After a three-year hiatus due to Covid, Pokémon Go's in-person Go Fests have properly returned. The first of three music festival-sized city gatherings took place this weekend in Berlin and went off smoothly, with the usual mix of rare creatures, boosted Shiny chances and early access to new species.
As ever, it was the feeling of playing Pokémon Go among thousands of others that made the event something special. Along the many pretty paths circling Berlin's beautiful Britzer Garden, thousands of Pokémon players plodded along in groups, with friends or in couples, celebrating rare catches or looking on in envy.
I wasn't certain about Berlin as a choice for Go Fest, after the smaller German city of Dortmund hosted the game's main European events in previous years so successfully. Not only did Dortmund have a great city park to play in, but its main centre was small enough that when Pokémon Go players turned up, they absolutely took over - fans flooding its small squares and filling restaurant terraces. It created a carnival atmosphere, and seeing the expressions of bemused locals as dozens of people passed by in Pikachu onesies never got old.
Berlin? Well, as a capital city it was different. There was certainly more to see as a tourist - I'd never visited it before and thought it was brilliant. But on the day I'd set aside to explore the city, the first day of the Go Fest weekend, it was clear Berlin's sheer size meant its Pokémon atmosphere felt diluted in comparison. I bumped into a few people playing, like Matthew and Julia from Richmond, a couple in their 60s who said they had been waiting for an excuse to visit the city again. But a big Pokémon party? I'd have to find that the following day.
Happily, Berlin's Britzer Garden, a vast 220-acre park found to the south of the city, beat Dortmund's Westfalenpark hands-down. A straightforward U-Bahn ride from central Berlin, the sprawling park had a clearly defined walking loop around its main central lake, but still plenty of little hidden areas to drag you off the beaten path. It made for a near-perfect setting to play Pokémon Go in - and it was full of around 25,000 other people doing the same.
Gameplay this year was kept focused almost exclusively on Pokémon spawns, with attendees able to hunt several regional species (Panpour and Pansage), the debut of Mythical creature Shaymin's Sky Forme, early access to the new Ultra Beast Pheromosa, new event-only Unown letters to find Shiny versions of, the debut of Shiny Pansage and Foongus families, a new Rotom form and - genuinely everyone's favourite - the release of a Snorlax wearing a cowboy hat.
As ever, areas of the park were themed appropriately - for example, a large volcano construction which occasionally burped flames and dry ice, marking where Fire Pokémon could be found. There was some interuption to Pokémon spawns as you passed the game's invisible border from one setting to the other, but nothing too frustrating. A new and rather exciting gameplay element was a regular two-minute window at the top of each hour where all spawns became Unown, which led to groups rushing around trying to click on as many as possible before they vanished again. Those hoping to find a Shiny Unown devised several clever tricks to be as lucky as possible, which were then spread around the park via word of mouth.
Of course some or, eventually, all of the above Pokémon exclusives will filter out to non-Go Fest players over the coming months and years, but Niantic's offering - coupled with a wide selection of other interesting spawns and the boosted-odds Shiny rate for most species - left attendees with plenty to immediately show off afterwards, and with very few complaints. (The game's Shiny rate for events here also seemed to benefit from nearly all spawns being Shiny-possible, unlike last month's global Go Fest.)
A word too on the event's storyline, which continued Pokémon Go's ongoing seasonal narrative without introducing new story details for players who not present. Professor Willow has been left MIA for the whole of this summer and, in Berlin, the mysterious character Rhi once again took his place. (To the person who writes the jokes about Willow leaving pinapp juice everywhere, I appreciate you.)
What could have been better? The event's raids felt sidelined, which seemed an odd move considering the allocation of free passes given to ticket holders (that also disappeared the moment the event ended) and the sale of an expensive ticket bolt-on that granted extra passes over the weekend, without anything particularly exciting to use them on. The launch of Niantic's Campfire app would have helped find raid groups in Berlin city centre, though does not seem to have not been ready in time.
And it wouldn't have been a Pokémon Go event without some small hiccup - here, the game ended up briefly falling over 10 minutes before the close of Saturday's playtime when Niantic coaxed everyone and all of their phone signals into one small corner of the park with a bunch of raids in order to get a photo. An apology box of raid passes swiftly turned up for ticket holders to claim. Apart from that, a threatening-looking thunderstorm seemed to be the most pressing issue on the Friday, though Berlin seemed to dodge the worst of it, and friends who were there then told me they simply took a breather in one of the enormous team lounge marquees.
As ever, it's when Pokémon players interact with others that the game feels at its best, and there's no greater gathering than at Go Fest. My favourite moment of the day was my visit to the Trading Zone, where players wander around with signs for what they're after, or what they have to trade in return. It's here you find people from all over the world hoping to complete their Pokédex (or yours) with rare regional species, or track down the last few Unown letters to finish off a full alphabet. And so it was with one lovely German guy, who I was able to trade a rare Unown letter he needed. Randomly, beautifully, the trade went Lucky - a low-chance effect which guarantees a boost to the Pokémon's stats and makes it look very flash. He was delighted, hugged me, and then we went our separate ways, just another two Pokémon Go players in a lovely Berlin park.