When reviewing any piece of content it’s worth looking at things from a meta point of view and determining how that content used its media. No matter what people tell you about cinema, or literature or videogames, each unique medium has its strengths and weaknesses with the best examples in each usually being those which use those formats maximally.
I bring this up right at the top here because New Pokémon Snap could have been a slow theme park ride, or a browser-based game or even just a video and it would lose very little in the translation, possibly defeating the point of it as a full price AAA game for the Nintendo Switch.
But let’s reverse a bit. New Pokémon Snap tells you what it is in just three words: you have a camera as your main tool here to snap pictures, you’re in the world of Pokémon, and the new moniker is because there is a Pokémon Snap originally released on the N64 back in 1999.
I don’t mind denting my nerd credibility by saying that I haven’t played the original. Any pocket money I saved up for new gaming hardware in the past I usually used on Nintendo portable consoles so I could play the mainline Pokémon games and my parents didn’t just buy me a home console too.
Yes I could have gone back in the last 22 years to play Pokémon Snap but I just haven’t. With that in mind it does offer some benefits to this review as I’m coming at it without nostalgia but with a massive love for the Pokémon franchise. On top of that isn’t the point of newer entries in franchises to bring in fresh blood?
But coming back to the modern day and New Pokémon Snap starts off with a brief introduction to some main characters and the new Lental region which sets itself apart by having Pokémon from all generations and mysteries to uncover.
You as the player pick from a limited number of characters to play as before being given a camera and set on board the NEO-ONE, a research vessel that can teleport you to your destination and carry you around while taking pictures.
As a surprise to some the NEO-ONE does all the locomotion in the game for you. New Pokémon Snap is, technically, an on-rails shooter, though instead of shooting guns you use a camera instead. Outside of very limited circumstances where you can choose a track to follow, the player has no say in where the game leads or even how fast to go.
The NEO-ONE does this all for you and you’re along for the ride to take pictures. The main thrust here is that you need to snap these pictures within a certain criteria which are judged after each expedition. The ratings you get on these pictures is converted into experience which you use to progress through the story and unlock new things.
Another surprise some may not like is that there’s a very limited amount of areas you can explore. This is made up by the fact that each area is meant to be explored multiple times with the player finding new opportunities for unique photos each go around.
This is first accomplished by allowing visits during the day and during the night. Different Pokémon show up at different times, and those which are around 24 hours a day may act differently depending on when you see them.
Without spoiling anything the game also gives you multiple tools to interact with the Pokémon which will, in turn, mix up your pictures.
Early on, for example, you’re given a piece of food that you can throw. Some Pokémon will eat this, others will ignore it, and some you can simply bonk on the head with a good toss. You’re encouraged to experiment with the food and other mechanics later on to see how each unique interaction plays out and what pictures you can get from them.
This would be for nothing if it wasn’t for the superb animation present in this game. If Pokémon Sword and Shield were rightly maligned for stiff, unnatural animations, New Pokémon Snap is the opposite with what appears to be thousands of unique motions not only for each Pokémon present, but for interactions between them and the environments.
All of this may sound great on paper, especially for someone who has been dying to see a more fleshed out Pokémon world, but it all feels very surface level. While a big part of the game is interaction with your various tools, these tools are easy to solve. As a player you quickly try everything in your arsenal on each new Pokémon and it’s not long before you have things sorted out.
It’s at this point where New Pokémon Snap feels less like a game and more like a slow moving theme park ride where you’re pressing buttons on the dash of a carriage and seeing how the marionette around you changes.
We’ve now looped back to the fact that this game could have been an interactive video or something you play in your browser. The tricks it has for you are fun and feel emergent at the time, but it’s not long into the game that things feel samey and solved.
Even Sword and Shield, with its comparatively lifeless world, still feels more engaging at every second of gameplay just because you can do more instead of sitting in a machine that gives you a ride around what is essentially a theme park.
New Pokémon Snap feels like an illusion of a game, a fun façade that you’re watching form the other side of a piece of glass. Even those who aren’t fans of Pokémon can enjoy the world built here as a fictional wildlife safari, but there’s little on offer besides that.
New Pokémon Snap
While fun on the surface and possibly the most fleshed out Pokémon world ever made, it's limited and you feel like you're watching a show instead of playing a game most of the time.