New Pokemon Snap Review: Captured My Heart
Two decades after Pokemon Snap reimagined what Pokemon could be, Nintendo has released New Pokemon Snap on Nintendo Switch. It’s a Dragonite-sized leap forward, yet a familiar experience less focused on pushing the spinoff series forward than it is in perfecting what came before.
That familiar limitation and some mid-game grinding hold New Pokemon Snap back a bit, but it’s a charming and captivating game full of joy nonetheless.
New Pokemon Snap Review: Captured My Heart
As ever in a Pokemon game, the New Pokemon Snap story isn’t deep, but it is interesting. You show up in the Lental region to help Professor Mirror with his environmental research. Todd from the first game shows up, alongside Mirror’s assistant and some kid who thinks he’s your rival, but they don’t really matter much to the overall scheme of things.
The intriguing bit about New Snap is you’re unraveling the Illumina mystery by following the century-old footsteps of the region’s biggest environmental researchers and adding to the island’s history in the process.
It mostly amounts to taking pictures of glowing Pokemon and traveling new places, admittedly. However, it’s a nice bit of extra context to create a link between you, the environment, and the Pokemon you (photo)capture along the way.
Finally — finally! — New Pokemon Snap lets us step into the Pokemon world to do more than make them fight and be the best there ever was. For a series emphasizing choice and many paths in life, it’s odd 25 years of Pokemon offered so little outside of battling, one reason why New Pokemon Snap is so refreshing to play.
There’s a definite grind (more on that in a bit), but hopping in the NEO-ONE cab and slowly going through Snap’s environments is an experience with rewards like no other.
In the fairly short story mode, your goal is racking up points in each location to raise research levels, unlock new areas, and as mentioned, figure out what causes the Illumina phenomenon. Each photo you take earns a set number of points based on several criteria, and a location’s research level goes up once you hit a certain points threshold.
That’s where the grind sets in. Raising an area’s level the first time unlocks night expeditions, but after the first level, you’ll need to replay an area in day and night modes several times to rank up again. And again. And then again. Despite spending nearly a week with New Pokemon Snap, I’m still not sure how I feel about that.
On the one hand, it’s like Snap is forcing you to rinse every level for each possible photo opportunity. On the other, there’s barely a moment when Snap doesn't throw in something utterly charming, and I admit that had I not been around other people, a fair few noises of surprise and delight would have escaped my lips while playing.
As you can guess just from looking at the game, New Pokemon Snap is basically “let’s go on a Pokemon photo safari.” You’ll observe Pokemon in their natural habitats (without having to attack them), and there’s almost always something new to see. Pokemon behavior and interactions change as your rank goes up, and even before that, it’s almost impossible to see everything in just a few runs of an area.
I’m not the first to say it, but removing the need to rank and battle Pokemon means you can appreciate them for their own merits. As just one example, I strongly dislike Bidoof in the mainline games but have roughly 30 Bidoof images saved in my Snap gallery. Dump truck Bidoof, sassy Bidoof, sleepy Bidoof, building a house Bidoof, hey-how’s-it-going-I’m-Bidoof — the variety of poses and possibilities is nearly endless.
There’s a surprising amount of nuance for an on-rails game with such short levels too. Throwing fruit at the right point, firing a scan, or using an Illumina orb often has unexpected effects on areas and Pokemon you thought you knew everything about already. There’s even a touch of National Geographic thrown in from time to time because yes, Pokemon do eat each other. It’s not graphic (thankfully), but it does happen.
All that and the sheer adorableness of seeing Pokemon frolic, smile, dance, eat, argue, and glow makes dealing with the point requirements less of a drag. You might think differently if the idea of seeing happy digital creatures actually be, well, happy doesn’t sound appealing, but then again, you likely wouldn’t be reading a Pokemon Snap review if you thought that.
There’s one thing that likely will wipe the smile from your face, though: Professor Mirror. New Pokemon Snap’s grading system is awkward, to say the least, and counterintuitive to most basic photography practices at worst.
The highest-ranked photos require a Pokemon to look at you, be centered perfectly in the frame, have a fantastic background, and ideally feature other Pokemon in the frame as well. Other shots still earn good points, but you’ll need the best ones to push your research level higher without as much grinding.
Granted, there has to be some standard of judgment in the game, else it would have no structure and a confusing means of progression. Mirror and his inflexible rubric matter less after you unlock free play mode, but until then, be prepared for plenty of mildly patronizing feedback on shots you think deserve more (he is a professor, after all).
Eventually, I just skipped his feedback and moved on. The dozens of requests available do a better job of pointing out unique photo opportunities anyway, from seeing Dodrio take flight at just the right time to spotting Toucanon and its Pikipek children sharing a moment.
The number of requests is a little overwhelming, but preparing for and nailing the ideal shot never gets old. The online leaderboards and voting system offer enough reward for your creative shots anyway, whatever the professor has to say about them. After you’ve saved photos to your personal album, you can add all manner of effects, stickers, and enhancements to spruce them up even more.
It’s something I haven’t actually done much of yet, though. The plain Pokemon models and environments just look gorgeous on their own, and even though I’d love to see the same level of detail in mainline games, I also know that’s probably not possible. These areas and Pokemon behavior are much more limited in scope than in mainline games, and I imagine that makes rendering them in such detail more feasible.
Much as I love New Pokemon Snap and will likely still be playing it several months from now, that limitation is hard to ignore. New Pokemon Snap is very much a spiritual successor to the original -- and possibly, hopefully, a test for future Snap spinoffs.
Though delightful, Pokemon behavior is still obviously scripted. You can’t quite see the strings, but there’s an additional layer of suspended belief required to fully enjoy the game, especially in the middle where the grind is at its worst. Make no mistake — it’s still a joy to play.
However, I can’t help but imagine what a New Pokemon Snap+ might be like, one free from the NEO cab, with open exploration, and an even greater variety of Pokemon behaviors to uncover.
That said, imagining what a free-form, open-world photography video game would be like is only possible because of what New Pokemon Snap and its predecessor accomplish. Whatever its limits, New Pokemon Snap is still an important and innovative game.
New Pokemon Snap Review: The Bottom Line
- So many adorable Pokemon
- Substantial variety in behavior
- Extensive replayability
- Pokemon looking its loveliest ever
- A bit grindy
- That grind makes the scripted bits stand out more
- Professor Mirror
No amount of grind or patronizing feedback from Professor Mirror can dim just how charming New Pokemon Snap is. It's calm, colorful, and cozy, rewarding you for capturing free Pokemon just living their lives in the wild. Aside from being a much-needed alternative perspective on the Pokemon world, there's little else like it in video games right now.
[Note: Nintendo of America provided the copy of New Pokemon Snap used for this review]