It’s the 20th anniversary of Game Freak’s one-of-a-kind franchise, and with it comes significant change. Modernization, some might call it; enhanced accessibility—while purists likely will turn up their nose initially. Ultimately, though, after all these years, evolution was warranted. Has it been for the better?
Pokémon Sun and Moon are set in the world of Alola, a network of tropical islands inhabited by Polynesian-style cultures modeled rather transparently after Hawaii. It’s here to which our protagonist has travelled all the way from Kanto (the first region to be featured in the Pokémon series) to try his hand at collecting and training a whole new assortment of exotic Pokémon. Awakening in his room at home, he shares a brief exchange with his mom and then heads on his way.
It isn’t long before he runs into Lillie, a strange young girl who keeps a very curious-looking nebula Pokémon in her satchel. Also nearby is a new, much friendlier form of “rival” who in fact is more friend than competitor. He’s a very positive individual, recklessly so it seems, with an adventurous spirit and an extroverted nature that follows him throughout the rest of the campaign. The story then sprawls outward from there—never becoming too complex, of course—but still finding its own healthy dose of twists and turns, accented by colorful characters along the way (such as the hilariously hip-hop posers, the Skull Gang, as well as a rather suspicious and curious bunch of folks known as the Aether Foundation).
That’s all fine, but the honest truth is that the story’s relevance to the overall experience is tangential at best. The characters are fun to follow and the environments are varied, but ultimately, the real meat of the experience is—as it always has been—catching and building a portfolio of Pokémon. To that end, the dialogue can seem rather longwinded at times, which tempts the player to simply mash the A Button while skimming over the text for the big ideas.
At the same time, Pokémon Moon works hard to push the player along a much more linear path than in previous Pokémon games, with far fewer side quests to undertake and random exploration to enjoy. This part of the experience I certainly missed; although there are still legendary Pokémon to hunt, rare variations of Pokémon to encounter (such as shiny and Alola-specific versions of classic Gen I creatures), and a handful of secret areas to go along with them, for the most part, Sun and Moon are a very linear experience. There really isn’t a whole lot of exploring to be done, whether throughout or after the main story is completed.
If you’re able to accept that regression, however, most everything else here is undeniably positive. The presentation alone provokes a double-take; rather than the usual cookie-cutter two-dimensional overhead approach, Sun and Moon feature fully 3D environments augmented by a good bit of accompanying detail. The camera angles are still fixed—which can be sometimes irritating—but from the very first moment, it’s evident that this is a very different Pokémon experience.
The soundtrack is also terrific; although it’s nearly completely comprised of sequenced MIDI, there are a few live instruments here and there, and the compositions are frequently optimistic, energetic, and awe-inspiring.
And that’s only the beginning of the refinements. Battles still largely preserve the series’ traditions (thankfully), but the touch interface is (optionally) well implemented, with informational icons accompanying every selection and nifty animations depicting the action. Have trouble remembering every last aspect of the Pokémon Type Chart? Fear not; for the first time, Sun and Moon provides helpful “Effective”, “Super Effective”, and other tags to indicate which moves from which Pokémon will be of use to you in a battle—even when you’re choosing a Pokémon to switch to. This feature is automatically activated following the first battle with each new Pokémon you encounter.
Before we go further, there’s one addition which we felt actually was predominantly negative overall: the “call for help” dynamic, which allows wild Pokémon to request assistance—arbitrarily—from another of their kind at any point during a battle and without sacrificing their turn. It only succeeds around half the time, but it’s really more of a nuisance than anything else. It makes long battles even longer, and short battles longer than they ought to be. And it makes catching those Pokémon ever more annoying, because you can’t snag them if there’s an accomplice in play. It’s survivable, but it really doesn’t add much to the formula (and we won’t miss it if it’s absent from Pokémon Mars and Jupiter).
Whereas linearity and a fairly one-dimensional story do little to improve the campaign, major revisions to the foundational Pokémon game template yield absolute benefits. Gone entirely are Gyms, replaced now by Trials, wherein the Captains (previously Gym Leaders) put our hero through a series of unique challenges (hunting for items in an area, identifying sounds and jingles properly, and so on) before eventually sending them into battle with the mighty Totem Pokémon for that Trial.
Completing a trial will no longer earn you a badge, but rather, a considerably more useful Z-Crystal. These can be equipped by Pokémon of matching types to unleash special (powerful) Z moves, which can only be used once per battle. Should you use it early to sap an enemy’s health for a leg up early on in the battle, or would it be better to wait? That’s the angle you begin to mentally explore as you become more accustomed to this new mechanic.
Also now a relic of history are HMs (or Hidden Machines for you noobs out there), which were always a pain in the posterior to begin with. Previously, these were integral to progression through the story, as the moves they bestowed were required to scale certain aspects of the environment and bypass particular barriers. Instead, HMs have all been converted to TMs, which can be used an indefinite number of times as a bonus.
What about the environmental functionality they previously provided, though? That’s now been offloaded to Ride Pokémon, which can be invoked at any time regardless of the composition of your current team of creatures, and which do not consume a slot in the moveset of any of your Pokémon. This is a notable and arguably well overdue revision to the formula.
Otherwise, even just the general layout of the world is a breath of fresh air. The game is a series of islands rather than one major landmass, and all of them have their own defining features, environments, and of course, Pokémon. Completing each one and moving onto the next instills a unique sense of accomplishment, almost as though you were beginning an entirely new adventure. The islands vary in their scope and layout, and you will revisit them throughout the course of the adventure.
The actual selection of new Pokémon is decent. Roughly 80 or so completely new Alola Pokémon take center stage, and by and large they are creative and well-conceived. There are around 300 total Pokémon in the native Pokédex, meanwhile, bringing the grand total in Gen VII to a little over 800. Earlier we mentioned Alola variations of existing Pokémon—these are essentially re-rolled flavors of classic Gen I creatures with type adjustments and new art (a neat idea).
Apart from progression, plot, and pacing, the gameplay itself is very similar to that of previous Pokémon games, with the ability to battle via touchscreen selections and play one-handed (with an optional L = A toggle) still included. As attractive as they are, we still wound up disabling animations after a few hours of play simply because they take so long to endure. Unfortunately, the same is still true of battle openings, which span several seconds at minimum. Couple this with the “call for help” system we explained earlier and the player is likely to go heavier on the Repels than in previous titles just to avoid the hassle of having to wait another 20 seconds to continue their journey each and every time an unwanted random battle occurs.
On that note, grinding is (fortunately) hardly an issue in this game, as most of the boss and trainer battles we experienced were relatively simple. That isn’t to say that there is no challenge present, but it doesn’t feel as though the player needs to spend an inordinate amount of time forcing their levels upward just to tackle the next trial. However, we did focus quite heavily on exploring and collecting whatever Pokémon were common to each individual area before moving on, so that certainly helped.
Apart from the main adventure, myriad other distractions also exist, some with notable appeal. There’s a Pokémon care and grooming mini-game that can be invoked at the will of the player where the touchscreen is used to interact with the creatures—brushing, washing, and feeding them, and thereby enhancing their admiration of you. It’s unfortunately pretty ho-hum.
On the flip side, the Festival Plaza—which becomes available early on and is directly accessible at any time via the pause menu—is a unique environment where the player can earn Festival Coins by taking part in various activities. These coins “level up” the plaza and add new features, such as shops and attractions.
The ultimate benefit of the festival plaza is the ability to acquire rare items (such as Master Balls and Rare Candy) and upgrade your Pokémon in a variety of ways (such as by tweaking Effort Values, stats, and Happiness). People that you meet and others playing online become randomly available in this space, and it’s worth taking part in for the boosts to Pokémon stats and attributes alone.
The rest of the multiplayer features are straightforward, and local connectivity is smooth and without much fuss. The implementation of Friend Codes for direct online interaction, meanwhile, guarantees an archaic internet play experience which probably isn’t going to consume a lot of the player’s time. Not a whole lot has evolved in this area, but Pokémon has always been a better experience with local friends anyway.