Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Game Freak
As someone who has been on the Pokemon frontlines since 1998 (Blue version for life!) it's been interesting to watch the series evolve game after game. What's most impressive is that despite the formula being mostly unchanged for the better part of almost 20 years, each game still manages to introduce new mechanics and shake things up to make the games always feel fresh.
Enter Pokemon Sun & Moon, the newest entry sporting so many changes and refinements, it almost feels like a reboot for the franchise.
A new location highlights a lot of what makes Sun and Moon so great, because its design directly plays into a slew of the refinements and changes that are introduced. For one, the layout feels a lot more organic, and less blocky. What I mean is, patches of grass aren't just square plots of land, and instead the island has more organic curves, make it feel more "real."
Alola is made up of several islands that you visit over the course of your playtime, and each house several challenges that all lead up to the final showdowns with the island's Kahunas. If you couldn't guess by now, the Hawaiian inspired naming convention is strong here.
While Hawaii is most certainly the template, each island has their own signature look to them, with one having a Volcano as one of its centerpieces, and another having more asian-inspired architecture.
The Island Challenge
An aspect unique to Sun & Moon which replaces the standard tedium of beating gyms, is the Island Challenge. This rite of passage tasks young Pokemon Trainers to travel across the four islands, take on various trials and then ultimately take on the island's Kahuna.
What's fantastic about the trials is that they're never simply straight-up battles. Sometimes it's a game of memorization, other times you'll be asked to collect items. Ultimately though, you will most certainly battle with your Pokemon, but it's nice that brute strength isn't something you can rely on to complete these trials.
So much new, so much to do!
I meant it when I said Sun & Moon have that reboot vibe. It's one of the most streamlined entries that will not only make it a joy for veterans to come back to, but also newcomers to hop in for the first time.
Little changes to the UI like letting players read descriptions of their moves during battle, just in case they need to make sure what something does, or what its power is, feels almost necessary, now that there are so many moves to keep track of. Also, once you fight a certain Pokemon, the game remembers and will let you know how effective each of your moves is against it.
But the smart changes don't end there. The tired system of teaching necessary HMs to Pokemon has been completely replaced by a new mount system. You'll be showered with various mounts throughout your journey that don't actually become a part of your roster, but instead function as HMs, along with the ability to travel everywhere swiftly. For example, the first mount you get, Tauros, will allow you to smash through rocks. Charizard will enable you to fly to predetermined destinations on each island, assuming you've already visited them and Lapras will allow you to sail across water. It's a genius change as you're no longer forced to teach your mainline roster of Pokemon an HM move, simply for the ability to break a rock that's impeding your movement forward.
Then there's other smaller changes like the ability to add a newly caught Pokemon immediately to your roster, instead of sending them to the PC. That way, if you catch something you've been wanting for a long time, you don't have to waste time going to a Pokemon Center, getting on the PC and switching out that Pokemon. Now, you simply choose a Pokemon in your roster, and send them to the PC while keeping the newly caught Pokemon.
Oh, and I simply can't forget the full range of motion available when walking. You're no longer bound by movement in eight directions. I know this change seems trivial, but after booting up X and Y to transfer my Pokemon into the Poke Bank, and having to run to the nearest Pokemon Center to use the PC, I immediately felt how archaic and restricting that movement felt.
Another neat addition is the ability to know which NPCs you come across want to fight you. As you approach them, the screen will darken, only outlining you and the NPC. Once you see this, you know that as soon as you enter their line of sight, a battle will happen. This is a fantastic feature since it sometimes allows you to bypass trainers who you might not want to fight. Maybe you're running low on potions and you're just within reach of a Pokemon Center, now you'll know which NPCs in your path will want to fight you, and you'll have the opportunity to side step them if possible.
Pokemon Amie is now called Pokemon Refresh, and while not a 100% necessary to do, it does have its own important benefits. First and foremost, you can immediately heal any status effect that lingers after a battle, such as Poison. Then, by feeding and petting your Pokemon, their love for you grows. This mechanic is actually quite important if you want your Pokemon to perform awesome feats like dodging moves, withstanding a killing blow, or performing critical hits more often. You'll know when your Pokemon does something in result of Pokemon Refresh when hearts appear above their head. When that happens, you'll thank yourself for spending those extra five minutes after a few battles grooming your Mons.
Poke Pelago is yet another feature which you visit indirectly. It's a series of islands that you build up over time, that can do a whole range of things from giving you more food to feed your Pokemon, training them, having them find items for you by exploring a cave, and more.
The Festival Plaza is the multiplayer hub where you can meet other players to battle or trade Pokemon, and even take part in global missions, which has all players contributing toward a single goal. However, you don't need to go to the Festival Plaza in order to engage in some local multiplayer fun. Quick Link on the main menu will allow you to connect to anyone with a simple hold of a button. At that point, you can immediately engage in a battle, or trade. It's super simple and it works beautifully.
There's even a little bit of Pokemon Snap in Sun & Moon, with various special locations allowing you to whip out your Pokedex and turn it into a camera and snap some pictures of Pokemon. The best pictures can be uploaded to the in-game social-media which then nets you more followers, which in turn upgrades your camera.
The amount of "new" is simply staggering.
Top notch presentation, but can be a bit overbearing
Gone are the days of static screens with text boxes trying to tell a story. Sure, X & Y, and ORAS had some cinematic scenes, but Sun & Moon takes it to a whole new level. Characters are expressive, and cutscenes are plentiful, almost to a fault.
The game overall looks absolutely fantastic, with a lot of neat touches to remind you that you're playing the newest Pokemon game. Animations are always plentiful, whether it's your character or your Pokemon. Moves actually feel like they connect this time around as well. And then there's the Z-Moves, which are basically cinematic super moves you'd see in anime fighting games, which despite their long animation, are always a joy to watch.
However, with all this added beauty, comes a whole lot of repetitiveness. There's just so much put into Sun & Moon's presentation, that even simple things like setting up a battle takes a little too long.
Here's an example. When fighting a trainer, first the screen transitions. Then, the Trainer's 2D avatar appears and gets outlined with some stylish animation. Then that avatar disappears and the screen transitions into their 3D model. The Trainer then throws their Pokeball and their Pokemon comes out. Then the screen transitions to you, you throw your Pokeball and your Pokemon comes out. Then, for another two seconds or so, it shows your Pokemon standing face to face, until finally the battle menu appears on the bottom screen. And this happens all the time. I'm talking every, single, time. Sure, it might look great the first 10 times you see it, but it can grate on your patience.
The same goes for other instances as well, such as registering a Pokemon into your Pokedex. The whole process looks great, but just takes so long. Showing you the Pokemon, then saying it's registered, then showing you the empty fields where they're evolutions go, then assuming you get said evolutions, it goes further saying that you completed the entire entry.
It all looks great but it's a shame there's not skip-all button. The game does allow you to eliminate battle animations, which I was at first tempted, but I didn't want to miss out on the Z-Attacks, but there's no option to trim any of the other animations.
A new era of Pokemon
If anything, Game Freak proved that even after 20 years of creating Pokemon games, they're still not out of ideas and refinements. Sun & Moon feel next-gen, even though I'm still playing it on a 3DS. The only thing separating this from a true 3D game is the lack of camera turning, but that's about it. To me, this game felt like such a leap forward, that it's something I could see getting a complete HD remaster on the Switch.
It's clear that Game Freak takes their baby of a franchise just as seriously, as they did 20 years ago, and don't simply rehash the same tired formula over and over again, in new locations. Sun & Moon feels new, but at the same time familiar enough, as if your best friend moved back to your town after a few years. Sure, they've changed, and in many ways for the better, but at their core, they're still that same person you grew up with as a kid.