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The Ever-Growing Complexity of Pokémon X/Y

Nintendo's latest portable RPG juggernaut offers more monsters, and more ways to catch 'em all. But will the changes be too much for the game's own good?

With the X & Y Versions of Pokémon for Nintendo 3DS less than two months from launch, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company showed the press a tiny slice of the game it had prepared for the Pokémon Game Show happening this weekend in Japan. The 10-minute demo showed off only the barest slice of the new features in store for the series' sixth generation, but I saw just enough to leave me wondering about how this latest entry will turn out.

Of course, the game's most obvious changes are its most superficial ones: Namely, its graphics. For the first time, a core Pokémon game makes use of fully 3D graphics (though curiously, only the battles take advantage of the 3DS's eponymous three-dimensional graphical effects), making it perhaps the last holdout in the industry's march to visual advancement. The game looks perfectly decent, with a cel-shading effect to help assuage the tears of those who'll pine for the lost art of 2D sprite work, though the graphics do come off as being a bit on the sparse side.

Water type? Yeah. Water type.

Beneath the polygons, though, X/Y falls right in line with what you'd expect from a Pokémon sequel. Characters control a trainer who commands a party of up to six pokémon, led by a unique starter monster. The demo randomizes its trainer and starter selections each time, though the former is more or less a cosmetic change (each of the two playable trainers -- male or female -- faces the alternate trainer as a rival for one of the demo's three fixed battles) and the latter is business as usual. The three starter selections (Fennekin, Chespin, and Froakie) each embody a different one of the game's three core elemental affiliations (fire, grass, and water, respectively), and your randomized rival will always lead your fight with the pokémon to which your starter is weakest.

However, the demo also reveals hints of some of X/Y's more meaningful changes. Right behind the starter creature lottery selection come several of the new creatures in the game, most notably Sylveon. While Sylveon may seem like little more than another of the Eevee line's seemingly unending potential evolutions, its elemental typing is classified as "Fairy," the first new addition to the series' intricate roshambo of combat mechanics in years. Each pokémon bears a combination of one or two element types that determine not only the nature of its skills but also which monsters and elements it carries advantages (or disadvantages) again, and Fairy is the first change to this matrix since 2000's Gold & Silver versions.

This guy is called a Skiddo. Not to be mistake for a Ski-Doo.

Sylveon's new typing brings to bear a much-needed weapon against the notoriously overpowered Dragon type, which tends to be ridiculously strong against everything expect Ice-type creatures. Generally speaking, Dragon-types show up in the final portions of a Pokémon game as an infuriating wall to progress, often singlehandedly capable of dismantling a player's entire party. Of course, Fairy-types have their own weaknesses, but it'll be nice to advance into the final chapter of X/Y without the dread certainty that another stupid dragon will pulverize your team.

The demo also showed off the most gimmicky addition to X/Y's tool set, Mega Evolutions. In this case, players are given a level 100 Mewtwo on the verge of a mandatory Mega Evolution to face three level 100 creatures belonging to this version's "pokémon professor," Prof. Sycamore. (We can safely assume this won't happen in the actual game.) The Mewtwo automatically transforms into its extra evolutionary form upon taking its first action, which proves more than sufficient to allow it to wipe the floor with the professor's maxed-out party (which includes a Crobat and a Dragonite).

Only a limited number of creatures in the game can undergo Mega Evolutions, and they can only do so after they've found their corresponding Mega Stone (which is specific to their species), but they seem preposterously powerful -- perhaps too much so. According to the representatives on hand for the demo, there's no real limitation on these forms. Although the evolved pokémon reverts to its natural form after the battle (reactivating the Mega Evolution wastes a round of combat), and a pokémon must use up its item slot to hold its Mega Stone in battle, there seems to be no real downside.

So, you probably won't be seeing this in the actual game. Certainly not 10 minutes into it. Viva demos!

Pokémon commands an enthusiastic audience of players who obsess over its multiplayer battle system. The series' mechanics are constantly undergoing subtle tweaks to smooth out imbalances and make as many creatures, combos, and strategies viable for hardcore competitive players. The deepest Pokémon grognards take battling tournaments as seriously as any fighting game or StarCraft fanatics, and I can't help but wonder how they're going to take to these new features. Pokémon tournaments operate under their own baroque custom rules to prevent any particularly easy-win strategies from dominating the system, and Mega Evolutions seem like a clear candidate for exclusion.

And I also have to wonder how well the game will hold up to the influx of these new mechanics on top of the 100 or more new creatures that will make their debut on top of the nearly 650 different creatures coming over from previous generations. At what point does Pokémon's depth and diversity become baggage? Will Pokémon X/Y feel like a breath of fresh air, or will all these new features just prove to be added weight on a framework that never really changes?

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