Note: This game was reviewed using a 3DS XL and Pokémon Sun
Pocket Monsters and where to find them
Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon franchise, Pokémon Sun and Moon are a celebration of what has made the series one of the most beloved in all of gaming. In a year that has seen Pokémon Go catapult the franchise to a new level of public consciousness, the newest entries provide a perfect entry point for new or relapsed fans and a much needed refresh for hardcore trainers. With a fantastic region, a stellar lineup of new monsters and the series’ best story to date, Game Freak has created the best Pokémon adventure since Gold and Silver.
If Pokémon X and Y were a reimagination of the classic Pokémon formula in 3D, then Sun and Moon are a reinvention. Finally free of the grid-based shackles that only allowed for the illusion of 3D, the Alola region is a fully realized playspace bursting with personality and scope. Routes now form rolling hills with coastal overlooks, steep mountains with winding paths and rocky cliffs rather than the simple grassy plains common to previous games. The new perspective gives Alola a massive feel that is unrivaled in any Pokémon game simply due to the series’ previous top-down nature. Mountains now feel like the massive monoliths they are, and cities are universally transformed into bustling sprawls. Black and White’s Castelia City and X and Y’s Lumiose City attempted to capture this feeling, but the classic grid made moving in the three dimensional spaces clunky and unintuitive. Character movement is now responsive and fluid, making exploring a pure joy at every turn.
These games truly push the 3DS to its limits, which does have some unfortunate side effects. While battles are mostly smooth and snappy, adding additional Pokémon to the mix, be it in double or SOS encounters, can cause the games to start chugging from a performance standpoint. While this can be annoying, I never felt it to be jarring enough to take me out of the experience. I would take an immersive, detailed world at the expense of framerate in a turn-based game every time, so I think Game Freak made the correct choice.
I have always felt that the region featured in a Pokémon game is its principle character, and Alola is the most fleshed out region we have received since Johto. With a profound regard for history and tradition, as well as a cheery and bright disposition, Alolan culture feels real and seeps into every corner of the experience. The exotic fusion of tourism and native tradition is relatable and enticing. Everything in Alola has some kind of cultural significance, allowing for common Pokémon tropes to be altered in a way that makes sense for the region. The Island Challenge, for example, is an Alolan tradition that replaces Gym Battles in the region, giving the new mechanic cultural significance while simultaneously shaking up a tried and true formula. These challenges are individually unique and offer refreshing amounts of challenge. Hearing others in-game talk about their own personal challenges made the quest truly feel like a rite of passage that few actually see to completion, unlike the previous gym setup. Poké Pelago, a new feature where boxed Pokémon can perform tasks on private island resorts, also feels right at home culturally. The level of detail and polish that went into the region is staggering, which excites me about the possibilities that the Nintendo Switch enables for the franchise’s future.
Another facet of the Alola region are the Pokémon themselves, which consist of almost 80 new species as well as tropical variations of some of the original 150. The new creatures are largely fantastic, with designs that feel right at home in their exotic climate. Some personal favorites include Mimikyu, a Ghost/Fairy type that imitates a Pikachu, and Golisopod, a hulking Water/Bug type that evolves from a tiny weakling and revolves around the theme of tactical retreat. I am fully on board with smaller batches of new monsters, which I hope continues into future generations. As opposed to the whopping 150 that were added in Black and White, 80 seems to be a sweet spot that both X and Y and Sun and Moon hit perfectly. The smaller number allows for the designs as a whole to be smarter and more focused, and prevents Game Freak from having to stretch ideas in order to fill a quota.
The Alolan variants are equally fantastic, with Pokémon like Geodude, Exeggutor and Rattata receiving new designs and typings. Adding familiar-yet-new takes on original Pokemon was an elegant way to honor the 20 year legacy of the franchise while keeping to the cultural theme of the game. Relapsed fans or Pokémon Go converts will enjoy seeing new versions of familiar characters, while longtime fans will appreciate the update to overused stalwarts. Many of the forms see their competitive viability increased as well. With many gaining additional or all-new types, such as Marowak becoming Ghost/Fire instead of pure ground. As more Pokémon were introduced, many of these classics were left in the dust, so it is good to see them get a refresh. A detail I loved in regards to these forms was that the sightseer class of trainer would use the original forms, but natives would use their regional variant. This small detail would be easy to overlook, but added to my overall sense of immersion while building on the region of Alola.
Not only do they look different, but Alolan Pokémon act differently as well. Sun and Moon infuse a layer of excitement into trial and wild Pokémon battles through the SOS feature, which sees weakened opponents or bosses summon help in the form of other Pokémon. This forces players to remain on their toes while also allowing resilient trainers access to rare, shiny and higher IV monsters. Many Pokémon can only be caught through this method, and it adds a level of immersion to the world through the behavior of opponents. While it can sometimes be annoying, it is usually fairly easy to escape the encounters and continue on the quest.
Alola is far from the only thing that Sun and Moon nails, as they provide quality-of-life improvements across the board as well as mechanical updates that are both useful and interesting. The biggest of these is the Ride Pager, a trusty device that summons a Ride Pokémon to help in the field when faced with various environmental hazards. As a replacement for the outdated HM system, Ride Pokémon are a godsend that allow for more diverse party composition without the need for wasted team members and useless moves. It also allows players to use more Pokémon than usually possible, as the likes of Tauros, Lapras and Charizard become integral parts of the adventure. The games don’t shy away from these helpful additions, as players are given additional options early and often, opening up exploration almost immediately.
The battle improvements make the classic Pokémon battle system more accessible than ever, mostly due to UI improvements. The touch icons are now located on the sides of the bottom screen rather than the center, allowing for easy access to battle controls. Icons in the center of the screen allow for stat changes of participating Pokémon to be easily visible, a first for the series. Accessibility of information in battle is also enhanced by the addition of type tags that inform players about the effectiveness of moves on the opposing Pokémon. For example, a Grass move would show that it would be ineffective against a Fire-type Pokémon, if you have battled it before. These small changes allow for newer players to more easily understand the complex typings of Pokémon that veterans have long mastered, and allows these veterans to quickly pick up on the strengths and weaknesses of the new monsters. These small additions help to make the fantastic battle system better without reinventing the wheel.
The biggest change to battles, however, are Z-Moves. These special moves are powerful, single use forces of destruction that add an additional layer of strategy to Pokémon battles. The moves are enabled by Z-crystals, which conveniently replace badges as the rewards for the Island Challenge trials, giving players early access to the defining feature. Every type receives a Z-move that can be used if a Pokémon knows a move of that type, and the move performed changes based on the move that triggers it. For example, Splash, a formerly useless move, has a Z variety that upgrades it into a 3-stage boost to attack, catapulting it into competitive viability. These moves are useful and fun without being completely overpowered, as a non-effective move will still fail to defeat an opponent the same as a regular move. However, this also limits their impact on a battle, as I was never truly afraid when an opponent activated one. I feel that the feature, while opening every Pokémon up for use regardless of its possession of a Mega Evolution, is less impactful than its older brother both in immediate impact and utility.
What good is a battle system if you are never forced to maximize its options? Fortunately, Pokémon Sun and Moon are easily the most difficult games to come from the series in years, with trainers and trials featuring the use of legitimate competitive tactics like weather and entry hazards to force players to think beyond using the super-effective attacking move. More than ever before, team composition and movesets are important to success, which gives players a taste of what is possible in the competitive scene.
Pokémon games have generally featured paper-thin stories that only serve as a means to propel a player to different points in their journeys. This changes in Sun and Moon, as the story presented is only challenged by Black and White for the crown of best in the series. The story features themes that are very dark and complex for a “kid’s game” while making the colorful characters that players interact with on the way into fully developed people. Trial Captains (Gym Leaders) are personalities on the islands rather than stationary bosses. The resident professor has an ultimate goal and helps to guide you at every turn. Even the villainous team, Team Skull, is hilariously developed as a caricature of every team that has come before, with multiple characters noting their incompetence. The rival character, Hau, and non-trainer friend Lillie each receive full archs that surpass anything that has come before. Divulging too much will spoil the story, but it is safe to say that Sun and Moon set a new benchmark for this aspect of the series.
The story is told through the series’ first use of dynamic cutscenes that highlight particularly impactful moments in stunning fashion, further highlighting the graphical improvements that have been made. When not in cutscenes, the story is propelled through smart dialogue that is Nintendo’s Treehouse at their best, with the text providing some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and easter eggs. The added focus on story does have its drawbacks, however. The biggest of these is the overstuffed tutorial that features long cutscenes and trademark Nintendo handholding. While I understand that, as a game that will be attractive to new players, it is necessary to ease people into the monstrosity of features and types that the games have grown into over the years, it is annoying as a veteran to have to be taught for the upteenth time how to throw a Pokéball. I feel that a better balance could have been struck between two extremes. Another problem I had is that while characters were given dynamic facial animation, your player character portrays a mannequin grin throughout the entire story. This annoyance is by no means game breaking, but it seems like an oversight when the rest of the game features such high levels of polish.
While most of what Sun and Moon offers is among the best of the Pokémon series, they do not escape the typical remissions that have long plagued the series. Just as Ruby and Sapphire cut the day/night cycle and X and Y did away with seasons, Sun and Moon curiously leave some helpful features behind. Both Super-Training and the DexNav are gone, which helped simplify EV training and allowed players to target specific Pokémon in an area, respectively. While many of their uses are scattered elsewhere throughout the game, it is a shame that players lost their accessibility.
But despite the removal of some fun features, the biggest misstep of Sun and Moon is the Festival Plaza. X and Y made connecting with other players seamless and simple, but Sun and Moon have segmented these features into a separate area that, while accessible from anywhere, is a confusing mess of menus and missions. 40 hours in and I still have trouble figuring out what is going on in the space without resorting to wikis or reddit. For a series so focused on player connectivity, this is a major step backward for the series that I hope is remedied in the next games. That said, the quick link feature makes local connection painless and great features such as Wonder Trade return, giving trainers plenty of reasons to go online.
Ultimately, what makes Sun and Moon special are their ability to press the series forward while simultaneously enhancing the experience through nostalgia. While it would have been easy to lean heavily into the 1st generation during the series’ 20th anniversary, Game Freak instead chose to use nostalgia to enhance a new experience rather than rely on it. The result is something that feels familiar, yet new; comfortable, yet exciting. The games take something that we love and multiply it while polishing it all to translucence. The thrill of encountering a brand-new Pokémon or watching a new city unfold ahead has never been stronger, and I cannot wait to see what this direction will bring to the series next.
The Verdict: 8.9 out of 10
While they do suffer from some performance issues and confusing online features, Pokémon Sun and Moon are among the best games in the series to date. Featuring an incredible region in Alola, a fantastic batch of new Pokémon to collect and a heartwarming, character-driven story, the games have plenty to love for new and old players alike. Sun and Moon feel like a major step forward for the Pokémon series and send the 3DS off into the sunset with style. I truly cannot wait to see what the Switch will allow Game Freak to build next.
For more information about the score, check out our review scale.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who has finally completed his living dex. Fortunately, all the new Pokémon give him plenty of reason to sink 100 hours into Sun and Moon. You can find his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.
(This review was published on December 1, 2016 at Middle of Nowhere Gaming)