What? It’s evolving!
Though my interest in Pokémon has waned, I’ll always be a fan at heart, curious to see where the series goes next and dream about what form it might one day take far into the future.
The original games and ensuing multimedia craze landed at an opportune point in my young life. They left an indelible mark, and I’m sure many of you can relate. But even if you haven’t stayed passionate all these years — even if you haven’t felt invested since the Game Boy days — there’s a special quality to Pokémon Sun and Moon. I don’t know that it’s possible to truly please new and old fans alike, but this generation gets far closer to reaching that lofty goal than I ever would have predicted.
Pokémon Sun (3DS)
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Release: November 18, 2016
[Also check out our review of Pokémon Moon.]
The biggest surprise of Sun for me isn’t Game Freak’s efforts to clean up longstanding design quirks and time-wasting elements that many of us have learned to live with over the years, though I am so thankful to see things like HMs, for instance, go away for what hopefully turns out to be forever.
Rather, what most caught me off guard about Sun is its story and characterization. It’s… frequently wonderful! As ever, you’re on a grand adventure to capture new and familiar creatures and become the best trainer in the land. Those broad stokes haven’t changed and likely never will.
But now, more so than any other Pokémon before, I felt a connection to the people around me, their motivations, and their heritage. Nearly everyone is likable, whether it’s the happy-go-lucky professor, your friendly “rival,” the island leaders who stand in for what would traditionally be gym leaders, or even the goofy-as-hell punk clan Team Skull. The game’s cheerful tone is a resounding success.
For once, I wasn’t mashing my way through text prompts while getting from Point A to Point B. Part of that is on the narrative — which I’ll just say kept me engaged for its 30-hour run, and leave it at that — and part of it is on Sun‘s focused structure. It’s a slow start early on with obvious progression gates, and that’ll surely bother impatient players, but the end result is a more confident, personable story.
Instead of letting you loose to bounce from town to town until you reach The End with a battle-hardened team, Pokémon Sun embraces the Alola region’s island-life culture and sense of community. This isn’t a lonely journey, or you versus the world — it’s a rite of passage, one that many members of the game’s central cast and even side characters have been on. You’ll still have to earn your way to the top, but there’s a real sense that the Alolan people want you to succeed to your fullest potential.
That sense of change also flows into the gameplay with numerous deviations to the series formula, most of which I am ecstatic to see. I can’t detail every single point of interest (I’m still making lots of discoveries in the post-game), but these are some of the important ones.
Mandatory HMs? Gone, and good riddance. Regardless of your current party or overall collection, you can call in specialty Pokémon at will to do things like dash, fly, surf, or bypass obstacles.
Gyms and gym leaders? Redefined. Your tests on the four islands entail more original puzzle-solving and exploratory tasks as well as straight combat against tough “Totem Pokémon” and tougher “Island Kahuna” trainers. It’s not a huge departure on paper, but the tweaks do add up to make an impact.
Mega Evolutions? Sidelined. Although the existing ones are eventually accessible, the new gimmick for the purposes of the story is Z-Moves. These are powerful once-per-battle attacks that you — and, frighteningly, AI trainers — can whip out to devastating effect. While the extravagant animations do eventually shed that “wow” factor, they brought me a little closer to my Pokémon. You won’t want to outfit everyone with the gear needed for Z-Moves, but they can play a crucial role in your strategies.
Then there’s the many ease-of-use updates that should have happened long ago but still feel like a total godsend. My favorite feature is that now, when you catch a wild Pokémon, you have the option to place it in your party right then and there. You can compare its abilities with your team’s and then send the Pokémon it’s replacing off to your PC, so there’s no need to put your adventure on hold. Enough chore-like aspects have been toned down or cut loose that, in general, Sun is just a joy to play.
Some of the new creature designs are my favorites in recent memory, though I can’t help but wish there were more fresh faces here. Even with the post-game helping to alleviate this feeling, I’m still a little underwhelmed. That said, I love tracing back the real-world ecological and folklore roots of Pokémon, so needless to say, I will cherish the boxer crab and the hooded, arrow-slinging owl.
Similarly, the Alola variants of classic monsters like the “prideful” Meowth and laughably-long-necked Exeggutor, which have taken on altered appearances and abilities better suited for their island surroundings, are genius. It’s a clever nostalgia pull and a way to further flesh out the lore. I hope this approach becomes the new normal for Game Freak going forward. There’s such a well to draw from.
While it’s far too early to tell what the legacy of the seventh generation will be, right now, it feels like a substantial step in the right direction. This is the most enthralled I’ve been with a Pokémon game since the original Silver and Gold and their DS remakes. If I’m disappointed by anything major in Sun (other than the pesky but tolerable slowdown on the standard 3DS), it’s that the creators didn’t take the experimentation further. I get that Pokémon has become a bankable institution and change can only realistically happen so fast, but the risks they took here have almost all been worthwhile.
Simply put, Pokémon has never felt more alive to me than it does in Sun, and while I did have high expectations coming in, I can’t say I saw that coming. This series is catching up with our imaginations.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]