Monday, February 27, 2012

The Pokémon TCG Online:Free

The Pokémon TCG is (arguably) the most well known TCG in the world, and If not for Magic: The Gathering that "arguably" would be "undeniably". The Game Boy Color iteration by Hudson Soft did surprisingly well both commercially and critically, and it's rather surprising that the sequel was never localized. I'd imagine they were worried the popularity of the video game version would hurt physical card sales, but that's just my guess. Anyway, when I found out there would be a Free-to-Play online version, I was more than a little excited. Unfortunately, Pokémon TCG Online has some serious issues that completely ruin the online aspect, but lets take a look at the things it does right first.

Pokémon TCG Online looks about a nice as one could hope. The cards are exactly like their printed counterparts, and clicking a card enlarges it, filling the entire flash window, a nice feature for admiring artwork of ones favorite Pokémon.
Hello, old friend.
The in-game's presentation is also faithful to its physical counterpart, and is about as close as one can get to the real thing without sitting down for an actual match. I couldn't find any issue with the controls either. The game looks great and controls nicely, and is surprisingly well polished for a game aimed at a younger demographic.

Not a good start, beautiful table though...
Pokémon TCG Online makes the smart choice of allowing players to skip tutorials. You can also click to skip animations, making the game far more fast paced than it's older iterations. The only real issue with skipping animations is that doing so affects the timer, making the feature of keeping each players time pointless in single player mode. An unlockable time attack mode forces the player to disable animations and click through enemy turns, which makes it a little sad time was spent to make such nice animations, just to have them I mostly ignored.

It's not all good news in the aesthetic category. The beautifully done in-game presentation makes the western low quality flash character avatars a complete mystery. One would assume an anime look, to match the aesthetic of the TV show, or even a pixelated look, to match the main game series, would be a given. Instead, Pokémon TCG Online goes with an cheap "Dress-up" flash look. I don't know why, maybe because simple vector characters are easier to scale for different window sizes.

This is not a person you want playing with your children online.
The gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag. It is relatively easy to pick up, but every praise I want to give this game, is countered by equally glaring flaws. Pokémon TCG Online sports a lengthy single player mode with over fifty matches to keep you busy, but only allow you to use pre-built decks. That's three decks. the rest have to be purchased. The three basic decks (fire, water, and grass) are decently built, and require different strategies, but I can't understand why there is no support for decks built with the deck builder in single player. It's not a matter of AI, as you can test your own decks against a computer. This means AI has been programmed to be able to play against any possible deck build.
Pokémon TCG Online has four difficulty settings and a "dynamic' option, in which, the difficulty is adjusted as you play, but I really couldn't tell the difference between "easy" and "very hard", and thinking back, how often the coin flip lands in your favor may be the only difference.
There is also has an achievement system. I'm not a fan of achievements, but for a strategic card game, an achievement system makes sense. Unfortunately, Pokémon TCG Online's achievement system is poorly implemented, many of the achievements being impossible to get without buying decks. Most other achievements are pointless. I personally feel that achievements are supposed to be for when a player does something above-and-beyond the expected. Pokémon TCG Online thinks believes otherwise. Things like:"Win all the games in _______ league", or "Win 12 games with ________Deck" are considered achievements, despite not requiring any actual skill. There are a few real achievements mixed in, such as: "Deal 300 or more damage in a single attack", but most achievements require no real skill, just a monetary investment, and time.

Another issue I have with Pokémon TCG Online is a lack of supported cards. Older cards are not available, and though there are still a decent number of cards, It's still a little disappointing that we can't use cards from older generations.

The absolute worst aspect of Pokémon TCG Online is the business model. The only way to get cards for multiplayer is through the single player mode, and this only unlocks the cards from the three basic decks. So, though Free-to-Play, there is no way you can possibly compete with someone willing to put money into it. Even if one could compete online with the pre-built decks, or the variations you can make from them, the question becomes, would you want to? You just played through 50+ games with these three decks, and they feel boring.

Go get 'em... then do it again... 50 times.
See, though the decks play differently, each deck is easy to figure out. Water is Balanced, focusing on support and attacking enemy support Pokémon , Fire is pure power for high energy cost, and Grass is heavily healing dependent. Once I realized this, it quickly got to the point where, barring type disadvantage or bad luck on the draw, I dominated the AI. But what really baffles me about how Pokémon TCG Online does business is that you are expected to pay for power, yet there is no way to do so. The gameplay is good enough that I jumped to the shop, thinking I'd pay $10, get two or three boosters, altering my deck into something usable online, but there is no way to do that. Pokémon TCG Online wants you buy the physical booster pack, then scan or type out a code to unlock digital booster credits. This is objectively stupid. I'm playing the online game because I have nobody else to play the actual card game with, making them utterly worthless to me. Pokémon TCG Online refuses to take my money without making me drive to a store and buy a product I don't want. I cannot see how this is a viable business choice for Pokémon TCG Online. It would cost absolutely nothing to allow players to pay for something already programmed into the site.
"No." ~Pokémon TCG Online
Pokémon TCG Online's value is difficult to rate. It is free, and due to the luck of the draw, one could, theoretically, play against the AI repeatedly and never play the same match twice. On the other hand, online play is impossible without investing some money into it. Money the game won't take from you. You can definitely get a good 10-20 hours out of the single player in spite of it's flaws, but it's relatively worthless as an Online game.


  1. Kartikaya,

    Honestly I have no interest in Pokemon, but you have a good writing style. Saw this link in Cracked.
    Question: Do gamers really care how much they're spending? Won't they shell out the bucks for what they like?


    1. Hi, I'm really sorry I never responded to this. I honestly thought my blog was buried and stopped checking for comments a while ago. I know you've probably long since forgotten about this question, but I'll answer anyway:

      Yes, most gamers will find the money for their favorite franchises. Still, there are many gamers who have very limited funds, especially in those early twenties when disposable income is not as easy to come by. I've been there myself, and when you're in that position, finding a game you can play for weeks that's less than half the price of a retail game can be a great way to save money and still enjoy this rather expensive hobby. So yeah, people will usually buy what they want, but sometimes it's just not possible, and when you only have thirty dollars to spend until you're next check, it's nice to know that you're not going to waste it on something that's over in a few hours.

  2. well there are some online stores like that sell booster credits for about a dollar, then email you the code in seconds. you don't really have to go to the store to buy a five dollar pack.

  3. Nice review. It still searches quite high so here are a couple of updates:

    There are several redeemable codes/decks: "boundariescrossed", "dragonsexalted", plasmastorm, plasmafreeze, nextdestinies, darkexplorers which will give you cards without spending cash.

    They are getting rid of the booster credits and replacing them with gems and keys (not sure how these are going to work).

    Yes - it's better if you have a few real decks with unlock codes - but it's a pretty decent free game and a great way for a novice to learn the mechanics.