Pokémon Shuffle is another attempt by Nintendo to push free-to-play software on the 3DS eShop. Pokémon is no stranger to puzzle games and with a myriad of other Pokémon spin-offs on the eShop already, the real question you may find yourself asking is if a free-to-play puzzle game fills any sort of gap that was previously left open on the platform. I was originally going to say no, but after some time with the game, I’ve had the slightest change of heart. The long answer is that Pokémon Shuffle is fun in short bursts but never really lived up to what I wanted, especially given the limitations of F2P games.
First, the good. The game has a very polished look, with some basic but nice looking 3D backgrounds and cute original art, including headshot portraits for each Pokémon. (Well, I say cute, but some of them do turn out looking just like gross disembodied heads. But yeah, that aside, most are still cute.) The Pokémon elements of the game aren’t just skin deep either, and what could have just been a Pokémon paint job on a bland puzzle game instead turned out to be a game that replicates the elements of Pokémon in puzzle form. The strength-weakness elements system of the previous games, special abilities, Mega Evolutions, and the capturing process all come together to create an interesting take on the typical puzzle fighting game formula. In short, this isn’t just a match-3 puzzler; it’s also a Pokémon game, through-and-through.
Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. The Pokemon elements not being a cash-grab is about all that really impressed me. As a puzzle game, Shuffle is boring—it’s far too easy, allowing you to move any puzzle piece anywhere on the screen to make matches, and even giving frequent hints on where to move pieces. The game just lacks a sense of challenge outside of limiting how long it allows you to play because of its free-to-play nature. Besides the difficulty being either far too easy or far too artificial when it comes time to capture wild Pokémon—in order to urge you to pay microtransactions—the game relies on luck far too much.
In other puzzle games you can typically see what the next few pieces will be that slide into place, but in Shuffle you can’t. That’s just off screen somewhere; who knows, maybe they’re in whatever void the inside of the Pokéball is. This makes for a random match where all you can really control is the present pieces you’re given, and thus you have to rely on luck, and not skill. I imagine for kids this isn’t a big deal; it moves fast and is super flashy and fun to watch, I can give you that, but for someone looking for substance, the puzzling here will disappoint.
Half the time, I didn’t even feel like I was playing a game, since the puzzles practically play themselves. You just move one single piece, then watch the off-screen pieces you have no knowledge or control over slide into the screen. If you’re lucky, more combos will occur, and more pieces will slide onto your screen, and that’s it. You just sit there watching the combos you get by chance and realize you had no part in any of it.
In short bursts, Pokémon Shuffle is a harmless, fun distraction, but if you try to play it seriously the game offers very little substance. The developers probably knew this considering that at max you really can only get about 10 to maybe 15 minutes tops into the game as a free player without making a microtransaction. After that, you have to wait until the game recharges your hearts and allows you to play some more. If you want something to distract yourself with while you’re out and about, Pokémon Shuffle is a nice, cheap little option for your 3DS. If you’re looking for a true puzzle game, though, this isn’t it.