Genius Sonority’s latest Pokemon spinoff is adorable and fun.
I’m ultimately a sucker for puzzle games with a pleasant aesthetic. I’ve sunk many hours into the likes of Puzzle League and Puyo Puyo. While it might not have the street cred of those legendary puzzle series, I knew from the moment that The Pokémon Company announced Pokémon Café Mix, a new free-to-play puzzle game available on Switch and mobile, that I at least wanted to try it out, if only to live in the world of cute Pokémon art and playfulness. Legions will potentially write this off for being free-to-play with microtransactions, but Café Mix is a solid puzzle game with enough nuance and strategy to keep me checking back in every day or two.
Coming from Genius Sonority, who previously worked on Pokémon Shuffle (also a well-made free-to-play puzzle game), Café Mix puts you into the kitchen of a café that serves Pokémon dishes that resemble Pokémon (and aren’t made of Pokémon, I hope). You select a Pokémon to be the cook for the meal and then go play a stage. The puzzles aren’t grid-based like Shuffle, or the similar Pokémon Battle Trozei and Pokémon Trozei, though they retain the same style of Pokémon tile designs. Instead, it plays more like Tsum Tsum games. Your goal is generally to use your finger or a stylus to connect as many of the same icons as possible in a strict time limit. As you move around, the icons swirl around, almost like you’re mixing up ingredients.
Where it gets deeper is in the objectives and obstacles that come up in different stages. To complete a stage you have to fill out the order, which can require a high score, a specific number of a type of Pokémon to collect, or the elimination of certain obstacles. The obstacles are varied and keep on adding wrinkles to the gameplay. Honey might be glazed over icons, so you have to hit them twice to wipe them out. Sugar cubes can block parts of the area and take several hits to knock out. Nuts can only be eliminated from the field when hit with a more powerful special icon. Those special icons come in a few forms. Your leader Pokémon always has a specific one that will show up as you rack up points. Most of them are just powerful blasts in a cardinal direction, but some do crazier things like make surrounding icons the same as the most populated one. Less powerful boosts come in the form of bullhorn icons that wipe out icons in different directions.
Now this is where some of the microtransaction fun comes into play. By progressing through the game, you accumulate boosts that can be used before or during stages. The before ones involve starting with special icons already in the field. The boosts for during the game include wiping out specific obstacles or eradicating entire rows or columns. They can definitely make troublesome levels way easier, and in general the game is generous early on with these boosts. Each stage also has turn limits. If you don’t complete the order in time, you have the option to shell out some golden acorns (the in-game currency that you can spend real money on) to add three more turns. That’s the part of the game that starts diving into nefarious territory, but overall, it’s one of the better free-to-play puzzle games I’ve played.
Café Mix does reward success, as you have a stamina meter of five hearts that only depletes when you fail a stage. They come back after some time, and the way I’ve been playing as I’ve gotten deeper into the game is to just stop when I run out of stamina. At the end of the day, this is still a game cut from the microtransaction cloth. I’m not going to say this is perfectly fine, but there are far worse games of this ilk.
I plan on keeping up with Pokémon Café Mix, at least for now. I’ve largely played on Switch, where it can only be played in handheld mode since you have to use the touch screen. The mobile version seems perfectly fine, but there’s no way to carry your save data between platforms, which is disappointing. But as previously stated, I’m a sucker for these kinds of games, especially when they feature adorable Pokémon in barista outfits in a unique art style. I also appreciate Genius Sonority, who have a legacy that ties back to ‘90s Dragon Quest games and got their start as part of late Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi’s Q Fund from the early 2000s, which was used to start up game developers. They’ve been regulars at the Pokémon spinoff game, making games like Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD on GameCube. They also made the eccentric and bizarre Denpa Men games on 3DS that, well, you might have to see them to believe them.
Unless you’re extremely against the principle of free-to-play games, Pokémon Café Mix is a delightful little puzzle game with some neat ideas and an adorable visual presentation. It’s a gentle game for tough times.