Video Games Review: Pokemon Sun and Moon (3DS, 2016) stands as one of the finest in the entire series

Niantic’s Pokemon Go quite obviously paved the way for the next installment in traditional handheld Pokemon games to make a big impact on the video game market. We are now in the seventh generation of the irresistible RPG series and, as expected, dual titles Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon have been breaking sales records since release.

Is the success justified though? Over the years Game Freak have been about refining, streamlining and tweaking a winning formula while increasingly building upon a Pokedex which is now bursting at the seams with creatures both impressive and confusingly stupid. All the games have been incredibly fun, addictive and familiar, but none have been particularly daring until now; Pokemon Sun and Moon marks the first time the main Pokemon games have broken away from convention, Game Freak presenting a mold-breaking game that balances tradition with progress; not just the next logical step for Pokemon, but an inventive leap as vibrant as the thoughtful new maps.

First let’s talk about some of the biggest changes, the most noticeable of which is the move away from gym battles (more on that later), which though awkward at first start to make sense when you consider the game’s location. The new setting is Alola, a world of interconnected islands that’s obviously shaped after Hawaii. Though it’s not just the landscape which emulates the famed archipelago, there’s a certain relaxed culture and warmness found throughout the game that is arguably more human in atmosphere than previous Pokemon titles. This lends to a story that feels more natural and grounded, and though ridiculous at times, is complex and, most importantly, interesting.

Of course you’ve got natural progressions from the constant streamlining this series has done in previous years, cutting out much of the laborious button-pressing to present a cleaner, easier user experience that although still fairly repetitive, is conscious of a generation that’s not necessarily as patient as your everyday gamer was 20 years ago. Though a more seamless menu does save time, Game Freak certainly haven’t given much thought to how frustrating their constant cut scenes can be. While most do progress the story, some are just completely unnecessary, and the fact that non-playable scenes overloaded with dialogue seem to be much more frequent than with previous titles can interrupt momentum.

Where gyms were shallow machinations to break the map into stages, Island “trials” seem to penetrate deeper into the story, and many moving parts revolve around them. They also spill outside of the usual confides of a gym and highlight more of the world that has been built so beautifully for this game, throwing in various challenges both surrounding combat and introducing fun, albeit pathetically easy, activities.

Instead of progressing from one trainer to the next in the hopes to get to the gym leader, you’ve got themed mini-games like scavenger hunts, photo expeditions in haunted supermarkets (harking back to Pokemon Snap days) and even a hilarious round of “spot the difference”. Passing these different activities always leads to a totem Pokemon, which is basically just a monstrous version of an existing Pokemon. It’s fun, but the potential isn’t completely realised. Totem Pokemon are often far too easy, edging you into the idea of actual strategy only to require not much thinking at all; I found myself doing away with a totem in two measly turns, which had me wanting for a return to the traditional gym format. Even the big kahuna of each island, that is the island protector who you face after each of that islands trials are complete, is ridiculously simple to beat when compared to previous titles. The game’s understandable need to be approachable for all ages holds it back more often than not.

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As gyms have gone, so too have badges and instead your reward for beating each trial (and your key for opening more of the map, bypassing contrived roadblocks) is a Z-Crystal, each matched to the Pokemon type (Fire, Water, Dark etc) of that particular trial. What these Z-Crystals do is allow for even more variations past the traditional end-game that is stage 3 evolution; where previous titles introduced Mega Evolutions, these Z-Crystals interact with a special ring to allow you to mix it up during battle, essentially granting you a fifth, very powerful and (usually) charmingly animated move (a Z-Move) that you can use only once per battle. Some of these Z-Crystals are specific to particular Pokemon, but most are matched by type. Thereby if you have a fighting Z-Crystal, you can give it to any Pokemon who knows a fighting move, and so on. The best thing about having these moves is how ridiculously over-the-top they are, and though most are overpowered they make for some fun strategising once the game finally decides to throw some difficulty at you.

In mentioning moves, one of the biggest changes is the absence of HM’s. Traditionally HM’s are teachable moves that aren’t able to be replaced (without constant visits to the game’s sole Move Deleter) and allow you to traverse the map. Fly, Surf, Waterfall, and others have long been inconveniences because they take up room for a Pokemon who is only able to juggle four moves at once. Enter the ‘Ride Pager’, which you come across fairly early in the game. This is a summon-style item which instantly props you onto a Pokemon who you can ‘ride’ and who can perform abilities outside of battle (Charizard can fly; Tauros is basically rock smash; Lapras is surf, etc). It’s a smart (overdue) move that eliminates a huge source of frustration. Don’t fret if you need powerful moves like surf and fly in your life though, they’ve just become normal TM’s.

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The highly detailed environments are really what keep the story flowing along, but there’s also been some considerable effort put into the story and it’s playfulness, many accents almost seeming intentionally subversive in order to really highlight the fact that Game Freak are finally taking some risks. You have the professor who is so laid back (and kind of cheesy) that he just walks around with a lab coat and no shirt, then you have little humourous self-aware references to point out how ridiculous this is; it’s but one example of the tender comedy in the dialogue.

One misfire – at least initially – however is how offensively over the top the “villains” (Team Skull) are. They are fashioned after rap-loving hipster kids and are coloured with exaggerated stereotypes of hip hop culture, complete with mannerisms and prototypical slang in almost every sentence. There are only so many “yo” and “homie” references I can take before I get the feeling that hip hop is being patronised in a way. Fortunately, Game Freak do eventually take these obnoxious kids and add some depth in a game-stealing hideout invasion sequence. Through the use of a sinister and controlling organisation, and a mysterious outlier, Game Freak have given this otherwise dull arc some layers, creating an interesting dynamic that helps these villains move out of the dull, overreaching and melodramatic world of previous antagonistic groups.

The battle mechanics have seen a major rework as well. You’ve even got small, welcome details like the trainer standing behind their Pokemon miming commands while the battle rages on, or the new set of text under each move set that indicates how effective they are against the Pokemon you are battling (note that this analysis shows up after you have already registered the opposing Pokemon in your Rotom-Pokedex). Then you of course have better animations for most moves, and the ability to bypass the menu and go straight to your list of Pokeballs in just one button-press.

Pokemon Refresh is another big change, a mode you can enter after each battle and make use of the stylus to feed, pet, and even cure you’re Pokemon of any stat changes (Poison, Sleep etc). It kind of makes items like Paralyz Heal and Antidote a bit redundant (unless you are using them mid-battle) but it sure as hell makes life easier.

Game Freak have even introduced a new mode of battle, continuing to experiment with function, not only by allowing some wild Pokemon to call on allies (usually just one before you best them both) but looking at a four-corner “Battle Royal” as a way forward for multiplayer. You represent one corner while three other players (or CPUs) are in others, every Pokemon for itself. Ideally, this puts more of an emphasis on strategy but I only see that being completely realised when you’re battling against other players; the few Battle Royale sequences in the solo playthrough are far too easy, and barely scratch the surface of this new mode.

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Then you have the new roster of Pokemon who are mixed in with others (mostly Gen I). Building a team of different critters through catching or trading is and always will be the heart of this franchise and why it works so well, so it’s perplexing why Game Freak haven’t put more thought into this new Pokedex. There are some great new additions (as well as moves and abilities) but many of these represent some of the worst concepts yet (a daisy chain and a freakin’ sand castle? c’mon). To further this disappointment, the majority of newbies only have two stages of evolution as opposed to the more exciting three, the developers seemingly oblivious to the fun and pride of actually evolving to that final third stage, which keeps level-grinding from being as repetitive as it is.

Some of the ability choices make zero sense as well. For example, one of the coolest new Pokemon is basically this generation’s Gyrados. It evolves from the useless Wimpod to become this enormous bug/water creature, only to be ruined with one of the worst abilities in the game: “Emergency Exit”, meaning that it automatically withdraws from battle once it’s health dips below half – even when you don’t want it to.

There should also be more dragon Pokemon coming into the flock, but instead the focus is on building up the stock of Fairy creatures, all of whom sport some of the worst concepts in the game (said daisy chain being one of them). Thankfully, there are more interesting hybrids, with the game even revisiting some Gen I Pokemon and tweaking them a little bit so they are site-specific. An example of this is Muk, who is now rainbow coloured, which would easily be laughable if the story didn’t cleverly explain the change in an off-cuff series of dialogue with a pair of waste disposal workers.

Another win with the Pokedex this time around is the clever introduction of Ultra Beasts, the existence of which is weaved into the main story. These beasts are impressive in concept and design, allowing the game to play around with world building sci-fi themes, but the majority of your physical interaction with such beasts is saved for a post-game arc. It would have been nice to play through the game and collect these gargantuan creatures along the way.

Pokemon Sun and Moon have certainly raised the bar for Game Freak, not only culminating in years and years of refinement but bringing in a boatload of significant changes that switch up the tried and true formula without alienating what made Pokemon so special to begin with. There’s still a lot that needs tweaking in order to come up with that perfect Pokemon game, but for now Sun and Moon stands as one of the finest in the entire series, one truly deserving of its record-breaking success.

Review Score: 8.5 out of 10

Highlights: Beautifully detailed setting; fascinating story; maps worth exploring; progressive trials fun and engaging (albeit short) while taking place across maps; ride pager; z-crystals
Lowlights: Performance issues on older 3DS models at times (totem battles, battle royale); not enough new three-stage Pokemon; alarmingly simple battles; neat ideas that are never fully explored due to a lack of difficulty
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS

This review is based on Pokemon Sun.