Game Review: “Pokémon Sun/Moon”

pokemon_moon

Twenty years ago, the Pokémon franchise hit the world like a tidal wave, as Pikachu and company inspired millions of kids to gather around their Game Boys and battle, evolve, and trade their way to becoming Pokémon masters. While the series has spawned six generations of successful games (and countless spinoffs) on its way to becoming one of Nintendo’s bedrock IPs, the fundamental story of the game (collect monsters, beat eight gyms, save world from evil team, become the champion) stayed the same, leading some to wonder if the franchise was becoming stale after two decades in the spotlight.

With the announcement of the seventh generation of Pokémon, Nintendo declared that they were finally going to switch things up. The gym-battling system would be scrapped; a new “island challenge” would be put in its place. The story would be enriched with more depth and character than ever before. The region itself would be more rich and interesting than any that had come before. Sun and Moon would signal a new day in the world of Pokémon, and the world would again fall under the game’s spell.

However, after playing through much of Pokémon Moon, I discovered (to my utter delight) that the newest generation of Pokémon is the exact same as all the generations that came before. Nintendo’s attempt to change the series was a complete failure, and as someone who has enjoyed the heck out of this series for the past twenty years, I couldn’t be happier.

What I liked:

  • Seriously, I cannot stress enough how similar Pokémon Moon (I haven’t bought Sun yet) is to all the other games. The island challenges are basically Pokémon Gyms with a fresh coat of paint, as most of them boil down to having three or four battles with tough Pokémon of a similar type. Team Skull (the evil gang terrorizing the Alola region) serves the same purpose as Teams Rocket through Flare, and eventually you have to invade their hideout and destroy them just like the others. The path to the final challenge on the final island is a long trek through a cavern that requires special moves to pass through and is filled with tough Pokémon and trainers…you know, just like Victory Road in every other Pokémon game.Normally, you’d expect comments like the ones above to be a strike against the game…except that I really enjoyed the classic Pokémon formula, and was actually a little nervous about what changes might do the gameplay. Why fix something that wasn’t broken? Thankfully, most of the more-hyped changes turned out to be pretty superficial, and the core mechanics of collecting and battling remained unchanged. The bottom line: If you enjoyed Pokémon in the past, you’ll enjoy this version of the game too.
  • That said, there are a few noticeable mechanic changes in the game, most notably Pokémon Refresh, an updated version of Pokémon Amie from Pokémon X & Y. The key change here is how Pokémon Refresh is tied into the battle system: After a particular harsh or messy battle, you are given the option to clean up your Pokémon afterwards. (It even allows you to remove status conditions after a fight!) It may not seem like much of a change, but making Refresh a more-prominent feature pushes players to actually use it, and (as crazy as it sounds) causes them to build an actual, honest-to-goodness bond with their Pokémon. These monsters aren’t just HP bars and movesets sitting on Flash memory as in previous games, they’re cool-looking creatures that you actually feel for and care about. Seriously, I haven’t bonded with a Pokémon team like this since Pokémon Red!
  • Poké Pelago has finally freed the world’s Pokémon from their boxed tyranny! I haven’t captured enough Pokémon to access all of the features of the island, but I like the idea of Pokémon being free-range instead of being trapped in the digital ether. Plus, you can use Beans to convince random wild Pokémon that show up to join your team!
  • The story takes a long time to build momentum, but when it finally gets going, it’s easily the most epic of the entire series. Characters like Hau, Lillie, and Gladion showcase more personality than any other NPCs I can recall from the series, partially due to the improved graphics and animations and partially because there’s some actual character development! The dialogue isn’t as razor-sharp as, say, Paper Mario: Color Splash, but it’s pretty decent by Pokémon standards.
  • Speaking of graphics…the environments are stunning in this game, and the music and sound effects bring the game to life like no other Pokémon game. It’s safe to say that this game is the most immersive in the Pokémon series.
  • While I was concerned about the battery life of my old 3DS XL, the device survived a cross-country plane ride of nearly-nonstop Pokémon action (sans sound) without any trouble. I wish my cell phone had that kind of battery life…

What I didn’t like:

  • The “call for help” mechanic by wild Pokémon is annoying at best and rage-inducing at worst. I’ve had a single Pokémon successfully call for help eight freaking times in a single battle, and it always seems to happen when you’re trying to capture a Pokémon (since captures are not allowed with two enemy Pokémon on the battlefield). They certainly add a degree of difficulty to gym leader Totem Pokémon battles, but the hassle they add to normal wild Pokémon battles is just not worth it.
  • Yes, there is definitely a slowdown on older 3DS models when a battle has too many moving parts (multiple Pokémon, multiple trainers, etc.). My bigger issue, however, is the fact that Miiverse can’t be open at the same time as Pokémon Moon, denying me the opportunity to flood Miiverse with the kind of random drivel that I post in the Splatoon and Mario Maker communities. It’s a minor thing, but for someone for whom Miiverse is their primary social media account, it’s a little disappointing.
  • The game suffers from some very jarring leaps in difficulty, as opposed to the more-gradual level increases of past Pokémon games. It’s still not a very hard game, but it’s a little annoying to go from “total domination” to “intense struggle for survival” in the span of a few minutes, especially if you’re doing anything Nuzlocke-esque. (Side note: I absolutely refuse to reconcile with the Team Skull boss, a.k.a. the guy who killed my poor Staryu.)

Is it fun? This is like asking if the sky is blue. It’s a Pokémon game—of course it’s fun! I would rank it in the top half of Pokémon generations right now, but it’ll need to show some staying power to compete with Red/Blue and Ruby/Sapphire (and I don’t see taking the top spot from Diamond/Pearl).

Rating: 8/10. It’s a worthy addition to both the Pokémon series and the 3DS lineup. Whether you’re new to Pokémon or have been following the series for two decades, you’ll find something to like about Pokémon Sun/Moon.

 

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