The biggest departure in series history results in one of the greatest Pokemon games ever made.
I haven’t done much in the way of proper game reviewing in a hot minute. What have I been doing? Oh, you know. Traveling into jungles and mountains in terms of ancient wisdom, enchanted swords, and all that jazz. Eventually, a courier found me, and saw through the enormous beard I had spent so long growing.
“Sir,” he said, his voice timid. “I know you wish not to be disturbed, but…”
“What, boy,” I said, tapping my twisted wooden cane on the ground to show my impatience. “Can’t you see you’ve disturbed me from my study of Matt Fraction comics and Cartoon Network shows?”
“Yes, sir, of course I do,” the young man said, his knees shaking, “but the masters of the Poor Player said it was urgent that you come. You see…there is a new Pokemon game.”
Needless to say, I abandoned my cave and hermetic life, shaved my facial birds nest, and followed the boy back into civilization once more. It was time, once again, to catch them all. And as it turns out, this might be one of the best entries for any prospective hermit to catch. Fair warning: you probably can’t get wifi in your cave. I tried.
Pokemon Sun and Moon come in on the heels of some mixed feelings. 2013’s X and Y were initially praised for breathing some new life and charm into the series, from the advent of full 3D in a main series Pokemon game to the addition of Mega Evolutions and an eighteenth elemental type. After reflection, though, many grew dissatisfied with how easy the game was, feeling like a guided tour at times. 2014’s Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were great remakes, with beautiful visuals and new story elements, as well as some crucial UI additions. However, they still suffered by being remakes of what are generally considered to be some of the weaker titles in the franchise. Two years later, a whole new generation of monsters and adventures have come our way, and victoriously so; Pokemon Sun and Moon are some of the best Pokemon games ever made.
This may sound like an off place to begin, but in many ways it all comes down to setting, and what is done with that setting. The Pokemon series has always taken place in fictional regions based on real-world locations; there are four based on different parts of Japan, one on the New York area of the U.S.A, and one based on France. Sun and Moon are no different, taking players to the tropical Alola region, a place based on Hawaii. Alola is comprised of four main islands, each with its own Pokedex, and each with its own slice of Alolan culture.
If it sounds odd to be talking about culture in a Pokemon game, trust me, I’m with you. Pokemon Sun and Moon have a more distinct and genuine sense of setting than just about any previous entry in the series. From the locals’ signature way of greeting visitors to the traditions and folklore surrounding the four Guardian Pokemon who protect the region, it’s honestly surprising just how real each island of Alola feels. It certainly does miles more than the faceless towns in X and Y which were supposedly given character by hearing the occasional vaguely French thing in passing. The new Pokemon are all clever and fun designs, from the charming starters to a crew of wild tropical designs, like a haunted sand castle or a peppermint-striped praying mantis. The infamous Alola forms are also great, giving interesting new life to old monsters. A particular favorite (other than the well-known Alolan Exeggutor) in Alola’s take on Dugtrio, a Pokemon given long locks of golden hair in Alola, in order to represent the golden hair-like glass strands which can form in Hawaii’s volcanic regions.
But yes, to be sure, let’s get down to brass tacks. “Sure, the world is interesting,” some might say, “but in the end, isn’t it still just Pokemon?” The answer I would give can only begin with a hearty “well…” because of how many ways Sun and Moon break the mold that many had been demanding to watch be shattered for years now. Instead of the series’ traditional bracket of eight gym leaders to defeat in order to head to the championships, Pokemon Sun and Moon offer players the Island Challenge, a gauntlet of seven trials spread across the various islands. Although just as many turn-based RPG battles await in Alola as any other Pokemon region, the ones here are spaced out by the trials themselves, which show huge diversity. In one, I was playing a Pokemon Snap-lite ghost hunting game in order to find my opponents. In another, I was gathering ingredients to cook food that would attract a boss Pokemon. It’s the most time I’ve spent in ages in a Pokemon game not knowing what to expect next.
The one thing that can be expected at the end of each trial is a battle with a Totem Pokemon, a boss battle which introduces a couple new concepts to the mix. Each battle takes one of the Alola region’s charming and creative new creatures and gives it a stat-boosting aura, as well as the ability to summon partner Pokemon mid-battle. Sometimes these will simply be the pre-evolved form of whatever monster the player is facing, but later on some of the side Pokemon will be intended as nerfs to some types that would be strong against the Totem. Pair that with the addition of Z-moves, type- or Pokemon-specific buffs that transform normal attacks into Dragonball-style super-strikes.
The islands of Alola aren’t only vibrant and full of fun trials; they’re also open and challenging. There will always be a sense of where to go next, aided by a helpful map on the bottom screen, but there’s also a fair amount of openness to most areas. There was one point where I strayed off the story path for a good 15 minutes, found a dead end, and then found the story taking me back to that same spot an hour later. This freedom works in tandem with the largeness of the trials to encourage team variation, and I found myself switching party members far more often than I usually ever would. Players will have a chance to freely explore the mountains, valleys, caves and seas of Alola at their own pace, in harmony with the pace of the game’s own progression.
Progression is important to highlight, too, as Pokemon Sun and Moon stand as some of the more difficult games in the series. The way this was accomplished is more complicated than a simple sharp curve, and deserves note. In X and Y, the Experience Share item saw a huge upgrade. It was originally an item that would share the active Pokemon’s experience points with one other, but in X and Y it would affect and boost the EXP of everyone in the player’s team. This allowed players to level up fast enough that the games lost a lot of challenge at some points, and the idea of this issue continuing was troubling to many. It feels quite nice to report that, instead of removing or nerfing the upgraded EXP share, Game Freak worked around it in order to make the game more enjoyable. I switched my EXP share on through the whole thing, and still found myself in way more tight scrapes and painful defeats than the last several games have been able to deliver.
There are unfortunately some small places in which Sun and Moon falter, in UI and ease of access. Some gripes are trivial, such as the loss of handy quick-select menu buttons on the touch screen. One other that feels a bit more unforgivable is the loss of Super Training, a system which made the previously-inaccessible world of maximized stat training and competitive play a bit easier to understand back in X and Y. These new entries feature Hyper Training, a system which can maximize the base stats any given Pokemon can have, but it’s not the same thing, and arguably not even the most important. Also gone is the ease of access to multiplayer features, all of which now have to be found through a menu. There was something magical about having the faces of everyone I knew playing at the same time as me right there back in the day, and it would have been nice to see that feature endure.
If the positives/negatives balance hasn’t weighed in a positive enough light yet, this review cannot wrap up without making special mention of the story. Pokemon games have had disparate story involvement. Classic-era series entries had little story other than “collect gym badges, be the best.” Others, notably 2011’s Pokemon Black and White, have focused much more heavily on storytelling, to the point where it becomes the driving force moreso than the exploration and collection aspects. Pokemon Sun and Moon find an impeccable balance, with a story that builds up at a decent pace and populates the world with incredibly endearing characters. Lillie, a plot-centric character encountered early on, becomes one of the most well-rounded and developed characters ever included in a Pokemon game. There are genuine surprises, surprising tension, and real mystery, as the plot unfolds into one of cosmic powers, otherworldly Pokemon-like beings, and those who will stop at no end to capture and control them.
Everyone else is on that level, too. There’s professor Kukui, the man who gives players their first Pokemon, and who is much more involved in the goings-on of the Alola region than is typical for characters of his role. The loveable rival character, the four Kahunas who stand as the strongest trainers on the islands, and the villainous/goofy Team Skull all have incredible character. Nobody feels like an afterthought in this game. Every single character has a place, a personality, and a charm. The same is true for the way the Island Challenge is treated by Islanders. In previous games, the Pokemon League is well-established, and trainers from all over seemed to be constantly challenging Pokemon gyms. Here, the Island Challenge is seen as more sacred than that; it’s more ritualistic, and so it is seen as a bigger deal. Quite simply, it feels more special. As a result, so do Pokemon Sun and Moon as a whole.
Pokemon Sun and Moon is are great starting points for kids just starting with the series, but they’re also tailor-made for series veterans who have grown weary of series conventions. If you’ve dropped off, this is the Pokemon game for you. Put on your cap, grab your bag, go buy some poke balls, remember to stock up on potions and antidotes. It’s a jungle out there.