Pokémon Shuffle's nearest neighbour is last year's Pokémon Link: Battle! They're both match three games that use their source material to distinguish themselves from the pack. Each tile in the six-by-six grid is the adorable face of a Pokémon and, just in case you're not sure how a match three puzzler goes, you pair three (or more) together and they vanish. The goal then becomes positioning them so that more matches are made when they disappear.
Or does it? Each level sees you trying to capture a monster to use in battle and type advantages play a role: if you're trying to catch Charmander with Bulbasaur as an attack partner, your moves won't be as powerful as if you were using Squirtle. In addition Pokémon have abilities, so maybe matching four together will make a more powerful attack still. Furthermore, there are items you can use to make things easier: a boost in the EXP you'll gain from beating a level, perhaps, or an increase in the limited number of moves you get at the start. At this point, Pokémon Shuffle's true purpose is revealed.
It's another of Nintendo's toes in the water of the free-to-play model. Earlier we said Shuffle's nearest neighbour was PL:B!; well, the whole thing is an awkward fusion of PL:B! and Candy Crush Saga. You have 5 Hearts and starting a level uses one of them. These Hearts replenish at the rate of one per half-hour. You can exchange real-life money for more, or buy power-ups, or whatever you need to make things easier. Pay to win!
For its entire length the game is geared to getting money out of you, no matter what your skill level. Certain Pokémon use dirty tactics: most of them disrupt the playing field somehow and, until you learn their quirks, Hearts flutter away like confetti in a Hurricane. Battles against Mega 'mon are the worst and the Internet talk we've seen on the game has mostly been people bemoaning those Mega Fights.
Given all that, you could be spending a lot of time with Shuffle. There are 150 main levels, 20 Expert ones and the odd sprinkling of time-limited Pokémon... a lot of bang for your non-existent buck. At the time of writing, I've clocked up over 30 hours on the thing, with about fifteen Expert monsters still uncaught.
Divorce the game from its F2P roots and it's harmless enough. The visuals are charming, the music inoffensive (although one memorable piece could have been ripped from the Professor Layton soundtrack). The stylus-driven gameplay is functional, which is no more than it needs to be. More could have been made of Shuffle's heritage, though: the locations you run through have been concocted for the game, instead of being plucked from the series' 19-year-history. An odd choice.
Final Verdict: If Pokémon Shuffle were a Pokémon, it would be a Fairy/Dark type - a cutesy exterior hiding an evil heart. If you're after some match three action with a Pokémon flavour and are queasy about free-to-play, head for the pay-once-and-play Pokémon Link: Battle!, where you can also capture all 718 monsters. If you're patient and don't mind a free game playing cheap tricks, let Shuffle take over your soul instead.