Games Review: Pokemon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon (3DS, 2017) are sweet swan songs for the handheld franchise

Fans of the long-running Pokemon RPG series should already know what to expect when the franchise rolls into out a new generation. It all starts with an initial pair of handheld titles – in this case Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon – which is then followed up a year-or-so later with what is essentially a remix, either amalgamated into one additional title or two brand new titles. For Generation VII, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Pokemon Ultra Moon are those remixes, carrying on the established tradition of this unstoppable RPG series and refined, reassessed and finessed in a way that, on any other console, would be offered as DLC.

Game Freak have been doing this for years, and it’s expected that neither Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon (this review is based on time spent with the latter) offers anything substantially different to the first pair of titles. The basic story and how the player goes about unraveling it is very much the same, except there have been changes both noticeable (and sometimes ambitious) and subtle. One of the most endearing of these changes is the role of Lillie, who once again plays a very significant role in your story which is taken up a few levels here with well-written storytelling and character development that deepens and expands the game’s universe. Sun and Moon already represent the biggest departure from the usual Pokemon RPG to date, with the sprawling world of Alola split into four islands and the traditional gym replaced by “trials” with “boss Pokemon” at the end; now it’s taken a step further, and it feels grand with an expanded scope that tugs on an exciting sci-fi thread.

Small details are stretched and enhanced to make Alola feel like a more complete and rewarding experience for players who are deeply immersed in the world of Pokemon. Casual players who have already beaten Sun and Moon may find little to tempt them back into story here, especially since the brunt of changes are in the post-credit game, but those who really appreciate the story and often take their time with these games will appreciate the refinement. One big example is that NPCs have a lot more to say and offer, expanding on the universe with their own little dramas or requests that aren’t generic and expository; Game Freak have learned that NPCs have much more use than in-game instructions and easy items.

Even trials are a bit more exciting this time around. I personally prefer the gyms, but hiking your way up the ranks to a super-sized totem Pokemon is more of a challenge this time around. I felt the Totem Pokemon in Sun and Moon were ridiculously easy to beat and the initial appeal of battling a giant – and unfamiliar – creature wore of quickly. Here things are mostly the same, but slightly improved, lending to an overall experience that’s more engaging – especially for those who didn’t pick up the originals.

Wormholes are a nice addition towards the tail-end of the game, expanding the experience with new worlds to explore even if these worlds feel underpopulated and undeveloped. They merely exist to introduce a bigger contingent of rare legendary Pokemon into the game – the most substantial change as far as the Pokedex goes – as well as beautifully rendered settings that go well with the game’s remarkably colourful archipelago. But there’s little more than that, which leaves a big gap to be filled for when Pokemon’s RPG series moves to the Nintendo Switch.

Mini games which are better kept as pleasant surprises add some playful touches to the enhancement, as a reimagined Festival Plaza, but as with previous “upgraded” stand-alone versions of Pokemon there’s still not enough here to suggest it to, as mentioned above, more casual players who have already run through Sun and Moon. It’s longer, smarter, richer and slightly more fun, but there’s more repetition than not; for RPGs which are notorious for patient-testing dialogue and slow-moving stories, that’s not the best approach.

With all the refinement in UI that Game Freak has experimented with over the years, making processes all the more quicker and seamless, there’s still the lack of completely brushing over the tutorial elements towards the start of the game. I wish there an option to say “yes, I get it, I know how to throw a ball at a Pokemon and I know how to heal them, leave me alone” or at least a fast-forward button (similar to the recent revamp of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga).

The changes here are inspired and successfully introduce depth to a well-written story populated with interesting characters and what is arguably the most emotive Pokemon experience to date. But there’s nothing really beyond that. If you haven’t yet played Sun and Moon then this is an essential purchase; generation VII is an incredible expansion of the universe and, while it may not have the most exciting Pokedex, the big risks taken with the traditional Pokemon formula really do pay off. Though if you’ve already played (and probably twice, the franchise’s sense of replay value cannot be faulted) Sun and Moon you’ve got a bit of thinking to do before you make the investment. All things considered though, this is a beautiful swan song for the iconic franchise as Game Freak plan on moving away from 3DS to take Pokemon towards the Nintendo Switch.

Score: 8.6 out of 10
Highlights: Intelligent enhancements that deepen the story; better character development; more legendary Pokemon and Super Beasts; NPCs given better roles as the game progresses; expanded sci-fi element.
Lowlights: Most changes saved from post-credit story; not enough to tempt players who have already completed Sun or Moon; not really any new or exciting additions to the Pokedex; very slow at the start (especially with no option to skip tutorials).
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Available: Now

The reviewer was supplied with a copy of Pokemon Ultra Moon by Nintendo.