Pokemon Sun and Moon is a crystallization of what has made the franchise thrive for twenty years. It is a continuation of Game Freak’s impeccable gameplay polish. Its very artistic direction continues to expand across multiple regions and variations with almost one thousand unique (and consistent!) creature designs to date. All the while, the studio isn’t afraid to add some novelty or twists on its established formula to keep each installment feeling fresh and interesting. This seventh generation experience is no different.
The story is the same as most Pokemon installments. You’re a young boy or girl that has recently moved to the exotic collection of islands known as the Alola region. You meet a professor that wants your help exploring the region and its various exotic species of pocket monsters. To that end he gifts you with one of three special companions and sends you on your way. What happens next is a relaxed tropical adventure full of exploration, fighting and capturing brand new Pokemon to create a fantastic fighting force, and undergoing a local rite of passage… as well as thwarting the plans of a certain nefarious organization.
As for the usual beats of a standard adventure, Pokemon Sun and Moon feels like something completely refreshing. Ever since the series’ inception in 1996, each game’s story has always relied upon a simple set-up: travel to new city, defeat Gym Leaders, collect badges, join the Pokemon League, etc. In the case of the Alola region, things manage to be smaller in scale and thematically more intimate. Instead of a more formal Pokemon League challenge, you embark on the island’s rite of passage. This involves traveling between the four major islands of the region, meeting and completing a number of trials by the local captains– which usually involve fighting enhanced Totem Pokemon– in order to earn the right to challenge the island’s leader or kahuna.
It’s a small but considerable change. On the most basic level, it can easily be read as Game Freak trying too hard to hide the series’ age, but it actually helps show what can happen when convention is changed. As a longtime fan going all the way back to the first generation, I know Pokemon’s ins and outs far too well, and while I did zone out when I got my Pokedex, chose my starter, and beat the tar out of my recurring– and underwhelming– rival, I paid attention to the game’s cutscenes and slowly became invested in the world’s characters. There is a great sense of humor and heart to each interaction with the entire cast, from the headstrong brashness of Professor Kukui to the quiet yet amiable Lillie. Even the big bads of the game, the brutish yet inept Team Skull, have a bit more going on with them than it seems at first blush. These small but powerful touches make Pokemon Sun and Moon feel less like a standard Pokemon experience and more like a classic SNES RPG like Earthbound; quirky coming of age stories about the bond of friendship in the face of the unknown.
That comparison isn’t made lightly, considering how the plot manages to juxtapose fluffy and innocent humor and whimsical fantasy with dark subject matter concerning parental upbringing, major organizations with duplicitous agendas, and even inter-dimensional cosmic horrors.
This more linear and scripted approach does lead to minor issues. The biggest one is while the story is more laid back and easygoing, it can make the game feel too easy at first. There were several instances where just for walking from one town to the next, I got a bunch of revive items, special Poke Balls, and even my entire team healed, all due to activating the next cut-scene. As mentioned before, this isn’t a deal breaker since the new cast and set-up are compelling enough to forgive this, not to mention things do become suitably meaty later on, but it does lead to slightly uneven pacing.
Gameplay wise not much has changed. The combat is still turn-based with each Pokemon having certain attacks, defenses, strengths and weaknesses. Every type has a rock-paper-scissors relationship with every other type which helps compliment the more traditional RPG staples of buffs, debuffs, passive special abilities, and healing powers. Underneath the fancier production values, this consistent gameplay system is still top notch.
As for improvements, they are minor but appreciated. In lieu of weighing the player down with momentum killing annoyances, for example not being able to swim unless you had a Pokemon in your party that knew the move Surf, you are granted a Ride Pager which lets you summon a Pokemon to help cut out the middleman. No more having to put your exploration on hold to dash back to a bank and switch around your team; now it’s just a few button presses away. Certain favorite moves like Rock Smash and Fly are still around but now you don’t need someone in your party to have that move at all times. Whenever you catch a new Pokemon, you have the option to add it to your team right away by swapping it out with another party member. Also, the UI is more elegant with details and crucial information just a simple touch screen tap away.
[section label = “Entertainment” anchor=”Entertainment”]
But the biggest addition to this series comes in the form of Z-Moves. In a way, these attacks act a lot like last generation’s Mega Evolutions. Both are powerful abilities that can only be used once in a battle, and feature huge, exaggerated theatrical flair. But while Mega Evolutions functioned as an alternate form for certain Pokemon, a Z-Move is an all-powerful super attack that can help turn the tide in a dangerous situation. It seems at first like a shallow attempt to keep the series fresh and interesting to new players, but considering the new Totem Pokemon challenges love to start battles with completely unfair passive advantages, the Z-Moves manage to become an aid for new players in need of some extra firepower and a novelty for veterans alike.
Make no mistake, Game Freak’s beloved franchise is still the best in the business at what it does. Putting together killer combinations of status effects, super effective attacks and learning the ins and outs of each new Pokemon introduced is still fun and rewarding. While the focus this time around is more on narrative and theme than on dungeon-crawling and exploration, the core that has made this series endure is still as involving as it was when it began.
On the technical side of things, Pokemon Sun and Moon retains its high quality. The Alola region is a lovingly realized approximation of Hawaiian and Polynesian regions and cultures; the background music and sound effects even include ukulele strings to sell this point home. The newly designed Pokemon are a great mix of adorable and scary, personal favorites include the slender lizard Salazzle and the uncanny Mimikyu. And while there is no 3D support, even on the New Nintendo 3DS model, texture work and character models are spot on with impressive animation all at a consistent framerate. There are times where game stutters and chugs after you’ve selected your actions for a turn, but these are minor inconveniences.
It also helps that the game has a lot of content on offer. In addition to the standard thirty hour adventure, an island management mini-game where you can send Pokemon you captured to relax, and a StreetPass powered shopping district, there is a lot of impressive endgame content that justifies the purchase all on its own. Everything from recurring characters from past games arriving, to the appearance of certain Legendary Pokemon, there is plenty on display for new and old players to enjoy.
In short, Pokemon Sun and Moon is yet another great addition to the series. The combat is still satisfying, that urge to “Catch ‘Em All” is as addictive as ever, and while story has always been secondary, the one on display here actually has some charm to it. If you haven’t checked out the series in a while or want a good starting point, you can do a lot worse than this.