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New Pokemon Snap review: a lovely warm hug of a game, but be prepared for the grind

New Pokemon Snap is more or less everything a fan of the 1999 original could’ve asked for in a sequel - but its greatest sin, an enforced grind, is a painful one.

When you look back on the original Pokemon Snap now, it’s difficult not to think it was ahead of its time. After all, how many games have dedicated photo modes now? That also provides a challenge for this new game, though. Other games feature photo mode as a little bonus, a great use of development resources given how it so often creates free advertising with viral screenshots. But New Pokemon Snap is an entire game built around that photo mode premise once again - and at full price.

The answer, I suppose, is in the structure of the original. What made Pokemon Snap special was what a different light it cast the starring creatures in compared to the traditional RPGs. I think if you don’t have a soft spot for at least some Pokemon you must be pretty heartless - and so seeing them in their ‘natural habitat’, so to speak, is a particularly magical concept.

New Pokemon Snap sticks with that. It takes you to the new Lental Region where a new Pokemon Professor, Mirror, tasks you with heading out into the wild to take photos of the Pokemon that live across the region’s islands. Each island is home to a specific sort of environment, which in turn makes it a natural homeland for certain types of Pokemon.

The format is genuinely identical to the original, though it has been fleshed out in subtle ways. It’s still on rails, for instance. You select a stage and then a hovercraft called the NEO-ONE will guide you on a set path. Sometimes, you’ll have the ability to trigger an alternate pathway that’ll guide you to a different area - say behind a waterfall, or up onto rocky outcroppings rather than out in the flat, calm water. These places might be home to different Pokemon.

The limited ways you can interact with the world are often what makes it most special. By dropping food, scanning, playing music, or using the mysterious new Illumina Orb item (which is tied to the game’s core story narrative), you can trigger unique reactions in Pokemon, force different Pokemon to interact, or even reveal new Pokemon entirely.

It’s these activities that gave this review its headline. Playing New Pokemon Snap is totally like getting a great big, warming hug. It just feels nice. It’s leisurely and relaxing in a way few games are. While sometimes split-second reactions are needed to snap the best photos, you can play it with your feet up and feel just as satisfied. This is a game with a reduced scope, and as a result, the Pokemon and the world they inhabit look better than in Sword and Shield, with plenty of nice, unique animations.

Half the joy is in simply seeing what reactions you can coax out and what the critters will do, and the dedication to feeling like more of a safe, respectful safari than even the original (gone is the concept of ‘Pester Balls’, which could negatively affect Pokemon) feels like it really pays off. Pokemon as a whole has a more thoughtfully considered universe now than it did then, and New Pokemon Snap steps up to that. The little things you can catch on safari are just incredibly cool, and I also like that the game leans into Pokemon as actual animals - for instance, the right action on your part might trigger a Wingull - a seagull - to mercilessly swoop down and carry off a fish-type Pokemon for its dinner. It makes for a great photo, but it also just makes these critters feel like more than cute mascots. There's a food chain!

Between missions, you’ll be checking in with Professor Mirror and letting him rate your photos. The ratings he gives you are important, as they grant experience points that level up your rating for each location in the game, which is the main driver of progression and unlocking new areas to visit.

You can choose how you approach Mirror’s review sessions - you can go in and carefully pick the photos you want to show him (one photo per Pokemon snapped in each run of a level), or you can let the game calculate which it thinks are your best and show those - or a mix of the two. If you just want to take photos and not think too much about the final results, that’s possible - though it’ll be hard not to get drawn in and start saving some of your favourite, most accomplished shots.

New Pokemon Snap’s adventure is spread across several islands of the Lental region, with each home to a varying number of locations. Sometimes these are variations on the same theme - for instance a forest stage both in the daytime and at night, where your on-rails route through the zone, the Pokemon present, and what they’re up to all changes. In other cases, they’re all-new areas. In addition, each of these areas cleverly grows as it’s leveled up - so the ‘Bubbling Beach’ stage at level three will feature different Pokemon and points of interest than it did at level one.

This is where experience gained from each photo presented to the professor goes. Each individual stage has a level (even separating the day and night versions of the same stage), and the only way to progress the game is to simply keep playing stages to level them all up.

You will regularly hit roadblocks where you’ve done everything the story requires but nothing else is forthcoming to progress - instead, you have to go back into levels you’ve already seen five or six times before and keep snapping photos until something triggers. The game isn’t forthcoming about what the next trigger will be, either - it keeps you guessing.

At its best, y’know, I get it. You’re meant to go back into old levels and discover something new. You finally notice a tiny species of Pokemon hiding in the trees, or among a pile of half-eaten fruit. Immediately the game is giving you that friendly embrace again; you want to let out a little cheer. But deeper in the game, as the grind gets steeper, for every run like this there’s several others where you’re taking photos that are generally inferior to ones you’ve already taken just to grind out EXP in the hopes that the next bit of the story unlocks, bringing with it narrative twists and more importantly new locations to explore. When you’re on that side of things, it feels like cynical balancing to disguise a game that is, yes, on the shorter side.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck. There’s totally enough in these levels to entertain on repeat runs, and the replaying hasn’t soured the experience for me - but it has made me put the game down a few times where I otherwise would’ve continued playing, but couldn’t bear to play the same levels again and again in one sitting. So it seems the balance isn’t quite right. The experience gain is deliberately small, and seems to be designed in a way that makes it somewhat harder still for those who get great photos the first time they see a new Pokemon.

To say I rather dislike this aspect of video games would be a vast understatement. Good things can come in shorter, smaller packages. I consider Star Fox 64, which is like an hour long with replay value through a few branching paths and challenging high scores, one of the greatest games ever made. N64 Pokemon Snap was also cut from that cloth. But that was then, and this is now; 2021. People expect longer games. So, in return, we get the grind.

Some expansions feel smart, though. Professor Mirror keeps a Pokedex with four different types of photos for each Pokemon, marked as one to four stars. A one-star photo might just be that Pokemon idling, while a four-star photo will be it doing something startlingly unique. This is an encouragement to go back hunting in each level, trying to find the triggers and interactions to reveal all four photo types for each Pokemon. This feels good to chase; the random grind doesn’t.

Also canny is the inclusion of Re-Snap, which is essentially a feature designed to draw Pokemon Snap into the Instagram age. At the end of a level you can save your favourite photos and then return to them later in Re-Snap, editing them with filters, stickers, blurring, and so on. Both raw and Re-Snapped photos can be uploaded to online servers to share with others, or captured to the general Switch screenshot gallery for exporting outside of the console ecosystem. A request system where the game's core supporting cast offer suggestions on points of interest you've not uncovered in courses always helps to point you at something new, too. These are all smart choices.

There’s also some great touches that put a unique spin on the format of the game that I won’t talk about in detail in this review as they’d be a shame to spoil - but rest assured, some of the levels hold clever surprises in terms of how they grow and evolve.

Oh, and since it’s become such a tinderbox for Pokemon, let’s address the Pokedex - I was satisfied. New Pokemon Snap features a fraction of the total creatures, naturally - just as the original did of the then-151 species. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into which Pokemon appear, though, aiming to put together a veritable greatest hits selection from every generation, appealing to fans of all ages. I think they’ve done a good job at that, and I’ll take a game that looks better with less Pokemon, as this does, than a game that looks worse or has less scope with all of them.

It’s probably pretty clear that I really like New Pokemon Snap, then. The other issues I have, like the categories of photos not quite being clear and uniform in what sorts of animations they match to, are relatively minor. The joy felt when this game is firing on all cylinders is something special, carrying a unique sort of energy that makes for a truly magical experience.

It’s just a shame about the grind, which does what has been so magnificently built here a major disservice, to the point where I hope the developers consider addressing the experience gain rates in a patch. As it stands, even with the grinding, the game can be finished in around 20 hours - but, honestly, I'd have been fine with 15 on the understanding of plenty of competitive photo-taking replay value. I didn't need the artificial grind to see this game as worth the money.

If you’re the sort of player who got really mad about the national Pokedex in Sword & Shield, you might also bemoan the level of content here. But I think this is plenty, delivering far more than the original and with a whole lot of replay value - it’s just a shame the developers felt the need to stretch it out artificially to justify what they’ve managed to build. Even with the grind, I do adore this game, though. It’s a video game safari that manages to evoke the sense of wonder of the real thing. It's a worthy successor to the beloved original; a comforting, gorgeous, lovely little thing that soars when it just basks in its core conceit and lets you at its content.

Disclaimer: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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