Certain game series can get away without making significant changes to their formula -- in fact, there are some that would risk infuriating their fans if they did alter too much. Games like The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter, or Dynasty Warriors carry a certain familiarity to them, and remain strong enough contenders in their genre that nothing is doing what they do better. Mario Kart, these games aren't.
Pokemon, arguably, is one such series. Even if there are complaints about its formula never changing, Pokemon is such a beloved and powerful franchise that it has never had to feel any real pressure to change. There were refinements and minor alterations along the lengthy road from Red and Blue to Black and White, but nothing revolutionary.
Revolutionary is exactly what X and Y looks like it will be. Boasting a whole new engine, with a brand new graphical style, fresh controls, and a host of unseen features, X and Y have all the trappings of a truly new era of Pokemon. These trappings, however, are a trap. Behind the shiny coat of paint, underneath the extra distractions, this is the same old Pokemon experience you've played so many times before.
And that's ... perfectly okay. Because nothing does what Pokemon does better.
Pokemon X and Y (3DS)
Released: October 12, 2013
You know the Beedrill by now. You're a young boy or girl, and you set out from your crummy little town to seize adventure and become a Pokemon master. After choosing one of three starter Pokemon -- Chespin, Fennekin, or Froakie -- you move from town to town, battling Gym Leaders to claim their badges, encountering a team of criminal ne'er-do-wells, filling up the Pokedex for a friendly professor, and naturally doing what you can to catch 'em all.
X and Y does absolutely nothing to change up the structure of the adventure. You'll use HM moves like Cut and Surf to unlock new paths of travel, you'll wake up a sleeping Snorlax with a Pokeflute, and you'll have regular battles with rivals (though this time they're actually friends of yours rather than a long arrogant nemesis). The only major change to the story structure comes in the form of a sub-narrative concerning Mega Evolutions, one of the game's newer features, but it's really just ancillary stuff used to sell the concept.
If you were looking for a totally fresh adventure to shake up the narrative, you're likely going to be very disappointed the moment you discover your first tree-based roadblock and realize it's the same old thing. Of course, many would argue you're doing Pokemon wrong if a compelling new story is something you play for.
Indeed, the comfortably familiar drips off everything in X and Y, which will likely come as a welcome surprise to those fans worried the game might change too much. While battles look more dynamic than ever, thanks to a gorgeous new graphical style that fully animates your battling beasts, the turn-based, rock-paper-scissors style combat is back with a vengeance. Pokemon still learn new moves as they level up, are still limited to four moves, still come in a variety of types with strengths and weaknesses, and still evolve into new, more powerful forms. There is a fresh Fairy-type Pokemon, designed to give Dragons something to be afraid of, but that's about it.
None of this really needed to be changed, however. The joy of Pokemon has always been in the acquiring of more monsters by beating them down and capturing them in little balls, in training your favorites to build a team of six treasured animals, and in feeling evermore powerful as your mutant buddies pound down the competition. While much of the freshness of X and Y comes from its aesthetic overhauls, that's really all that was required. And they're incredibly wonderful aesthetic overhauls!
As already noted, battles look truly alive thanks to the fully 3D visuals. While the Pokemon still stand in their own little spots and never come into direct contact, one can easily suspend disbelief and get drawn into the fight. Each of the 'Mons' many attacks are uniquely animated, and often take advantage of the 3DS' visual trickery to create some eye-popping little setpieces. Getting to see Bulbasaur whip at the opposition with its little vine arms, or watching as the Water Dance move casts down an enveloping rainstorm offers a gleeful delight that makes this old cynical reviewer feel like an idiotic child again.
Mega Evolutions provide some limited new discoveries, adding a fourth evolutionary tier to a number of Pokemon. During the course of the story, players pick up a Mega Ring which, when used on a valid Pokemon holding its own special item, allows that monster to temporarily evolve into a new and powerful form. The visual changes aren't dramatic (Mega Venasaur, for example, just gets bigger and sprouts more plants off its body), but the creatures themselves get a good stat boost and the transformations themselves are visually stunning.
It's not the new look, nor the Mega Evolutions, that really makes X and Y worth your time, however. The game's biggest drawback is also its biggest strength -- no, it hasn't changed much beyond what we first saw in 1998, but the simple joy of catching monsters, seeing the world, and getting stronger feels as endearing as it always has. It helps that the brand new creatures introduced for X and Y are also some of the best designed in the series (Froakie's evolutions are utterly beautiful), and those Pokemon included from past games are typically the coolest ones. I always felt later Pokemon games struggled with the designs of the monsters, and things got too contrived and stupid. X and Y brings back a real sense of creativity in the monster department -- and I don't think the keyring one looks that bad either!
This, for me, has always been the true highlight of the game -- encountering ever more wondrous looking creatures and making them yours. X and Y absolutely delivers in that regard.
The visual improvements extend to the overworld as well, with travels outside of battle using shifting camera perspectives, eight-directional movement, and a richer amount of detail to make a more absorbing world than we've seen in the series to date. Moving around with the analog nub is a little awkward, especially when you get the roller blades and start sliding all over the map, but traveling feels swifter and less cumbersome than it does in previous installments, while caves and other special locations often play around with the camera to constantly draw players closer to the action. You can also customize your character with jackets, pants, hats, and accessories, as well as pick a limited number of hairstyles and eye colors to get more personal.
One gameplay improvement comes in the form of a more streamlined structure that ups the pace and makes the world more convenient to navigate. You gain useful things like your starter Pokemon, EXP Share, and the bicycle far more quickly, because what's the point of delaying the inevitable? Some may claim the game is easier than before, but there's always been a constantly widening gap between the player and the A.I., and that seems to be the same way it's always been. Just because the game's been streamlined and made more accessible, doesn't mean it's any less "hardcore".
Things aren't quite as elegant as they could be. Having to go through the usual repeated dialog when healing at a Pokemon Center, and needing to navigate a whole ocean of menus to find simple items, are a hassle that only get more dreary as the adventure continues. It's never totally unbearable, but one grows tired of going through the motions after extended play periods.
X and Y uses the game's second screen to toss in a few minigame features as well. A Super Training simulator can be accessed which employs a simple little shooting game to gain extra stat boosts, and you can tap on punching bags to further enhance your chosen creature's abilities. Super Training is also a way of getting around the previously impregnable Effort Value system, something I personally appreciate, though hardcore fans may not. There's also a little virtual pet addition, which lets you stroke your favorite Pokemon, feed it treats, and play silly touch-based minigames. Nothing here is truly exciting, but it makes for a fun little distraction when you need a break from the constant catching and grinding.
Game Freak has worked hard to streamline the online functions, and while the game's not quite up and running in this regard at the time of writing, we know how it'll work. The Player Search System allows one to trade and battle players conveniently, without the need for unwieldy friend codes, while O-powers are used in battle against human opponents to boost the powers of one's Pokemon. If you're feeling narcissistic, you can also make and show off videos of your beautiful living possessions. Everyone must see the trophies you have forced to do your bidding. Forever.
X and Y's soundtrack is utterly lovely, by the way. The little jingles that play while random trainers challenge you to fights always raise a smile, the battle themes are all energetic, and the quieter tunes are legitimately beautiful. Probably my favorite soundtrack since the original releases!
Many will tell you that Pokemon X and Y totally shakes up the stale old Pokemon foundation, but they are simply dazzled by the bright lights and flashing images. This isn't a problem though, because some of us love the "stale" old Pokemon foundation, and we're happy to get it looking as good as it's ever looked. I want to walk around in grass and toss my balls in a magic dog's face, and that's exactly what I get from X and Y. That I get it with beautifully animated combat and gorgeous, vivid colors just totally seals the deal.
Nobody has demonstrated they can do Pokemon better than Pokemon can. X and Y does everything it needs to remain relevant, to prove why it's the top of its field, and if that's not good enough for you, there's nothing Ekans say to change your mind.