Version tested: DS
Despite our best efforts to remain impartial here at EG Towers, we often find ourselves challenged by our preconceptions, such as when reviewing a new title in an established franchise. Pokemon Link (aka Pokemon Trozei), for example, leads us to imagine a puzzle game saturated with the Pokemon series' insufferable anime style, and therefore of no interest to anyone who isn't already enamoured with Nintendo's carpet bomb approach to cute. It's nice to say, then, that Pokemon Link is a truly pleasant surprise.
The game takes the interesting decision to completely discard the Japanese anime style of every Pokemon game released so far, replacing it with the American anime style of Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack (and others). It's an absolutely brilliant touch, with the smoothly animated cut-scenes exciting, even if there are only a few. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more, and it's a rare thing for me to be asking for more cut-scenes. Particularly in a puzzle game.
Not only that, but developer Genius Sonority has come up with the most spectacularly forced justification for the Pokemon theme. As secret agent Lucy Fleetfoot, you must infiltrate the secret pokeball storage locations of the evil Phobos Battalion, and with Lucy's Link Beamer device, you must scan and beam away the stolen pokeballs. But it's not as easy as it sounds, as the signal isn't strong enough unless you link four pokeballs in a row. From that point the signal is powerful enough to send groups of three, then groups of two in any arrangement, within a period of time known as the 'Link chance'.
It's a remarkable (though bonkers) reverse-engineered storyline, and in many ways the game design is just as strange. An amalgamation of the game styles of classic Nintendo puzzlers Yoshi's Cookie and Tetris, combinations are made only on the touch-screen by sliding lines left, right, up and down, rather than moving specific pokeballs, and new pokeballs continuously fall from the top screen. The game is controlled entirely with the stylus, and it works perfectly, with (the player's perception allowing) combinations able to be manipulated quickly and efficiently. This ease of input is important, as during the game's progression the speed in which the screens fills and the difficulty of staying in the Link Chance increases. The Link Chance is incredibly important to efficient, high scoring play, required if you wish to remain competitive in the later stages of the adventure mode, and it's the most thrilling part of the game, with long combos or cleared screens terrifically satisfying.
A non-linear selection of levels linked by cut-scenes, the adventure mode is a fun though short experience, only becoming a real challenge in the unlockable hard mode. It does suffer from a few flaws - boss battles have an almost random difficulty due to the boss powers, of which the most annoying would be their ability to silhouette the tiles, if it wasn't for their unbelievably frustrating ability to continuously raise the amount of Pokeballs left to link by 50. Conceivably, unless you can keep up a link combo for the duration of the last 30 or so Pokemon (not as hard as it sounds) you could be fighting a boss forever.
The core puzzle system is resoundingly solid, however, with at the most a few minor flaws. For example, unlike its contemporary Zoo Keeper, new pieces drop on screen, meaning you are never guaranteed to have a link available at all times, but I've never reached a point where it wasn't eventually possible to make a link, even if only at the last second.
The most obvious flaw with this title is the distinct lack of single-player modes. Other than the adventure mode, pleasant as it is, there's only an unremarkable endless mode, but longevity is supposedly provided by a Pokedex to be filled. With 380 to be found, some only available on specific levels, it's a challenge, though one that really adds very little to the experience, in comparison to high score tables, which are absurdly lacking here.
The multiplayer modes fare little better. On offer for a surprisingly stingy maximum of two players are the competitive Battle mode and the co-operative Pair mode. Better than that are the other wireless features - you can send your friends trial versions of Pokemon Link via download play, and you can set the DS into 'tag mode' and trade agent cards with other players, giving them a level to play that features a specific rare Pokemon to capture by linking. The game is also aware during gameplay of other players in the vicinity either playing Pokemon Link or Pictochat, with notification so you could take part in a multiplayer game, or even some Pictochatting, as unlikely as that is.
Pokemon Link is a truly pleasant surprise - a Pokemon puzzle game that's not only a competent puzzle game, but whose theme doesn't obscure that fact. Though it does have a distressingly small number of modes, the core adventure mode can be as fun in quick bursts as Zoo Keeper or Meteos, and the multiplayer features are fantastic, even if they'll sadly rarely be used. I can't in good conscience truly recommend it over Zoo Keeper's simplicity, or Meteos' beauty, but third place ain't bad.
7 / 10