Review: New Pokémon Snap turns wholesome photography into a numbers game
While the Pokémon series has always been more about exploration than combat, Pokémon Snap has always been a little different. It doesn’t have the same level of depth or strategy as the likes of a Fire Emblem, but it’s also not entirely focused on combat. Instead, it’s a game about capturing Pokémon out in the wild, kind of like an extended version of the Poké Radar from Pokémon Diamond and Pearl.
There are numerous video games designed to provide simple fun for the player, usually with charming visuals and relatively simple and relaxing mechanics. Still, basic video games inevitably have objectives and a certain level of difficulty, often to the point where you have to work and jump through hoops for comfort and a healthy dose of dopamine. The long-awaited sequel to New Pokémon Snap is here, a game where you’ll have to work hard to earn that edge.
New Pokémon Snap is definitely a cute, friendly, and fun game. The Pokémon themselves have never looked better in video games, and seeing them in their natural habitat with HD graphics and detailed animations is something any fan of the franchise will appreciate. It’s so accessible that it’s not too difficult to find the precious moments you’re looking for, but I wouldn’t call it a walk in the park – rather, it’s several walks in the same park.
New Pokémon Snap’s gameplay is repetitive, and how you handle it depends on your ability to be patient and detail-oriented.
Science has blinded me
Image via Nintendo
It’s important to understand that this is no ordinary photography lesson: like the classic Nintendo 64 game, New Instant Pokémon is based on a research expedition. Instead of catching monsters, you catch moments in an environment full of living Pokémon, far from human civilization. As the silent protagonist, you work for Professor Mirror in Lenthal (not Lens, as my chaotic brain kept reading), presumably as some sort of unpaid intern who is being exploited. Throughout the Lental region, you’ll find biomes that you’ll explore in the slow-moving NEO-ONE hovercraft, while taking photos of the region’s Pokémon in this mobile pod.
Professor Mirror’s scientific mission is to study the Illumina phenomenon, which causes the Pokémon and plants called Christablums in Lenthal to emit a multicolored glow. In addition to the Pokémon themselves, crystals will be found in each biome, as well as Illumina Pokémon that can be photographed and are basically the equivalent of boss battles. At the end of each level, choose a picture of each Pokémon or Phenomenon you’ve photographed for Professor Mirror to review.
It may be hard to get used to the fact that this principle makes nature photography a game, as Professor Mirror assigns a numerical value to each photo you submit. These estimates are based on the subject’s position in the frame, the direction he is looking at the camera, his posture, the background, the other Pokémon in the picture, and perhaps most importantly, the size of the Pokémon and the space it occupies in the frame. This is the basis for progression in New Pokémon Snap, and frankly, it was starting to get boring.
This is a Pokemon world, after all.
Image via Nintendo
Because of the way progression works in this game, you’ll be going through the same levels over and over again. Each course has an expedition score which is completed with your points from the Professor Mirror assessments. You will level up these courses, allowing you to create a new variation of this course and go to the next places in the story. And that’s fine if you make enough good shots to level up in one run – but be prepared that after a run, you’ll reach a point where you’re just slightly off the highest level, and you’ll have to redo the run to earn XP.
It wouldn’t be so bad if classes weren’t so slow. The new Pokémon Snap is naturally slow for photo opportunities, while NEO-ONE takes its time like you’re in an amusement park. Even with the turbo feature at the end of the game, it’s a slow game, although most of the frustration comes from repetition for the sake of grinding – unless you’ve missed something important in previous games, you’re probably trying to make better versions of the shots you’ve already taken to increase your score.
Thankfully, the new Pokémon Snap is a real treat for the eyes. It’s the best looking Pokémon game on the Nintendo Switch, if you don’t count the Pokkén Tournament port, which New Pokémon Snap developer Bandai Namco is also responsible for. Compared to the sometimes sparse and mostly unremarkable visuals of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, this photographic game is full of dense, lush, and colorful environments that seem downright inhabited by these creatures. Pokémon animation has never been so energetic. You’ll see Pokémon interacting with each other, almost like the scenes you have to catch. But to get better pictures, you also need to interact with the Pokémon, usually by scanning them, throwing fruit, or singing a tune. I’d say you’re disrupting the ecosystem, but it all seems to fit with how people in this universe already interact with Pokémon.
Look at this picture
Image via Nintendo
Other than projecting objects into the environment, the only real mechanics of the camera is the zoom function. Since there is only one zoom level, there are not many options to customize the frame, other than positioning. So you have to make sure you are at the right distance if you want your photo to look the way you want it to. Because the action is happening so fast in front of you and you can watch in 360 degrees, you might miss some highlights or intriguing moments. This increases the replay value of those levels, and hopefully you’ll be better prepared to shoot down scenes like the bravado you’re going for at high speed.
There are scenes like this in every class – like when a pack of dogs chases poor Furret, or Wailmer and Qwilfish have a tense confrontation. You will remember these events for the future, and although the work can get tedious, you will be determined to not only capture these scenes, but to photograph them in the best way possible. This essentially makes New Pokémon Snap a game of trial and error, and you’ll be annoyed if you just miss a photogenic moment because you can’t turn your NEO-ONE ship around – you’re on a fixed course along the rails. Save that moment for your next race.
After completing each course, you can save photos for your album, and you can even take a photo back even if it doesn’t affect the game or your shipping points. At the end of the day, you just want to have great photos to share with your friends, even if the online functionality isn’t as robust as you’d like. You can view photos that other players have uploaded, with custom captions and a range of filters and other fun images that you can add too, but there’s no full search function here, and finding your Nintendo Switch friends’ photos isn’t very easy or obvious either. And if you want to share your photos online, you’ll have to make do with the Switch’s internal social media and cumbersome export methods to your computer or phone, which would take too much time with your huge photo collection.
Image via Nintendo
Don’t expect the game to follow the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, or anything else you’ve learned about real photography. Professor Mirror wants the Pokémon to be the center of attention, to look at the camera, to be close in view, and to end up doing something interesting. But the quantitative aspect of photo quality is what makes New Pokémon Snap confusing here and there – you can compare two similar photos, but the differences in pixels and calculations make one photo more objective than the other. It’s hard to know what makes a Pokémon photo with one, two, three or four stars an interesting action, when sometimes the difference is only a few inches and seconds.
Despite all the complaints about the way progression works in the game, at the end of each level you will have pictures that you can be really proud of. Each route offers its share of exciting or fun photo opportunities, and those alone are worth the effort. If only Professor Mirror would stop judging you and leave you alone.
|+||Vibrant graphics and adorable Pokémon animations|
|+||A high correction value for each level|
|+||Gives a real sense of pride in the moments captured.|
|–||A frustrating tangle of numbers and levels|
|–||Unconvincing and underdeveloped online functionality|
Disclosure: The game code was provided to me for testing.