Pokémon players tend to fall into one of two camps: Casual players who pick it up occasionally and cruise through the story, and the ferociously dedicated types who pick up each and every iteration and do their best to dissect the competitive meta-game.
I fall very definitively into the former category; Pokémon Sun & Moon is the first time I've touched a mainline Pokémon since Black & White 2. This means, of course, I can't really speak to Pokémon's post-game content or the player-versus-player game. Honestly, the full reality of that aspect of Sun & Moon won't become apparent until well after the game's launch, and our resident hardcore Pokémon fan Kat Bailey will definitely be dismantling and writing about that aspect of this new generation.
Instead, I've approached Sun & Moon from a more relaxed perspective. I don't care about EVs or IVs, and if we're being candid here, I still can't remember what Fairy-type is super-effective against. Still, while I can't speak to the experience the compulsive-breeder spreadsheet jockeys will have with Sun & Moon, I can definitely say that the newest Pokémon feels like a huge leap forward from the previous games. I suppose the impact would feel somewhat diminished if I'd played more than a few hours of X and Y versions, but as it is I've more or less leapt from, say, a SEGA Saturn level of technology and presentation to something that looks and feels for all the world like a lost, late-generation PlayStation 2 game.
While Sun & Moon doesn't mark the series' first foray into proper 3D graphics, the tech feels far more refined this time around. Character designs feature more realistic proportions and a greater level of detail, the world finally feels organic rather than like an arrangement of square tiles, and the pokémon themselves demonstrate much more personality than ever before. Case in point: I went with the new grass starter, a rotund owl named Rowlet, and prior to its first evolution it's basically like going into battle with a Tumblr collection of GIFs featuring adorable birds wearing bow ties. Once it evolves, it gains what appears to be floppy '90s skater boy bangs, which it preens before chuckling behind its wing when happy. It's so good.
Not every creature here speaks to me quite like an owl wearing a bow tie and laughing privately to itself, but every single critter you fight and/or capture here demonstrates a similar level of attention paid to its presentation and personality. I mean, there's only so much you can do to create player affection for a certain pesky pokémon that dogs you with constant random encounters every time you step into a cave (because Game Freak evidently believes that this annoying design element is part of Pokémon's inextricable charm), but nevertheless each and every creature in the bestiary has its own distinct battle animations and animations for the "pokémon care" mode wherein you can groom, pet, and feed your beloved captives to increase their sense of happiness and enhance their performance in combat.
Grooming isn't an entirely new feature, I realize, and it's ultimately more or less optional if you don't really care to partake, but I honestly find it to be an essential part of the game this time around. Pokémon has always softened the fact that its fundamental concept amounts basically to cockfighting by presenting captured pokémon as loyal friends who share mutual love and admiration with their trainers; while that still feels somewhat undermined by the fact that you'll end up with 100 or more captured and forgotten creatures languishing in a storage case somewhere, you do at least get to have more direct interaction with your current team of six. It takes more time, but Pokémon has never struck me as a game to center around the critical path, so the extra investment of play time feels natural.
In fact, Sun & Moon feels less like a journey along the critical path than any other game in the series I've ever played. The new Alola region draws its inspiration very directly from Hawaii, and as such it takes place across a series of islands. While breaking the game into several discrete, self-contained areas could have resulted in a sense of suffocation and smallness, it manages instead to encourage players (or at least this player) to take the time to explore each island before moving along. While you can travel back to a previous area with little trouble most of the time, the added step of taking a ferry from section to section gives those movements a greater sense of commitment. I'm probably playing it wrong, since I arrive at each new island rather over-leveled for the main story, but what's the point of an RPG if you can't play the role the way you like?
Structurally, Sun & Moon doesn't differ that much from previous games, despite the segmentation of the world. However, it does present the main character's central journey - the conquest of the region's best eight trainers - with a new metaphor. Rather than containing gyms centered around specific element types and trainers, Alola has a more laid-back island style that ties in with the region's indigenous gods and traditions. While you still face off against "captains" and "kahunas" who serve a role similar to that of gym leaders, the gyms themselves now play out as man-versus-nature trials in which you venture into shrine-like locales to take on "totems": Basically, super-sized (and super-powered) versions of standard pokémon. Not only are they alarmingly tough, they can also call in other creatures for support to harass you and complicate the battles. Even playing slowly and collecting more EXP than was probably intended, I've found these fights to be a real challenge... especially when the totem pulls in creatures that offer supporting buffs and debuffs.
The totems' ability to summon help isn't unique, though; it's something all wild pokémon in the game share. In all honesty, though, this is probably the least enjoyable thing about the game. Getting a wild creature down to critical health for capture only to have it call in backup can be really annoying, as you're only allowed to throw a pokéball when your target is alone. And suddenly having your opponents double in number when you're facing off against a random encounter that carries a strong typing or skill advantage against your party can ruin your day. It might not be so bad if summoning weren't a free action, but wild pokémon can attack and call for help in the same turn... and they can bring in a friend to fight more than once per battle. So wilderness encounters in the tall grass can become weirdly protracted.
I'm also not entirely sold on the idea of Z-moves, super skills that you acquire throughout the journey. These enable the pokémon you battle with but are functionally tied to the player, not the creatures; unlike TMs, they don't require you to commit a skill slot for them. Instead, they work as an enhanced move you can activate once per battle, and are only available to pokémon that match their type. In other words, you acquire different Z-moves for different creature types throughout your quest, and you need to have suitable pokémon in your party in order to execute them. Once you have a few in hand, this is fine, but the first couple of Z-moves that show up related to types I didn't care to have on hand (fie on your "balanced parties"), so I couldn't even activate these abilities until fairly late in the game. And even then, I didn't feel particularly compelled to make use of them, since they remind me a bit of old Final Fantasy summons: Lengthy, flashy animations that slow the pace of battle without necessarily yielding the results to justify it.
On the other hand, the removal (finally) of HMs is a welcome and long-overdue revamp of the series' basic workings. Rather than being forced to carry around creatures who give over a precious combat slot to crummy but essential moves like Surf and Fly, you now gain the power to call specific pokémon allies for a ride when you need to perform those actions. Functionally, in terms of map navigation, this all works out the same: You can't travel over water until you earn a ride with a seafaring pokémon. But no longer having to juggle and build your party around these fundamental skills removes a useless burden from the mix and allows players to build their parties far more to their liking and puts an end to the cruel practice of creating "HM slaves."
Mostly, though, the biggest revolution this game has to offer comes in its presentation. Game Freak took an extra year off before delving into this generation, and the break did a world of good. This is the first time a Pokémon game has ever felt, well, contemporary. It's not just that the graphics look like top-class PS2 visuals (though certainly that doesn't hurt, especially on the 3DS's compact screen), but the direction and pacing of Sun & Moon has shifted to reflect the new presentation style as well. The camera feels livelier and more dramatic, characters have more dialogue and play a more significant role in the adventure, and story sequences have greater impact. Likewise, the world feels larger and less broken up, with areas blending more naturally into one another. Granted, there are definitely some seams in the presentation - the developers didn't bother (or didn't have time) to create certain simple animations, like climbing ladders, so you frequently experience moments where the screen fades to black as those trivial actions are performed. On the whole, though, Pokémon has joined the 21st century at last. And it's about time.
I'll be finishing up Sun & Moon this week, as will several other team members, and we'll have our final score up and ready in time for the game's launch. In the meantime, though, it's safe to say that while Sun & Moon doesn't change the basic Pokémon formula, it definitely freshens up the experience in welcome ways. With a great world, appealing graphics, reduced nuisance elements, and more opportunities to connect with your critters, this feels less like "the latest Pokémon game" and more like "the next Pokémon game."
Day two thoughts
I find myself in more or less total agreement with Professor Kat's thoughts on Alolan forms. Indeed, the mix and balance of creatures present in the Alola region is one of Sun & Moon's strengths. Previous generations have always done a pretty spotty job of integrating their new slate of pocket monsters with the existing creatures, but Sun & Moon strikes a great balance. Alolan forms is a big part of what makes the game work: New and old creatures appear in more or less equal numbers in Alola, but many once-familiar faces appear don't feel quite so rehashed this time around thanks to their visual overhaul. It creates a sense of a bigger, more varied game world and reinforces that the Alola region marches to its own distinct rhythm.
If anything, Sun & Moon frustrates me a bit not because of its own inherent issues, but because it throws the stagnation of recent generations of the game into sharp relief. This game represents an overhaul Pokémon has dearly needed for about a decade. It mixes up the game flow, the relationship between free play and narrative linearity, and of course the creatures themselves. Elements like mega forms have showed up in recent generations but ultimately felt like little more than window dressing - trivial non-elements that amount to rearranging the furniture in a badly dated-looking room rather than giving the space a proper reconstruction. With Sun & Moon, it feels like Game Freak has finally hired some contractors and made an investment in bringing things up to date.
I realize there will be enormous resistance to some of the game's changes, because role-playing game fans are nothing if not conservative. But all the things that seem likely to rub Pokémon stalwarts the wrong way - the increased emphasis on story, the removal of gyms, the old-and-new mix of creatures - makes a compelling case for a more casual fan like myself. I never found Pokémon games particularly compelling until Diamond & Pearl, which represented a fairly significant renovation of the series; Sun & Moon's changes make the fourth generation's tweaks seem downright modest. It's not a total reinvention of the Pokémon concept by any means, but there's enough here that looks and feels fresh to instill me with confidence that Game Freak doesn't want to coast on familiarity. It's easily one of the finest RPGs I've played on 3DS... which is definitely saying something, given how many RPGs I have loaded on my system.
Man, I needed Pokémon Sun and Moon. It's been a mean, cold November, but Pokémon Sun and Moon is happy, friendly, and warm. Every minute I spend with it is like being wrapped in a woolly blanket on a wet, grey day.
Of course, Pokémon Sun and Moon has no problem selling itself without the aid of the current political climate. My Pokémon obsession sits comfortably in the middle of the hardcore spectrum: I'm not as hardcore as Kat, but I've been with the series since Red and Blue. From my point of view, Pokémon Sun and Moon is a lovable, darling game filled with humor and adventure. Alola feels like a living, breathing world – a place I'd love to live in, and not just because the weather is nice. For all the years I've been playing Pokémon games, Sun and Moon finally convinces me that Pokémon are truly humanity's partners, not just accessories and tools.
Part of that is because Pokémon Sun and Moon ditches HM moves for the much more personable "Ride Pokémon" that clear away obstacles, ferry you across the water, and help you dig up secret items. Ride Pokémon make travelling around Alola a seamless, pain-free experience, and it also adds a real touch of personality to the region. Riding on Lapras is one thing. Riding on Lapras using a specially-constructed seat while wearing a combination bathing suit / water safety gear? That's something else.
The Pokémon series' single-player campaign is long overdue for Sun and Moon's shake-up, but it's kind of hard to fault Game Freak for waiting this long. Pokémon X and Y is the series' first transition into full 3D, and Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire is built off pre-existing material. Pokémon Sun and Moon feels like Game Freak told itself, "All right, we've got our house in order, so let's have some fun in the sun."
And the final product does indeed deliver fun in the sun. Can't wait to see what Pokémon does with the Switch.
Pokémon Sun and Moon's trek through Alola is the most engaging campaign the series has offered in a long time. Not everything on Sun and Moon's plate is perfect – Z-Moves feel underwhelming, and you're still going to commit the overwhelming majority of the Pokémon you catch to PC Box Hell – but this is one tropical getaway that's worth every penny.
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