The Pokémon Series Evolves
The original Game Boy Pokémon games inspired a generation to be the very best like no one ever was. Worldwide, trainers set forth on an adventure to capture and raise the titular Pocket Monsters. Twenty years later, the series remains as strong as ever, spawning dozens of sequels and hundreds of Pokémon. Pokémon Sun and Moon cap off the series’ yearlong anniversary celebration and show us how far the franchise has come. Not only does Pokémon’s seventh generation provide a robust execution of the game’s ever-growing mechanics, but it also challenges the traditional structure of every other mainline entry, resulting in a fresh evolution of the series.
If you’ve ever donned a Pokémon trainer’s cap, Sun and Moon’s base gameplay won’t surprise you. For those uninitiated, you play as a young trainer and raise unique creatures known as Pokémon. By capturing them in Pokéballs, they are yours to train. As your Pokémon battle other trainers’ monsters, they become more powerful, sometimes even evolving to stronger, larger forms. Each Pokémon is distinct, sporting different elemental types (Fire, Water, Electric, etc.) and game-changing abilities. The joy of discovering new Pokémon and picking a team of six favorites still forms the backbone of these installments.
Fans have enjoyed this structure for decades, but the developers at Game Freak have wisely chosen to spruce up the formula. The biggest difference is there are no gyms in the new region of Alola. You may be crying blasphemy, but the new Island Challenge feels fresh while still holding on to the series’ beloved gameplay. Instead of gyms, you engage in Trials scattered throughout the four Alolan Islands. These Trials vary from gathering ingredients to taking a memory quiz. Upon completion, you fight against a buffed-up boss-like Totem Pokémon. After finishing the trials on an island, you are worthy to fight its Kahuna, essentially a gym leader.
The autonomous Totem Pokémon mark a shift of focus to the lovable creatures themselves. Sun and Moon remind us that Pokémon are the stars. The new Pokémon Refresh, an upgrade to Pokémon X/Y’s Pokémon-Amie, lets you pet and feed your creatures via the Nintendo 3DS’ touch screen. Through Refresh, you can heal status ailments after battles at no cost. Even better, as you take care of your Pokémon, they will return that favor in battle. Loved Pokémon gain more experience points, land more double-damage critical hits, and dodge attacks more often. I hardly used Amie back in X/Y, but here, Refresh is clearly displayed as an option post-battle. You can ignore it if you’d prefer as well. But when I see my Pokémon ruffled up, I can’t help but want to clean it.
The focus on Pokémon extends to your means of travel. Instead of a bike, you traverse the world on Pokémon like Lapras and Charizard. They aren’t yours, but you are free to summon them as soon as they unlock. By far, the best aspect is that the series has finally gotten rid of HMs (Hidden Machines). In the past, you had to teach your Pokémon these special moves to get around. The HMs wasted potential slots for a Pokémon’s limited four-move set, but were mandatory to beat the game. Now, you can teach simply call on the new PokéRide summons to push boulders or surf. It’s more intuitive and also purely fun to charge a Tauros into a blockade of rocks.
There is a downside to giving Pokémon more autonomy. Wild monsters now sometimes call for help during battle, transforming it into a two-on-one fight. These “SOS Battles” can lead to some bonuses with stronger and evolved Pokémon appearing. However, it is a hassle during regular gameplay, especially since you can’t capture until you defeat one of them. Even worse, there’s no penalty for a wild Pokémon to call for help, so it does so immediately after attacking you. It’s a neat idea, but one flawed by its inconveniences.
The new Pokémon are high-quality and have a hint of tropical flavor. From the adorable owl, tiger, and seal starters to the majestic cover legendaries, each new creature breathes life into the world. There are new monsters based on Hawaiian leis, salamanders, red pandas, and sand castles, just to name a few. Additionally, new Alolan forms of old Pokémon allow you to see old favorites in a new light, for better or for worse. Though there are some amazing inclusions, like the fire-dancing Marowak and snowy Ninetales, there are also hilarious oddities like the awkwardly tall palm tree Exeggutor. While the effort to make old Pokémon new is appreciated, it would have been nice to see more novel creatures.
Sun and Moon’s new major battle mechanic is the Z-Move. Although intended to follow up to last generation’s popular Mega Evolutions, it doesn’t garner as much hype. Like Mega Evolutions, you can only use one Z-Move per battle. However, your opponent can block or lessen the damage considerably, with a move like “Protect,” for instance. There is a corresponding Z-Move and Z-Crystal for each type, and you obtain each type’s Z-Crystal through the Island Challenge. They are incredibly flashy and are fun to use during the game. However, as far as battle mechanics go, it’s more style than substance.
The new optional battle format, the Battle Royal, is decent. Battle Royal pits four players into a free-for-all match. You earn points by landing the final blow on a Pokémon, and the game ends when one player has run out of usable Pokémon. This mode generates unique strategies as well as luck-based outcomes. Brought a Pokémon to a sliver of health but an opponent finished it off? Shame, you get nothing. Battle Royals can be entertaining as a party mode, but they’re not meant to be taken seriously.
There are other quality-of-life improvements that trainers will appreciate. You can now see which moves are “super effective” or “not very effective” from the move selection screen, eliminating the need to memorize the type chart. It only activates for Pokémon you have faced before to prevent spoiling your initial encounter. When you catch a Pokémon, but have a full team, the game now asks if you’d like to add it to your party. You can increase a Pokémon’s base stats with Hyper Training. Grid movement is also gone, allowing you to move freely in any direction with the circle pad. Finally, a map with objective markers on your bottom screen ensure that you will never get lost.
Both Sun and Moon are fundamentally identical, with the exception of version-exclusive Pokémon. Additionally, Pokémon Moon reverses day and night in-game, which means if you play during the day, it’s actually nighttime in the game. It’s a minor difference, but one to keep in mind.
The story is a step up from previous generations with one of the most entertaining teams in recent history, the nogoodniks of Team Skull, and some of the most mold-breaking characters the series has to offer. The journey’s linearity is par for the course, but this game especially makes it clear by blocking you off from areas until you beat the Island Trial. Coupled with the slow opening, veterans may get disheartened. Worry not, for the game picks up after the first island.
What a journey it is! The Hawaii-inspired region of Alola comes alive through the impressive visuals and music. Thanks to a shift from the traditional overhead view to a more natural perspective, the world sucks you in with its vibrant colors and lush life. Each island is distinct and offers an array of environments. Even battle backgrounds display your current terrain. The animations during battle are as exciting as they’ve ever been, with some new ones added in. The only con is that the game chugs on an old 3DS, especially during battles with more than two Pokémon. There’s also a lack of 3D, aside from a new lackluster photography mode (it’s no Pokémon Snap!). For the first time, characters have realistic proportions. This complements the character customization tool, and your custom hairstyles and clothes will stand out.
Relaxing island tunes comprise the soundtrack, and the trademark composition of battle music is familiar and energetic. Of particular note are the hip beatbox stylings of Team Skull’s themes, the futuristic Aether Foundation music, and the island chantings from the main Alola theme.
When you’re not journeying through Alola, you can also visit the new Poké Pelago. Here, you interact with your stored Pokémon in gradual increments, similar to how mobile games work. You can train your team, hatch eggs, send Pokémon on expeditions, and perform other tasks, provided you are willing to wait hours for them to finish. Its passive nature makes it super effective. While you are playing the game proper or even while not playing, everything continues moving in Poké Pelago. You then return and reap the rewards later.
Festival Plaza is not as effective, and is actually a downgrade of a feature from Pokémon Black 2/White 2, Join Avenue. Within the plaza, you can interact with trainers who you’ve passed online or offline. By taking their requests, you gain Festival Coins which you can spend on any of the facilities in your specific plaza. Each facility has a different function, whether training your Pokémon, dyeing your clothes, or selling rare goods. However, unlike Join Avenue, you can’t upgrade your facilities. You either get a random new facility after earning coins or buy facilities from other trainers. While a great setup can go a long way, a barebones set of stores is only moderately useful.
More importantly, the Festival Plaza is where you engage in online multiplayer. Whereas previous games allowed you to always be online while playing the story, you are now limited within the confines of the plaza. That said, the online is fantastic. All the multiplayer options that have kept the community alive are present here. Battle with trainers around the world through the Battle Spot or official championship tournaments. Compete in singles, doubles, and Battle Royals online. Trade with anyone in the plaza, or test your luck with a random Wonder Trade. The Global Trade System (GTS) likely represents your best chance at catching ‘em all, with players depositing their Pokémon and requesting specific creatures in return. Even though it’s all limited to the plaza, it works. The extensive multiplayer and the everlasting desire to catch ‘em all and raise the best battle-ready Pokémon will keep your adventure going past the roughly 30+ hours of story and postgame.
There is always an expectation for Game Freak to deliver the classic gameplay that has enamored us for years. With Pokémon Sun and Moon, I can safely say that they have not only accomplished this, but have also given us groundbreaking changes in how we perceive the traditional Pokémon journey. Whether there are gyms or trials in the next game is unforeseen, but this newest generation represents a radical shift and a wondrous excitement for the future. If you’ve somehow avoided the Pokémon series up until now, this is one of the best entry points the series has ever had. For those of you who already love the series, pack your bags for the Alolan Islands and embark on one of the freshest journeys to date. Alo-la!
What are your thoughts on Pokémon Sun and Moon? Which version are you getting? What are your favorite new Pokémon and starters? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!
Note: Both Pokémon Sun and Moon were used for this review, with Moon being the primary version played.