Note: this posts covers the Open Beta Test of POPLINKS. This is not what the final POPLINKS game will look like. The final release is currently slated to be happening in 2021. Review of the release version of POPLINKS has been published!
The year 2020 was a momentous time for THE IDOLM@STER, despite what's happening all around the world. The franchise celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and in this spirit of celebration, a brand-new mobile game is unveiled, POPLINKS.
The first five-branch IDOLM@STER game
POPLINKS is the first game in the mobile platform to include all five branches of THE IDOLM@STER. This means the All Stars, the Cinderella Girls, Million Live, SideM and Shiny Colors. A very important moment, as now every aspect of IDOLM@STER is represented and harmonized in here.
The lineup of the franchise's mobile games so far consists of rhythm games, social games, and a producing game. POPLINKS is none of that, introducing the casual puzzle genre to the franchise's lineup. I like when there are puzzle games especially for this franchise I've been following for quite some time now, because that means I can play this during commutes.
POPLINKS is developed by NHN PlayArt, and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. NHN PlayArt also developed #COMPASS and Disney Tsum Tsum, among other games.
Interestingly, an open beta test period is announced, where people can try the game out, and report issues with the game early. With that in mind, note that this is only a first impression post, anything written in here may change when the game releases, and I won't mention any bugs I've found here, only reported when possible.
The game title screen is adorable, with five main reds holding the notes.
The tutorial will have you choose the secretary you want, then guide you towards the basic mechanics of the POPLINKS core gameplay, and then form your first unit. The core gameplay itself will be explained later, when I get to talk about the Live system itself.
After completing the tutorial, you will be greeted with the home screen, where it is essentially a map containing buildings containing various features of the game. The explanation of the features will come later, as I talk about each of the game's features.
Alongside the home screen, you can access the menu for an overview of features.
The first important menu is the unit menu. In the tutorial, you are directed to form your first unit. The unit menu is where you do the management of your units. There are 9 unit slots in this game, 1 of which you start with, 5 slots you unlock through reaching specific P-Ranks, and 3 of which you need to unlock with jewels. This means that you have to plan the space you have carefully if you aren't high level enough, and raising P-Rank in this game is quite something (I will explain it when I talk about the core gameplay)
The management menu allows you to tweak your idols' skills, accessories, and the song used while playing.
In this game, skills are not tied to a specific idol, and you can reassign them anytime you want, to any idol in your unit.
The coaching menu is unlocked at P-Rank 3, and this is basically a long idol road for your stats. By progressing through Coaching, your unit will gain stats and other items on the journey in the idol road. Each step in the journey costs a currency called CP (Coaching Points?), which can be earned by playing.
The jacket menu is certainly one of the more interesting aspects of POPLINKS, because this is the place where you can pour out your passion in graphic design, and show your creativity. The jacket you use for the unit will be visible in your profile, your ranking, and other places.
The history menu allows you to see the journey your unit has gone through. This includes major events such as the unit's creation and disbandment (yes, disbandment).
An interesting detail in this game is, unlike the Idolmaster games existing on mobile, once you debuted your unit, the idol composition is set in stone. The only way to change the idol composition is to disband the unit, and start all over again. This can be problematic if you get your tantou idol way later in the game, which means you have to rebuild your idols statistics all over again. This can get you stuck in a certain P-Rank until your unit is powerful again.
The impact of disbanding your unit is so great, that the game asks you twice to confirm you are disbanding the unit.
Let's say, you disband a unit because you need space to form another, more well-thought unit to progress through the game, then your P-Rank unlocks a new unit slot you can use, and you want to return that unit to play again. Another case is that you accidentally confirmed twice to disband your unit while you're asleep, and you now want to recover the unit without losing progress. Well, you are covered, since you can essentially recover at least some of the units you disbanded. This is accomplished by using the Restart menu, available in an empty unit's screen.
In the Restart menu, you will then choose the unit you want to restore. Keep in mind that this screen only holds three units you most recently disbanded, and older units will not survive, so disband and restore sparingly.
When you restart, I mean rest@rt your unit, the coaching progress you have with that unit is restored. Say goodbye to your worries! (or hang in there, if the unit you want to restore is the fourth most recently disbanded unit).
The Idol menu is essentially just an album of the idols you have in the game. You can also upgrade the Rank of your idols (available through dupes, I will explain this later when I come to talk about the scout system and gacha).
The skill menu is similar to the idol menu, where you can see the skills you have and upgrade the levels of those skills (which are also earned through the scout system, just hold on a little bit more).
The scout system is another of the more interesting things about POPLINKS. This system allows you to get more idols and skills. The scout system itself is divided into two systems: the gacha system, and the offer system.
The first system, gacha, is exactly what it is. You spend premium currency, and get rewarded with the idols you ordered. Well, when you roll here, you actually roll for idols and skills at the same time.
A 10-roll costs 2500 Pop Jewels (the premium currency of this game), but what's interesting for me when I roll, is when I realized this game's dupe system when I saw the gacha results screen.
The dupe system in this game, is that no matter what rarity of the idol you get, those are counted as a dupe towards the idol (so dupes are idol-specific, not card-specific). If so, how does rarity and specific rolls mean in this game? They mean costumes, so when you roll a new card, what you're really getting for new is the costume from that card; the card still counts as a dupe.
For example, in the first roll I posted here, note the three Mano I rolled. The first one is an R Mano, this one's new, so it starts the dupe gauge at 0. The next one is also an R Mano, and this one increases the dupe gauge by 20. The final one, however, is an SR Mano (as indicated by the golden costume icon in her card). Note that her dupe gauge is 40, not 0! This is because she counts as a Mano dupe, so she contributes to the Mano dupe gauge.
This dupe gauge is used to upgrade your idol to a higher Rank, which comes with better appeals and stats.
Alongside idols, you also roll for skills, and the system is similar to the idol gacha, where a duplicate of the skill increases the gauge of the skill. Like the idol dupe system, the duplicate increases the gauge of the skill, which then can be used to level up the skill, increasing it's effectiveness.
The other system is the offer system. This system is probably unique to POPLINKS, in that you are able to pick the idol you want. Caveat, though, that this screen only offers you the base rarity, so if you want to hunt for costumes, go for gacha. However, if you only care about your favorite idols existing in your account, use this Offer system.
Then, the Live system itself. This is the meat of the game, so to speak, the main gameplay. Before actually starting a game, you can choose power-ups to go with your game, such as more fans, more score, or more CP. Each Live costs stamina, which regenerates at a constant rate.
The basic mechanic of this game is to basically connect notes. By linking one note of the same color to another and forming a chain of notes, you can clear them out of the game field. The longer the chain, the higher score you get, and for chains consisting of 7 or more notes, you get a special type of note, the "Bomb", which allows you to clear its surrounding notes. Aside from chaining from one end to another, you can also form a loop, which is sometimes handy (I haven't tested if they give out more or not). Occasionally, large notes will appear on the field, which are worth 3 regular notes, and counted as such.
By chaining notes, you will be able to fill the skill gauges of your idols, the skills of which are set when you manage your units. There are a lot of different types of skills you can utilize.
At the bottom of the screen is the Hakoyure gauge. When you reached a sufficient amount of the gauge by chaining notes and gathering the stars in your chains, the song changes to the one you set on the unit menu, and a special mode appears. If you fill the Hakoyure gauge while in this mode, another gauge will appear, where filling it allows you to trigger your Unit Appeal, which is a screen-wide clearing of notes, and yield a very high score.
Each game lasts 60 seconds, so time is of essence, and to score high, you must able to play fast. If you want more time, you can continue with jewels.
After finishing the live, your idols will level up, and you will earn various currencies, such as coins, CP, but also fans, which are kind of your XP level in this game.
When you earned enough fans, you can level up your P-Rank to the next one, but you have to first pass a special Live, the POPLINKS Festival. This Live has a set of requirements you need to complete in order to pass and level up your P-Rank, so pay careful attention to those. Power-ups apply as usual.
In the level up Live, the gameplay is the same, but I recommend to focus on clearing the missions in this one, so you can level up quickly.
When you reached P-Rank 2, you will unlock the Ranking menu. This Ranking menu is not a global leaderboard, rather it's a series of separate leaderboards, one of which you are put into. There are rewards for rank positions, so it's worth a try.
The training menu is where you can train your idols to earn various items, including experience for levels. The training appears to have some sort of attribute tied to them, and each room can accomodate 5 idols.
Training takes some time; you can wait it out, or finish it instantly with currency. You can use jewels, or training tickets; interestingly., you can ask your friends for training tickets, and you can even share those to social media if you want urgent help (this functionality isn't available on the Open Beta Test though).
The work menu is an alternative way to spend stamina other than Lives. In this system, you choose the work you want to undertake, and receive rewards from the work with the cost of stamina. The amount of rewards you can get from the work is shown in the screen itself.
I'm excited for POPLINKS, for a multitude of reasons. First, this is the first IDOLM@STER game with all five branches. If you follow IDOLM@STER for quite some time, you will enjoy seeing idols from different branches come together.
Second, the game's 60-second rapid play and portrait layout means that this is a game I can play while in public transit. A very convenient game, indeed.
Third, the gacha system allows you to just take what you want. You can roll for gacha just to upgrade skills, and stick with your favorite idols, taken exclusively from the offer system. Yes, you can.
Finally, the customization possibilities, especially the jacket designing, where you can make this unit truly your own, with a unique design.
Overall, POPLINKS is an exciting, new concept of interacting with THE IDOLM@STER franchise, and this Open Beta Test further proves that. I am looking forward to the full release of this game.