I have been impressed, over the past year or two, by Nintendo's remarkably ethical attempts at exploring free-to-play pricing models. As the company moves into the mobile space, the development of unique and effective monetization has become a major priority, and their experiments with small, digital-only 3DS games have really stood apart from the competition.
Yet even Nintendo's exploration hasn't been without its share of snags. Such is the case with Pokémon Picross, the latest 3DS attempt at slipping a "free" game into people's homes and translating that download into revenue. The monetization model in Pokémon Picross feels as though it was lifted directly from questionable games by the likes of King, e.g. Candy Crush Saga, imposing ridiculous in-game costs on players while saddling them with unreasonable cool-down time on essential game mechanics. For all intents and purposes, Pokémon Picross should simply be a $30 game, because that's what you realistically need to pay in order to make it tolerably playable.
The F2P models Nintendo has used for games like Rusty's Real Deal Baseball and Badge Arcade have largely risen above that sort of blatant suffocation of players. The former, for example, allowed you to expand your collection of minigames through a haggle-based economy; it involved real money transactions, yes, but you could attempt to talk Rusty into a deal as you made your purchases. In other words, the process of paying for the game itself became gamified. Meanwhile, Badge Arcade offers goods that, while not precisely material, exist outside the game itself. These are interesting and even fun applications of microtransactions, and in the case of Badge Arcade, which only works because of Nintendo's unique status as both hardware and software creators.
Pokémon Picross, on the other hand, takes an existing product—Nintendo's brilliant picture crossword puzzle Picross—and carves it up into tiny chunks, gated behind an in-game currency that demands an extraordinary amount of grinding. It's Picross with a Pokémon theme, but unlike previous Picross titles you can't simply cruise from one puzzle to the next. Nintendo has set up obstacle after obstacle to impede your progress and drive you to the in-game store.
As with so many mobile games, Pokémon Picross presents you with two different roadblocks: The aforementioned in-game currency, picrites, and a host of stamina meters. It's all interconnected in the most cynical fashion imaginable: Picrites don't simply allow you to access new puzzles, they can also build out your stamina meter. You earn picrites by completing puzzles, but in order to buy picrites you need sufficient stamina to finish a puzzle—you use a point of stamina for each puzzle grid you complete, meaning that in order to earn the virtual cash to be able to solve a puzzle, you need to solve a puzzle that requires virtual cash to expand your stamina meter. In other words, the game constantly drives you to pay real money, even at the basic level of game design.
And I get it—games cost money to develop, and there are no free rides. Pokémon Picross seems unusually aggressive in this regard, though, a sensation emphasized by the fact that the game is so churlish about dispensing cash. It seems OK at first; as you complete tutorial stages, you earn 30, even 50 picrites at a time. Once you move beyond the intro, however, you earn less than 10 picrites per puzzle, and you only get any at all if you adhere to that puzzle's special conditions. You may need to use a specific skill or a pokémon, which you may not have actually earned yet, meaning you miss out on those picrites. It's entirely possible to spend 20 minutes on a puzzle and earn nothing whatsoever.
So, basically, unless you feel like playing the same puzzles over and over again for hours on end, you need to shell out for picrites. Once you spend $30 on them, you unlock infinite picrites, meaning that—aside from the cooldown on pokémon skills—you never need to wait for anything in the game again.
Unfortunately, actually buying in to unlock infinite picrites undermines much of the game's sense of progression. Earning in-game cash to spend is meant to be a primary motivator to play and attempt extra challenges, so once you no longer need to work for that cash, your drive to observe special puzzle conditions evaporates for all but the most diehard of completists.
It's a shame, because the addition of the Pokémon license to the game adds a lot of variety to the action. Every puzzle is a pixel portrait of a different pokémon species, and completing a creature's puzzle allows you to "catch" it. Each pokémon type has its own special skill, some of which are standard Picross fare (turning puzzle hints blue on rows and columns you can fill in) and some of which are new (e.g. the ability to freeze time). Using these powers can give you a huge leg up on more difficult puzzles... though you need to capture creatures capable of working with the larger grids first. Generally, basic-level pokémon can work with 10x10 grids, meaning you need to find evolved forms in order to get hints and help on 15x10 and 20x15 puzzles. There are also Mega Evolutions and lots of other little nods to the recent games—all of which, of course, require massive quantities of picrites to unlock.
Progression through the game resembles the route structure of the pokémon RPGs, as you move from one puzzle to the next along a "road" of sorts. Some puzzles branch off to special tasks, and once daily you'll receive the opportunity to go back to an older area and capture a rare or legendary pokémon. These special events have a one-hour time limit and are hidden behind puzzles so large that your default stamina meter probably doesn't have sufficient juice to fill in. So, again, you're pushed to spend picrites to unlock features, which generally cost so much it would take days of grinding through completed puzzles in order to afford them.
There's really a lot to like about Pokémon Picross. Even if you don't particularly care for the Pokémon series, the puzzles themselves have the same addictive appeal as in any Picross game. With the addition of the routes, the special branching puzzles, the mural tablet puzzles you can unlock by completing special missions, and the dizzyingly complex Alt World puzzle set, there's a lot of material here. Not only that, but you could make a case for this being the best Picross game ever just in terms of features.
And that's what makes the F2P system so frustrating; it permeates the game to the point that this should have either been a paid product or a pay-to-unlock demo. The picrite economy is so stingy it hobbles the game by default, and it's so pervasive it undermines a good chunk of its appeal once you give in a spend the $30 required to unlock infinite picrites. It's a great Picross game paired with a terrible monetization model. As with any Picross game, it comes highly recommended... but in this case, you'll want to be aware of what you're getting into before you make the leap.