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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Review: New Pokémon Snap – The Best-Looking Pokémon Game Yet, And A Joyous Revival

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This post originally appeared on Nintendo Life | Reviews

It’s been 22 years since the original Pokémon Snap and with each passing console generation fans had never given up hope for a possible sequel. Why is that? It wasn’t a long game, it didn’t have that many levels, only had a small pool of Pokémon and the base gameplay was simply about taking pictures. On paper, Pokémon Snap sounds basic and it seems there’s an entire generation who don’t get the appeal. To put it simply, Snap presents Pokémon in their purest form; it lets Pokémon be Pokémon without any strings of battling attached — something no other entry even attempts.

That’s what made the original game so special, we had never seen Pokémon divorced from humans in such a natural way, there were so many iconic moments that were exhilarating to catch with the perfect frame on camera. We learned each level inside and out, mastering where every creature would spawn and when they would strike a special pose. There was simply no other game quite like it and it’s gone down in history as possibly the greatest Pokémon spinoff, if we discount Pokémon Puzzle League.

And now we’ve played through New Pokémon Snap and it still feels like we’re living a dream. But no, 22 years have passed and we finally have its sequel. With such a weight on its shoulders can it possibly live up to such a legacy? Remarkably, yeah, it can.

There are occasional winks to the original, like the beach level which opens with a Pikachu scuttling along the coast, but New Pokémon Snap doesn’t waste its time chasing nostalgia — it knows it’s a sequel coming many years later and has grown with the gap in time. Very few games get to showcase a jump going as far back as the Nintendo 64 and so even the smallest things had us smiling. You can now see through the ocean and watch Lapras swim with every detail exposed. Unlike the original, where they would bob along a solid blue ocean, environments are stunning with individual leaves and blades of grass rendered on screen and even the lighting can be incredible — especially during a gorgeous underwater section.

We’ve never seen the Pokémon series with this much detail, and this goes beyond just how it presents the Pocket Monsters. Even human characters feel more alive than ever and in brief cutscenes they’re given full voice acting making them feel like more than cut-outs that push the story forward. Every complaint about how the Pokémon series presents itself feels met in New Pokémon Snap; you’ll be getting far closer to Pokémon models than they were probably ever intended to be seen but they still manage to look incredible. This is a world you’ll want to capture from every single angle.

The original game, while still remarkable, was incredibly short and that’s another key area modernised in New Pokémon Snap. Stages are no longer linear one and done affairs and neither are the Pokémon themselves. They squeeze so much out of what they have, almost every single stage has a variant, such as a Day version or a Night version and these are complete with Pokémon in different states or entirely new creatures exclusive to that variant. Then there’s the levelling system: every single stage and variant has its own level and the higher it goes, the more the Pokémon trust you — this essentially means you’ll encounter new Pokémon in new situations the more you revisit levels.

Back on Nintendo 64, I was always really proud when I finally lured Pikachu on top of Articuno and nabbed a nice shot of the two, it’s probably the hardest picture to get in the game… but a simple shot of Pikachu from the second level inexplicably scored higher. This is something the sequel goes a long way to address as each Pokémon is essentially ranked in four completely separate ways. You’ll notice when a Pokémon is evaluated it falls into one of four stars, these aren’t ratings but rather different scenarios a picture can fall into. It’s different for every Pokémon but one star is usually just the creature in a mellow state, two stars is often them munching on a Flufffruit, and so on and so forth.

This not only largely addresses our issue of one action being stronger than another even if it’s more mundane, but essentially multiplies the total number of Pokémon to photograph by four. If you’re going for 100%, you can’t just submit one photo of Wailord — you have to find out how to get him in each Star State. So not only are there level variants, but there are Pokémon variants too. It’s vast. This is where the game’s at its strongest, when you have everything unlocked and you freely choose to return to previous levels to learn them inside and out. There’s so much to do and it can be incredibly rewarding.

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However, there are times where replayability feels forced rather than earned and these moments can bring the pacing down severely. Every time you visit a new region you’ll find yourself without an Illumina Orb — these essentially replace Pester Balls from the original and open up new ways to interact with Pokémon and the environment. In order to obtain them you need to take a picture of an Illuminated plant hidden in each course — not the worst hurdle but it does feel a little draining to constantly lose a key action whenever you progress further.

What’s more frustrating is when progression halts without a clear way to keep pushing forward. Characters will occasionally appear in the hub offering a slight hint, but there were certain times where we simply didn’t have an indication of where we were meant to be going and the answer was usually just to aimlessly play stages again. It feels like the game wants to stretch itself further when it has no need to; these levels are fun to revisit organically but it’s just frustrating if it’s forced.

While a low point when you’re in the moment, these are mere road bumps in the grand picture and New Pokémon Snap truly shines when you’re left to your own devices trying to fill out the PhotoDex. These Pokémon interactions are some of the very best in the entire franchise and it doesn’t play favourites when it comes to generations. You’ll find iconic creatures like Caterpie and Squirtle but you’ll also see Bidoof, Scorbunny, Pikipek — even Meganium made it onto the box art, a Gen 2 starter! This feels like a true celebration of the franchise at large and there’s bound to be an interaction that sticks with every fan regardless of when they grew up or got into the series.

Even though there’s more Pokémon and they’re more fleshed out than ever, we still ended up missing a pretty crucial interaction from the original: evolutions. Do you remember knocking Charmeleon into a fiery pit and watching a Charizard come roaring out? Or watching a Slowpoke get a Shellder stuck on its tail evolve into Slowbro just like in the anime? These are either absent from the new game or so minor that even with a near complete Dex we’ve not seen a single instance of it. They certainly do a lot with the Pokémon they have, but we still ended up missing this greatly.

It’s a shame there’s a few blemishes on the package because at its core this is exactly the game we expected after a two decade wait. It’s taken the original concept and run wild with technical jumps and replayability. It’s going to take you a long time to do everything and we mean a long time. There’s even a request system where the professor and his assistants will ask for special photos in return for editing filters — these occasionally provide hints on how to nab new Pokémon or enable new interactions but sometimes it’s just a specific picture they want. Although this comes with a minor problem too.

One request asked us to take a picture of a Pokémon eating fruit in a special way, the only problem being that we had already taken this picture before the request came in and this wasn’t acknowledged by the game. We could go back and take it again, but during that round we managed to encounter the Pokémon in a star tier we hadn’t encountered before… so do we submit a picture we already have to fulfil a request or submit a new Pokémon Star we need? It’s frustrating that this had to come up at all.

The original game allowed you visit a Blockbuster and print out your pictures to show your mum, but we’re in a very different world now — the social world. New Pokémon Snap is absolutely going to have a prominent place on social media and there’s plenty of tools to make your snaps even better. After submitting your pictures for scoring, you can go back through every shot you’ve taken and “re-snap” them, essentially meaning you get to go back to a frozen point in time and move the camera around at a limited pace to get an even better shot. It may sound like cheating but you won’t get any extra points, it’s purely for looks. You can even adjust the depth of field and then separately spruce your pictures up with filters, stickers and borders. It’s pretty extensive stuff, and if you have the Fujifilm Instax Mini Link you can still print pictures out to show your mum.

There are areas we wish were tighter but when we’re revisiting our favourite levels and seeing Pokémon in more depth than we ever have before, a lot of those shortcomings end up being forgotten. We waited 22 years for New Pokémon Snap and at its core it manages to deliver. There are two decades’ worth of new elements — with some of the best visuals on Switch, some of the cutest interactions in the franchise — and we’re living in the perfect age to show it all off. This is more than just a photography game; it’s a reminder of why we fell in love with Pokémon in the first place, and that they’re more than just creatures for battle.

Conclusion

If, like us, you’ve been waiting a significant chunk of your life for a sequel to Pokémon Snap, then you’re in luck; New Pokémon Snap brings back almost everything that made the original special and fleshes it out into a much more elaborate game. This is something you can sink some serious time into and while there are some minor frustrations and pacing issues in the story, playing freely at your own pace is a pure joy. The original has gone down in history possibly as Pokémon’s greatest spinoff, and it may have just been dethroned.

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Review: New Pokémon Snap - The Best-Looking Pokémon Game Yet, And A Joyous Revival
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