Grindy and simplistic; but after all, you're not even sure why you're still playing, but you are.
The new trend in gaming are the infinite games that leave you with two main choices, you either pay for whatever currency it features or you'll have to stick to its sluggish presentation to advance. Since it finds its most fertile ground on smartphones, this false "free game" is somewhat understandable for the kind of deals often found in digital stores. It ultimately even makes sense, after all, they have to convince the player to buy the game after they started playing, and still have a profit to look for. Pokemon Shuffle is one of those modern breed in gaming.
Along with Pokemon Picross, Pokemon Shuffle is a puzzle game somewhat tucked into a famous franchise to win a profit. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, you know it's a spin-off, you know it's not what it's crafted up to be, you know it's not what a main game would offer, so you're not exactly fooled. In case you didn't, then I should warn you that it's nothing like the regular RPGs you have probably gotten so used to by now.
In case you haven't seen or heard much of it, think of it like this; you start the game getting lots and lots of items, getting easy, voluptuous wins while feeling the thrill of what it might provide. As you progress it starts getting harder, a lot more scarce and requiring time to fulfill the necessary hearts you desperately need to actually play it. Since not everyone will have the patience to wait every 30 minutes to refil the heart meter for one play, they'll probably accept to pay for content.
Pokemon Picross had a better system overall since after a while you simply wouldn't have to spend any more money, you'd have free access to infinite amounts of energy. Pokemon Shuffle might suck you dry if you really feel like spending. You can play for free as long as you keep it in small doses every now and then, just don't count on it to have an optimal experience at all.
Gameplay itself is absolutely simple. Just try to make matches with groups of at least three Pokemon while having the opportunity to change their location at will. The ones that form a match will disappear and give way to newer Pokemon that will fall from the top. If those make new matches as they fall you'll enter in a combo, for crazy amount of damage and points. You choose which ones you'll use before the battle and later on even Pokemon you don't own and didn't chose will appear to make things a little more difficult.
Making matches is the goal and the more you make the more damage you'll inflict on the Pokemon you're battling. You might get combos of hundreds of matches after the first ones disappear, but that is mostly luck with a tiny dose of guessing involved. You have a certain amount of turns to achieve the best result possible and the less turns you take the better are the chances of you capturing the Pokemon at the end of the battle. If you have enough money then you can even double the chances you first had and try capturing it with a great ball.
That's the thing, everything in this game costs money, and later stages will almost demand some kind of item, or items, to make them doable. Getting money is pretty difficult so you may have to rely on your real wallet. For example, after finishing a level you'll probably have acquired the first-time prize money of 100-200 in-game coins, beating a stage a second time will most likely hand out measly 30 coins. If you're panning on buying a -1 (minus 1) Pokemon on the battlefield -- which will facilitate the process of making matches -- you'll have to dole out a whopping amount of 9000 coins. Having hundreds upon hundreds of levels can turn this process into a nightmare easily.
The whole thing is one big crowning achievement. Even if you go ahead and spend the coins there's no guarantee that you'll beat the level or even capture the Pokemon, so it might be all for nothing in the end. Another thing it features are the 'S ranks' which are based on how many turns you had left when beating a Pokemon. Some have very few turns, like 2 or 3; while others may go as far as 50. Getting S ranks on later stages basically demands the use of items.
There's also another type of challenge that is primarily based on time instead of turns. The player has a fixed amount of time to make as many matches as possible, being able to keep changing the place of Pokemon at will. These are called expert stages and offer better, rarer Pokemon like the legendary birds from Kanto and the roaming dogs from Johto.
Aside from the main game and the expert stages the latest update brought many good stuff to the table, like special stages, missions and daily prizes. The daily prizes can be gotten by connecting to the main server every day. A sort of systematic schedule to keep players playing. If you're planing on doing this low-cost it's certainly mandatory. The missions are pretty straight-forward, just survey whatever they want you to do and do it.
The special stages are lots of fun. You get new Pokemon daily and have lots of different challenges like Safari and powerful rare Pokemon. Some are just silly, like the insane amount of different Pikachu -- costume Pikachu, angry Pikachu, wiking Pikachu. The Safari offers random challenges with Pokemon you're not even sure which ones might appear. The rare Pokemon found in this are pretty difficult to catch and S rank, and some of them are only available during a limited time period.
One of the best new type of challenge is the Escalation Battle. You start on level 1 being able to beat the Pokemon easily and having just 1% chance of capture and you go raising the level and having better chances of capture. After catching the Pokemon it's possible to receive exclusive items that increase the power of the Pokemon even further. Again, it's another great feature to suck you out of hearts and yield to input credit card numbers, at least its pretty enjoyable.
The Pokemon you choose to enter the stage have the usual weaknesses and effectiveness you find in the main games. Water is strong against fire, which is strong against grass, which is strong against water and so on. It plays a major role, but it also features levels, the higher the level the more damage you can obviously cause. Nothing groundbreakingly new there, most people are so familiar with this process by now that it's not even a problem anymore.
At first the game capped levels at 10, you couldn't go beyond that. After the last major update a new item was introduced that would allow player to raise the maximum level of a Pokemon when used. It's not a common item per say and different Pokemon have different number of times it can be used on them, which makes low-evolution or weaker Pokemon somewhat usable now because they generally have more slots for their max level to skyrocket and somewhat reach the legendaries and fully-developed ones.
Each Pokemon also has an inherent skill which can or not be triggered after getting a match. It all depends on the type of match and how good it was. For example, 3 Pokemon icon matches have the lowest percentage, 4 Pokemon gives you a decent but still low chance of happening, while 5 Pokemon matches are an almost certain way to trigger the skill (90%).
Bringing the newest aspects of the latest games into play we have mega-evolutions. You can take one, and only one Pokemon who can mega-evolve. This strange aspect, caused by having the mega-stone of certain Pokemon while also having him, will make a meter appear on the left side of the screen. If you make enough matches the meter will reach its peak and the Pokemon will mega-evolve. Mega-evolving lets you use the mega skill and it can be the key to success since it's triggered after getting any kind of match (even the most basic, 3 in line). What the skill actually does depends on which Pokemon mega-evolved but there's handy stuff like making all the icons of the mega poke-icons disappear, or destroying some icons diagonally or vertically, or destroying unbreakable blocks that might have fallen, or some other useful trick.
This Pokemon puzzle game is in its very core very dependent on luck. Of course you still can maximize the chances, but that doesn't always yield results. The reason lies in the casual nature of the title. This is also available on cellphones which makes much more sense. It's a game to live with you for a few months, you get to play a few games a day but that's all; generally when you're on the go, on a bus ride or the subway. It serves its purpose just fine with a powerful logo to turn heads in heed. We should be looking at more Pokemon spin-offs in the future, mainly because they work so well.