When the 3DS launched back in 2011, I couldn't wait for a proper Pokémon game to arrive for the thing. As much as I loved and obsessed over Pokémon White at the time -- ultimately investing around 2,000 hours between that game and its sequel -- I still longed for more than what the antiquated DS hardware was capable of delivering. The Pokedex 3D app only served to fuel my impatience with its fancy, high-poly models and total lack of any gameplay whatsoever.
Now that I've finished my journey through Pokémon's 3DS debut, however, I find myself wishing Nintendo had taken more time with X and Y.
Don't get me wrong -- Pokémon X and Y are, in many ways, precisely what you'd want from a new Pokémon RPG. They look fantastic. They're packed with fresh gameplay mechanics that will no doubt fix and break the competitive metagame in all sorts of fun ways. Even some of series' less accessible elements turned out a little more transparent this time around. Overall, I very much approve of the direction Pokémon is headed with X and Y.
With that said, I cannot think of another Nintendo game that felt as rushed as these two -- a strange development considering the company's reputation for holding projects back in the interest of additional polish.
The most immediately apparent sign that things may not have gone according to plan during X and Y's gestation is the lack of 3D functionality throughout large portions of the games. The handheld's depth slider flat-out doesn't work while traversing the overworld or in the vast majority of dungeons. It's also disabled during fights involving more than two Pokémon at a time, leaving just select cutscenes, minigames, a few special locations, and one-on-one battles to take advantage of the device's stereoscopic capabilities. Furthermore, switching on the 3D in these unrestricted scenarios turns an already inconsistent framerate into a rotten one. Don't bother.
Ignore the 3D altogether, though, and Pokémon X/Y look really, really nice. Previous attempts at rendering Pokémon with polygons rather than 2D sprites always had this plasticine, toy-like quality to them. With X and Y, on the other hand, the developers have applied a thin, black outline along the edges of 3D models -- it's very subtle, unlike, say, Pokémon Rumble Blast's harsh cel-shading. As a result, Pokémon in X and Y come closer to duplicating their official Ken Sugimori-drawn artwork than they have in any other game to date. I can only hope the style carries forward as the franchise inevitably spreads to more powerful platforms.
Pokémon in X and Y come closer to duplicating their official Ken Sugimori-drawn artwork than they have in any other game to date
Beyond the switch from pixels to polygons, Pokémon X and Y introduce a ton of changes to the games' core set of rules. The addition of Fairy-type Pokémon and other tweaks to pre-existing type matchups render old threats less fearsome while also granting renewed purpose to Pokémon who've historically suffered from limited competitive viability. Similarly, Mega Evolutions allow previously known quantities like Charizard and Venusaur to surprise us once again by transforming mid-battle. And that's all on top of the requisite pile of new Pokémon, abilities, and moves. Hardcore players should have plenty to digest over the coming months.
As for Pokémon's more casual audience, X and Y have them covered, too. The new Super Training mode provides a series of simple minigames as an alternative to older stat-boosting methods that, frankly, are too complicated for me to go into at length here. The games themselves aren't super fun on their own, and it still takes a long time to train a Pokémon to its full potential, but it's a welcome option nonetheless. In addition, X/Y let you interact more directly with your Pokémon by feeding them treats, petting them, and getting them to do tricks à la Nintendogs. None of this stuff really does anything for me, personally, but I can see kids going nuts over it.
The trouble with all these new toys is that they highlight just how stagnant other aspects of this series have become over the years. If you've played a Pokémon game going all the way back to the original Red and Blue, then you know exactly what to expect from the dungeon and gym design in X/Y. Recycled puzzles and too-familiar environments drain much of the joy from exploring Pokémon X and Y's world. And where Black and White deviated slightly from the near-interchangeable stories of prior Pokémon games, X and Y revert back to the same uninteresting plots Pokémon fans are well accustomed to by now. Yawn.
Post-game content seems light compared to earlier titles, but then again, a lot about Pokémon X and Y feels underdeveloped. For example, X and Y contain fewer new Pokémon than any previous generation. Mega Evolutions help fill some of that void, but temporary transformations of old monsters simply don't inspire the same sense of wonder as stumbling upon an entirely unknown beast. While DLC could remedy this to some degree, I would have preferred more stuff to discover in the base product.
X and Y also currently lack any method for importing Pokémon from the DS games. Pokémon Bank, the companion app designed to facilitate cross-generation transfers, still doesn't have a release date in the U.S. as of this writing -- announcements in Japan and Europe suggest a late-December arrival. The ability to carry legacy teams forward into modern games is one of the defining characteristics of Pokémon, so I'm stunned that this crucial system likely won't be available for months to come.
I can't begin to guess whether or not a few more months in the oven would've translated into a steady framerate, a longer list of new Pokémon, and a functional import option. But I do know that Pokémon X and Y are, by some of the series' own standards, incomplete in their current form. Given the choice between a delayed game and a disappointing one, there's no question which D word I'd pick.
As I've played through Pokémon X and watched spoilers worm their way across the Internet to a chorus of fan freakouts, I've found myself wondering how differently the game would affect me if I were, say, 10 years younger. I feel like the most hardcore Pokémon fanbase consists of the kids who were entering elementary school around the time Red and Blue made their debut in the U.S. -- the ones who cling fondly to the original 151 and swap stories about crazy rumors they believed, like "Pikablu" and that mysterious pickup truck. The ones who coveted holo-foil Charizard cards and longed to hack Mew onto their carts.
I wonder: How will X and Y strike these diehard Pokéfans? The series' move to 3DS brings with it some of the most visible changes in the franchise's nearly 20-year history, and Game Freak has conspicuously returned to the first generation of games here to dredge up beloved characters and concepts so they can put a new spin on them. The "mega evolutions" of favorites like Blastoise and Mewtwo, I suspect, probably hit these fans every bit as dramatically as the game's more obvious move into full 3D visuals. The revised elemental match-ups and the addition of the Fairy type probably blow their minds as much as the move to a region inspired by France.
But as someone who passed over the first three generations of the series, I feel like all this drama is pretty much lost on me. Instead, like Dustin, what I see in X and Y is a reminder of just how little the series has evolved over the years. Yeah, now it has PS2-level graphics instead of PS1-level, and some old monsters have fancy new forms, but the structure and story have become so formulaic that you could just hack Pokémon Gold and Silver to feature a few more French names and you'd basically have X and Y.
I don't even mind the relatively small number of new creatures in X and Y, because honestly the Pokémon bestiary become unwieldy after it broke the 500 mark. There's a reason Black and White totally wiped the existing bestiary off the table until the post-game, and every time I hear about a new generation of this series I cringe at just how much redundancy will inevitably come in tow. Do we need yet another super-common Normal-type creature that no one will bother using after the second gym? Not really, but here's Bunnelby anyway! After the freewheeling, import-crazy style of last year's Black 2 and White 2, the tame predictability of X and Y feels like a huge step backwards.
The new visuals fail to impress me, too. Sure, I like the creatures themselves -- they really look fantastically close to the source artwork -- but everything else drifts between "bland" and "awful." Battle backgrounds try to compensate for a stark lack of detail with some minor animation and depth of field effects, but they're terminally boring. Far more offensive, however, is the utterly terrible camera that makes navigating certain areas (like the main city) a maddening chore. We all know Pokémon's been slow to move into 3D, but in playing X and Y I had to wonder if that's because the developers didn't realize people have been making 3D games for decades. There's no other explanation for the fact that they fell afoul of so many basic interface flaws that were sorted out years ago by the rest of the industry.
The structure and story have become so formulaic that you could just hack Pokémon Gold and Silver to feature a few more French names and you'd basically have X and Y.
Maybe this makes me weird, but what I found most interesting about Pokémon X was the fact that I could customize my character. I found myself constantly short on cash and tools because I kept sinking all my earnings into different outfits for my trainer. When the clerk at the boutique in the region's central town hurried me out of her store with the admonition that I wasn't fashionable enough, I took that as much more of a challenge than any trainer could offer.
I feel like there must be some secret undercurrent of reinvention lurking beneath the surface of this game, something only the truly dedicated (i.e., people like Dustin) can appreciate. I'm sure they'll be picking over the new mechanics and rebalanced monsters for months to come. For a less invested player, though, X and Y once again feel like more of the same. I suspect you get out of X and Y what you bring in -- and as someone who only plays Pokémon to goof around and see how far I can get with the most amusingly designed creatures (ask me about the time I trashed Victory Road with Luvdisc, Spoink, and Tropius!), I didn't find much about X and Y to engage my enthusiasm. But your mileage will almost certainly vary, fanboy.
- Visuals: Pokémon finally look right in 3D. Shame about that choppy framerate, though.
- Audio: Apart from one specific throwback to a very old theme, I found most of the music in X/Y forgettable. Pikachu says his name now, which is cool, I guess.
- Interface: Pokémon's countless menus nested within other menus are now slightly easier to navigate, particularly when using touch controls.
- Lasting Appeal: Multiplayer is where these games get their legs. Unfortunately, we won't be able to test any of the online modes in X/Y until after release.
Despite the nagging feeling that something's missing, Pokémon X and Y make some huge leaps forward for both the competitive and casual crowds. I just wish these games felt as complete as their predecessors.