When Pokémon Rumble debuted on the Wii a few years ago, it was an odd spin-off that had some inherent appeal. The toy aesthetic was odd, but the dungeon crawler aspect with immediate action and a restrictive upgrade system made it an interesting alternative to the RPG style of the main series. Pokémon Rumble Blast on the 3DS ran with the same idea and expanded it, allowing you to collect more Pokémon while giving fans something to play on the go. The hope for Pokémon Rumble U on the Wii U is that it would take the same ideas but add an HD filter. What players get instead is a game that has regressed heavily in favor of trying to capitalize on the current trend of fusing figures and video games.
The story is much simpler but also very different from what was offered in previous entries. Toy Pokémon have become the latest craze, and stores are stocking up as fast as they can to meet the demand. During the restocking at one of these stores, a mysterious dark energy causes a stray Toy Pokeball to get in the path of one of the store workers, causing the contents of several boxes to spill out. Of these stray balls, four fall into a river and get sent downstream until they wash up at a riverbank. After being freed from their plastic balls, the four toys remember that they were supposed to go to a toy shop. Thus begins their journey back to the shop, picking up other stray Toy Pokémon along the way.
From the beginning, Pokémon Rumble U plays out much differently from the original Wii and 3DS versions. There are no hub towns to explore and no expansive levels in which to fight. Instead, you choose from up to four Toy Pokémon in your roster and send them into battle arenas against waves of other Toy Pokémon, eventually meeting up with the giant boss Toy Pokémon and defeating him. Random items fall in battle, such as gold coins, health pick-ups, Pokeballs, and power-up shards. At the end of each level, your stats are recorded and you start the process anew with another arena, boss, and minion Toy Pokémon.
In addition to the fact that these are arena battles instead of self-contained missions, there are a few other changes to the basic formula. Your companion Pokémon may fall in battle, but as long as one member of the team is still alive, the fallen toys can be revived. The swap system is no longer in place, so the teams must be chosen carefully instead of relying on you to rush in without preparation. Also, the new Pokémon you get are always guaranteed to be more powerful as you progress than the last ones, so you won't be hopelessly outmatched in a fight as far as Pokémon strength is concerned.
For fans of the series, these changes worsen the experience. The battles all play out in the same manner, with you beating up the minions before the boss comes in with more minions. The boss is simple to take down if you just surround it and attack relentlessly, negating any need for strategy. Capturing new Pokémon is always nice, and the ability to capture all of the 600+ Pokémon from the original to White/Black Version 2 is great, but once you get the Pokémon you want, that's it. You can't modify the abilities or upgrade any stats. You might be able to get stronger Pokémon, but the bond that forms when you get Pokémon in other games is missing, making them nothing more than weapons and making the game feel hollow.
There is a workaround for not being able to level up and change attacks, but it only occurs when you accept another of the game's new mechanics: the action figure. Taking a page from similar games on the market, Pokemon Rumble U allows you to purchase physical figures that can be scanned into the game via the GamePad's NFC reader. From here, these figures can be leveled up through battle, earn coins, and spend coins on learning new abilities. Unlike the counterparts, the use of figures is entirely optional, and one can complete the game without even knowing about the existence of the physical figures.
Even if you come to terms with the physical figures, the process for obtaining them is unnecessarily difficult. For starters, the figures are only available at GameStop. If you're unlucky enough to live in a location where one isn't available or you have a personal grudge against the store, you'll never see these figures. Secondly, the figures are only sold one per blind bag, and only one copy of each character exists in each box. Unless you decide to buy a whole box to catch the paltry 18 that are available, you won't catch them all. Should you get a figure, the disappointment deepens because the build quality isn't that great. The figures for both Skylanders and Disney Infinity look excellent, but the ones for Pokemon Rumble U look cheap, with polygonal models that look like they came from the early PlayStation era. It simply doesn't look good enough to display with the rest of your collection.
With all of the negatives, it becomes difficult to find any positives in the experience. The game has multiplayer, but it is limited to four people instead of five. The multiplayer is only local, so don't expect to go online with this game. Full functionality is limited to the GamePad, so some things are impossible to do with the other available control schemes. The game's only positive aspect is that the NFC capabilities are compatible with other NFC items, like Skylanders figures and phones with NFC chips. It's fun and useful in battle, and the results are humorous enough for a while.
Graphically, the game initially seems fine. Nintendo's expected use of a full color palette is on full display, with the expected high-definition sheen. The backgrounds sport some nice effects in certain situations, and the game runs very well at a solid 60 fps. While it can still be jarring to see the Pokémon in toy form, they look good and animate well enough when you consider how relatively immobile these toys should be. Things start to go downhill once you initiate attacks, as some of the effects look cheap and are meant as substitutes for something grander and for more robust hardware. The attacks can get lost in the more chaotic surroundings, making this a pretty terrible design decision.
Sound-wise, the game is decent enough but doesn't introduce anything new or exciting. The music is light, and it even borrows a few tracks from other games in the series, but it is pretty forgettable stuff. The effects are decent enough, but there isn't anything that punches up your speakers. Like most Pokémon games, voices are absent despite the fact the Toy Pokémon seem to have brief conversations with each other, and the sounds used for their battle cries and fainting shrieks sound just as shrill as they always have in the main games. It certainly isn't terrible, but there isn't much to expect from this title in this department.
Pokemon Rumble U is a major setback for the spin-off series in many ways. The game has too narrow of a focus, and the combat is too repetitive to enjoy. It's disappointing that the upgrading mechanics are only present if you own one of the NFC toys, and the figures are terrible in selection, availability and quality when compared to the likes of Skylanders and Disney Infinity. The game may sound fine, but the graphics only look good when still because the animations are rather laughable. It may be one of the very few four-player brawlers on the system, but no matter how low the price point, there's no reason to pick up this title.
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