Pokemon Sun & Moon mark the beginning of the 7th generation of core Pokemon titles, bringing the total number of Pokemon species past the 800 mark. This time we travel to the Hawaiian inspired Alola region with an all new adventure that promises to shake up the Pokemon formula in a number of different ways while staying true to everything that made this franchise popular in the first place. Does Pokemon Sun & Moon honour the 20th anniversary of the Pokemon franchise while bringing us a new classic adventure or should Game Freak go back to developing one Pokemon generation per Nintendo handheld?
Right away it’s clear that Sun & Moon are going to be presented in a more cinematic fashion. You don’t even get to a title screen before you’re asked for your name and gender. Thanks to the new style this is a more cinematic experience than we have seen in the past, with more cutscenes and shots framed in interesting ways as opposed to the standard top down view we normally have. Unfortunately outside the initial excitement of these changes the next 4 hours or so is a pretty painful tutorial-driven slog. While meeting the new characters and learning about the Alolan traditions is exciting the first time, it’s not long until you get annoyed with the constant interruptions to your adventure and some of the characters begin to become frustratingly one dimensional (I get it Lillie you don’t like Pokemon battles… and keep that damn Pokemon in it’s bag!).
Thankfully, once you get off the first island the greater story arc starts to come together, characters begin to develop into likable people and your adventure opens up immensely, giving the player a surprising amount of choice in how thoroughly they explore each route and town. Your main goal is to complete the Island Challenge and all the Trials, Totem Pokemon battles and mini games that go with that. The Island Challenge serves as a great replacement for gyms (yes, they are completely gone) even if they function similarly in most regards, but at least Game Freak is mixing it up.
What’s not different is the return of an ‘evil team’ known here as Team Skull, although, for better or worse, they are easily the most over the top evil organisation yet. These guys are pretty basic thugs but their story does get more complicated as you proceed and they become more than just comic relief (if you’re into that type of comedy). If you’ve ever seen the movie Chappie think of that group of thugs that start to care for him and imagine those guys in a PG rated Pokemon game. Team Skull are another example of a familiar Pokemon concept done differently and like the Island Challenge this works to a similarly successful degree.
Each main character seems to grow alongside you and they all bring their own unique angle to a greater story that revolves around some deeper themes. Pokemon Sun & Moon’s plot doesn’t really push the boundaries of what a ‘Pokemon story’ can be outside of it’s presentation, however it’s still a decent tale that gives enough motivation to continue pursuing the next story beat and is probably one of the best stories we have had in the franchise. You don’t need any knowledge of past Pokemon games to enjoy this self-contained story, although those that have will be happy to hear there are lots of references and nods to appeal to your nostalgia.
Classic Pokemon gameplay refined over seven iterations gives us the strongest games in the series gameplay wise. The core mechanics of this game are really no different to the original Red & Blue that released 20 years ago. You make your way around a large region from a small town all the way to the end game, catching Pokemon and battling trainers all while leveling up your team of 6 Pokemon to keep up with the games well paced difficulty spikes. It’s a simple concept, but the sense of adventure in exploring new areas and finding new Pokemon tied in with the story and fun battle system make this such a fun and rewarding RPG to play.
What Sun & Moon does best is improving and changing on a lot of small things to make the game better. While to me, the changes implemented in Sun & Moon do little to change what it means to be a ‘Pokemon game’, all the improvements make this the best Pokemon game to date. A map and current objective is always displayed on the bottom screen thanks to the new Rotom Pokedex, breeding competitive Pokemon is faster and easier than ever, HM’s are gone and replaced by Poke Ride that allows you to fly, move faster, smash boulders, find items, surf on water and more without the need to take up move slots on your team, the list goes on. These are small changes that go a huge way in making Pokemon more fun and less tedious.
There seems to be much more focus on catching every Pokemon you can in Sun & Moon and luckily the catching Pokemon system is still as fun as ever. Finding new and rare Pokemon is always a thrill especially as there are around 80 brand new Pokemon to discover, most with new evolutions, abilities and moves. The way you catch Pokemon hasn’t changed and I don’t know why but it’s still incredibly appealing. Weakening a Pokemon carefully into the red zone of health before throwing whichever Poke Ball you think looks the best and hoping it stays in there is so simple but it just works.
The new ‘call for help’ mechanic that wild Pokemon can utilise is a bit hit and miss. While early game it becomes annoying as you kind of just want to catch the Pokemon straight away, post-game it is an essential part in finding stronger Pokemon with their hidden abilities and also gives you a greater chance at finding a shiny Pokemon. If they just allowed you to throw a Poke Ball with two Pokemon out on the field I think this feature would work much better but it’s not a huge issue unless you really want a certain Pokemon and it just endlessly calls for help.
Then there are Pokemon battles, which has truly evolved into one of the most in depth turn based RPG systems ever seen. Now with over 800 Pokemon all with different attributes and over 600 unique attacks, the strategy that comes into just building a team without even factoring in battle strategy is staggering. Players have to manage stats, health, attack damage, type advantages, abilities, status effects, when to trigger the new Z-move mechanic and more, all in the heat of battle. While that may seem like a lot to remember, actually performing well in battles is rather simple and everyone from a primary school child to a 26 year old competing at the World Championships can find great enjoyment from it. Rookie players will have no trouble getting through the game simply on knowledge of type advantages, but completing some of the post-game content and battling other trainers online demands more knowledge from the player. Lastly, everyone will be able to appreciate the new UI features which keep track of stat effects and type advantages on the bottom screen.
The battle system doesn’t just contain additions, with lot’s of small balancing changes being made to Pokemon stats, attacks, abilities and more to ensure a fairer playing ground. While I don’t doubt common strategies will still emerge after experienced players spend more time with the game, these changes should go a fair way to providing a battle system where no clear strategy or Pokemon dominates any other. While unfortunately Triple and Rotation Battles have been completely removed from the mix, a four way battle mode called Battle Royal mode has been introduced that for the first time allows four players to battle for themselves all at the same time. Battle Royal brings it’s own brand of strategic thinking and while more gimmicky than standard battles is a worthy new battle type. Like most of Sun & Moon you can choose to ignore the feature if it doesn’t appeal to you, a freedom that is appreciated many times throughout the game.
Among other additions I’ve already mentioned, Pokemon Sun & Moon adds two big new features and one improved one. Pokemon Festival is the new online mode that allows you to trade (Wonder Trade and the GTS are thankfully back) and battle (both with friends and randoms with different rule sets) easily through menus while also containing shops that offer various functionality like getting rare items, training your Pokemon in specific stats and more. There are some mini games but from what I’ve seen nearly all of them just involve you running around the festival circle talking to people and answering a question correctly for 3 minutes. I’ve done these missions a few times as they are an easy way to earn the Festival Coins currency and unfortunately they are as boring as they sound.
More interesting are Global Missions that task the community with completing a certain goal in a real time period and offer great in game rewards, such as catching 100,000,000 Pokemon in two weeks. While this first mission might have a ridiculous number attached to it, I’m sure the numbers for these missions will get more realistic as time goes on. The Pokemon Festival is accessible at any time right from the main menu and will definitely be of use to you on your adventure outside the necessary communication features.
The second big new mode is Poke Pelago. This mode makes use of all the Pokemon that are stored away in your PC and is fantastic, offering many utility like services that help the player in various ways. These services level up with use increasing their effectiveness just like the Pokemon Festival mode and can be accessed at any time through the menu once you unlock the feature. Gathering Poke Beans (which are kind of used as a currency here and to feed to your Pokemon in Pokemon Refresh), leveling up automatically, attracting wild Pokemon without having to catch them, growing berries and even hatching eggs without needing them in your party are just some of the beneficial features offered by the new mode. This was a great way to get your PC Pokemon involved in the game.
Lastly Pokemon Amie returns as Pokemon Refresh. Gone are all the weird presents and mini games and now you simply just pat your Pokemon or treat it after battle. This might include using a towel to wipe mud off it if it was hit by a messy move like Mud Slap or drying it off with a hairdryer if it got hit by a water move. The best part of this is the medicine item which will heal any status condition after battle without the need to use any item. Feeding your Pokemon beans, showing it love with pats and caring for it in the ways mentioned above increase it’s affection towards you which can have substantial effects in offline battles, including greater ability to dodge attacks and even survive them. If you’re not into caring for virtual pets then the good news is you can probably never touch Pokemon Refresh and not really be worse off for doing so, but if you ever loved Tamagotchis or the old Digimon devices you will love this feature.
There’s also a decent amount of post-game content, most of which is accompanied by its own mini-plot of some kind. I won’t go into details for spoiler reasons, but old characters from past games return, there are a variety of side quests to complete and the world is fully open to you to backtrack and find all the items you may have missed along the way, some of which will be very important to completing the Pokedex or in battle. Pokemon Sun & Moon represent a great valued product with lots of replay value.
The 3DS is really starting to show it’s age at this point but Pokemon Sun & Moon do the best they can here on the aging hardware. The Pokemon themselves are by far the best looking aspect of the game, with really detailed models and an impressive amount of animation for each one from their battle animations to how they react in Pokemon Refresh. Game Freak took their strongest asset and focused on making them as unique and lovable as possible with a level of effort and care that really shows in every single Pokemon. It’s even more impressive when you consider there are over 800 Pokemon now, many of which have alternate forms that require completely new models. Each Pokemon even has certain areas of their body they hate being touched and certain areas they love, and they will let you know about it with either a cute or spiteful animation.
Most of the new Pokemon designs are very original and look great in my opinion but there is always much debate about this topic so it’s probably best you judge that for yourself. Vanilluxe from the 5th generation still holds the record for worst designed Pokemon to me if anyone wanted my opinion there. Most of the attack animations are standard fair but there are a few standouts for the big and powerful attacks. Likewise, Z-moves look truly devastating on a large scale, however they do begin to get repetitive after multiple viewings. Luckily they can only be used once per battle.
Outside of the Pokemon themselves the graphics range from excellent to good, with bright and well designed environments to decent models with blurry textures, especially on trainers faces. I am very happy to see that the ‘chibi’ style from past games has been done away with and we now have a proper ‘to scale’ world, trainers and Pokemon. To compliment that change, we now have full control pad movement as opposed to the 8-way movement grid system most past games used. This makes the world feel much more natural as not everywhere is cornered off by right angles and straight edges however you can tell Game Freak is still new to this as the way the game doesn’t let you into areas you can clearly fit through and artificially blocks you off from routes at times for some of the dumbest reasons is groan inducing. You’re telling me no one can cross this bridge just so this kid trainer can find items with his Stoutland… come on guys, this is basically invisible walls except they talk back to you with a lame excuse.
What really deserves praise is the visual flair added to the game, most importantly in battles. No longer are Pokemon battling on circles in generic environments. A Pokemon’s trainer now stands behind it, giving orders and reacting to the battle in an area that looks a lot like the one you were in prior to battle. Speaking of the trainers, customisation is back allowing you to dress and style your character to your liking. Sure the options are fairly limited but there are enough features to make you feel like your character is unique and is wearing the look you want.
Performance is perhaps the biggest issue with the game presentation wise. During battles with 3 or more trainers it is clear the 3DS is struggling to keep up, often lowering the frame rate immensely and causing the game to lag after the attack selection screen. This doesn’t have any large ongoing detrimental effect on the game but the issue but does occur frequently enough to warrant mentioning. In a similar vain, considering how much time you spend in battles it would have been nice if the whole process received a small speed up, particularly entering battles and HP bars draining more efficiently. Again though this is only a minor gripe.
The music ranges from fantastic to forgettable which is fair enough given the amount of tracks in the game. Most of the tracks associated with the major battles are among my favorites as are the remixes and tracks from past games. I don’t mind the new wild Pokemon and trainer theme but they just aren’t as catchy as in past generations.
As for sound effects all your classic menu sounds, Poke Ball sounds and even the thud noise when you run into a wall is back alongside both the old and new Pokemon cries. As with most Nintendo series there is no voice overs to speak of here but whether the series really needs voice acting is a debate for another time. The quality and volume mixing of the audio is perfect without any notable problems.
Pokemon Sun & Moon is arguably the greatest core Pokemon game we have received, but that is based largely on the merit of each title that has come before it. Pokemon has had 20 years to refine itself and that all manifests in Sun & Moon, with evolutions in presentation, the streamlining and refining of many core features and all the small changes that make this game unique (but not too unique) from what has come before it. While the performance issues are disappointing and the story, graphics and music are at times only acceptable, as a whole the game never falls below that benchmark and most of the game is terrific in all aspects, particularly gameplay wise. This is a fantastic game that does due justice to the Pokemon franchises legacy.