So, a football management sim from Nintendo, from which we might reasonably expect joy, irreverence, and a stripped-down list of activities which retain and enhance the core joys of telling men how best to kick a ball at a goal. Initially things seem promising. Specifically, they look promising. The tappable map of visitable locations is a sunny small-town utopia, a gentle pixellated idyll far removed from the business-and-boardroom atmosphere that permeates other management games. Better yet, the 3D match simulator is a frenetic bustle of waddling industry, a compacted sporting caricature that charms even when depicting an injured player writhing in agony.
The problem is that looking makes up the great majority of what the game asks you to do. It’s generally accepted that management sims are to a certain degree about watching instead of playing, at least in a kinetic, moment-to-moment sense. Even so, some baffling choices have been made. Pocket Football Club forces you to watch every game – practice, friendly or competitive – in its entirety. They can’t be skipped, sped-up, or otherwise stepped around. As characterful as the waddling might be, this is stretching things, especially since interaction with your team is curbed during matches. Tactical changes can only be made if you make a substitution at the same time, the logic apparently being that players carry your messages onto the pitch. This wilful ignorance of the principles of how sound travels through air makes the game strategically restrictive, preventing you from chasing a goal or shutting up shop without without making a potentially unnecessary change.
Mysteriously gagged on the sidelines, your central conduit of influence is training. Activity cards are generated during matches based on critical observations made by your assistant, which can then be applied to individual players during midweek sessions. There’s a welcome light touch when it comes to the activities – things like oil therapy and karaoke pop up alongside shooting and agility – and there’s a satisfaction to the detailed work of crafting attributes by applying cards player by player. But sitting through matches to earn the cards in the first place is such drudgery that it’s easy to become impatient with the inching, incremental gains that each one delivers.
It is, unexpectedly, a problem of empowerment. Pocket Football Club isn’t very good at making it feel as though your decisions have an impact on the way your team performs. Even the results of formation changes and shifts in defence-attack settings are haphazard. Nothing wields a greater influence over your players than the passing of time – they are improved by the slow grind of skill point acquisition, rather than actual management.
It’s not without its moments. One-on-one training and mandatory match spectatorship forge an inevitable attachment with your crew of fictionalised improvers. There’s a thrill to seeing a striker you’d singled out for jumping and heading practice leaping above his marker to score a winning goal. But it’s a cheap thrill, a shallow way to connect input with outcome that doesn’t, in the end, compensate for Pocket Football Club’s lack of responsiveness elsewhere.