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  • Writer's pictureJames Stephanie Sterling

Pokemon Sun and Moon Review – Big Kahuna

Not the very best, but still damn fine.

Developer: Game Freak Publisher: Nintendo Format: 3DS Released: November 18, 2016 Copy purchased

We’re now seven generations deep into Nintendo’s Pokémon series, and while not even Pokémon GO could sustain the kind of popularity enjoyed by Game Freak’s speciality in the 1990s, things are still going stupendously strong.

Nevertheless, the series had begun to get just a little bit rote, with incremental updates to a core that’s hardly shifted since 1996 despite the impressive polish and reworking added every time.

Pokémon Sun and Moon is a serious attempt to shake things up with more than a handful of shiny features, bringing us not just a new region to be the very best, but a series of unique twists on the very process of being the very best.

Like noone ever was.

Naturally, the latest Pokémon has to retain a high level of familiarity, lest it be crucified to straying too far from the comfort zone. As always, you’re a child in a creepy world where literally everybody is obsessed with a diverse species of creature that seems to dictate their every waking moment.

Your goal is to become a Pokémon master- sorry, that’s not quite right this time – you’re completing your “Island Trials” this time around. Whatever the ultimate goal, the means remain the same – catching and battling monsters in the name of personal gratification.

The first few hours of Sun and Moon are a slog for any Pokémon veteran due to Game Freak’s continued insistence on running a tutorial for every concept no matter how old the concept is. With no option to skip segments, you’ll once again be made to learn about capturing Pokémon in tall grass, weakening them, and tossing out Pokéballs to enthrall the poor bastards.

Before the leash is officially off, you’ll be spending a significant amount of time meeting the cast of the new Alola region and going through obligatory starter battles as you come to grips with old and new ideas alike.

For an old hand, it can be tough to find the motivation to chew through that opening, but fortunately things ease up once you nab your first Pokémon and start undertaking the initial Trial.

Unlike previous games, the formulaic journey from city to city in order to battle Gym Leaders has been replaced entirely by a more storied series of tasks unique to the series of islands that make up Alola.

Rather than find Pokémon Gyms and take down their powerful keepers, players undertake tasks given to them by Captains, square off against boss-grade Totem Pokémon, and finally battle the island’s Kahuna in a last fight for supremacy.

In truth, these Island Trials are themselves fairly routine and follow a distinct formula when you boil them down, but the stories tied to each objective and the constant upping of the ante with every island visited gives each one a distinctly fresher feel.

You may need to find ingredients for a special recipe in a jungle, or watch a tribe of Marowak dance and spot which one isn’t sticking to the routine. While each Trial includes plenty of battling against not just Captains but the aforementioned Totem bosses, enough is done to turn each one into its own adventure rather than a samey job to be performed over and over.

Totem Pokémon are souped up versions of regular creatures that summon less powerful allies to aid them constantly. With buffed up stats, they’re regular roadblocks for any prospective trainer, and it’s usually a good idea to hit them with as many criticals and Z-Moves as possible.

Z-Moves are new to the seventh generation, unlocked as Captains and Kahunas are defeated by obtaining Z-Crystals as prizes. Each Z-Crystal is tied to a specific Pokémon Type and usable by any monster that has associated moves. For example, Normalium Z is for Normal Type moves, while Ghostium Z is for Ghost Types.

Namewise, things are pretty hard to misunderstand.

When held by a Pokémon capable of using it, a Z-Crystal unlocks access to those Z-Moves, powerful new attacks that can only be used once per battle. While the crystals are capable of powering up regular attacks, their main use is unlocking one-of-a-kind “finisher” style moves specific to that Type.

To use previous examples, Normalium Z grants access to Breakneck Blitz, upgrading one of the Pokémon’s Normal-type moves to a powerful charging attack. The specific statistical upgrades of each attack is dependant on the original move being upgraded. If you have a Pokémon with a Firium Z and two fire moves, you might be able to use two different versions of Inferno Overdrive – a physical or a special attack type.

If all that goes too far under the hood, suffice to say that Z-Moves are really powerful, especially against living things!

Oh, and a number of Pokémon have their very own special Z Crystals, because obviously Pikachu needed a Pikanium Z.

One major gameplay advancement is also a controversial one, and not one I particularly like. SOS Battles are a thing now, apparently because Pokémon in Alola just love helping each other out. First introduced during Totem battles, SOS Battles are fights in which Pokémon can call for aid and get second creature to fight by their side.

Praised by some for their ability to quickly spawn Pokémon and grant more efficient access to rare or shiny creatures, SOS Battles are a real pain in the arse for anybody not intending to grind. I understand their benefits as a late or meta game feature, but for the general player, dealing with Pokémon that constantly summon more meat into the fight can be a nightmare.

First of all, you can’t catch a Pokémon if it’s summoned another one, because of no good reason. Secondly, wild Pokémon can access this feature indefinitely. While there’s a chance help might not come, there’s nothing stopping the summoner from attempting it every single round, independent of its actual turn.

They’re basically lair actions as found in Dungeons & Dragons – a Pokémon can perform any regular move it wants, then call for help on top of its actual turn. With no limits on using SOS, and no incentive not to use it, certain Pokémon can and will spam it to an incessant degree. Any general fight can run the risk of turning into a long, drawn out, ultimately boring battle.

Once again, I understand the benefits of SOS Battles – there’s even an item that makes SOS calls even more likely for would-be beneficiaries – but with zero balancing done to ensure at least some limitation for those who don’t care about the grind, they’re an absolute shitshow that get on my nerves.

A far more enjoyable feature is Pokémon Ride. Replacing the need for Hidden Machines, Pokémon Sun/Moon gradually grants access to special Pokémon outside of one’s main team that can be ridden around the world and used to reach previously inaccessible areas.

The first Ride Pokémon, Tauros, smashes boulders with a powerful charge that also doubles as a great way to cover ground quickly. Lapras can be taken into the water, and Charizard replaces the primary use of Fly, called upon as it is to fast travel to any previously visited area.

As well as providing a convenient replacement for HMs, riding Pokémon is just a fun way to get around, like the bicycle from previous games but more amusing. That these Ride Pokémon needn’t be caught or held in the battle party makes them all the more appreciated.

There are of course many obligatory additions to Sun and Moon‘s repertoire, including 81 new creatures and dozens upon dozens of fresh moves and abilities.

There’s another villainous team – Team Skull – which might be my favorite since Team Rocket. Its grunts form an incompetent wannabe street gang, and their dialogue is sometimes incomprehensible with its desperate slang.

More interestingly, some old Pokémon from the first generation are given a fresh coat of paint with Alolan variants of such familiar faces as Rattata, Raichu, and Vulpix.

As well as new looks, these variants have new Types, often a combination of the original Type with a fresh one. Alolan Raichu is now an Electric/Psychic hybrid, while Sandshrew has become an Ice/Steel Type with an appropriately crystalline appearance. It’s a clever way of making some old Pokémon exciting again, and it certainly works.

Multiplayer features, both local and online, are governed via Festival Plaza, a new hub in which interpersonal training and battling may commence. After constant harassment to sign up to an exterior website because of course, Festival Plaza is a great way to run into strangers, trade Pokémon, and fight… once your team reaches a certain level.

The hub itself contains a number of facilities that can be used by spending Festival Coins, earned as players interact with guests that show up. It can be annoying trying to gain FC at first since it’s dependent on random chumps, but Festival Plaza is full of highly useful content outside of the general online features – this includes a way to increase the notorious Effort Value hidden stats, a lottery where the Master Ball can be won, and global missions that every online player can take part in.

Sun and Moon‘s full list of additions is impressive, including hyper training for maximizing more hidden stats, Battle Royal for four-way fights, QR Code scanning in order to find rare Pokémon, the Rotom Pokédex which displays a minimap and constantly runs its goddamn mouth, and all sorts of other less obvious tweaks.

There’s even a full-on minigame, Poké Pelago, in which islands can be built and used to grow berries, find items, and train Pokémon (the daycare center is purely for breeding now). These islands are inhabited by Pokémon left in the PC, which is a great use of all the monsters caught and otherwise unused.

Though low on interaction, the Poké Pelago is oddly fascinating, and something I can find myself spending a lot of time messing about with.

Despite the slow start and one significantly unsavory new flavor, the seventh new chapter in the Pokémon saga is brimming with solid innovations bolted onto that comfortably conventional framework.

Still, the game suffers from an issue that’s been part of the series since birth, and its continued presence gets under my skin with all the persistence of a blonde-haired Dugtrio – every simple repetitive task takes way more time than necessary, still, after seven iterations.

The most notable example is the Pokémon Center, where healing one’s party once more results in the same old unskippable process where you watch all six of your Pokéballs get into the healing station, one after the other, all accompanied by the same old dialog time and time again. It was never necessary, and it’s certainly not needed now. We get the idea. We know how healing works. Just heal the bloody cartoon animals. It should take no more than a crossfade at this point.

Similarly, it’s ridiculous how it takes not one but two text screens to inform you that you’ve picked up an item. Every time I find a potion in the world, I only need to be told I’ve found a potion. I don’t need a second text box appearing to tell me I opened up my medicine pocket and put the potion in the medicine pocket alongside all the other potions I’ve already put in the medicine pocket.

It’s medicine! I know what pocket the medicine items go in. The medicine pocket! That concept was nailed in the tutorial. It was nailed in the 90s. I know what fucking pocket it goes in.

The introduction of Z-Moves only adds to this, with extravagant animations that refuse to be abbreviated. Even Final Fantasy eventually learned that you don’t need to see a summon’s drawn-out cutscene every single time. I’m over watching a Breakneck Blitz happen. I know what a Breakneck Blitz looks like by now. Stop making me watch Breakneck Blitz.

You can turn all animations in battle off at least, but still. Christ’s sake.

Sun and Moon benefits from a number of visual upgrades over the X/Y generation, with superior character models and the addition of trainers present during battle sequences. NPC trainers even use a variety of Pokéballs this time, just to mix things up. Such touches are minor, but go a long way toward making the game feel more involving than it otherwise would be.

The 81 new (known) Pokémon are a motley assortment varying in design quality. Highlights include the sneering toucan Toucannon, the fire/poison Type Salazzle, and a solid selection of Legendary creatures. Unlike prior generations, there haven’t been any debuts here that I’ve found truly idiotic or repellent, although for the first time I never found an initial Starter Pokémon I fully liked the look of. Had Rowlett not led toward the excellent Decidueye, I’d have been quite let down.

Then there’s Mimikyu. Who can’t love Mimikyu? Adorable, creepy little nightmare.

Alongside the Alonan variant Pokémon, Sun and Moon really plays with Types, leading to battle parties that are more varied and interesting than they’ve been in past series. While you can still get a stable roster of regular old grass, fire, and water Pokémon, the unique combinations on offer make it hard not to try weirder, more exotic selections.

Alola itself is a fun new place to explore, with a pleasantly diverse cast of characters and an infectious soundtrack that helps set the mood. Game Freak worked hard to make this region feel unlike any in previous games, and the effort shows. A lot of fresh air blows through this world.

Pokémon Sun and Moon represent another rock solid entry in the series whether you go solar or lunar (aside from exclusive monsters, the biggest difference is that Moon runs twelve hours ahead, meaning it’s more likely to be set at night). Everything fans expect are there – catching, training, battling, a zealous devotion to Pokémon from every NPC – and the new features are almost all well designed with a depth to the content.

Gen VII is only let down by a tendency to drag its feet with unnecessary dialog, animations, and tutorials, a situation compounded by the repetitive Z-Moves and the sometimes grueling SOS Battles. At this point, Game Freak knows how to make an excellent game and always goes above and beyond in making a truly expansive sequel. Now it just needs to create more fluid experiences overall.

Despite my grumbles, I have to admit Sun and Moon gets its hooks in even if it’s tough to get into at first. Once it clicks, it can instill obsession as well as any prior game, and that’s before getting to the new minigames and features that only serve to make the adventure more rewarding.

Still, there’s no Ekans in it, and I have to wait until a future update until I can transfer one. That’s really hard to get used to, and I’m intensely disappointed in everybody who allowed this mistake to happen.

8.5/10 Great


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