So, about a month ago I reviewed a couple of fan-made games, among them “Pokemon Uranium”. And when I did so I was relatively harsh, or at least very ambivalent toward the game; I was not then comfortable recommending the game without heavy caveats, and said that I personally would be giving up on it. Funny how things work out.
Long story short, Loten kept playing because she’d still had her file, and because she and I were continuing to talk about it, I ended up getting sucked back in despite telling myself I wouldn’t. I have no willpower. I justified it to myself by saying that, as long as I was devoting headspace to thinking about the game and metagaming things (trying to work out builds and movesets that would work, etc) I may as well be playing it. Then I got addicted and basically couldn’t stop playing, to the point I ended up outstripping Loten’s progress and powering through to 100% completion (because I’m nuts). I feel a bit guilty about panning the game in my original review, and discouraging people from trying it, when after giving it a bit more of a try I ended up finding it overall a very positive experience. I do think it was worth playing and will recommend it now, although still with some caveats, so let’s do a more in-depth review.
[Loten here. I haven’t played much beyond where I was last time, free time being a myth at the moment, but I’ve been discussing it with Mitchell as he finished it, so I might interject if I have any comments to add. I’ve also played at least one game from every generation of the official franchise, so I’m a bit more familiar with those. Otherwise, this is his party.]
(Disclaimer: I really don’t like linking to Reddit, for various reasons. But I don’t have much of a choice, because that’s where the Pokemon Uranium community seems to exist right now, and where information about the game’s status and updates/bugfixes can be found, so I will do so at various places in this post.)
Before I get into the meat of the review, some housekeeping. On 21 September the game’s creators released an official Twitter statement (discussion thread) saying they were moving on from supporting the game and would not be working on it further. It is unclear whether this is due to legal action, or some other reason. That said, for some time there has been an “unofficial team” working on bugfixes and missing content, and it appears they will continue to do so though at this point it’s hard to tell what that will mean (they did mention the possibility of trying to finish implementing the missing/unfinished features and postgame content). They are also maintaining “unofficial” servers for the online content, and for now show no signs that will change.
In terms of the game’s playability, these “unofficial patches” go a long way toward fixing a lot of the issues, and I recommend anyone who would consider playing this game install those (at the time of writing, this the unofficial patches are up to version ‘I’). It’s still not perfect and there are still bugs, but far fewer, and a lot of the most glaring issues of moves and abilities just being completely nonfunctional are fixed as of the latest version. This really makes a huge difference, in my opinion; I won’t go so far as to say that the game is on the level of a finished product (it’s still beta-esque), and there are still a fair few issues, but it’s much improved and it’s a lot easier to play and enjoy without being irritated by massive errors compared to the released version. One of the patches (I think H) also added an auto-backup feature, which is very nice in light of the occasional error that can corrupt a save file (it only maintains one backup, it seems to overwrite it with your old save data whenever you save the game). I’ve still been doing some manual backups on top of this, but it’s much better than it was and would’ve prevented the catastrophic loss/corruption of data I experienced twice.
So, that helps a lot.
What also helps is that the environments are well-designed and varied, and a great deal of the game’s music is phenomenal (and atmospheric, and fits well with the areas and scenarios). From what I understand, the maps were done by JV, and the music was done by someone called ElectricMudkip and a few others; I did note that my favourites among the original pieces (Rival Theo Battle, Victory Road, Elite Trainer Battle, Nuclear Plant Zeta, Urayne Battle) were by that person (do note that if the linked videos look like they’re something else, that’s not a mistake; some of the songs have been labelled as other things, and I’m not sure if that’s because they were originally written for something else and repurposed, or if that was a ruse to keep their appearance in Uranium a surprise). The game looks and sounds very nice, and all of this combines to make the actual exploration quite enjoyable. I do think that the game has a problem in the early stages, in that the first few areas are quite boring and somewhat monotonous (though truthfully this is a flaw a lot of Pokemon games have), but around the third gym things start getting a lot more interesting and I think the game, as an overall experience, improves markedly around then(coincidentally, my first playthrough ended just before the third gym). It could also have something to do with the fact that that’s around the point there seem to be enough options for teambuilding to start being interesting. Regardless, I do suspect that may have affected my prior opinion of the game.
When the game is working (which is much more reliable now with the bugfixes), it really does play very well. It’s significantly more difficult than recent Pokemon games, and presents a reasonable challenge even if the player overlevels a bit (but enough leveling and you can mostly power through, so that option’s left open); it definitely rewards knowing your way around Pokemon mechanics and playing smartly within them. After experiencing the whole game, I really do like the mix of official and fan-made pokemon they went with (and I rather like most of their “fakemon” designs), and the distribution of type combinations makes for interesting and fun teambuilding decisions (I was really happy with what I ended up with). I also really enjoyed getting to experience some of the newer Pokemon mechanics (things like fairy type, mega evolution) which were added in 3DS games I haven’t yet played (and truthfully, probably don’t intend to play; I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of XYORAS, and still have plenty other games to catch up on before I would get to those. Loten’s the veteran Pokemon player between us, whereas I’ve only recently started getting back into them).
[He’s not kidding about the difficulty. I liked X&Y, it was fun, but a challenge it emphatically was not and I ended up deliberately trying to handicap myself to keep it vaguely interesting (and I have yet to actually finish ORAS). Uranium is hard, though in a good way; probably harder than any of the official games since the original Red/Blue/Yellow.]
The other thing I think they did really well in designing this pokedex is, while most of the pokemon seemed to be on a relatively flat power level meaning there are lots of viable choices (which is great!), they left in a few gamebreaking options to be discovered. They don’t end up being completely unfair, IMO, because they take some work to figure out, and there are enough of them any one player probably won’t avail themselves of them all (and most aren’t available until late in the game). I do think there’s some appeal in there being overpowered strategies to discover, at least in single player games; often games with a bit of unbalance here and there (or even what I’d actually call poor design, sometimes) end up being more fun to work with than games that are theoretically more fair. (At least for single player games, anyway; some of these overpowered pokemon might pose a problem for competitive battling, but it remains to be seen how much of a competitive battling scene Uranium will have and that’s for those people to work out.) Regardless, it’s fun, it’s interesting, and it feels good when you find a strategy that just keeps working. It’s not like Mewtwo who just gets handed to everyone: you can get Mewtwo level power, but you have to figure out how and assemble it yourself.
There are some balance issues that are less ideal, namely with the starter pokemon. Eletux is generally considered the best choice, having slightly better base stat total, really good typing that remains useful throughout the entire game, and a great mega ability that changes how it will play and leans toward broken strategies. Orchynx isn’t bad, it has a great defensive typing and durability, and a decent movepool that fit its stats well, and functions well throughout the game, but its mega evolution is boring and basically just means bigger numbers (and in the important story battles against nuclear-typed things where its steel typing might come in handy, they tend to be given powerful fire moves just to screw it over). But it’s also a green kitty, so it gains some points with me for that. [Me too, though I went with the safer option in Eletux.] Raptorch is fast and powerful, and has a good offensive typing, but its movepool is an absolute mess – it learns mainly physical moves, and is ostensibly a mixed attacker statistically, until the mega evolution gets huge gains in special attack that it struggles to make good use of. It does have an advantage in a few boss battles, thanks to its ludicrous speed, but that’s about it. I don’t think any of them are really bad, but they aren’t equal by any means. Then again, in the early Pokemon games the starters weren’t balanced either – why hello there, Charmander – so in a way this is a return to form and I don’t really mind it. [Though it’s worth noting that the remakes of the first games updated the move pools and made Charmander a more viable option.]
In my previous post, I also panned the game for its writing; after seeing all of it I think it requires a bit more nuanced consideration. Considering it in a vacuum, I honestly still can’t say the writing is particularly good. There were moments I liked, and some bits of decent characterisation even, but a lot of it was also over-the-top, clunky and melodramatic in execution. And (more on this later) I think there’s a lot of missed potential, and some fairly simple rewrites to e.g. the villain’s dialogue would be an enormous improvement. There are also a fair few typos, which I’ve forced myself to ignore; that sort of thing is understandable for a fangame when the text is clearly not their main focus. That said, I’ll just put this out there: if the creators or the unofficial team want to get me a text dump or show me how to access and edit the text data, I’d be happy to copyedit it all for you. It’d be a trivial effort for me, honestly, and the result would be worth it. [While most of them are understandable errors, some of the ones I’ve noticed could have been caught just by using spellcheck. To me, that’s allowable in an early beta version of a game but should be fixed by the final release.]
What I mean by requiring more nuanced consideration is this: between my last post and now, I went and reread several Let’s Plays of official Pokemon games by Farla (and friends), which reminded me just how awful the writing is in the official games and how bad their sexism problems are. [So very, very true.] Compared to that, Uranium is honestly an improvement in many ways, and (amusingly) some of the worst things in Uranium were inherited directly from the official games. That is not to let Uranium off the hook, just to put it into context. (I also made an error in my previous post, saying there were zero female rematch trainers. In point of fact, there are two, out of thirteen total. So the numbers are still very skewed, but it isn’t the total erasure I made it out to be before.) As an example of sexist things being inherited: many of the generic opposing trainer sprites were lifted from the official games (I think mostly Diamond/Pearl/Platinum) and those are by far the worst offenders in terms of sexualisation; when you look at the original characters (gym leaders, for example), they’re wearing realistic/appropriate clothing (within reason, anyway; some wear themed costumes that are a bit silly, but the clothing choices make sense given the theme) and generally just look competent. Even the swimsuit one was something of an improvement (though having a gym leader in swimsuit at all isn’t a choice I care for, plenty of the official games did it). They also have a fanservicey male character in Tiko, the fire gym leader, who wears nothing but a kilt and is themed as a dancer.
This does not mean I intend to give Uranium a pass: there are still a lot of sexist lines (mainly, as I mentioned in my prior review, in one-off NPC and trainer dialogue) that were completely unnecessary, and do form a sort of background radiation of sexism. And at times, unfortunately, the dialogue goes out of its way to make sure you can’t ignore it.
I talked about the first gym last time, but now let’s talk about the sixth. The sixth gym is themed around theatre and masquerade, with an opera mask motif throughout. Many of the trainers quote random lines from Shakespeare. It’s vaguely cute but gimmicky (and I did like the end gimmick where you fight an impostor gym leader before falling down a trapdoor to meet the real one), but this culminates with the gym leader explaining that women weren’t allowed to be actors, so she did a crossdressing gambit, became famous for her acting and then revealed her gender, forcing society to acknowledge it and change the rule. Okay, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that trope… except in context. This is placed in a modern setting. There are televisions and Wii U game systems in most NPCs’ homes. We actually see women in positions of power (the player character’s mother was the administrator of a power plant, there are several female gym leaders and scientists, etc) so this ends up being extra sexism written into the setting for the purpose of saying something vaguely against gender discrimination? It’s weird, it’s clunky and heavy-handed, and ends up drawing more attention to the sexism more than anything else just by how out-of-place it is; more than anything else, it’s just utterly unnecessary and I’d have suggested the speech be cut entirely.
There are also a few moments where I think it’s clear that the game is written with male as the default (despite offering an androgynous, gender-unspecified option for the protagonist). Almost all of the dialogue is unchanged regardless of player choice and uses singular ‘they’ as pronoun for the player, which is fine as far as it goes. But because the dialogue is unchanged, it ends up being more noticeable when, even if you choose the female avatar, female (and only female) NPCs occasionally say vaguely flirtatious things, or a male trainer says “you’re more manly than me” upon being defeated, and so on. Truthfully, I think this might have bothered me more if I’d continued to use the male avatar, but I decided to play a female trainer the second time (and I think for whatever reason it feels more palatable that way if I try to pretend the male option doesn’t exist). [I picked the gender-neutral trainer, so between us we’ve covered all the options.]
While I’m talking about the writing, let’s talk about the plot, the villain, the conclusion, and the rewrites I think are needed.
(THE FOLLOWING WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS, IF YOU CARE)
The plot begins with the player character’s mother, Lucille, going missing when there’s a reactor meltdown at the power plant she administers. The father, Kellyn, who is a Pokemon Ranger (something like law enforcement), is understandably affected by this, and responds by shipping his child off to live with his aunt and throwing himself into his work. (Surprisingly, they actually do a decent job of character development with him and the parent-child relationship with the player character.) The game picks up with the character taking on a job as a pokemon trainer and researcher and leaving home (pretty typical Pokemon fare).
In the process of exploring, you eventually learn about disasters occurring at the various nuclear power plants throughout the region, and explore them (encountering pokemon and environments that have been changed by radiation). Late in the game, it’s revealed that these disasters are being caused deliberately, by a mysterious masked figure calling itself CURIE and their pokemon Urayne. The player has several confrontations with CURIE, who is written as a stereotypically cackling villain and generally chews on the scenery, until the final confrontation at the end of the game. You defeat Urayne, CURIE surrenders, and reveals they were Lucille (the player’s mother) all along. Shocking! (everyone guessed it.)
[True. I first suggested to Mitchell that that’s what I expected the ending to be after about five minutes of gameplay. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – the plot in the original games doesn’t exactly leave you in awe of the storytelling skills; these are games for people who want to make imaginary animals spit fireballs at each other, not visual novels. But if you’re going to create a detailed plot spanning the whole game, you need to try to do it well.]
The game then goes into a long flashback and explanation – which includes Urayne talking – which explains that Urayne was an artificial creation made by Lucille and her team, and CURIE was an acronym for something and was the name of a mental interface used to communicate with it (I forget what it stood for; I couldn’t decide if I thought the acronym cute or heavy-handed). Anyway, the big reveal is that the original meltdown was actually part of a conspiracy to destroy Urayne, or something, by the less ethical members of the research team (apparently creating artificial life is illegal and they wanted to hide the evidence, or something), and Lucille hid away with Urayne in a magical stasis device, only to escape recently. They were actually attacking the plants to acquire nuclear fuel [it’s best if you don’t question this; it’s not like the science alluded to in the official games made any more sense], which Urayne needed to survive (until, in the ending, another legendary pokemon came along to do a deus-ex-machina thing so Urayne wouldn’t be so dependent on fuel any more, and can join the player). It’s not the most coherent thing, and there’s magic involved at several points, so I won’t complain too much.
What does bother me is Lucille/CURIE being a cackling cartoon villain who just wants to DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY until this reveal comes out at the last possible moment to make everyone sympathetic and the backstory entirely tragic. They try to paper over this by saying that being in the stasis tank and connected to the CURIE interface and Urayne for ten years drove her insane (and I can well believe that would have disastrous mental effects), but I don’t really buy that excuse. So many games (and bad stories in general) use insanity as a convenient excuse to not figure out why their villains are doing things, but it doesn’t work that way. Mental illnesses tend to have specific effects, and to the extent they cause people to do otherwise inexplicable things it’s because the person’s view of reality is skewed and it makes sense to them (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia). “Insanity” of the sort that crops up in fictional villains isn’t really a thing, per se.
What gets me about this is that it’s just completely unnecessary. Yes, allow that Lucille’s become mentally unbalanced. But focus on the motivation you actually gave her – she cares about Urayne and wants it to have a life, and they need fuel for it to feed on. The conflict can come in from the fact they have to steal the fuel to keep Urayne hidden, and have a hard time extracting it, so they’ve been destroying the plants accidentally. Then as the Rangers and the player character start getting involved, she’ll get more desperate and start escalating the violence in the hope they’ll stop pursuing her (this isn’t the most sane or rational approach, but again, she’s not entirely in her right mind, she’s mentally connected to Urayne, and they’re both desperate enough not to care they’re setting off environmental disasters). This way we keep the family drama of the reveal that it’s been the mother all along, but doesn’t have the problem of the inexplicable cartoon cackling villainy. With the right kind of rewriting, all of the previous confrontations could remain just as tense (a lot of the tension was created and maintained by the area design and atmospheric music, which need not change) and the actual events don’t need to change at all.
Even the bit where she takes Theo hostage and puts him in the stasis tank can be salvaged: justify that by saying she needed him out of the way and he wasn’t wearing proper protective gear, but she didn’t want to kill him. As it stands, the way it was actually written the best I can tell is that they needed Theo to get into stasis so he could exposit about it later, otherwise it’s hard to explain why CURIE/Lucille would do it (so plot over characterisation, basically).
(SPOILERS END HERE)
It really wouldn’t take a lot of rewriting, all things considered, and the end result would be so much better. For the most part, I actually liked what they tried to do with the plot, it just still feels like a rough draft and would benefit from some serious editing (including but not limited to the above). I’ve just gone through the broad strokes and focussed on the villain here, because I think that would be the most important change, but there are plenty of other places where I thought there were good ideas that fell down in execution as well.
So overall, what is my opinion of this game? If you can deal with occasional typos, mentions of incomplete features, and flawed writing, the gameplay experience is actually really good, and it’s not hard to get sucked into enjoying it. I ended up logging more than 60 hours of gameplay on my completed file. I found myself pretty impressed by the end, and it ended up being a really good Pokemon experience, honestly. If you like Pokemon games at all, and especially if you like a bit of a challenge, you will probably like Uranium and I will actually give it a pretty strong recommendation (just hold your nose through the worst of the writing), because gameplay- and audiovisual-wise it’s really solid. If you’re on the fence and/or if the lack of polish puts you off, then maybe give it a miss.
[I concur, for the most part. It’s a fun game, the patches have made it playable even if not everything works, and unlike a lot of fan-made things there’s no sign that the creators got bored – they invested a lot of time in making this, and it shows. But I do think it was overhyped, and that even just a few more weeks of polishing before release could have made a real difference. Most of the problems with the writing are issues that exist in the original games, and I think they missed an opportunity to improve on them instead of repeating them. It’s a shame they’re not going to continue it any further, because in my opinion it isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s still good fun.]