During my off-time between titles, I often wonder if my passion for Pokémon is waning.
Having followed the franchise since its first releases as Pokémon Red and Blue two decades ago – check out my rankings of each generation here – I worry that the magic of the tried and true formula of battling, trading and collecting might be wearing out its welcome. Subtle tweaks to the core Pokémon formula garner my interest temporarily before I fall back into a slump of questioning. With Pokémon Sun and Moon, however, it feels as if my interest is stronger than ever before. With a solid balance of old and new elements, alongside an impressive level of refinement, Pokémon is back in a very meaningful way.
Welcome to the Alola region – Pokémon’s own version of Hawaii, complete with four main islands. Opting not to include stereoscopic 3D of any kind, developer Game Freak instead focused on creating vast, full-scale locales not before seen in the series. Towns are spread across large areas and buildings show their size in how they tower over the player character. Gorgeous environments and dynamic camera angles shift to highlight attractive vistas as you explore every grassy meadow and coastline. Pokémon casually wander throughout towns and rest areas, offering a sense of their relationship with people in the world. A tropically-infused soundtrack provides wonderfully charming anthems and some thrilling battle themes, while subtler elements – growls and tweets of nearby Pokémon, for example – bring areas to life. The removal of grid-based movement allows for smoother landscapes and environments, resulting overall in a much more organic setting. It quickly becomes evident the thoughtfulness that went into establishing Alola as a meaningful location in the Pokémon universe, and that care results in what is arguably the best setting in a Pokémon game since Kanto.
Navigating the world is easier than ever before, thanks to a refined Rotom-powered Pokédex. The bottom touch screen displays a map, complete with objective markers for the main story. Your Pokédex also provides reminders of where to go through witty commentary. Your Pokémon collection is also broken down into percentages that inform completionists of how far along they are with respect to the overall Alolan roster and even individual islands. Menus are streamlined, compared to previous entries, and can also be re-organized simply by dragging and dropping the icons to swap their placements. The use of HMs to traverse past obstacles has also been removed – in its place, a Pokémon Ride service allows quick-use of Pokémon to bypass those same obstacles. Gone are the days of keeping Pokémon in your party solely for these HMs, and the series is absolutely better for it.
A solid balance of new and old Pokémon make Alola feel familiar, and also, worth exploring for returning fans. To further entice, special Alolan forms of Pokémon from the original batch of creatures argues an evolutionary spin on the Pokémon universe while introducing some interesting type changes. New creatures are typically very well designed and take advantage of Alola’s tropical influence. Even the Pokémon Guardians that protect each of the islands successfully strengthen the lore that makes up the Alola region. Ultra Beasts – alien-like creatures featuring mostly ridiculous designs – certainly feel like distinct entities, as intended.
The beginning of your journey follows the standard formula – a young trainer and mother move from Kanto (the region from the first generation of games) to the Alola region. Your cousin just so happens to be Professor Kukui, and before too long he ushers you onto the starting path of your Pokémon journey. A slow-paced introduction with plenty of hand-holding is sure to frustrate veteran players, but Sun and Moon’s ability to weave elements of world and character building into the tutorial make it a tolerable experience. Not to mention, it makes these games among the most accessible for newcomers. Before too long, the hand-holding eases up and you’re sent out into the world to explore and conquer. NPCs will occasionally provide you with small tasks, like showing a caught Pokémon’s Pokédex entry or tossing sea-welling Pokémon back into the ocean so that they don’t bother beach-goers. These instances reward you with money and typically take little time to complete, making them worthwhile distractions.
The story in Pokémon Sun and Moon, while being the most ambitious and narrative-driven to-date, tends to fall secondary to the world-building that unfolds in the background. Team Skull often feels parodical in their silly nature and blundering tendencies, and they never appear as more than some simple comic relief. While this is hardly a bad thing in a light-hearted adventure, it tends to belittle some of the more serious elements of the story that arise later. Avoiding spoilers, I found by the time the plot complicates and throws a plot twist at the player, it feels disappointingly predictable. It isn’t bad by any stretch; in fact, a more narrative-driven Pokémon manages to feel like a step in the right direction. Even with the predictable story, I found myself more motivated to press onward than I do when the sole reason for moving forward was to reach the next Pokémon Gym.
For all the graphical and narrative upgrades, there is one aspect of presentation that I found absolutely jarring: during many serious events in the plot, as supporting cast members display appropriately serious facial expressions, the player character is left with a big, dumb grin. The part that fascinates me is that this isn’t always the case. In some instances, that grin changes to reflect the tone, but not always. Why not always? I have no idea. In many instances, it felt detrimental to the mood conveyed at the given time. For all of the leaps forward that Pokémon Sun and Moon take to improve player immersion, this felt like a mind-boggling omission.
Heads up, veteran trainers: in Alola, there are no Pokémon Gyms. In place of these series staples is the Island Challenge, complete with Trials that have you performing a variety of tasks – gathering ingredients, taking pictures of Pokémon using a Pokédex add-on, or memorizing choreography of a Pokémon dance troupe, for starters. Sure, battles still take place during these trials, but the shift to unique objectives reinforces Pokemon Sun and Moon’s emphasis on how interactions between trainers and Pokémon in Alola are genuinely unique. These changes feel fresh in comparison to the all-too-familiar formula without alienating players from what they come to expect from the long-running series. Those longing for tougher boss battles need not be disappointed, as each trial ends in a face-off with a Totem Pokémon – a special Pokémon native to the trial area, imbued with an aura that provides special stat improvements. Completing every trial on an island allows you to battle the island’s Kahuna – the most powerful trainer on the island – in a way that fulfills the expectation of fighting a Gym Leader.
Completing each trial rewards you with a Z-Crystal – an equippable item that allows your Pokémon to use a special Z-Move. Each Z-Crystal corresponds to a particular Pokémon type, like Fire or Electric, and your Pokémon must have a move of the same type as a given Z-Crystal to use its Z-Move. These attacks are initially thrilling and incredibly powerful, and their one-per-battle limit ensures that they are used more as a last resort than anything else. After some time, watching the unskippable attack animations grew tiresome, and I opted to refrain from using Z-Moves for the most part. Given Pokémon’s relatively easy difficulty, Z-Moves feel unnecessary when it’s just as easy to be successful by using type advantages.
Taking advantage of types is also made easier by a significant refinement to the battle system; following a first encounter with a Pokémon, your move list will indicate whether a move is “super effective”, “effective” or “not very effective” in subsequent battles. This time around, the battle interface also includes a button that directs you to your Pokéballs for quick capturing. Replacing Pokémon X and Y’s Horde Battles is the ability for wild Pokémon, Totems included, to call other wild Pokémon into battle. Unfortunately, its execution is hit-and-miss. This mechanic adds an extra layer of challenge to difficult battles, but when trying to catch a Pokémon, called-in help feels like an added nuisance. Given the unlimited number of times a Pokémon can call for help and the fact that you are unable to throw a Pokéball when two Pokémon are on the opposing side, this easily becomes an unnecessary frustration.
Improved visuals and presentation in battle also result in frame rate drops, even on the New Nintendo 3DS. Though Pokémon Sun and Moon do not feature triple battles, double battles cause visuals to slow down noticeably. The choice to make trainers visible on-screen during battles is undoubtedly an attractive feature presentation-wise, but it presumably adds to the slowdown.
Pokémon Refresh, an updated version of Pokémon Amie from X and Y, is a surprisingly useful addition – one that I used significantly more than I thought I would. Refresh allows players to pet and groom their Pokémon, feed them Pokébeans, and even cure status ailments following battles. Each of these actions improve your Pokémon’s affection for you, and higher affection levels result in special benefits – shaking off a status ailment mid-battle or receiving a boost in experience, for example. What makes Pokémon Refresh even more enjoyable is just how unobtrusive it is; upon closing out a battle, a prompt on the bottom screen alerts you of the need to do something in Pokémon Refresh. Simply tapping that button relocates you to a screen with your Pokémon for a ten-second fix.
I completed the main campaign in a little under 25 hours, and even as the credits roll, Pokémon Sun and Moon assures you that there is still plenty of game ahead. Aside from catching additional rare Pokémon, multiplayer options are sure to keep fans coming back for hours. Festival Plaza serves as a hub area where players can play mini-games, battle, trade and communicate; it is also home to the Global Trade System – an online marketplace for trading Pokémon. Battle Royal (not Royale) places four trainers, each with three Pokémon, into a four-way fight. The match ends when a single player runs out of Pokémon, and the winner is decided based on how many Pokémon you defeat and how many of yours survive. This unique twist on the standard battle formula is undoubtedly fun, and I imagine that some players will devote many hours to mastering this new challenge.
Pokémon Sun and Moon are easily the most accessible versions of this long-running series, and they are also some of the best in the entire franchise. Seeing the wonderful Alolan region represented through beautiful visuals and a charming soundtrack make it one of the best regions to explore. Aside from some disappointing story elements and frame rate dips in battles, Sun and Moon encapsulate 20 years of series strengths and introduce enough freshness to keep the series running strong. Those looking for a new Pokémon adventure will undoubtedly find a lot to love in this excellent addition to the Nintendo 3DS library.