Pokémon Picross is Freemium Garbage

I’ve never really done a “Shoutout for the inspiration!” preface to an article before, but I had been thinking about writing about how crap Pokémon Picross is for some time without acting on it because I didn’t think it would be very interesting to anyone. Then in early February, the irreplaceable James Stephanie Sterling posted a Jimquisition titled ‘Insights From A Terrible Galaga Game’ which discussed in detail a bunch of microtransactional tropes that were not shockingly new or monstrously original, but it was still very entertaining to watch someone expertly dissect the shitty business practices present in seemingly every awful mobile game released in the last nine years, which made me reconsider writing this. So thank God for you, or… thank Jesus for J.S.S. Ooh, that sounds good. Has anyone else come up with that yet? I want credit if it catches on.

I have led a blissfully sheltered life. It wasn’t until well into my twenties that someone told me what that funny smell was in the car that belonged to my big sister’s friend who was always really chilled out all the time. I never had to deal with losing any pets because my parents sent them away to live on a farm. I still have no idea what ‘NTR’ means and I don’t intend to find out. But most relevantly, I’ve never encountered one of those shitty free-to-play/fee-to-pay games that have been steadily been growing more and more disappointingly common in today’s increasingly malignant market.

That’s not to say that I’m not aware of any; the most famously heinous to me being that Dungeon Keeper mobile game released in 2014, in which many actions require gems and gems require a ridiculous amount of idling, or a quick burst of real-life cash. The Simpsons: Tapped Out was so money-hungry that it was made fun of in an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer opens the game and is immediately charged $300. There’s that Harry Potter one where you have to spend more of your muggle money to avoid having to watch the child protagonist struggle for their life against the Whomping Willow. Even the greatest video game series of all-time isn’t immune to this, as RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile was released to a well-deserved mixture of silence and extreme negativity, having traded the timeless appeal of the series’ formula in order to squeeze in more begging for money from the product you already paid money to play.

But I’ve never encountered any of these games personally, mostly because I just don’t play games on my phone; I only use my phone for its primary intended purpose – checking Twitter at work when my boss isn’t there. There are other modern games, most notably the FIFA series, that are laden with so many microtransactions that it’s a miracle they haven’t collapsed under the weight of their sheer shamelessness, but I don’t play those either, since other than my Steam library, I’m still working my way through the GameCube/PlayStation 2 era. My best friend got me an NES Mini and an SNES Mini for Christmas and as far as I’m concerned, that takes care of my backlog for the next five years. But mobile games are a different breed to FIFA anyway, being far more openly predatory under the guise of being free. And as I said, I don’t play mobile games. But I do have a 3DS.

When I first got a 3DS, my first course of business was checking the eShop for the two fantastic Ace Attorney games held hostage there, but I also picked up Pokémon Picross for the following reasons; I like Pokémon, and I like Picross. Also, it was free. I didn’t play it until much more recently though, because… well, if you had two Ace Attorney games to play, you certainly wouldn’t make Picross your priority either. But being incredibly indecisive about making the commitment to start a proper, actual game, and having a soft spot for puzzle titles that basically just hold your interest for a few hours, it was only a matter of time before I gave it a shot.

Pokémon Picross is freemium fucking trash and I would not recommend it to anyone. Nobody should play it, and while this was initially just going to be a rant about my first personal experience with a fee-to-pay game, I discovered while writing this that Pokémon Picross was met with generally favourable reception. 8/10 from Destructoid. 7/10 from Nintendo Life. A Metacritic score of 75. And the only reason I can fathom for this is that Pokémon Picross isn’t as blatantly a cheaply-made cash-grab as other shitty fee-to-pay games. And it’s honestly really depressing to consider that this game was met with a positive response just because, in layman’s terms, most freemium games bankrupt you for life and kill your mum, whereas Pokémon Picross is kinder and gentler; it just steals your wallet and sends threatening letters to your niece.

The core gameplay loop of Pokémon Picross is, unsurprisingly, Picross. Each level is a grid with numbers on the side that correspond to the tiles that need to be filled out in order to complete a pretty picture; in this case a variety of Pokémon selected carefully from Generation I all the way up to Generation VI. I haven’t played past Platinum and I can barely remember even that, so anything beyond Generation III flew right over my head like an impatient Pidgeot, but the variety is enjoyable and the representation from each Gen is more than sufficient, with a few notable exceptions. (NO LICKITUNG?!?)

Once you’ve completed a puzzle, you have caught that Pokémon and you can move on to the next puzzle. You can even set up to five Pokémon – well, eventually – and depending on their type, they’ll come with one of twelve moves that can help you solve the Picross puzzle! So you catch more and more Pokémon, solve more and more puzzles, and… that’s the game! That’s Pokémon Picross from start to finish. Sounds fun and inoffensive, right? No.

The first of many problems will become apparent once you’ve beaten all of the puzzles in Area 1 and want to move onto Area 2. No problem, that’ll just cost you 50 Picrites, not Picarats, as I repeatedly called them, because I confused them with the currency from the Professor Layton series, which is frankly very rude and inaccurate of me, because Professor Layton games are actually good. You earn Picrites by completing ‘missions’ in every level, which can only be completed once and only offer you a measly 1-3 Picrites per mission, or by completing the Daily Challenge, a series of 5 quick un-Pokémon-related puzzles that also reward you with 3 Picrites to begin with, but this at least increases if you keep at it. Completing the puzzles within the allotted time limit increases your reward, as does the number of areas you’ve unlocked, for a maximum of 13 whole Picrites per day, once you’ve gotten to the highest level and unlocked every single area, although since there are 30 areas, you’ll probably max out at earning 7 Picrites per day for an uncomfortably long time.

The tutorial levels, all five of them, which go on for just long enough that it starts to feel kind of condescending, hand out Picrites at a rate that is significantly higher than you will ever earn them in the actual game. If you were overwhelmingly naïve, you could consider it generous, like they’re giving you a brief taste of power and letting you decide where you want your initial funds to go, as there are many, many features that require upgrades. If you’re feeling less charitable, this could be interpreted as reeling the player in with the impression that they’ll keep earning Picrites at a much faster rate than they actually will, or lowering their guard to help to get them invested in the grinding crawl that is earning this crappy game’s fictional currency.

And when I say that there are many features that require upgrades, that is no exaggeration. So you’ve finished Area 1 and you want to explore Area 2. That’ll be 50 Picrites please, and every time you want to unlock a new area, it’s 10 Picrites more expensive! This means that across the total of Pokémon Picross, to unlock every single area (again, there are 30) requires more than 4,000 of the bastards. Suddenly the 180 that the game gifts you for completing the tutorial doesn’t seem so generous now.

You also need to unlock the ability to set more Pokémon, with an initial cost of 50 Picrites for a second slot, and increasing on the way up to five. The whole ‘setting Pokémon who have an effect on the game’ is literally the unique selling point of the entire Pokémon Picross experience, so locking this behind a Picrite wall is frustrating to say the least. But even if you don’t want to grind for weeks, or shell out real money for Peter Piper’s peck of pickled Picrites, at least you can enjoy the levels you’ve already unlocked.

Or can you? See, not only do you need to pay to access new areas and unlock more slots for available Pokémon, but your stylus itself now has a charge! Every time you mark a tile, which is, you know, the entire gameplay experience of Picross, it takes up one energy! And your stylus only has 100 max energy at any given time, and once it’s been used, you have to wait multiple hours for it to recharge. You have to recharge the fundamental ability to be able to play the video game. Or, of course, you can spend some Picrites to recharge it immediately.

Or why not spend some more Picrites to raise your maximum stylus energy to 200? It only costs 50 Picrites! And then another 100 Picrites to get to a maximum of 300 energy. And then 150 Picrites to get to 400. Then you can spend a whopping 400 Picrites, but this gives you unlimited stylus energy, so you can play the game for as long as you like! Until you need to advance to the next area, as you’ll probably be bankrupt by then. So just to clarify, you need to spend 700 Picrites in order to unlock the ability to permanently be able to play the game. Outstanding.

But hey, at least this isn’t mandatory. If for some reason you want to play this game, but only in bursts of three minutes, once per day, over the course of several months, then you can ignore this charge and continue at your own pace. At least, until the Picross puzzles get larger, growing to a maximum grid size of 15×20, at which point it is frequently impossible to complete a puzzle without upgrading your base 100 energy. And some Pokémon can mega-evolve too, which means that once you’ve completed their puzzles, you unlock an alternate path to a mega-evolution puzzle! That’s fun, right? And it only costs… hang on, just checking my notes.

Well, at least there’s no time limit on this whole miserable experience. I daresay, if you’re busy enough that you can’t actually spare more then fifteen minutes a day to play a game, Pokémon Picross’ weird drawbacks might actually be useful to you. I mean, it’s not like in order to catch Legendary Pokémon, the game randomly tells you that they’ve appeared for a limited time, and you only have one hour to catch them, so if you’re stylus isn’t fully-charged then you’re just completely out of luck and you’ve missed them forever… or at least for the next 48 hours, at which point another Legendary Pokémon will appear for one hour again. It’s not like that is in the game. And then I wink sarcastically.

This is why I wanted to write about how, to put it professionally, this game is a piece of shit and you shouldn’t play it because it’s a huge piece of shit. This is some excellent insight, hire me Kotaku. Or maybe don’t, because apparently the fact that this game is playable at all without microtransactions – at least, initially – resulted in a lavishing of positive reviews that I really wasn’t expecting. 8/10 from Destructoid! 7/10 from Nintendo Life, even with the admission that this game is the only worth your time if you’re willing to spend $30 on it! (If you have purchased 5,000 Picrites, they will permanently become free. Still, $30 though.) The only outlet to give this game a negative review was Nintendo Enthusiast with a 4.5/10, with the fitting advice “If you love Picross but don’t want to spend over $32 for the full experience, check the Picross e series which are from the same developer. Each of the six titles cost $5.99, and you will have a bigger and better experience for around the same price.

And here’s the thing; if this game cost $30 up front, then I would still think that that was way too expensive for a Picross game, but at least once you had bought it, you could play it to the best of your ability without the game purposefully frustrating you for the sole purpose of convincing you to give them money in order to solve the problems that they intentionally put in their game. I understand that there will always be a difference between the prices of games directly sold by publishers and second-hand games being resold, but with just a casual glance at eBay, you can find copies of Picross DS and Picross 3D on sale for less than £5.

It’s bad enough that the game hamstrings it’s only unique selling point, the addition of Pokémon buddies who can assist you in puzzle-solving, by hiding it behind a paywall that would take months of grinding to unlock – oooorrrr which you can unlock immediately with just three quick instalments of $19.99.99! Send your credit card information to dopefish@dopefishblog.com and receive a code within the next twenty-four hundred hours! – but the fact that the game also feels the need to limit the basic progression of itself, and then even the fundamental ability to play the game at all feels truly disgusting.

And probably the worst part about Pokémon Picross is that… it’s good.

I hate having to say that because while I am sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth regarding my opinions on video games, I also don’t want to be responsible for anyone playing this piece of crap-garbage. And straight off the bat, I need to disclose; I did not play and enjoy this game because I shelled out $30 for an experience that you could probably find for free online without much effort. I enjoyed this game because I have a tech-savvy best friend who can basically do magic (translation: he watches Linus Tech Tips) and after complaining about Pokémon Picross one day, he borrowed my 3DS, did something with the memory card, and then gave it back to me with 6,000 Picrites. Boom. Suddenly all of the obstacles in the way of me having a good time had been lifted, and without them in place, the game is actually fun.

The whole ‘setting Pokémon’ thing? Actually really fun and imaginative but not in a way that’s too complicated. There are twelve effects that your Pokémon can have, and most of these are variants of ‘pick an area (or an area is randomly chosen) and reveal all correct tiles’, which come in rows, columns, squares, diamonds, rows and columns, and a random selection. But there are also abilities such as freezing or slowing time, which can help you complete the ‘Solve within 5:00!’ missions, and the handiest ability, Auto Fix, which outright tells you when you’ve made a mistake. A lot of the more powerful Pokémon need to recharge their abilities, and this can take up to 24 hours, but unlike every other shitty decision made to encourage microtransactions, this actually makes some sense. If you could just spam Mega Charizard, Rayquaza and Giratina over and over, then even the most difficult puzzles would take you about thirty seconds to finish.

The missions themselves are also quite entertaining, when they aren’t being dangled in front of you like a jangly pair of keys that you have to pay money to interact with. There’s a good variety in there; only set Grass-type Pokémon. Solve all missions at once. Activate ‘Freeze Time’ at least once. Finish a level using only ‘Blue Force’ (Blue Force highlights the rows and columns where you can definitely already find tiles to fill in or rule out based on existing information). Even though some Pokémon take time to recharge their abilities, you can still equip them for a level without using those abilities, so you can complete most missions as soon as you encounter them, except for the incredibly annoying ones like “Beat this Area 3 puzzle with a Pokémon equipped that you won’t find until Area 27!”

But these positives do not form the basis of a recommendation; if anything, it’s an even harsher condemnation that this could have been a genuinely good game. If it had just been sold for a reasonable price, I could tell you that Pokémon Picross was worth your time and money, but unless you have a way to cheat the Picrite system, which I obviously don’t condone (and then I wink at you some more) then I cannot recommend this game in any capacity. Because Pokémon Picross isn’t just a bad game. It’s a good game that was intentionally tweaked to be bad. And that might be more offensive – in terms of quality and generally to the consumer – than just outright sucking on its own merits.

Hell, you know what? Picross Touch is available for free on Steam right now. Zero microtransactions, just a bunch of Picross puzzles for you enjoy. There are five ‘donation level’ DLCs, but the store page goes to great lengths to explain that they have literally zero effect on the game. And Picross Touch has user-submitted community levels too, so go on there and just look up your favourite Pokémon, because someone has probably already made that level. I am 90% sure that I made a 15×15 Jigglypuff level, and you can experience it for free. I will not pop up halfway through the puzzle to tell you that your stylus is out of energy or you need to pay 15 Picrollars in order to continue.

So that is the tale of Pokémon Picross; a tale of disappointment and intentional hindrance to your efforts to have fun. Proving once and for all that a free game with microtransactions up the wazoo will always be worse than a game that just costs money but actually works as described. Pokémon Picross is essentially a pizza that you get for free, but you can only lick the crust of a single slice once a day, unless you’re willing to pay to unlock more of the pizza. And then you need to pay extra to make sure that your cutlery isn’t out of energy. And then… I don’t know, they shit on it and try to charge you extra to remove the shit that they just did all over the pizza. And by that point, you might just think “You know what? I’d rather just pay up-front for pizza than put up with this.” See? Pokémon Picross is so terrible that I’ve started comparing it to food.

In summary, I know plenty of bad games that I would still recommend to an extent, and plenty of bad games that I would not, but Pokémon Picross is one of the first games that I would recommend against solely because it is bad by design. Any chance of it being good was intentionally removed in order to get you to pay money for a product that they had already decided to distribute for free. I firmly believe that all allegedly free-to-play games should only be rated on how fun they are to play while not spending any money, and on that front, Pokémon Picross would legitimately get a 1/10, or, if I’m feeling particularly charitable, still 1/10 because it’s terrible. And just because it’s not as terrible as other games in the genre, it doesn’t mean that the blatant money-grabbing, the intentional irritation, and the active removal of anything that made the game good is any more forgivable.

And that’s why Pokémon Picross is freemium garbage. Thanks for reading!

-Dopefish

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