Pokémon Sun & Moon – Review

Pokémon Sun & Moon for Nintendo 3DS released worldwide November 2016, and represents the 7th Generation of the franchise. 80 new Pokémon are ready for battle, the Alola Region awaits exploration, and more than a few mysteries will be uncovered!

But after a full year of prerelease marketing, with the 20th anniversary of Pokémon’s debut and the unimaginable fever surrounding Pokémon Go this summer, can this new instalment truly fulfil expectations for one of the world’s most loved fantasy franchises? Find out our full thoughts and impressions below…

“Alola!” from Alola

Pokémon Sun & Moon take place in the new Region of Alola, a fictional location heavily inspired by Hawaii. As a popular holiday spot with Japanese tourists, Alola appears to be the perfect love letter to Hawaii.

Split up into four islands, Alola is perhaps the most welcoming Region yet. The story opens with you moving to Alola from Kanto (the original Pokémon Region). Rather than retreading all the old steps of the traditional game opening (as previous titles have done), we’re treated to some intuitive character customisation and an exciting cinematic which introduces the enigmatic, Lillie. It appears she’s on the run from a mysterious lab facility with a rare Pokémon by her side! It would seem Pokémon’s developers are making the most of it’s anniversary year and have taken some big liberties with the establish tropes. Lille goes on to become a key companion throughout the story, as much of the plot is surrounded by her secret past and the uncertainty of her future.

All the usual tutorial information is still present however, as there’s sadly no option for veteran fans to skip such details. As you progress, story sequences continue to fill you in and give valuable character development for Lille, as well as Prof. Kukui and Hau your mentor and rival respectively.

The other major departure from Pokémon tradition, apparent right from the outset, is that Pokémon Gyms have been replaced with the Alola Trial Challenge. These are a series of Trials which youngsters must undertake to prove themselves as Pokémon Trainers. From a gameplay point of view, these are much more varied and dynamic events than Gyms, as rather than the formulaic battling over and over, a Trial can feature a few unique challenges. Players will be called upon to judge Pokémon dancing, clear out infestations, or gather cooking ingredients. All culminating with the challenge of defeating an extra large Totem Pokémon! These new Trials are just one of a few exciting changes to the established formula, although one downside it that they are rather easy to overcome.

There’s undoubtedly a lot of new ideas to discover, but the excitement of the story’s beginnings are dampened slightly – as story sequences and wordy interactions with your companions just keep coming and coming…
The first few hours of the game won’t let you walk a step or two without stopping to tease story information or reveal new mechanics. It’s certainly not that these scenes lack interest, it’s simply that there are too many of them! Each one feels fully prepared and has worthwhile investment in the story, but it chops up the flow of gameplay rather irritatingly. After a while you’ll crave the freedom to just explore on your own.

This longing to explore is made all the more intense by the rich and beautifully detailed surroundings of Alola, as this is without a doubt the most visually polished Nintendo 3DS game yet. Thankfully, Sun & Moon does assist your exploration in a naturally modern way, with the introduction of the ‘Rotom Dex’.

Rotom Dex is a new kind of PokéDex, which records information about all the Pokémon you find, but it also doubles as a real time map, which is always present on the lower screen. Whenever there is a new story chapter to reach, Rotom Dex will place a red flag on the map. This allows you to head straight to the next cinematic, or explore freely and avoid further story details for a while if you wish. It’s with this addition that the Rotom Dex is most valuable. For the first time in the franchise’s history, you take control of story progression. Gratefully, I sometimes spent several hours freely exploring on my own before heading to the next part of the story when I was ready for something fresh.

By the time you’ve explored and exhausted the first island, you’ll be more than ready to devour more of the mysteries on the next. Each new route is practically over flowing with Pokémon, old and new, and there’s no shortage of challenges, side-quests or secret areas to discover.

Alola has a much more complex landscape than previous Regions. With a more vertical design in places, it’s common to oversea a new area in the distance or overlook a path previously taken to reach a peak. Additionally, the battle scenery is hugely improved, as each individual area has it’s own backdrops and environments which give the distinct feeling your battles are taking place at the Routes your on, and not in some pseudo reality away from the main experience.

An evident compromise to having such a  lush and detailed environment is the almost total lack of Stereoscopic 3D in Sun & Moon. This is a huge shame, as it’s obviously one of the system’s biggest features, but it’s clear to see a lot of shortcuts had to be taken just get this game running on a standard 3DS System. Perhaps if this had been released as a ‘New Nintendo 3DS’ exclusive, to take advantage of the higher processing power, we’d have seen something more – but as it is, this is still a fantastic looking and sounding game, impressive enough without further enhancement.

As the plot progresses we see rival, Hau, develop his skills and Lille reveals more and more about herself with growing trust of you. Through Prof. Kukui and his connections, things sticks firmly to Pokémon’s anime and sci-fi routes with talk of separate alternate dimensions and the possibility of new creatures emerging from them. It isn’t long before we hear of ‘Ultra Beasts’ and the possible dangers of them, but I’ll leave later story details a secret. The richer than usual story telling is one of Sun & Moon‘s main strengths. I wouldn’t want to spoil it!

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What are the Ultra Beasts, and what do they mean for our world?

Pokémon of Alola and Alolan Pokémon

As well as a whole new country to explore, there are also 80 new Pokémon to catch, bringing the overall total monsters to 802! Given this is the 20th anniversary of Pokémon’s original launch in Japan, there would appear to be a extra high level of care and attention to detail given to this new crew.

In fact, the PokéDex of Alola features three of the most interesting Starter Pokémon since the series began. With Decidueye – a Ghostly Owl Archer, Incineroar – a Heel Wrestler Cat and Primarina – a Singing Siren Mermaid Sea-lion, players are perhaps making their most difficult choice yet when picking a companion.

Other standout creature designs are Minior – a meteor that falls to earth with a colourful inner body it only reveals to careful Trainers, Oricorio – a Dancing Bird that changes Type depending on what style of Dance it performs, and Salandit – a Poison Lizard that is the first Pokémon capable of poisoning any opponent regardless of their Type or Ability. Those are only a few of the wonderful design work that’s gone into Sun & Moon.

There are of course a couple of duds… but things like this are always a matter of opinion. Turtonator, for one, looks like the kind of Pokémon a child mind think up when entering a school art competition. Likewise, Bewear looks like a design that was accidentally submitted half finished with no particular character at all.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the good old days, Alola also introduced ‘Alolan Variant Pokémon’. These are regional variants of old Generation 1 favourites, which take on new styles and Battle Types based on the environment they’ve been raised in. A Pikachu that evolves in Alola will now become ‘Alolan Raichu’ which is a duel Electric/Psychic -Type, giving it access to a host of brand new moves and a fresh chilled out design. There are eight Pokémon species receiving make overs for Alola, and hopefully this design concept will be revisited again in future.

Then there are the new Legendary Pokémon. The stars of the show (they’re on the box) are Solgaleo – a fearsome Steel/Psychic Lion, and Lunala – an nightmarishly enormous Ghost/Psychic Bat! These are the ‘Sunne’ and ‘Moone’ Pokémon respectively, which are kept satisfyingly mysterious for most of the story.

Each island of Alola also has it’s own Guardian Pokémon. Each of these benevolent creatures once fought along side the armies of men in war, but have since returned to nature and protect each Island from harm.

Regardless of personal taste though, this newest cohort of creatures should have something for everyone!

Where Casual Meets Competitive

Although it’s fair to say Sun & Moon takes the tutorials and hand-holding a bit far (exemplified best by a rival who’ll heal your party before and after surprise battles…), there are also moments which focus on genuine competitive play.

Along side the basic ‘how to catch Pokémon’ stuff, you’ll quickly face NPCs that use definitive battle strategies and give hints on how to battle more divisively yourself. You’ll see your computer opponents switching tactics, using heal items and attacking with strategies like never before. A battle involving the ‘Red Card’ item was especially interesting from a meta-game point of view and it was great to see it built into the game so confidently.

Sun & Moon also presents a new battle challenge, in the form of SOS Battles. This is a situation that forms within the battle field, when a wile Pokémon calls for help. If they’re successful, the battle can become a two on one showdown, challenging the trainer to take on two Pokémon at once. SOS Battles bringa  lot of benefits with them, as it can speed up training and allow you to catch rarer Pokémon if they’re called to battle. However, there is also a large downside, in that SOS Battles don’t just stop at one assistance. Even if you manage to beat the first call for aid, the remaining Pokémon can call again, meaning another SOS Battle can start. This is where the ability to catch rare Pokémon comes in, but it’s also true that players can become unwillingly stuck in SOS Battles that can last into the hundreds of turns. It’s a contentious addition to the series, as it does have valuable benefits. Sadly though,t he concept still feels half baked.

As well as this introduction to uncommon strategies, Sun & Moon modifies the battle user interface for Generation 7. Now, so long as you’re fought a Pokémon before, you’ll be promoted by the interface on which moves are most effective in beating it again. This is a great change for all fans, as it helps ease the need to remember a vast list of weaknesses and resistance in the Pokémon battle system.
It’s true some fans have pushed against this change, but it’s important to remember that this user interface only tells you how effective you will be in your attack. It does not inform you how effect you will be in defending yourself from the attacks of your opponent. In that sense, you will still need your wits about you when battling. It’s great to see a change like this, as it’s both a help to players and an incentive for them to learn more and better understand the choices they make.

This is all a step in the right direction for veterans, although some design choices are clearly at odds with on another.  Pokémon as a franchise still feels undecided about whether it is a casual RPG for youngsters or an intense battle strategy game for older fans. Achieving both is a tall order and there are still some troubling omissions for either party, concerning the inner workings of the battle system and how to take advantage of it…

As a compromise, there’re some new features in Sun & Moon that attempt to bridge the gap between casual and competitive play. These new features have their own pros and cons, and their inclusion has sadly pushed out other established features of past Pokémon titles.

Firstly, the previous Pokémon games, X & Y and Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire(ORAS), featured ‘Pokémon Amie’. A collection of optional mini-games to help grow affection between you and your team. Sun & Moon replaces Amie with ‘Pokémon Refresh’.

Refresh uses many of the same mechanics as Amie, and the affects of earning your Pokémon’s affection are the same (more likely to dodge and land critical hits in battle etc.). However, all the mini-games from Amie are gone, which leaves Refresh as a lighter, quicker tool, but one offering far less fun.

Some fans will probably point out that the mini-games weren’t that exciting to begin with, simple colour match and picture puzzle type stuff with no strong connection to what Pokémon really is. But it would have been nice to see these basic mini-games replaced or improved with something more robust, rather than removed all together. Refresh as it is, is a great little tool that does the job of raising affection in Pokémon in a way that feels natural, you can even use it to heal status conditions post-battle, such as poisoning or burns, extremely useful!! It’s just a shame it comes across as an edited down version of a formerly larger mode.

Another tool from X & Y and ORAS that hasn’t made the cut is ‘Super Training’. This was another mini-game based tool that allowed players to raise the hidden EV (or effort value) stats of their Pokémon. EV Training has always been important part of competitive battling, but until X & Y it had always been a somewhat obtuse process, requiring plenty of research and knowledge on the players part – not freely included within the game itself.

Super Training was an attempt to change that, by making EV Training more accessible, while the traditional methods were still available for purists or habitual fans. Worse than Amie though, this feature has been entirely removed, taking away the accessibility some fans had grown accustomed to. You can still EV Train the old fashioned way, but Super Training is something else that should have been improved upon, rather than discarded.

However, Sun & Moon does attempt to provide it’s own solutions, with a brand new feature: Poké Pelago. Just as Pokémon Refresh is to Pokémon Amie, Pelago is a much more serviceable rather than interactive solution like Super Training was. But it certainly isn’t lacking in charm and also has a a handful of addition options that allow players to collect and harvest other kinds of items very easily, whilst also EV Training…

Poké Pelago & Festival Plaza

Poké Pelago takes the form of a series of small Islands, each one specialises in a particular area of collecting, whether it be beans to feed Pokémon, rare items, or EV Stat points to boost Pokémon in battle. You can visit the Poké Pelago at anytime, from anywhere. Even if you’re inside a building or cave, you’ll be magically warped to the islands.

With it’s desert island aesthetic and Pokémon playground concept, Poké Pelago doubles as a home for any Pokémon who you’ve caught but not placed in your active part. Meaning the possible hundreds of previously unused Pokémon now have a purpose as they set about growing Berries or warming Eggs while you get on with the main adventure.

This is a really great touch as including you’re unused Pokémon in the process gives you a nice warm feeling, as though you really are looking taking care of them after all. Additionally, if your Pelago is developed enough, you might even attract some wild Pokémon who can choose to join your extended family of their own free will!

In terms of EV Training, there is now a special island where Pokémon can be left to train up in any particular stat, in real time. As an alternative to Super Training, which as a mini- game was quite time consuming, you can now set your Pokémon off on an independent Training session, that’ll continue even if you aren’t playing yourself. While you work or sleep, your Pokémon can be increasing it’s Speed or HP Stats, ready for you upon return.

It may seem odd at first, to allow your Pokémon to take on part of their training without any real interaction from you at all, and I must say I would have preferred something more hands on… But I can’t deny it’s nice knowing my Pokémon are growing and learning in their own time while I’m not there. It some how makes them feel more real, and despite being just a series of simple menus, Pelago itself has a strong sense of ubiety.

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Poké Pelago finally gives ‘boxed’ Pokémon a time to shine!

As well as Pelago, Pokémon Sun & Moon has also introduces the Festival Plaza.

The Festival Plaza is this Generation’s answer to online multi-player interaction, which also doubles up as an interactive hub for a handful of other things. Here you can buy items to develop friendship with Pokémon, the occasional stat booster or find a shop selling rare PokéBalls or Character Clothes.

It’s a novel idea at first, you can freely walk around the Plaza ‘meeting’ other players. Although your interactions aren’t in real time (this is not a chat room),  you can battle, trade, or collect other amenities for your Plaza by talking to anyone.

The more time you spend interacting with others, the more ‘Festival Coins’ you’ll earn, which can be used to buy items in the Plaza, as well as help your Plaza to expand becoming more prosperous with rare treats and further options of customisation.

On paper, it really doesn’t sound bad, in fact as a concept the Plaza seems great. But the bump in the road comes when you realise there really isn’t anything to these so called ‘interactions’.

There is no challenge to finding out about other players, they will simply tell you whatever it is they’re predetermined to say, like any other boring NPC. Once they’re done blathering, you’ll be given some Festival Coins, which don’t feel at all rewarding or earned.

The Plaza is also littered with some fun looking Pokémon attractions, but sending you’re monster buddies off to a ‘bouncy castle’ or ‘ghost train’ only to read “Bounce, bounce” or “Pikachu had a great time” feels completely pointless. Friendship levels or stats can raise as a result but without any form of interaction, it’s hard to feel invested in any progress made. I was left with an even greater longing for Pokémon Amie and Super Training after such shallow text-based experiences.

There’s nothing game like about it at all, as you’re left to simply grind out the Festival Coins by going through endless text boxes. Despite the promise of expansions and rare items to buy, the Plaza becomes uninteresting very quickly (it’s worth noting almost all items found in the Plaza will unlock eventually through Story progression).

As a greater incentive to use the Plaza, the Pokémon Company is planning some ‘global missions’ which any player can connect to and take part in. The first of these is the challenge for all players to band together and catch 100,000,000 Pokémon! With a possible reward of 2,000 coins, this is a much more compelling -gamified- way of interacting online.

Of course, this mode is only supplementary to the main content of the game, but it doesn’t help hide the fact it feels redundant and pointless. It’s hard not to wish for something more exciting in it’s place.

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Quick Link – an easily overlooked masterstroke in fluid design!

There is also a ‘Quick Link’ alternative for connecting with players locally through the 3DS’ own wireless. By simply holding the A Button or touching the Touch Screen while on the Quick Link screen, two players can connect and begin battling in seconds. This is one of Sun & Moon‘s most welcome improvements and one that will… hopefully… never be removed from future games.

*gulp*

The Legacy of Pokémon Z

Another element that perhaps stands out unintentionally is the inclusion of a ‘Zygarde’ side-quest. Zygarde is a legendary Pokémon carried over from the last generation of games Pokémon X & Y (not everything was left behind, at least). In Sun & Moon, you’re tasked with tracking down parts of the creature to reconstitute it’s fragmented body.

It’s not that this isn’t an enjoyable side mission, but it’s plainly obvious that it has nothing to do with the main story or themes of the Alola Region. It’s safe to say that as Zygarde was third the Pokémon of an ‘X, Y and Z initialism, this side-story was probably intended to form part of a third game in the X & Y series, and the existence of a ‘Pokémon Z’ game was long speculated by fans up until the announcement of Sun & Moon in 2016.

Additionally, the new Z-Moves mechanic also feels as though it has been lifted from another game entirely, and it’s easy to imagine a Pokémon Z was perhaps in production at some point but then scraped due to time, money or marketing constraints.

Z-Moves are a kind of ‘super move’ players can use once per-battle. Choosing when and how to use a Z-Move can change the tied of battle and has the opportunity to influence the deeper meta-game of the series.

It’s a novel idea and it’s obvious that part of the goal for this mechanic is to make weaker Pokémon more competitively viable, as any Pokémon has the chance to execute these awesomely powerful attacks. In relation to this, Mega Evolution is no where to be seen and has been all but abandoned by Sun & Moon (relegated to a post-credits collectable). It’s easy to see Z-Moves as a like for like replacement and in that sense it doesn’t hit the mark.

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Z-Moves. Superficially exciting.

While Mega Evolution would grant you a ‘battle length’ super-form, providing both greater power and some fantasy fulfilment for fans of specific Pokémon , Z-Moves feel less special. Each one comes with a lengthy animation in toe, and although it’s amusing to see Meowth crush a Growlithe into the side of a mountain, Dragon Ball-Z style, it grows repetitive quickly. Overall, the effects of the attacks (although devastating) are not as exciting as the presence of a Mega Pokémon in the arena.

It’s a shame then, that these two ‘Z’ features feel like piecemeal content from another game … It would have been much nicer to see the Zygarde plot-line tied up in the last Generation (something missing from ORAS maybe), but it’s easy to make these comments in hindsight and as of now it’s not known what went on behind the scenes with the presumed Pokémon Z game development. It may never have existed at all.

Conclusion

Overall, Pokémon Sun & Moon proves a massive achievement for Game Freak and the Pokémon Company. Not only is this the most visually and audibly impressive title on Nintendo 3DS, it shows that the company is able to reinvent the series and change how we think about Pokémon. However, it is also proof that despite all the new additions, the development team still dies hard on old habits, as certain features and game mechanics which fans loved are removed or discarded with no apparent logic or reason.

For a Pokémon fan, or anyone who has been temped to try the series in the past, this is the perfect time to play. The new Pokémon are among the cutest and more awesome there’s ever been and the Alola Region is an absolute joy to experience! But sadly, this is still not the perfect Pokémon game as so many have claimed, just a very good attempt at it.

Graeme
@FossilArcade

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