Gotta Solve ‘em all!
Pokémon Picross, the newest Pokémon-themed free-to-start game on Nintendo 3DS kicks off the same way many gamers have grown accustomed to when plopping down and getting ready to dig into a new Pokémon adventure: You meet yet another Professor in a suspiciously dream-like state who greets you into the world of Pokémon, leads the conversation into a tutorial of the game, and then gives you a starting point with a Pokémon of your very own. However, other than the obvious Pokémon backdrop, that is where all similarities with other Pokémon games pretty much end. If you thought you might be catching, training, and battling pocket monsters in this game, you are going to be disappointed. But if you are looking for a Pokémon-infused fresh take on the classic Picross brand of meditative, cerebral puzzle-solving, then look no further.
For those unfamiliar with Picross, it is a logic/math-based puzzle game that evokes the sensibility of a mutant hybrid between a crossword puzzle and Sudoku. The player is presented with a blank grid of various size and tasked with turning it into a spiffy little piece of pixel art, one square at a time, with no directions other than some cryptic numbers on the outskirts of the grid. The player uses the numbers to figure out which squares to fill and which squares to leave blank using Picross’s unique formulaic rules of logic while cross-checking and making sure the squares are compliant among themselves.
Those who still may not understand Picross, the tutorial in Pokémon Picross does a great job of explaining it by way of the latest Pokémon Professor, Tetra, who mentors and guides the player along throughout the first handful of courses. I found that not only is Professor Tetra an excellent instructor (I guess that’s where her fancy honorific prefix comes into play), but she also makes the player privy to some super-secret insider strategies and techniques for solving puzzles that come in quite handy. Before you know it, the player completes half a dozen simple puzzles, and is granted a couple Pokémon to embark on his or her journey … a journey of “catching” Pokémon by simply solving their accompanying puzzle.
The progression of Pokémon Picross is on-par with what any puzzle game enthusiast might expect. You complete a puzzle and look at the pretty pixel art that it evolves into, which then unlocks the next puzzle. The puzzles are relatively simple at first, but the difficulty begins to ramp up once you get about fifteen puzzles deep. There is no “undo” button in Pokémon Picross, nor is there any indication that you incorrectly filled a square. So if you made a mistake ten to fifteen squares ago, chances are you will have to re-start from square one.
While Picross style puzzle-solving is the meat and potatoes of the game, the Pokémon aspect brings a charmingly familiar atmosphere to the game via puzzle themes, visuals, and audio. The initial puzzles allow the player to create pixelated pictures of familiar items from the Pokémon series, such as Poké Balls, but the remainder of the puzzles allow the player’s inner Picasso to craft portraits of a wide variety of recognizable Pokémon. Admittedly, I had a fun time trying to guess which creature the puzzle would embody as the picture began to take shape throughout the puzzle-solving process.
After catching a Pokémon by conquering its puzzle, the player can choose the newly acquired monster as a member of their party. Similar to traditional Pokémon RPGs, there are a limited number of Pokémon the player can bring along to a puzzle, and the player must pick which Pokémon will be most effective for each puzzle. However, Pokémon Picross misses a huge opportunity for engaging gameplay variety in this aspect by ignoring the traditional rock-paper-scissors strength/weakness battle system of Pokémon types that is arguably one of the biggest draws of the Pokémon game series. The only real effect that individual Pokémon have on the gameplay are their skills; each Pokémon has one (out of twelve available) depending on their type. Skills can be used with varying frequency and timing during a puzzle to assist the player. For example, the “Scatter Reveal” skill can only be used at the start of the puzzle and fills in five random squares, while the “Stop Time” skill can be used at any point during a puzzle to briefly stop the timer and knock some precious seconds off the clock when trying to keep the puzzle completion time low. As you might expect, the power of the skills are greater when used by more powerful Pokémon. Unfortunately, there is no gameplay mechanic for leveling up your team with experience, so no matter how attached you may become to a first-tier evolution Pokémon that has been around since the beginning of the game, you are better off swapping it out for a more powerful Pokémon with the same skill when it comes along. After using a Pokémon’s skill during a puzzle, you have to wait until it is recharged to use it again, which may not be in time for the next puzzle.
The art style of the game is as bright as any Pokémon game should be, with most aspects of the game being presented with a pixelated style that compliments the Picross aesthetic. The music, although appropriate for a leisurely puzzler, is nothing to write home about, being limited to a few monotonous, slow-tempo melodies that loop during puzzles with the occasional underwhelming remix of classic Pokémon tunes in the menus. The overall presentation of Pokémon Picross seems to fall somewhere in the mid-high range of the 3DS library of “free-to-start” games, providing a fairly polished, yet extremely minimalistic approach that is common to these games.
Speaking of Pokémon Picross being free-to-start, microtransactions are not only aplenty, but necessary if the player wishes to have access to the vast majority of puzzles in the game.
The in-game currency of Pokémon Picross is “rare stones with magical powers” called Picrites, which are essential to the game’s progression. Picrites are spent throughout the game in a variety of ways, from opening more slots in your Pokémon party, to unlocking new Areas that contain the next batch of puzzles. Of course, with Pokémon Picross being free-to-start, players have the option of connecting to the Nintendo eShop and spending real-life money in exchange for more Picrites. There, players can choose to spend from $1.49 for 200 Picrites all the way up to $24.99 for 4,000 Picrites. To be fair, if players purchase 5,000 Picrites from the eShop (approximately $30), they can receive free Picrites for the rest of the game without any need to spend more real money.
In the first few puzzles, the game lulls you into a false sense of Picrite wealth by throwing it at you in bulk for every little victory; oftentimes, Professor Tetra even rewards you just for the heck of it. But the generous outpouring of Picrites abruptly stops after a very short time, leaving only a small, practically useless trickle of opportunities to curb your Picrite craving. Previously, where the player was amassing 90 or so Picrites for puzzles during the introductory training, they would be lucky to earn a measly five Picrites after the tenth puzzle. Keeping this notion in mind, it costs 50 Picrites to unlock the first Area of puzzles, and the price increases with each new one. With only a handful of puzzles per Area, the Picrite well runs dry rather quickly. To put the Picrite economy crash into perspective, I only managed to make it to the end of Area 3 before needing to pay real-life money. There are 30 Areas to unlock.
A central function of the game is the “Energy Meter,” which slowly drains as the player fills in squares on a puzzle. Once the energy is drained, you have to either wait a significant amount of time for it to automatically replenish or spend Picrites to fill its gauge. While this type of feature is commonly one of the more annoying aspects of free-to-start games, it is not too frustrating in this application considering the bite-sized nature of Picross. You can sit down with it for a satisfying few puzzles without any interruption or spending of Picrites.
To shake things up a bit, each puzzle is assigned several optional “missions” with specific requirements to be met, such as completing the puzzle under a certain time, using specific Pokémon, and using (or refraining from using) Pokémon skills. While the missions tend to increase replayability — a difficult task for puzzle games in the first place — they can sometimes detract from the experience by forcing you into a disingenuous, specific style of play. For each mission completed, the player is rewarded with either a minuscule amount of Picrites or a “Mural Tile.”
Mural Tiles are Picross puzzles in themselves that are played more traditionally, without Pokémon, and do not require Energy to play. Once completed, the revealed image is used as a small piece in a much larger and more detailed mural image.
Once a day, players can train with Professor Tetra in a series of rapid-fire puzzles that are meant to develop your Picross prowess. If the training is completed quickly enough, you are rewarded with precious Picrites.
As a little bonus, Pokémon Picross contains 100 achievements in the form of “medals.” The requirements to earn medals are typical of achievement systems: unlock an Area, fill “X” amount of squares, etc. As a fun in-game incentive, each medal earned nets the player with, you guessed it, Picrites.
Pokémon Picross is more polished and accessible than most other Picross games available. The Pokémon theme lends a delightful aura to the puzzle-solving gameplay, and Pokéfans are sure to enjoy it that much more. Control using the 3DS stylus is the preferred way to play, making it much more comfortable, accurate, and intuitive than on most other touch-screen devices. However, the limited free content might not be very enticing to Picross pros who could probably find dozens of free Picross apps with sophisticated puzzles on their phones. As another side note, 3D is not an option for this game. Due to the free-to-play model the game is based on, Pokémon Picross can be experienced as an enjoyable extended demo, a $30 premium Picross game, or anywhere in between.