Pokemon grows up.
There is something about Pokemon that most outside observers do not know- those who have never been a part of the phenomenon most likely only see it as a cynical cash grab, with endless refreshes for the video games, a never ending anime, a line of merchandise that never seems to end, a trading card game that won’t go away, and annual movie releases.
What these people do not recognize is that Pokemon has sold nearly 250 million copies worldwide because of a very special thing- it captures the feelings of wonder and excitement that everyone once felt as a child, the feeling of stepping out of your house and going on your own grand, epic adventure. There is a reason that the Pokemon games de-emphasize storytelling so much, and that the little plot that they do have is essentially regurgitated every single time (Pokemon Black/White notwithstanding): these games are your adventure. Your story. You decide how it goes.
But that grand adventure that we’ve wanted, that everyone set out on for the first time on the Gameboy, in recent years, hasn’t felt so grand. it’s felt constrained, held back, a victim of its developers’ refusal to do anything to the formula that might upset the delicate balance they struck on their first outing. The games themselves have continued to be great- incredible, even– but last year’s release of the Pokemon Black 2/White 2 finally marked the point where it felt like the magic was gone. The grand adventure was over. This was not an epic quest to be the best, it was just a video game, and a painfully limited one at that. It was time to grow up now.
And then Pokemon X and Y came along. They had grown. They had changed. Pokemon grew up, and in do ing so, it made us all feel like little kids again, giddy with excitement at stepping out of the doorstep for our very own grand adventure.
"The core formula remains the same as ever: you're a young man or woman who receives a new Pokemon, and then sets out on the perennial quest to catch them all and be the very best there ever was."
Pokemon X and Y represent what is probably the single biggest leap the series has taken since Pokemon Gold and Silver, if not ever. The changes range from the entirely obvious at a glance- the new 3D graphics and the dynamic battles- to the less superficial, but more important to the core gameplay- such as the persistent online connectivity, and the streamlined options for training your Pokemon- to the more obscure ones, that by themselves don’t do anything to change the game, but collectively make it seem that much more alive- like character customization.
The meat of the game- the battles- sees some changes via the much hyped Mega Evolutions, and the addition of an eighteenth type that messes up the type matchup chart that everyone knows off by heart by this point, meaning the entire game will keep surprising you in little ways, and keep you guessing.
The core formula remains the same as ever: you’re a young man or woman who receives a new Pokemon, and then sets out on the perennial quest to catch them all and be the very best there ever was. Along the way, you take on Pokemon Gyms, winning gym badges to earn the right to participate in the Pokemon League, and be recognized as the Pokemon Master. You also meet some lively and quirky characters on your journey, and end up stopping a criminal syndicate’s evil plans.
"One great thing about X and Y's story is how laid back and in the background it is- unlike the Pokemon Black/White games, which were a more guided experience through the Pokemon world, X and Y gives you signposts to check your progress, but otherwise leaves you entirely on your own."
That standard structure remains largely the same in Pokemon X and Y, but right off the bat, there are changes, minor changes that cumulatively make the experience feel fresh again. In addition to that, the main story moves with an amazing pace. Players of previous games in the series probably remember how slow they are to get started (Diamond and Pearl, especially, had a tutorial that could last for well over an hour). In Pokemon X and Y, you get your Pokemon within the first couple of minutes, and then you are off on your way to meet the Pokemon Professor (who does not live in the same town as you anymore, instead living in the bustling metropolis of Lumiose) to see what exactly he wants from you.
Other wrinkles to the story have also been added- your immediate task is to uncover the secret of Mega-Evolution, a mysterious phenomenon that seems to be unique to the Kalos region. Instead of having a rival, you have a group of friends, who accompany you sometimes, and often return to battle you, and give you tips and hints. And finally, there is the story of Team Flare, the criminal organization in this game. While Team Flare is a definite step down from Team Plasma, their story, and especially the story of their leader, is dark, disturbing, and surprisingly emotional. It also leads to one of the most sympathetic characters in the Pokemon series, and raises some questions that are actually relevant for all of us. The ending is great and unexpected too, and it leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
One great thing about X and Y’s story is how laid back and in the background it is- unlike the Pokemon Black/White games, which were a more guided experience through the Pokemon world, X and Y gives you signposts to check your progress, but otherwise leaves you entirely on your own. It doesn’t want to interfere. It is your adventure after all. It’s your story. How can it be your story if it keeps interrupting you to tell its own story?
"For the first time, Pokemon battles actually feel like that, Pokemon battles. The incredible thing is that unlike other game series that have become slower in the transition to 3D, and unlike Pokemon, where the battles have become increasingly slower over time, X and Y's Pokemon battles are faster."
But enough about the story. Who plays Pokemon for the story anyway? The real reason you play is to catch them all, and I’m happy to report that Pokemon X and Y represent the best, most well rounded, most streamlined games to help you towards that cause. The selection of Pokemon you can find in the wild is staggering. Previous Pokemon games withheld the best Pokemon until after you had beaten the Pokemon League, giving you mediocre ones at best to work with. No longer. X and Y have an amazing variety of Pokemon, and by the time you have reached the second gym, you’ll already be making difficult choices about which Pokemon to bench and which to include in your active roster. You’ll also probably have caught well over a hundred of them before the game is even halfway done.
And catching them is fun, and satisfying. Unlike previous games, which gave you a static slideshow as a stand in for Pokemon battles, X and Y give you amazingly realized Pokemon battles, with some great dynamic attack animations and a camera that swivels, swerves, zooms in and out for maximum effect.
For the first time, Pokemon battles actually feel like that, Pokemon battles. The incredible thing is that unlike other game series that have become slower in the transition to 3D, and unlike Pokemon itself, where the battles have become increasingly slower over time (anyone remember Diamond and Pearl, and their excruciatingly slow pace of battles?), X and Y’s Pokemon battles are faster. The animations are quick and snappy, and fights that would have taken upwards of five minutes before are now completed in a couple of minutes, max.
"X and Y give you EXP Share barely an hour in, an item that evenly splits experience across all your Pokemon, regardless of whether they participated in the battle or not. It makes the entire process so much easier and faster, it's amazing."
This streamlining is characteristic of the entire game- X and Y are the most realized vision of the Pokemon world yet, and feature mostly everything the series has had over the years, and then some additions of their own, but they never feel overwhelming, never feel intimidating, never feel bogged down. For example, take the simple act of leveling up your Pokemon. It used to be a literal grind in previous games, and having a rounded party was something that could take hours upon hours.
Not anymore. X and Y give you EXP Share barely an hour in, an item that evenly splits experience across all your Pokemon, regardless of whether they participated in the battle or not. It makes the entire process so much easier and faster, it’s amazing. Of course, purists who balk at this notion and want the ‘pure’ Pokemon formula are free to turn the item off and play the game like they used to.
Similar improvements abound in all areas of the game- Pokemon stat training, which earlier used to be the infinitely obtuse EV training method, can now be done via a series of extremely fun minigames that are ever present on the bottom screen. Movement itself is now much faster, with you having the ability to run right from the beginning of the game (seriously, you had to ‘unlock’ it in previous games), and then getting roller skates, and finally a bike, to traverse the game’s world even faster.
"The gorgeous cell shaded art style brings the Kalos region to life, while staying true to the series' distinctive look over the years. As far as graphics go, Pokemon X and Y are beautiful."
But the most impressive outcome of all this streamlining is the game’s online functionality, which is simply the best in any Nintendo game yet, and on par with the functionality offered by the best online games on other platforms. Pokemon X and Y are persistently connected to the internet via the Player Search System, which not only lets you trade and battle with friends and with strangers around the world (ranked and unranked matches), with a fully customizable set of rules, but also allows for other, more social functions.
It lists everybody in the world who is currently in the same area in the game as you, and you can click on their avatar, check their profile, challenge them to a battle, trade Pokemon, see their PR video (a short ten second clip made to introduce yourself that the game lets you make), give them an O-Power, which is a helpful buff, or simply just send a ‘Nice’ their way. Interact with them, and you get the ability to add them to your Friends list, without any need for Friend Codes. It’s amazing, and it makes Pokemon feel like the social game it was always meant to be.
And that’s the thing: in spite of the transition to 3D, in spite of so much changing with this chapter, Pokemon X and Y feels like Pokemon was always meant to be, reinvented for a newer age. Take the graphics, for example. The gorgeous cell shaded art style brings the Kalos region (which is overtly inspired by France) to life, while staying true to the series’ distinctive look over the years. As far as graphics go, Pokemon X and Y are beautiful.
"The music that plays on later routes, as well as the battle theme for Team Flare, both stand as some of the best contributions to the series' musical canon."
No, they will not win any awards for their technical ambition, and they are rather simplistic in terms of textures. Plus the graphics suffer some incredible slowdown in battles if you have 3D enabled; not to mention the fact that 3D itself only works during battles and some dungeons and cutscenes, which is extremely disappointing. But they are smooth, beautiful, and appealing. What Game Freak lacks in technical proficiency, it makes up for in terms of sheer, beautiful art.
Similarly, there’s the soundtrack. It is understated, catchy, and some of the later tunes are genuinely great. The music that plays on later routes, as well as the battle theme for Team Flare, both stand as some of the best contributions to the series’ musical canon. And while we are on the topic of sound, the Pokemon songs have finally been updated, and they no longer sound like a dial up modem from the 1990s, instead sounding a bit more like animals (except for Pikachu, who actually says his name just like in the anime now). This makes them feel more like real animals that you are raising, which is the point of the games after all.
While we’re on that topic, let’s talk about Pokemon Amie. This basically turns the game into Nintendogs for Pokemon, letting you pet, feed, and play with your Pokemon, and interact with them. The Pokemon exhibit some great personality in Pokemon Amie, and it is easy to get attached to them if you play it enough, further enhancing the illusion that these are your pets. Of course, you don’t have to bother with the mode if it’s not your thing- like so many other things in this game, it is completely optional. The choice is yours. It is your adventure after all.
And what an adventure it is. Over forty hours long just for the main story, before you get to the post game content, before you start battling and trading with others in earnest, this is a game that will last you hundreds of hours. This is a game that will completely grip you and compel you. A game that lets you leave your house and set out on an adventure to tell a story. Your story. This is a game that finally sees Pokemon grow and evolve, and realize its full potential, the potential that enables its players to have a grand, epic quest. Yes, Pokemon has finally grown up, and in doing so, it makes us all feel like kids again.
There can be no higher praise than that.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.
Beautiful visuals, great soundtrack, the best online functionality for any Nintendo game ever (possibly for any handheld game ever), a lengthy forty hour long adventure, hundreds of Pokemon, the old formula refined to pitch perfection, new additions to the game cumulatively make Pokemon feel refreshingly new, great transition to 3D that basically stands as the perfect realization of the Pokemon formula, that sense of a grand adventure is back
Slowdown in battles, 3D disabled throughout most of the game, story is a definite step back from the Pokemon Black/White games
Pokemon grows up, and in doing so, it makes us all feel like giddy little kids again.