Earthsea Evolved – Hoenn’s back and better than ever in Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire are comparatively black sheep among fans of Nintendo’s monster-catching franchise. Whether there are truly any “bad” Pokemon games is really up to whether you enjoy the series as a whole. If you’re a fan, you’ll surely find something to love about each and every game. As a rabid fan myself, I have my favorites and least favorites, and a glance down at my writer profile will make it clear to assume the truth of this matter; I have quite a bit of a soft spot for 2003’s Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, the very same games most often panned by series fans.
After so many years of hearing players voice their thoughts on the faults and shortcomings of one of your favorite games, you will likely find yourself in one of two positions. You may find yourself giving in to those voices, yourself starting to see things from the dissenters’ viewpoint and losing the love you once had for the game in question. The other possibility, and the one I find myself having stood firmly within, is one in which you become systematically able to debate the validity of some points, accept others, and ultimately grow a pretty thick skin.
Therefore, the announcement of Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire earlier this year was exciting. A chance to redeem some of the most under-appreciated games in the series, fixing the issues that caused a lot of players to leave the games with nothing but feelings of contempt. But is anything fixed, or do Pokemon Omega Ruby and Aplha Sapphire serve no greater purpose than to showcase the flaws of the Hoenn region? Charge your Pokenav, lace up your running shoes, and make sure your bag is stocked. It’s time for yet another adventure in the world of Pokemon.
As with every Pokemon game, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire put you in the well-worn sneakers of a young person taking up the mantle of a Pokemon trainer. Your first Pokemon is given to you by the bumbling but kindhearted Professor Birch, your next-door neighbor and the father to one of your rivals, (played by the trainer character you don’t choose to play as). The good professor also gives you a pokedex, entrusting you with the task of capturing and recording data on every Pokemon in Hoenn.
Gameplay doesn’t receive any major tweaks from last year’s Pokemon X and Y. There are eighteen elemental types like fire, water,and grass, and each Pokemon will have up to two. Combat is turn-based RPG fare at its core, with varying rules such as double battles, which require two Pokemon on each side of the battlefield. Pretty much every Pokemon native to ORAS’ Hoenn region has received a whole bundle of new additions to its movepool in the three generations of games since the original Ruby and Sapphire eleven years ago, making for a broad variety of creatures and tactics to take and develop on your journey. Mega Evolution also returns, making up for the lack of any new Pokemon in these remakes by instead giving players a new batch of Mega Evolutions for classic monsters, like Sableye, Metagross, and the even the game’s starter Pokemon.
Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire take place in Hoenn, a region steeped in lore. One of four regions based on parts of real-world Japan, Hoenn once served as a battleground between the legendary Pokemon Groudon and Kyogre, a pair of Pokemon given chaotic power over the earth and sea, respectively. This means that Hoenn is a naturally extremely diverse place, with great mountains, deep forests, a vast desert, and island towns dotting the sea around the mainland. It’s a very fun region to explore.
Unfortunately, as cool as Hoenn is, it also continues to yield what has always been a huge issue for players; a lot of water. It fits within ORAS‘ lore that a very large chunk of the region would be situated in the sea, and these sea routes are very open and can be a fun challenge to navigate. However, they can start to get really monotonous when they are almost all inhabited by the same bunch of Pokemon. This fact is only made worse by contrast to the stunning variety of Pokemon populating the mainland of Hoenn. It makes you think; it’s not as though all of the Pokemon in the tall grass are grass-type, so should all of the Pokemon in the sea really have to be water-types?
ORAS may not have a lot of new to offer in the gameplay department outside of some new Mega Evolutions, but it manages to tie in 3DS technology to some of the unique aspects of Ruby and Sapphire, in really great ways. Something unique to Ruby ad Sapphire, later semi-replicated in the DS’ Diamond and Pearl, was the ability to create your own personal secret base, by going up to special spots in trees or rock walls and using a particular move. Secret bases could be decorated to your liking, creating a perfect home-away-from-home. In ORAS, secret bases make their return, now integrated with StreetPass functionality. Trainers can plan out their bases to be akin to a gym, with their own custom team of Pokemon for others to fight. StreetPass and QR codes allow players to share their secret bases with friends, and even save the ones they like to their own copies of the game. This makes Hoenn not only a more personable place, but also an ever-changing one.
Also new to Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire is the reinvented PokeNav, a feature originally from Ruby and Sapphire. In ORAS, the PokeNav has more functions than ever before, all of which can be found running smoothly on the bottom screen at all times. Here you can check to see if you’ve caught all Pokemon in a given area, and even use a radar function to find any special monsters with unusual moves. There’s also a fully equipped minimap, plus all of the features from Pokemon X and Y, including Pokemon Amie, letting you play with and bond with your Pokemon; Super Training, perfect for raising stats for competitive play; and fully integrated online features, showing all your friends, online and offline, and giving quick access to online battles and trades. These features were great in X and Y, and they work just as well here.
Minigames in Pokemon have always been a bit of a tricky subject, but many agree that Ruby and Sapphire actually had one of the best; Pokemon contests. In contests, a Pokemon’s moves have whole new abilities, and are sorted into one of five categorizes; coolness, cuteness, beauty, toughness, and cleverness. Four trainers will have their Pokemon perform moves in front of an audience, wooing the crowd and building their appeal. Contests are still a lot of fun, and work so well because instead of being completely different from the core Pokemon gameplay experience, they take that experience and re-integrate it in a new way. There are four ranks of contest halls to go through, and a lot of stat developing to be done, in order to become a champion of the contest realm.
Hoenn was always a beautiful region, and never has it looked better than on the 3DS. If you’re one of the few who deeply loves the handheld’s 3D capabilities, you may be disappointed to know that Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, like X and Y before them, do not fully run in 3D. Certain areas like caves and mountains do so, and single-Pokemon battles can take place in 3D, but doing so can cause considerable frame rate drop, and generally isn’t worth it. Three-dimentional failings aside, ORAS is a stunningly beautiful game. Bright color fills everything, and already-imaginative areas are vibrant with even more life. Little details like starlight reflected in pools of water show a certain sort of attention and effort. Postgame includes the ability to fly across the region on the back of a legendary Pokemon, giving a beautiful view of the region in its full splendor.
There is, sadly, one catch to this exploration of beauty. One of the staples of the Pokemon series is HM moves, special moves imbued in items that can be taught to Pokemon in order to clear obstacles or continue on your way. Many newer games in the series have relegated the necessity of HM moves mostly to optional sections, with only a couple exceptions. Having four or five utility moves spread out across six Pokemon isn’t too unreasonable, but ORAS, as in the originals, contains eight. As if that weren’t growingly inconvenient enough, three of them are water-type moves, meaning that if you have a functional water-type Pokemon in your team, you’ll have to utterly choke its moveset in order to fully navigate the region unhindered. HM moves can’t easily be forgotten like any other move, either, instead forcing players to go to a particular character to have them removed.
The story in Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire is a little bit silly, but leads to a fun campaign nonetheless. There are two criminal groups in Hoenn, tellingly named Team Magma and Team Aqua. The former is after expansion of the land, while the latter wants expansion of the sea. What better way to do this, of course, than to take control of the legendary Pokemon that once held devastating control over those very same aspects? The story progresses a bit clunkily, but leads to some very memorable battles and characters. Story in Pokemon has never been the forefront of the experience, nor should it be; ORAS‘ story mostly serves simply to drive the player father along, collecting gym badges and getting stronger.
Perhaps more notable in the story department is the postgame Delta Episode. This second story involves new characters and a new threat, incorporating some different legendary Pokemon into the mix. The postgame itself in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire gives players much more to do than in X and Y. Players can take on online play, fly across Hoenn finding rare legendary Pokemon, follow the story of the Delta episode, and engage in contests. It’s sad to see that the Battle Frontier from Pokemon Emerald did not make a return, as many fans hoped (raises hand), but this absence is easily made up for.
Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are still Ruby and Sapphire at heart, but the upgrades make all the difference. The gameplay of the series is as close to flawless as it always has been, and it can be fun to play with monsters untouched since the original 2003 games to see how their movepools have changed, as well as discovering the brand-new selection of Mega Evolutions. The new integration of StreetPass into the game’s Secret Base functionality adds a ton of personalization, and being able to check the region route by route for undiscovered Pokemon allows a very hands-on approach for completionists to finish their work on the Pokedex. If the surfing bothered you before, I can’t exactly tell you it won’t bother you now. But if this is your first voyage to Hoenn, give it the benefit of the doubt. Flaws aside, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire still offer a grand and beautiful adventure. It gets four evil teams with questionable logic and motives out of five!
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: 3DS (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Game Freak; Players: 1, (1 to 4 online); Released: Nov. 21, 2014; Genre: RPG; MSRP: $39.99