Pokémon Rumble U is the third entry in the relatively popular Pokémon Rumble spin-off series. While the original games felt like a Nintendo answer to Diablo-style gameplay, Rumble U also marks Nintendo’s first answer to Skylanders-style gameplay with the introduction of Pokémon NFC toys. But having popular toys isn’t the only reason Skylanders works; the game has to actually be pretty good, so expectations are understandably a little higher for this release.
For the record, I really like Pokémon Rumble on Wii and Pokémon Rumble Blast on 3DS. While your enjoyment of any spin-off Pokémon games partially relies on how much you enjoy Pokémon in general, the gameplay was extremely polished and addicting despite its simplicity. Playing as a toy Pokémon, you go in various stages, fight other toy Pokémon that are stronger than yours, earn stronger toy Pokémon in battle, use the stronger creatures to fight even stronger creatures and so on. It plays like a Diablo-esque action role-playing game, but instead of gathering armor and weaponry to constantly swap in and out, you collect stronger Pokémon toys that you constantly swap in and out. Bringing it even closer to these RPGs, you also have the option to bring three other players into battle to fight with you or have AI do so instead.
And in Pokémon Rumble U, most of this stuff is just the same but better. Every pre-Pokémon X and Y creature and form is represented in the game, the HD visuals on the toys give them a beautiful smooth sheen, and the diverse-yet-faithful music spread throughout the game is so good that some of the tracks in Rumble U surpass songs in the main games themselves. Some of the soundtrack is symphonic, some of it rocks, and my favorite tunes are the ones that get jazzy in a way reminiscent of the Gran Turismo 5 soundtrack.
Yet, for the praise I administer to the basic improvements of the game, Pokémon Rumble U has one very serious problem that gets in the way of most of the good things I can say about it. While previous Pokémon Rumble games had linear levels, arena levels, and levels that actually deviated a bit from the action gameplay almost entirely, the gameplay of Rumble U in its multi-hour run strictly takes place in walled off arenas. You fight a bunch of Pokémon in a closed off arena, beat the boss, and move on to the next arena that generally only differs in the Pokémon you fight and the visuals of the arena itself — and nothing else. There are challenges to accomplish for rare monsters like beating the level with a certain Pokémon and levels with special conditions like defending a fort, but the gameplay in Rumble U is strictly arena based with little expansion of the content or attempts to divert from it. While younger players may enjoy the repetition as that repetition carries that traditional Nintendo polish, but older fans who enjoyed previous entries will likely be rightfully turned off by the total stagnation in the gameplay.
Rumble U does offer a few twists to its gameplay, however. Some power-ups do things like change your Pokémon’s size, arenas have been given design changes to include variables like stage hazards and debris, and you can collect crystals to activate a special attack that allows you to touch the GamePad touch screen to sweep damage across the field. In addition, the figurine concept is pretty cool. By scanning a figure on the NFC square on the GamePad, you can bring that Pokémon into your game. While no Pokémon is exclusive to figurine form, the Pokémon toys brought into the game via figures are stronger than their vanilla game-only counterparts, and can be further upgraded using in-game currency. It allows loyal consumers to be rewarded in-game without significantly harming the experience of the consumer, which is commendable, but it is a shame that the game is not more enjoyable to make this feature more valuable.
Pokémon Rumble U isn’t bad. It still has the gameplay I enjoy and the beautiful presentation one could only expect from Nintendo, but offering only one level-type in the game and turning it into an arena combat game instead of a fun child-friendly RPG digs the title into a hole of repetition that it didn’t even attempt to climb out of. It’s likely still a fun game for kids, but seasoned Pokémon fans may want to proceed with caution.
Wii U review code provided by Nintendo. Pokémon Rumble U is available now exclusively on the Wii U eShop.