Friday, 10 March 2017

Pokémon Sun & Moon - Review

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: 3DS

Pokémon, like a lot of Nintendo’s long-running games, is a series that moves at a glacial pace, development-wise. Granted, each new game has offered additional mechanics to the basic formula; be it the introduction of new monsters, different moves, type combinations, extra evolutions and the like, but the central structure of eight gyms and the Elite four has been consistent since the late ‘90s.

It’s refreshing then, for Pokemon Sun & Moon to finally break away from some of these tired old tropes. More so than perhaps any other game in the core series, Sun & Moon bust out the feather duster and finally shake up the game mechanics.

After the very French (and rather bland) X & Y, Sun & Moon relocates to a Hawaiian locale this time around with the Alola region. Rather than the just being another network of routes and towns, the games instead breaks its world up further by spreading the adventure across four different islands that the player must tackle.

This does a lot for the game’s pacing. One of the primary flaws of X & Y was the lop-sided and rather haphazard progression, where your starter Pokémon was likely in their final form by the time you reached the second gym leader. Sun & Moon break down the gameplay into more palatable chunks, removing some of the more grindy and battle-heavy locations in favour of a more relaxed adventurous tone that better fits the setting.

Oh, and HM moves? Gone. No longer do you have to lug around some stupid creature that knows Cut, just so you can tackle minor foliage. In their place is the ability call ride Pokémon at will, such as a Lapras to surf along the beach, or a Taurus to break down rocks obstructing your path. It’s nothing more than a minor change in the grand scheme of things, but one that underscores the central strength of Sun & Moon. This is an instalment (or instalments, I guess) that actually feel like they’re improving on the basic mechanics of the series rather than simply aping them and dressing them up a little differently.

Alongside the new Pokémon, the twist this time is the addition of Alolan variants of older pocket monsters. This is a fantastic addition. Not only does this allow Game Freak to reuse and tweak classic Pokémon designs, it also makes perfect sense, thematically, with the source material. Of course Pokémon would adapt to their different environments and change as a result.

It helps that the Pokémon that do get the variant treatment are, for the most part, good designs that perhaps haven’t had too much time in the spotlight. Sandslash goes from being a Ground-type shrew to an Ice/Steel icicle creature. Ninetales meanwhile, shifts from being an often underwhelming and forgotten Fire-type to becoming a funky Ice/Fairy combo. Dragon types beware.

Game Freak aren’t afraid to axe more recent elements either. Mega-evolutions, that rather gimmicky addition in the last two instalments, have been removed completely. In their place is the new Z-move system, a game mechanic that fits far better with the battle system without feeling quite so tacked on.

Z-moves are once-per-battle attacks that typically hit for more damage than a regular move. Like with Mega-Evolution however, in addition to being a one time only deal in each fight, the Pokémon is required to hold a specific stone (there’s a stone for each type, along with a few specific to certain Pokémon, unlocking an exclusive Z-move), in order to activate their Z-move, meaning there is a drawback.

Another clever wrinkle that Game Freak add to this mechanic however, is that, in addition to providing a Pokémon with a super-powered move, the Z-stone can also enhance any other move that Pokémon may have that’s of the same type. Meaning that now effectively every move in the entire game now comes with a stronger variant. What initially looks like a simple change makes for one of the most comprehensive overhauls of Pokémon’s battle system since it began, and the closest it’s come to tinkering with that cast-iron four moves-per-Pokémon limit.

Sun & Moon is also the first in the series to do away with gyms completely, and instead bring in Alolan trials, a sort of halfway mix between traditional gym challenges and a Legend of Zelda dungeon. They fit the adventurous tone and atmosphere perfectly, clambering up a volcano to take on the Fire trial is far more evocative than simply wandering around a square room full of trainers that happen to wield Fire-type Pokémon.

It helps that these trials are suitably challenging, too. The last few instalments of the series have marked a trend in the games becoming easier and easier. X & Y marked the worst of this trend, with a pathetically easy Elite Four, and a game that on the whole was happy to have you miles ahead of your opponents teams in terms of levels, thanks to an incredibly busted experience share. Granted, these are children’s games about collecting weird-looking monsters, and so criticising them for being easy might be me potentially missing the point, but the series has always straddled a bizarre line between casual, kid-friendly appeal, and a rather hardcore J-RPG.

Fortunately, Sun & Moon brings with it a hefty dose of challenge. Opposing trainers feel like they have Pokémon with actual move sets, rather than simply a handful of random moves that they use interchangeably. Meanwhile, the nature of the trials means that for the most part you’ll be facing two-on-one encounters, as the Totem Pokémon (the effective replacement for gym leaders) almost always summon a supporting critter to help them out in the fight.

Even the game’s story feels like it’s trying to do something a little different. Whilst the central plot is still basically the same (leave mum’s house, become a champion at the tender age of ten) the game has more fun with its premise than other game’s have, avoiding any po-faced moralising and instead going as far as to make fun of itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Team Skull. Rather than go for a generic Team Rocket-type villain, Team Skull are there to be laughed at. I’d go as far as to say it’s a genuine meta-take on the fact that these bad guy teams are never taken seriously, and for the first time, there’s a reason they aren’t; they’re just hopeless teenagers trying to look tough.

Then there’s the stuff I’ve not had time to mention yet. The soundtrack is a particular highlight in a game full of great little touches, and the level design on the whole puts some of the older games to shame. Sun & Moon are both deeper and also weirdly simpler than some of the previous titles and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the games being willing to trim the series’ fat as much as it adds to mechanics.

Of course, there’s always negatives. Sun & Moon are incredibly pretty games, perhaps some of the best looking on the 3DS. Naturally, that has taken its toll. Whilst the majority of the game does run smoothly, double battles are prone to a hefty drop in performance from time to time, along with pauses as the game preps the next move’s animation. It’s never enough to ruin the games but it’s a shame that the most climatic and typically most fun encounters are fraught with the majority of these technical hiccups.

Pokémon Sun & Moon are the best mainline Pokémon instalments since Pokémon Gold & Silver way back in 2000. That’s a big comparison to live up to, and yet, these games manage it. Game Freak still manage to work their bizarre miracle of producing a kids game that also has all the byzantine complexity and depth of a heavy going strategy game; it’s a series that somehow caters to casual fans and competitive types without descending into a complete mess.

More importantly though, Sun & Moon are significant just as great games in their own right. If you’ve checked out of the series for a while now, you’ll certainly find no better excuse to jump right back in.


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