Some gigantic leaps forward, with a lot of smaller steps back.
For a series as persistently and consistently big as Pokemon, reaching the 20th anniversary is a big milestone- lesser series fizzle out long before then, flaring bright, and then fading away. Pokemon has managed to consistently maintain its level of popularity and sales performance (even seeing spikes, like it did earlier this year with Pokemon GO), and it has done it over an incredibly long period of time. An occasion this special, then, needed a special game to be commemorated properly. Pokemon Sun/Moon rise up to that mantle. They are a celebration of everything that Pokemon has ever achieved, but their sights are set squarely on the future that will take Pokemon through its next 20 years. They lay a great foundation for the future of the franchise, and I can’t wait to see where the franchise goes from here.
There’s a lot that Pokemon Sun/Moon do wrong- they’re incredibly slow games (the previous 3DS Pokemon games, for all of their other faults, were quick and snappy, and nothing ever took quite so long), they obfuscate simple actions that X/Y and OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire had made great strides in making transparent for the player, they introduce new mechanics that are either underutilized or overutilized, and they place far too much emphasis on telling a story that they don’t always end up telling well.
There are many problems with Pokemon Sun/Moon, but I think that in spite of that, most players will come away with the experience very happy. Releasing on the 20th anniversary of Pokemon, these games are a celebration of the franchise, and all that it has ever accomplished- but as much as they are about what has come and already been done, they are very forward thinking games. In fact, these games represent the first true steps forward from the standard Pokemon formula that the series has ever taken. Breaking down the Pokemon formula, and doing away with conventions that make no sense – why do you need to teach your Pokemon undeletable HMs to be able to progress through the overworld? Why do you have to wait till you get to a PC in a Pokemon Center to be able to retrieve your newest catch and add it to your party? Why must you be beholden to hidden numbers that are randomly generated and that you have no control over? And above all, why must you always set out on a journey, defeat eight gym leaders, and then take on the Pokemon League? – these games radically rethink the franchise, paving the way forward for future games to come, while also staying true to the spirit of Pokemon.
"Pokemon Sun/Moon place a lot of focus on their story."
The differences between Sun/Moon and previous Pokemon games are apparent literally as soon as you start the game- the game jumps to a cold open, but before you’ve had a chance to acclimatize yourself to that, it skips away to an unknown place, showing an unknown girl fleeing- whom? We don’t know, but instantly, we are struck by the series’ new penchant for cinematism and storytelling- something that the game never lets up on.
Pokemon Sun/Moon place a lot of focus on their story. You meet characters who become a constant presence in your journey, and while that sounds like a bit of a nightmare, given how poorly developed supporting characters have been in recent Pokemon games (remember the annoying band of friends in X/Y?), everyone here is incredibly endearing and very well done. By the end of your journey, you feel closer to these characters, whom you have seen grow right alongside you, and you are genuinely fond of them. Lillie, in particular, is probably the best developed character that Pokemon has ever had, and the payoff to her story is heart warming.
These characters accompany you on Pokemon‘s most ambitious story till date. OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire gave us a taste of the kinds of stories that Game Freak could explore with Pokemon with the Delta Episode, and now, freed from the limiting eight gyms structure that has shackled the series since its inception, the developers spread their wings and go nuts. The story in Pokemon Sun/Moon is more in line with a traditional JRPG plot than it is a Pokemon story- although traditional series motifs, such as the token evil team, the world ending conspiracy, and the protagonist’s coming of age still remain. It’s just as well then that Sun/Moon feature the best writing and localization in the series, featuring sharp dialog, and some rather sophisticated themes that are handled surprisingly well. This is clearly a game that was made to tell a story, and it takes its time to tell its story, sometimes even interrupting the game for minutes upon minutes for cutscenes.
This could potentially be very annoying, but in general, Sun/Moon do a great job of telling a mostly good, if unspectacular, story. The exception to this is during the end of the second act of the game, when the games completely drop the ball and jump the shark, rushing to a conclusion that honestly feels a bit unearned as a result. Some genuine twists and surprises in the last act, and resolutions to longstanding character arcs, compensate for this faux pas, but there is a lingering sense of disappointment that Sun/Moon don’t tell their story as well as they could have.
"Alola is truly perhaps the best Pokemon region yet, a living, breathing world with a lot of personality that just begs to be explored."
The story is just one thing that’s different this time, however- everything else has changed, too. The game is the first true 3D Pokemon game (X/Y and OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire were visually 3D, but stuck to a 2D grid for gameplay), which translates to a more spectacular world to explore- Alola is truly perhaps the best Pokemon region yet, a living, breathing world with a lot of personality that just begs to be explored. It is far more likely to stand out in memory than Kalos or Unova did, and it sets a high bar for the kinds of worlds that the series must realize going forward.
Alola does not have gyms- instead, players take part in an elaborate coming of age ceremony, called the Island Challenge, where they must complete designated tests of ability, before getting the chance to face off against a Totem Pokemon, a buffed up Guardian Pokemon that engages the player in some of the fiercest boss battles seen in the series. These challenges, which can break down into something resembling the traditional gym structure, or be completely fresh and new, adding more flavor to the world, are an excellent change of pace, and keep you on your toes, because you are never quite sure of what to expect- a first for a Pokemon game.
Then, too, you no longer need to use HMs- instead, you are given the ability to call upon specific Pokemon at any time, and they help you navigate environmental puzzles, from a Charizard that you can use to fly, to a Lapras that you can surf on. Even wild Pokemon battles play out differently this time around- Pokemon now have the ability to call for help while you are battling them, causing a second Pokemon to join them. While this mechanic isn’t always welcome – the only thing that’s worse than battling the umpteenth Zubat in a cave is battling the umpteenth Zubat in a cave, that then proceeds to call upon a string of Zubats while you try to take it out – it adds tension to battles, and at least keeps them variable.
There are more changes, still- players can now accept specific quests, which are easy ways to earn money and rare items (and an excellent excuse to further explore the great world that Game Freak have built up this time around), Z-Moves add visually spectacular and game changing finishing moves, throwing a new wrinkle into the tried and tested Pokemon formula, Alolan forms of classic Pokemon change everything from how those Pokemon look to even their typing, a new series of minigames lets players use the Pokemon they deposit in their PCs to earn rare items, and the UI in general is spectacular, and the best in the series yet, topping even HeartGold/SoulSilver‘s.
"Pokemon Sun/Moon look spectacular, and are probably among the best looking 3DS games ever made."
But not everything that these games do sticks- for instance, the Poke-Finder could have been an excellent, full featured photography minigame within Pokemon Sun/Moon, but it is disappointingly shallow, and the player gets very little incentive in game to actually use it, beyond when the story requires it. Then there is the new Festival Plaza. The Festival Plaza is as an interactive hub which is supposed to be your one stop for all multiplayer activities, but it’s a poor substitute for the persistent Player Search System that Pokemon X/Y and OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire had- you need to launch the hub, connect to the internet, then try to navigate a series of unintuitive menus to try and go online and battle or trade. Similarly, Sun/Moon also do away with Super Training, which was the excellent minigame that let players focus on specific stat growths for their Pokemon- the replacements in place, which are scattered minigames across the Festival Plaza, are not quite as effective. Even for traditionalists, Sun/Moon doing away with Horde Battles and the excellent DexNav mean that EV training your Pokemon for specific stats, or trying to find rarer specimens of certain Pokemon species, is now an exercise in frustration, with a whole lot left to the roll of the dice.
There’s also the question of the game’s performance. Pokemon Sun/Moon do not use the 3D, in an effort to get the game running better, and they largely succeed, though on original 3DS systems, there is severe slowdown in any Pokemon battle that has more than two Pokemon on field. Original 3DS systems also suffer from longer loading times, including an absurd 20 second loading period before the game even starts up. The game runs far better on New 3DS systems, with no loading, and lesser slowdown, but even there, the games stutter and suffer from framerate drops when it comes to more visually intensive battles or story beats.
At least the performance issues feel earned, though- Pokemon Sun/Moon look spectacular, and are probably among the best looking 3DS games ever made. I don’t just mean in terms of their art style, though Game Freak are on point there as usual, too. Even on a technical level, these are impressive games, and they wouldn’t have looked out of place later in the life of the PS2. It’s no surprise that the weaker 3DS is struggling getting them to run- and the performance issues are never irritating enough to detract from just how enjoyable the game is otherwise, at least not on New 3DS systems.
Better than even the graphics, however, is the soundtrack, which takes the mantle from Ruby/Sapphire to become the best soundtrack this series has ever had. The music uses a wider range of instrumentation, is in line with the Hawaii theme of the rest of the game, and delivers some truly great tracks, a few of which, I would hazard a guess, will end up on your playlist at some time. After how disappointing the music in Pokemon X/Y was (the one area where the game was an unqualified disappointment), the soundtrack in Sun/Moon is a stellar return to form.
"Pokemon Sun/Moon take so many little steps backwards that collectively, they suffer a substantial degradation in some key areas over previous games in the series. These steps back don’t undermine the gigantic leaps forward that they take- but they’re there, and they mar the experience."
Sun/Moon improve upon X/Y in other ways, too- in addition to everything else I’ve talked about in this review, that is. For instance, take the difficulty curve in X/Y, in that there was none- the games were incredibly easy, posing absolutely no challenge to any player of any age whatsoever. Sun/Moon, in comparison, are more difficult games- the Totem Battles, especially, but even some other late game boss battles, can be rough, and you can find yourself underleveled substantially. You do get the EXP Share item from X/Y this time as well, but it doesn’t feel as game breaking, at most taking the edge off of the level curve, but leaving it there otherwise.
It’s this dichotomy between doing things well, and doing things puzzlingly poorly, that defines Sun/Moon– they are great games, and I have played them obsessively since I started, but they are also frustrating and draining games to play. They take so many little steps backwards that collectively, they suffer a substantial degradation in some key areas over previous games in the series. These steps back don’t undermine the gigantic leaps forward that they take- but they’re there, and they mar the experience. They stop Pokemon Sun/Moon from being everything that they could have been, and that, more than anything else, is the biggest disappointment here- not the games themselves, because they are excellent, and will probably go down as one of the best entries in the series, but that they stumbled, and didn’t achieve their full potential. Pokemon Sun/Moon deliver what might be the best game the franchise has had in 20 years, but incredibly enough, and in true Pokemon fashion, they manage to disappoint along the way nonetheless.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.
Unshackled from the old 2D grid, Pokemon Sun/Moon are beautiful, gorgeous games; the soundtrack is incrdible and is the best in the series so far; Alola is the best realized Pokemon region yet; sharp writing and a well told story, in spite of some stumbles; well balanced difficulty curve; long overdue improvements and enhancements to the series, with removal of old encumbrances; the new structure is largely a triumph, and hopefully a portend of things to come
The performance of the games is terrible, especially on older 3DS systems; the story stumbles around the end of the second act; multiple baffling annoyances return, and the games take steps back from the previous games in the franchise, such as with the removal of Super Training, DexNav, and Horde Battles; the online and multiplayer hub is a total mess; the Poke-Finder segments are disappointingly undercooked
Pokemon Sun/Moon deliver what might be the best game the franchise has had in 20 years, but incredibly enough, and in true Pokemon fashion, they manage to disappoint along the way nonetheless.