighting, so the Pokémon in your army can regain their health. The locales also provide opportunities to release some of the Pokémon you've befriended in fights in exchange for money or different Pokémon. Additionally, towns are hubs to start up any multiplayer activities (more on that later) and also house two different machines where you can buy extra combat moves for your Pokémon. One store always gives out one specific move, which differs per town, and another gives out a random move and has a cost relative to the power level of your active Pokémon. Since the Pokémon can only learn two moves at a time, old moves must be forgotten to learn the new technique, staying in line with traditional Pokémon mechanics. You can also find machines that let you swap out moves between two Pokémon in your army, with the only restriction being that no Pokémon can be left without at least one attack.
Speaking of traditional mechanics, it is interesting to see the team conduct some changes with the universe rules. For starters, there's no limit to how many Pokémon you can have in your army. All of them travel with you, so there's no need to build specific armies for situations or store any of them for later. While creatures of the same species often have the same traits and stats, the ones here all vary in some way. You may have captured five Tepigs in one area and they may all be fire Pokémon, but there's a good chance that one of them has the most strength, one only knows tackle initially, one has a fire spread attack, etc. It's this random chance that will have you collecting each and every one of the same type you see even if you weren't planning on trying to get all 600+ Pokémon. Finally, no matter how many fights you get into, none of your Pokémon ever level up and improve their stats. Aside from attack move replacement, their strength and health levels remain the same from beginning to end.
That last point may be the most surprising to Pokémon fans. One of the things people love about the series is that you tend to pick out your favorite Pokémon or group and ensure they'll make it through most of the game. It's the personal connection to the creatures that makes them endearing, and that is taken away when you don't give Pokémon the chance to grow. The only way to get more powerful is to amass more powerful Pokémon toys and leave the weaker ones in the army. It's a different approach to the idea of making the army stronger, and it may turn off some fans.
Once you reach the battle arenas, you're given three types of combat scenarios to overcome. Battle Royale pits your lone Pokémon against others in an every-creature-for-itself battle. You still have your three lives but no longer have the opportunity to swap out Pokémon at any time. You also have a timer to worry about, so aggression becomes a key factor in trying to win. Team Battles pit three Pokémon of your choosing against three other Pokémon in a winner-take-all match. Again, you can't switch out Pokémon during the fight but now you have access to team attacks, which build up your team strength for a limited amount of time. Finally, Charge Battles play out very differently from other fights, as your whole army is sent barging through the area in a race to the end. All of your characters' individual strength rankings are combined to calculate the army's total strength, making the weak Pokémon useful. While the scene is cool to watch, the constant mashing of the A button or twirling of the circle pad to boost army strength during these matches makes the proceedings tedious enough to be less enjoyable than the other fighting modes.
With no real progression to speak of beyond those related to story and an increase in army size, it may be tough for longtime fans to fathom that the main quest takes 8-10 hours to complete. That number only increases if you try to obtain every Pokémon in the game, so if you're a completionist, expect to be spend at least 12 hours on the game. Fortunately, the game seems to be set up nicely for quick portable play, as each area and boss fight can be completed in a few minutes. Saving is automatically done after areas are completed, so the risk of losing a significant amount of progress is minimal. It's a smart decision given the notoriety about the system's battery life, and it is a move that one hopes every developer will adopt soon.
Surprisingly, while you spend most of your time roaming around and pummeling enemies with either the A or B button attacks, the game never feels dull. All of your Pokémon have different moves even if they are of the same type, so everyone feels fresh and tactics have to be recalculated on the fly. It also helps that a majority of the areas are short, so you'll always reach the end of a level before combat feels tiresome. The only problem you'll run into are the bosses because they seem easy to kill. It takes more hits to take them down, but none feel too threatening, so unless you challenge yourself by only utilizing the weaker Pokémon in your army, don't expect many bosses to give you a challenge.
Multiplayer is included in the game, but it doesn't perform the way you'd expect it to. Local multiplayer is a co-op affair, as it lets you and a friend combine forces and take on areas together and capture even more Pokémon. It is nice in theory, but the game only lets you do this in completed areas, so forget about trying to complete the campaign with a friend. The count is halved from the WiiWare version, which allowed for four players to battle cooperatively. As nice a two-player play is, four would have been better. Local players can also swap Pokémon this way, but it only opens up once the game has been completed. Oddly enough, local players can't have their armies directly battle each other. Instead, players must get the card via StreetPass before they can have their army fight against a computer-controlled version of the other player's army. Once you defeat the army, you can have one of their Pokémon temporarily help you in one area. The ability to let armies fight is fun, but due to its cumbersome nature, don't expect it to be an oft-used feature.
Pokémon Rumble Blast is another in a string of 3DS titles that fail to go online. The battle setup seems perfect for co-op play or a beefier competitive mode, even if it's just against one other player. As good as local play may be, most players will have an easier time finding people online (as opposed to local players) since the penetration of the 3DS is nowhere near the numbers of the original DS. Omitting such a thing later on, should the system gain tremendous ground, might not sting as much, but for now, this omission feels like a lost chance to expand the game's playability.
Graphically, the game looks too simple. When it comes to the Pokémon, the body shapes and legs are fine. This is especially true of the larger Pokémon, which might not be as detailed as the models in the Pokémon 3D app but still look good. The arms, however, look like angular, sharp points. When taking into account that all of the Pokémon are modeled with thick black lines to give them a cel-shaded look, the pointed appendages are even more off-putting since it makes some of the characters look deformed. The animations, though, are more endearing since it looks like everyone is moving around with the sharp, springy movement of a wind-up toy. Elsewhere, the environments look fine, but they're not impressive due to the lack of detail. The same can be said for the particle effects. Most are serviceable, but some, such as Snivy's vine attack, don't look as impressive as expected.
The 3-D effect helps with the presentation and makes things look much better. The environments gain some depth, and the worlds look full. That depth makes the larger Pokémon more massive and makes the full-scale brawls look more chaotic. The team still managed to throw in some gimmicks, such as fallen Pokémon being hurled to the screen when picked up, but the effect is less annoying than it sounds. Best of all, the 3-D is accomplished without taking a hit in frame rate. While it doesn't produce any gameplay benefits, the effect is good enough that you wouldn't mind playing in 3-D for a majority of the time you spend with this title.
The voices for each Pokémon still adhere to the games instead of the cartoon, so don't expect any of the Pokémon to repeat their names over and over again. The music seems to match the random nature of an anime more than trying to evoke the themes of its fellow games. The title theme starts off with classical music before abruptly transitioning to guitar rock. Visiting towns and entering battles invokes the standard video game tunes but then goes into a hollow, futuristic vibe at the stats screen. None of the music is bad, and it isn't something to turn down, but it will leave you wondering what was going on during the development process.
Pokémon Rumble Blast is a simple but fun game. The story may be forgettable, but the combat is easy to get into and despite the repetitive nature, it only feels like a chore if you play it for long stretches of time. The game length is offset well by the amount of time it takes to get through areas, ensuring that even only a few minutes of progress count for something. Multiplayer may be limited in terms of participant numbers and have a very odd way of doing battles between armies, but co-op is a positive. Fights are fun, but they aren't challenging. By no means is this game the best franchise spin-off, but those who are looking for something marginally offbeat will find that this fits the bill nicely.
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