The Pokémon franchise is now 20 years old and to celebrate this occasion Game Freak has released a new set of games for the 3DS. Now, there is nothing particularly interesting about this fact relating to the anniversary but Sun and Moon tried to innovate the series in ways that had been set in stone since the first games released 20 years ago. Did Game Freak meet with success or did they simply fall into the innovation for innovation sake trap?
If you’ve played any game in the franchise you’ll understand what’s going on fairly quickly. Start the game by picking a Grass, Fire or Water Pokémon, travel around the region battling trainers, catching and training Pokémon for your team, becoming a Pokémon master, etc. The core gameplay hasn’t been touched and luckily, it doesn’t need fixing at this point. One major change to the series is the removal of Gyms. Pokémon Gyms were places with strong trainers that specialized in a specific type that once beaten, give you a badge which allows access to a certain HM (Hidden Machine) move, and the ability to have higher level Pokémon obey you (only an issue if you were given or traded them). You would also receive a TM (Technical Machine) and move on to your next challenge.
Replacing the Gyms is the Island Challenge with is made up of Trials. You will make your way through the 4 islands of Alola, each with a set number of Tails, taking on the Kahuna in the Grand Challenge at the end. This format is quite interesting as not only is there not a set amount of Trials for each island, but they don’t all involve battling. You do have to fight a Totem Pokémon at the end which are basically stronger versions of Pokémon, typed using the challenge’s type, but the actual Trial it self can include things such as hunting in a forest for items to make a soup or going through an abandoned shopping center taking pictures of Ghost Pokémon. I found this mechanic a welcome change of pace to all the battling.
There were some other formula changes, some major, some minor. HMs are replaced by a new feature called “Poké-Ride” which allows you to call a Pokémon you’ve registered to be ridden and perform certain tasks. Tauros can charge forward which increases your movement speed and smashes rocks, Stoutland can sniff out hidden items, Lapras can carry you across water, etc. You can map 4 of these to the D-Pad for quick access or push the Y button to bring the list of all up to pick (if you’re next to water and push A Lapras will be used as well). You can’t register Key Items anymore as most have been added to some other feature. The map is on the bottom screen at all times, Item finder is Stoutland, bike is Tauros and the Fishing rod can only be used in specific areas with rocks visible underwater by pressing A.
The story is actually pretty good. Nothing mind blowing and no major plot twists most players won’t be able to guess but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had in past entries and that is helped by one major fact. THE CHARACTERS ARE LIKABLE! That, for me, is the single biggest improvement from X and Y. Lillie goes through some major development, Hau is just all around likable, Gladion starts off seemingly like your typical edge-lord but has some interesting motivations and personal struggles, Team Skull grunts actually have personality and Team Skull actually has motivation other than “let’s be evil but fashionable!” and even side characters have charms to them making me wish they showed up more (Mallow and Lana).
Visually the game looks a little better than X and Y but not by much. The frame-rate also dropped a bit on my 3DS XL in battles (even worse in double battles) although I think this issue is resolved if you have a New 3DS and it’s not like it hampered gameplay or made me frustrated. For all the Pokémon available from past games models are taken directly from X and Y or Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire which isn’t really an issue. Some I’d like to see changes to in the future (the Pokémon that never flap their wings for example) but I’d be fine if most stayed the same in future games.
The soundtrack is really great as well which isn’t anything new for Pokémon. I found myself humming along to a number of tracks as I made my way through Alola. Some of the Pokémon cries were a little quiet. Sometimes when I pressed Y on the Pokédex after catching a new Pokémon the fanfare would sometimes drown them out.
Moving on to negatives, why not start with the one everyone hates, SOS Battles. While I can see advantages of them for shiny hunting or EV training they seem far too common. What happens is after a wild Pokémon attacks it can call for help. If successful another Pokémon can come, usually from the same evolution family but can be others. There is also a chance of failing. These are annoying because frequently I’d just barely not knock out a wild Pokémon and I’d end up in a chain of 3 or 4 before I finally landed a critical hit or the call failed. I also am trying to complete my Pokédex so I’m training weaker Pokémon and they often can’t 1 hit KO the wild Pokémon and certainly can’t handle a 2 v 1. It would be much more enjoyable if Pokémon couldn’t call and attack on the same turn or if the rate was lower when the wild Pokémon and yours were closer in level or something similar.
I also found the encounters themselves to be annoying. A lot of wild Pokémon will be from the Yungoose family (day) Rattata family (night) or Wingull family. A lot of newer Pokémon had > 15% encounter rates on 1 route (quite a few with 5%). Why? I want to use the new ones I haven’t had a chance to play around with not Wingull and Caterpie again. There’s a few Pokémon with a 1% chance of appearing with fishing (including a couple new ones) and some you can only get through SOS Battles with specific Pokémon or, for some, with specific weather conditions on the field (not started in battle). I like how not everything is common but the fact almost all routes have Yungoose and Rattata or their evolutions with others players might actually want are stuck behind these time consuming encounter methods is frustrating.
Some evolution methods are also annoying. These are mostly Pokémon that need to be leveled up in specific areas such as Crabrawler which requires snow to evolve meaning you’re waiting until near the end of the game to evolve yours. To fully evolve Grubbin, the early game bug, you need to wait until the final island.
I also really hate how you interact with friends in this game. There’s 2 options for local and 1 for online. Locally you can use Quick Link which is meant for interacting with random people around you but unless you’re in areas a lot of people will be playing you’re probably safe to use this to interact with your friend next to you. To guarantee you get to play with your friend (or play with friends online) you need to go to the Festival Plaza which is a combination of Generation 6’s Player Search System (PSS) and Black 2 and White 2’s Join Avenue. Since the PSS was one of the easiest ways to play with friends this should be great, right? Well there’s no separate section for Friends and Guests so you have to dig around your guest lists looking for each other (you are labeled if you are 3DS friends but you can be really low on the list) and any options I tried to remove the randoms but keep friends didn’t work. After you have interacted once you can add them as a VIP which puts them on a special list but you still need to find them once.
The Zygarde core/cell collecting mechanic needs some work as well. Why is there no way to see how many we still need on a particular island? I’m missing 1 and I really don’t feel like following a guide to every single place they were (there’s 100 in total) just for the 1 I missed with nothing to lower the areas to search.
This last thing is a bit of a spoiler for a post game side quest.
I thought catching legendaries was really boring in this game. Aside from the box legendary and the Tapus everything else is just found in the grass and you’re directed to the exact area to look. It takes all the fun out of catching them when they’re just like any Pokémon, especially since most are Ultra Beasts and you keep getting special balls for them, which I never used more than 4 on a single beast. People have complained about legendary Pokémon being easy to catch for a while now and this generation probably had the easiest.