Pokemon Duel Review: Still Figure-ine It Out

Credit: The Pokemon Company
Credit: The Pokemon Company /

Pokemon Co-master arrived in the west a few weeks ago as Pokemon Duel, a strategic take on mobile Pokemon battles. Does it have what it takes to be the very best?

Developer: The Pokemon Company

Publisher: The Pokemon Company

Platform: iOS, Android (Version reviewed)

Release Date: January 24th, 2017

Pokemon Shuffle has long been the go-to mobile game for Pokemon lovers. It was unseated last summer by Pokemon GO, which retains its popularity in spite of the chilly weather. Both games were launched initially to considerable fanfare, which makes it rather surprising how muted Pokemon Duel’s launch was. Originally known as Pokemon Co-master in Japan, Pokemon Duel is a strategic Pokemon battling game using figurines on a square board and a spin wheel to determine attacks. Though intricate and certainly distinct from The Pokemon Company’s other mobile offerings, I’m not sure that Pokemon Duel has the legs it needs to become a staple like its predecessors.

The basic play of Pokemon Duel takes place on a table with a 7×5 rectangle of nodes for figurines to move on, with a 3×3 square in the middle connected to the outside. Each player has two spawn points on each of their corners and a goal in the center of their side. The object of the game is to move one of your figurines into your opponent’s goal. Simple, right?

pokemon duel
Credit: The Pokemon Company /

Not especially. Each player has six Pokemon figurines that can enter the board at either of their spawn locations and move a number of nodes unique to each Pokemon, usually between 1-3. When they come head to head with an opponent’s figurine, they battle, with each Pokemon spinning a wheel of attacks that can include damage values, special effects, dodges, and misses. The higher attack will win, knocking the other figurine off the board. Misses always lose, and special “purple” abilities always beat damaging abilities and are ranked in stars to determine how they match up against other purple moves.

Even if you paid close attention during the tutorial, good luck finding your way to what you want to do later…

There’s plenty more to it. “Plates,” the cards in the bottom right that you can see in the image above, can be used once per turn to different effects such as boosting different attacks, moving Pokemon to other locations, and healing status conditions–yeah, those are a thing, too. Some Pokemon have special abilities that can be activated to varying effects. You can have an AI play your turn for you, too, though why anyone would opt for that is beyond me.

Outside of battle, you’ll build your deck of figurines by acquiring booster packs through daily play, meeting daily objectives, and microtransactions. You can fuse weaker figurines with your better ones to boost their power and increase the size of certain moves (decreasing the size of their misses) or sell them off for currency that you can use for help in the game’s single-player mode. There’s a ranked league system that you can play your way through, presumably with rewards at the end of the season.

pokemon duel
Credit: The Pokemon Company /

The fact is, there’s even more to it than that, but it gets so far into nuance and strategy that it’s too in-depth for a review. Pokemon Duel is a complex game, and it doesn’t do a great job of explaining itself out of the gate. There is a tutorial to give you the basics and a single-player mode with a shallow story (you play to win a skyscraper, I don’t know) but there’s no way to learn the finer details of strategy and deck building except to either lose in very educated ways or look online.

I’m not knocking the game for being complex, but there are ways for more challenging games to still be new player-friendly. And with the Pokemon label on it, I’m surprised they didn’t do a better job of outreach to an audience that is less likely to have touched difficult strategy games before.

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To go one step farther with that complaint, the UI and menuing in Pokemon Duel are just obnoxiously busy, and the loading time between screens exasperates quickly. Just to start up the game, you have to mire through four different loading screens each time, and you’re pretty much required to always be online for the game to work, even if you’re playing single-player. The main menu shows your current deck and play options, but is also full of timed booster packs, an obscure “other” menu and constant pop-ups about daily missions. Even if you paid close attention during the tutorial, good luck finding your way to what you want to do later–and once you’ve mastered it, good luck getting there in any kind of hurry.

pokemon duel
Credit: The Pokemon Company /

Finally, let’s talk about the game balance itself.  Now, Pokemon Duel, like other games of its ilk, assigns its figurines rarities roughly corresponding to how hard they are to find and how strong they are, with “EX” being the strongest. The Pokemon Company celebrated Pokemon Duel’s opening week by dousing new players in free currency. That sounds nice in theory, but what it meant in practice was that everyone playing was opening booster after booster at once. I think I opened about 30 in my first week before the free currency tapered off.

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The result of all this was that anyone playing daily in the first week loaded up with tons of EX figurines, filling their decks with them, while folks logging in for the first time played a single match of multiplayer only to be totally destroyed by Mewtwos and Keldeos and Xerneases and whatever else. These are figurines players normally wouldn’t see until much higher ranks, unless they got really lucky and had a single one in their deck.

Normally, I’d hope this would balance out farther down the line, but here’s the trouble: Pokemon Duel guarantees certain levels of rarity in certain boosters. Unlike, say, Hearthstone, where you’re guaranteed one rare whether you pay real money or not, and anything higher (epic or legendary) is a crapshoot, some boosters of a higher cost guarantee EX figurines. This turns Pokemon Duel into a pay-to-win game. If you dump a bit of money in early on, you can load up with EX figurines and stomp on up the ranks. Presumably at the top level, this would be stopped by good players, but the spinner RNG for attacks means that if your figurine has better moves, screw strategy. You just won in three or four turns.

The Pokemon Company. . Pokemon Duel. 6.5. There’s a good strategy game at the heart of Pokemon Duel, but it’s unfortunately bogged down with microtransactions, a busy UI, loading screens, shallow tutorials, and a weird storyline about winning a skyscraper. My hope is that over the next several months the game evens out and becomes the property of skilled players building a meta and new players earnestly learning the ropes. For now, my fear is that Pokemon Duel will languish forgotten under far better mobile strategy game competitors.

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.