Welcome to Alola, trainers, where the grass is indeed greener.
After 20 years, the newest Pokémon generation could have simply fine-tuned the formula that’s already made the series such a renowned success, but that would have been too easy. Instead, Game Freak brought a massive overhaul to Sun and Moon by changing the usual staples of the games like gyms and badges, while also focusing on making the narrative as compelling as possible. The result is a new generation that will go down as one of the best.
Like previous titles, you start as a young kid who has moved to a new town, where you’ll have the opportunity to grow into the best trainer you can be. This time around your adventure takes you to the tropical region of Alola, where you’ll meet some of the most endearing characters in the franchise. This new regions is bright, vibrant, and full of new creatures for you to find. I was shocked at how beautiful the new region really was with its beaches and plant-life. There’s so much to see and explore!
The narrative itself isn’t all that different from the ones we’ve seen in the series before (battle your way through the region to become the best), but there’s an emphasis on story this time. Characters you meet are even more compelling than those seen in previous iterations. So don’t be surprised when you start seeing cutscenes, because it’s clear that these games aimed to be a more cinematic. That’s not to say you should expect full-blown voice acted/motion-captured scenes, but there are some tender moments that really hit home.
While I enjoyed this interesting new direction in storytelling, there were some pitfalls. For starters, the game takes a long time to even get started. You’ll have to read through plenty of text and complete several menial tasks before you can really start to catch and train new monsters. Pacing takes a big hit with this new direction as well. Some sections of the game dragged on forever because of how constantly I had to stop for a chat.
Then there’s the fact that your map now marks your next objective. I know what you’re thinking: “How is that a bad thing?” But this addition removed some of the exploration required when trying to figure out what to do. The new map is big enough that it might get confusing trying to find your way around, but there has to be a better solution to guide you to the next obstacle than this. Even with these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, more so than even recent Pokémon RPGs.
Now onto the good stuff! Instead of the typical gym structure that used to require you to collect badges, you’ll now have to take on Island Challenge Trials, which are actually quite different. Here you’ll have to complete some objective, like taking out three Pokémon or solving some other obstacle. Once that’s complete, you’ll have to battle a Totem Pokémon (a buffed up version of a normal monster, like the Raticate pictured above). And instead of earning badges, you get shiny Z-Crystals that unleash your Z-Moves. Unlike badges, you can actually use these new items in battle to activate these ultimate attacks. These moves are only usable and limited to one Pokémon per battle. Think of it as a last resort that can sway the tide of battle at any moment. It’s important to note that it doesn’t feel cheap like Mega Evolutions did in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
I have to say, as confusing as trials may have seemed at first, these sort of tests are much more interesting than any gym battle. I surely hope Game Freak keeps experimenting with this strucure in future games. My only issue is that they didn’t go far enough, I would have liked to have seen more puzzle-based challenges.
What makes this game so special, however, are all of the refinements made to the battles, traveling, and ease of use. I mentioned in my preview coverage that I didn’t like how after battling a Pokémon for the first time the game would notify you with details regarding what moves are strong against said monster the next time you bump into it. Well, I was so wrong. This new feature makes it so much easier to level-grind. You don’t have to put much thought into what attacks to use when grinding. It doesn’t even really hurt the quests much either because most of the time when you’re facing a tough trainer, they’ll be using powerful Pokémon that you won’t easily run into in the wild. Hence, you will still have to figure out how to defeat it in battle, so it doesn’t make the game as easy as I’d feared. And if I’m being honest, I hope it’s a feature that stays.
It’s really about the little things. There’s now a shortcut to Poké Balls when you’re battling so you don’t have to shuffle around in your bag when catching creatures. Your inventory is also cleaned up so everything from potions to key items are easily accessible. Avoiding battles is also easier because the screen will start to focus in on you when you’re about to walk in front of someone’s gaze. It’s absolutely brilliant. But my favorite new feature lets you add a Pokémon you just caught to your party. Every interesting Pokémon I found in the wild was instantly added to my team of six.
I was also surprised to see how amazing the attack animations are in Sun/Moon. Most of the moves I’ve used in battle actually had a complex animation that made battles that much more exciting. And the new addition everyone is talking about, Poké Ride, replaces HMs. You can finally leave that poor Bidoof and Bibarel alone. Poké Ride makes it incredibly simple to page in for one of these beasts to assist you get past a lake, smash some rocks, or give you lift to another location with a simple click of a button. One example was my usage of a Tauros that smashes rocks to instead help me walk great distances at a faster pace.
Alas, not every new feature is a winner. Wild Pokémon can now “call for help.” If successful, another Pokémon will come help the monster you’re facing. Not too bad, right? Wrong. This makes it a pain when trying to fill your Pokédex, because you can’t catch either pocket monster until you cleared at least one out. I can’t explain just how infuriating it was to be stuck in a loop where I’d deal with the extra Pokémon just to have the one I’m trying to catch once again call for help.
What sets this game apart from recent Pokémon games is the new monsters that were introduced. For the first time in a long time these new creatures feel inspired, and powerful enough to replace some of the usual suspects that make up my team (ie. Gengar, Arcanine). Mudsdale, the draft horse ground type monster, has quickly become one of my favorites thanks to its incredible strength. Alola region variants like Muk and Rattata are also absolutely fantastic simply because they feel fresh.
And can we take a second to gush about Rowlet? Holy smokes, this adorable grass/flying owl is one of the best starters in the franchise. This little owl is both strong and cute enough that I think trainers are finally going to choose the grass starter—something I never expected to say. This takes me to the point that the mixing of types together made for some interesting gameplay and great strategizing when building my team of six. I was actually using some of the lesser used attacks thanks to the strenghts of my team.
One last note, frame rate issues still plague double battles. Like damn, that needs to be fixed at some point.
While this new generation of Pokémon isn’t perfect, it’s one of the freshest titles in the series. Not only were features we already loved refined, but there are some experimental choices like having Island Challenge Trials replace gyms, that absolutely work in switching up the proven formula. The new Pokémon are great, the narrative driven story is compelling, and Alola is a region worth your time. This is a great time for you to jump into the series.
4 OUT OF 5
This review was completed using a Nintendo 3DS copy of Pokémon Moon provided by Nintendo. The game hits shelves on November 18, 2016 for the Nintendo 3DS.
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