A bright new chapter dawns for Pokemon this week with Pokemon Sun and Moon. What surprises does the Alola region hold for trainers?
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: November 18th, 2016
The stars are aligned for a new Pokemon game to be a great success. For one, people worldwide are still fueled by the hype generated from Pokemon GO. Nintendo has few other major titles lined up for the holiday and the Switch isn’t until next year, meaning Pokemon Sun and Moon will be the shining star on the shelves for Nintendo’s Christmas shoppers. But most importantly, the Pokemon series as a whole is undergoing a gradual but dramatic shift in tone. Since X and Y, Pokemon has been working to draw all trainers together–across international boundaries via wireless communication, across cultural barriers via a shared love of the fandom, and across the generation gap by reminding older fans of why they loved the original games.
To this end, Sun and Moon have their work cut out for them. Previews and the demo version point to an upheaval of familiar institutions such as Gyms and HMs. New forms for old Pokemon have been revealed, and mysterious creatures called Ultra Beasts make us question what a Pokemon really is anymore. How will Sun and Moon shake up the tried and true Pokemon recipe, and will it be enough? Or perhaps too much?
Your very own Pokemon adventure
You’re an 11-year-old (11! still!) kid who has just moved to the tropical Alolan region from Kanto with your mom, a lifestyle change that becomes interesting before you can even unpack when you’re whisked away to get your first Pokemon and take on the Alolan Island Challenge. You and your Pokemon team will have to tackle seven “trials” on the four islands of Alola, each with a different typing and theme, in order to complete the challenge and become an island champion. Along the way, there’s the usual evil team harming Pokemon, the plucky rival, and various legendary Pokemon waiting to challenge you.
Like the majestic Alolan Exeggutor, each of these seemingly drab aspects you see in every Pokemon game have grown exponentially under the brilliant Alolan sun. Trials are far more than just gyms with a fancier name–you’ll have to solve puzzles, answer quiz questions, defeat overpowered wild Pokemon, and even take pictures to advance alongside the usual challenging boss battles. The plucky rival is less an occasional roadblock and more of a fleshed-out traveling companion, offering friendship and encouragement as you travel. The evil team–well, you’ll have to wait and see about that one. All of these elements are intrinsically tied up with the spirit, history, and lore of Alola, making Alola one of the most culturally interesting and distinct regions we’ve seen to date.
Both Alolan forms of Kanto Pokemon and new Pokemon alike boast a wide array of interesting typings and ability combinations that will keep even hardened veterans on their toes.
What struck me most about the plot of Pokemon Sun and Moon was that it didn’t seem like a typical Pokemon plot. The best way I can describe it is that it feels more like a good RPG storyline, rather than merely a good Pokemon storyline. There are some seriously dark moments, and a few tear-jerking ones. I believe that for the first time in a long time (perhaps ever!) the characters and plot stand on their own even without the Pokemon label, as opposed to merely being used as an advancement tool to get a trainer from Gym 1 to Gym 8.
That’s not to say the plot is perfect. There are a few weird holes that are never quite explained, your character reacts to literally everything with a vacant, unchanging smile, and those who beg Game Freak every generation for an expansive postgame adventure will probably be disappointed (there’s still an okay postgame, I promise!). But the main quest from start to credit roll is long and strong enough to more than balance these relatively minor issues out.
One of the greatest weaknesses of Pokemon X and Y was how gosh-darned easy those games were. I’m not going to pretend that Game Freak has magically learned how to create difficulty settings, but Sun and Moon do have a noticeable difficulty increase over their predecessor. Trainer and wild battles are still largely cakewalks, but some of the Trial battles and other, later fights may test your mettle more than you’d expect–some fights even have powerful ability and typing combinations designed to work together to trip you up! This is all while retaining the benefits of the newly-designed EXP Share, allowing you to level newcomers to your team quickly and shape your party however you like with ease.
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And you’ll likely be swapping your ‘mons around a lot, because Game Freak has outdone themselves with most of the new Pokemon designs. Both Alolan forms of Kanto Pokemon and new Pokemon alike boast a wide array of interesting typings and ability combinations that will keep even hardened veterans on their toes. I must have swapped out my line-up six or seven times as I journeyed, just because I wanted to see what that new Pokemon I just caught could do.
You may find yourself forming a stronger bond with your trusty Pokemon partners than normal due to features like Pokemon Refresh and the Poke Peleggo. Refresh is available immediately after some battles, wherein you can brush, dry, clean, and pet your Pokemon to remove status conditions and make them happier. It’s a satisfying little game for a practical reward, as happy Pokemon will gain more experience and will sometimes dodge attacks or shake off status conditions mid-match for you.
The islands of Poke Peleggo offer someplace for PC-stored Pokemon to go, where they can collect friendship-raising Pokebeans, grow berries, dig for treasure, and more. It’s a nice touch that allows you to check in on your PC Pokemon regularly and connect with them beyond catching and forgetting.
Ride like the wind, Mudsdale
Apart from solid gameplay and story, Pokemon Sun and Moon’s other main draws are the enormous quality of life adjustments across the board. The most noticeable update by far is the removal of HMs, a change that’s been a long time coming. Instead, you receive a Ride Pager early on, which lets you summon various Pokemon to ride with a single button press. Surf, Fly, and Rock Smash all still exist as moves, but you’re no longer forced to keep a Pokemon who knows them around just to traverse the world. Simply summon your trusty Tauros, and get smashing!
Fans of Black and White will enjoy the new Festival Plaza, a riff on Join Avenue where other players you connect with via online features or StreetPass can meet and visit various facilities that provide in-game benefits such as items, increased friendship, levels, and more. The more people you connect with, the bigger and better your Festival Plaza will become.
I wasn’t able to fully test Festival Plaza or any of the other online features for this review. Just from the looks of things, it seems Wonder Trading, online battles, and the GTS also make a glorious return and work just about the same as they have and should. A new multiplayer match type, Battle Royal, is a 4-way fight that unlocks early on but is best explored in the post-game when you have access to effective training and strategies. It’s not incredibly compelling as a casual mode, but should make for a solid addition to the competitive scene for those who dig it.
It’s clear that with Sun and Moon, Game Freak has reached its limit on what it can do with the Nintendo 3DS’s visuals. On the positive, the Pokemon world has never looked lovelier. Alola treats the eyes and ears as you journey through its varied environments, enjoying the effects of golden sunsets on the environment or watching waving fields of flowers while Pokemon chatter to you from the grass. Beautiful new island instrumentations and remixes of familiar tunes in Alola-style round out the experience perfectly.
But hitting that visual limit comes with some drawbacks. Double battles suffer from noticeable framerate drops due to four Pokemon and sometimes up to four 3D modeled trainers on the screen, at once, all animated. Knowing that, it’s fairly obvious why these games don’t use the 3D feature, even if its loss is disappointing for those of us with New Nintendo 3DSes.
Finally, Game Freak has blessed us with plenty of smaller quality of life and UI adjustments. Various menus and text interactions have been streamlined from past iterations, removing extra dialogue boxes and button presses that never needed to be there. For example, there’s now a quick button in Wild Pokemon battles that takes you straight to selecting a Pokeball type to throw, saving you 2-3 menus. Here’s another: you can see move effectiveness on the move select menu so you no longer have to memorize complex typing charts. These updates are tiny on their own, but taken together make for a noticeably improved user experience. Now if only they’d make Run automatic instead of sticking it on the gosh darned B button.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.