Photo by Martin Musialczyk
By Emily Boyer
When I was six years old, my parents made the mistake of buying me Pokémon Crystal. I spent months glued to it. I trained my Typhlosion to absurd levels while neglecting the rest of my team, used moves like Cut and Swift against the Elite Four, totally ignored type matchups, and made just about every mistake you can make in Pokémon. It was, overall, a stupid and unnecessarily difficult experience.
I loved it. I haven’t missed a Pokémon game since. It probably pains my parents to see their adult daughter throw down $40 for a children’s game every time a new version comes out, but the series has brought me a lot of happiness. I enjoy the formula.
But Sun and Moon are different. After 20 years, it seems the Pokémon developers sat down and said, “This formula works well, and we have no reason to believe it will stop working anytime soon. But, screw it, let’s throw the whole thing out and start over.”
And it worked. Holy shit did it work. Sun was the best Pokémon game I’ve played in years.
Gyms have hit the scrap heap, replaced by the Island Challenge, in which you have to conquer seven Island Trials and four Grand Trials. I was apprehensive about that, but the challenges add a lot of variety I didn’t realize was missing. You battle trainers, take on powerful wild Pokémon, and explore the land.
Gyms actually seem a little bland in retrospect.
HMs have finally, finally been done away with. In their place is the Ride Pager, a device that allows you to call Pokémon to assist you with the task at hand. Instead of saddling your team with a crappy move like Rock Smash, you crash through boulders while seated upon a Tauros like a queen upon her throne!
Instead of catching a Pidgey for the sole purpose of teaching it Fly, you mount a goddamn Charizard and soar through the skies like a dragon rider!
My favorite, though, is the Stoutland that sniffs around for hidden items. What it lacks in drama it makes up in utility — that thing was practically my seventh team member.
However, despite all the love I have for Sun, it had some serious flaws. The most glaring was the length of the tutorial. The game spends the entire first island holding your hand through each task, forcing cutscenes on you every five steps and railroading you into doing everything in a precise order.
I found the last part particularly offensive. Once, the game told me to go to a particular place; I turned around to do something else first, and the game stopped me. I wondered why I had even been given the controls if I wasn’t allowed to use them.
Yes, Pokémon is a kids’ game — I know because the GameStop employees chant that like a warding spell whenever I show up to menace them — but Game Freak has to know not everyone who plays a Pokémon game is doing it for the first time. There should be a way to at least shorten the tutorial. Even a newcomer’s attention span will start to fray after the first hour of introductory material.
Thankfully the babysitting drops off after the first island. If it had gone on for much longer I might have put down the game.
I enjoyed the return of Pokémon Amie, this time as Pokémon Refresh. In addition to the old mechanics, you’re now able to care for your Pokémon after battle, brushing off dirt or even curing status conditions.
I really like the affection mechanic. It’s touching to see my Pokémon withstand hits that should have caused them to faint just because they love me — even if it does make me feel like a terrible person when I use them as cannon fodder.
And then there are those great features they refuse to bring back, like Pokémon following you and the ability to toggle running. I just don’t get you sometimes, Game Freak.
I do feel the games are getting a bit overstuffed with mechanics, though. Affection, friendship, Hidden Abilities, IVs, EVs, Mega Evolutions, Z-Moves, shinies, Egg Moves, TMs, Alola Forms… I doubt I’d be able to keep up if I hadn’t been around since the start.
I’m glad to report these games are much harder than the sixth generation. Granted, I turned off the Experience Share as a challenge condition, but I did the same thing in Alpha Sapphire with no noticeable change in difficulty. In contrast, I actually lost battles in Sun. I hadn’t lost battles in years. It’s nice to be challenged again.
The designs of the Pokémon themselves are a mixed bag. The ratio of gorgeous Pokémon to acceptable Pokémon to hideous Pokémon is so even that I almost wonder if it’s intentional.
The starter evolutions are a perfect microcosm of Sun and Moon’s wildly varying design quality.
Decidueye is a badass archer I can’t help but love. Primarina is a blandly adequate mermaid. Incineroar is John Cena in a fursuit, and my eyes try to shrink back into my head every time I look at it.
By the way, Game Freak, what do you have against quadrupeds? Why do you always turn them into ugly bipeds when they evolve? It’s happened to Litten, Yungoos, Stufful… What did they ever do to you?
Answer me, Game Freak! I know you’re getting my letters!
Uh… anyway. The games have a few more minor flaws — the lack of 3D, your character’s sometimes inappropriately cheerful expression — but they’re all outshined by the games’ biggest strength: the story.
Previous games shoved a plot at you as an excuse for you to take on the Pokémon League. The whole world was a backdrop for the battles.
That’s not so in Sun and Moon. The world is vibrant, every corner painted with detail. The characters have relationships and motivations. The story is meaningful and surprisingly dark for a Pokémon game, but uplifting in the end.
I never expected a real story from main-series Pokémon games, but as with so many things, Sun turned my expectations on their head. I laughed at Team Skull’s antics. My heart raced when I fought the villain.
The ending made me smile.
Sun forged an emotional connection. It made me care, and that’s the most important job of any game.
Also, somebody Wonder Traded me a Yungoos named Donald Trump, so that was pretty great.
In the end, despite a few key flaws, Sun and Moon achieve a seamless blend of polished gameplay and compelling story unmatched by previous games. For Pokémon newcomers, Sun and Moon are a warm welcome to the series. For Pokémon veterans, Sun and Moon are proud additions to your collection.
1. Only female Salandit evolve, so keep that in mind while hunting for one.
2. Be sure to save before fighting the Champion; the ending is very long and you don’t get to save during it.
3. Some move-learning levels have been changed due to a new feature called Evolution Moves.
If you buy the game by January 11, 2017, you can receive a Munchlax with an exclusive Z-Move via the Mystery Gift feature.
4. Pokémon Moon takes place 12 hours ahead of your time. If it’s 7 p.m. according to your 3DS’s clock, it will be 7 a.m. in the game.
5. Don’t just talk to the people in the game — talk to the Pokémon, too. Some of them will give you items or heal your team.
6. The more Pokémon are called during an SOS Battle, the higher the probability one of them is a shiny or has its Hidden Ability.