What’s My Age Again? (Pokémon Sun and Moon Review)

While most of the world will go on to remember the year 2016 as unremarkable, inconsequential, and in no way a permanent stain on human history, I for one will always remember 2016 for the 20th anniversary of the international phenomenon, Pokémon. This celebration graced the world with digital re-releases of Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, the social marvel (or menace) Pokémon GO, a surprisingly heartfelt Super Bowl ad, and the subject of this review, Pokémon Sun and Moon.

The story of this generation of Pokémon begins in line with past entries where a young child is gifted their first Pokémon by a kind and quirky professor that sets them off on a journey to be the best trainer there ever was and catch ‘em all. However, in the new tropical region of Alola, things are done a little bit differently and the cookie cutter formula of Pokémon games past becomes a little bit bent, but not entirely broken. A lot of these changes are definitely for the better, and some of them still have me on the fence on whether they helped or hurt the gameplay.

For starters on the welcome changes, HMs are extra hidden. So hidden in fact, that they are completely absent from the game. In the place of HMs, the player receives a Poké Ride pager-beeper-thing that calls a Pokémon when you need to fly, surf, or smash through boulders. No longer was my Pokémon trainer landlocked after leaving my obligatory water-type Pokémon stashed in Bill’s PC. Sun and Moon lets me ride on the rippling water whenever I wanted to and never impeded my progress of exploring the new landscape that Alola has to offer.

So you may be wondering what beating gym leaders has to offer if you don’t gain the ability to use HMs after getting their badge? Well, Alola doesn’t necessarily have gym leaders or badges. This staple of Pokémon gameplay has been replaced by the trial system and Z-crystals. Your progress around the game’s handful of islands is divided into a set of smaller trials where a trail captain will give you a substance-less task, where the premise sadly lies on the spectrum of menial to silly, and once completed will summon a totem Pokémon. Totem Pokémon are beefed up Pokémon with maxed out stats and have a menacing, glowing aura around them to let you know they are the apex Pokémon of the area. Typically triple the size of their normal, non-totem counterparts, Totem Pokémon also have the ability to call for an additional Pokémon to join them in battle.

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The four islands that make up Hawaii… uh, err, I mean Alola!

These spontaneous 2 vs 1 battles that would erupt have me split to whether I support their inclusion. On one hand they add a flair of difficulty to an otherwise easy game (more on that later) but on the other hand, when Pokémon have the ability to call a seemingly endless supply of allies to the fray, sometimes the only way to end a battle was to flee and that doesn’t fit very well with the Pokémon trainer never-quit attitude. However, when a lone Zubat calls for help to no avail, the following text of “It’s help didn’t arrive!” is so depressingly heartbreaking that my only instinctual reaction was to laugh at the cartoon bat’s expense.

After defeating the totem Pokémon and any reinforcements it calls, you are rewarded with a Z-Crystal from the trial captain to signify your victory. Z-Crystals differ quite a bit from the  primarily ceremonial gym badges as Z-Crystals can be held by your Pokémon to grant them with a type-specific super Z-Move that can be used once per battle. These choreographed moves make landing one-hit KOs a little easier and also add some stylish pizzazz to the battle cinematography. As a quick side note on Z-moves and 1v2 or 2v2 battles, the framerate will take a massive hit from the extra onscreen action and make an otherwise smooth, beautiful, and polished game tailspin into a choppy mess for a few seconds. Not a huge ding against the game but it’s enough of a distraction to take you out of the experience.

Unlike Mega Evolutions from X and Y where the mega stone had to match the specific Pokémon it was meant for, the only prerequisite for a Pokémon to use a Z-Crystal is knowing a move that matches the type of the crystal. Therefore, my Espeon could hold Ghostium-Z (better name than Spookium-Z, I guess) since it knew the ghost-type Shadow Ball move, and unleash the devastating Never-Ending Nightmare attack on any unsuspecting psychic Pokémon.

When all trials and totem Pokémon have been conquered on an island, the only obstacle left in your way is to defeat the island’s kahuna, the most skilled trainer of the island. These battles play out nearly identical to gym leader battles where the kahuna will have a team of similarly themed, higher level Pokémon, and you will more than likely wipe the floor with them, leaving them to question why they spent all those year practicing only to be embarrassingly overpowered by an 11-year old. Classic Pokémon, really.

Rinse and repeat the cycle of trails, totem Pokémon, and kahunas across the Alola’s four islands and you basically have the game. Don’t forget to throw in the token team of Pokémon stealing ne’er-do-wells that will halt your progress every once in while and a bunch of cringy, awful, borderline nonsensical dialogue spoken by NPCs to fill out the rest of the game.

To the game’s credit though, I noticed the dialogue become more self aware of past games and the Nintendo culture overall. An NPC referencing the meme/quote “My body is ready” that Nintendo of America President, Reggie Fils-Aimé uttered while awkwardly mounting the Wii Fit board was definitely appreciated.

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What I can only imagine is on Reggie Fils-Aime’s employee ID badge.

The biggest demerit I have against Sun and Moon is how they introduced a cool, new mysterious force in the world through the form of Ultra Beasts, which are Pokémon from a different dimension, and your character has hardly any battle interaction with them throughout the game. There is one battle around the midpoint of the game and the final instance near the end. An entirely new enemy class would have been just the jolt of energy needed to help me appreciate this generation of Pokémon and have it stand out as the faux-reboot I believe Sun and Moon were meant to be for the series.

Where Ultra Beasts failed me, Alolan forms of Pokémon helped wrangle me back. The idea that Pokémon look and behave differently depending on the region of the world they inhabit seems like a worldbuilding mechanic that should’ve been implemented back in Silver and Gold when we first got to explore a different part of the Pokémon globe. It fits in perfectly with the theory of how adaptation and evolution work in nature and I hope we continue to see new variants of classic Pokémon in future sequels.

One trend that has continued to decline with the introduction of consecutive sequels since Pokémon’s initial inception 20 years ago is the difficulty of the games. And Sun and Moon continue to lower this bar. The X and Y experience share has returned where all Pokémon in your party, regardless of their participation in battle, receive 50% of experience points. This turns the classic Pokémon grind-athon into a more manageable Pokémon grind 5k Pro-Am fun run, which is greatly appreciated. However I believe that exp. share can be turned off in the settings if you don’t want to be a filthy casual and would prefer to live like it’s ‘97.

In addition to NPCs constantly healing your party at scripted segments in the game and throwing healing items at you like parade candy, the new Pokémon Refresh system allows you to pet, interact, and feed your Pokémon in a similar fashion to X and Y and also lets you heal all status conditions outside of a fight. This nearly eliminates the need to purchase any antidotes or other healing items unless they are tragically need during a fight. My trainer was freed from constantly dashing between the route I was on and the last town’s Pokémon Center whenever my party leader was poisoned. I am divided if this ability to heal afflictions was a necessity to streamline the game’s outdated mechanics or if the game was just needless getting easier. This ranting makes me feel like I’m one step from shouting to kids in Best Buy 3DS aisle, “Back in my day, your poisoned Pokémon were hurt for every step you took walking! And it made your GameBoy look like it was having a seizure, too!”

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Icy cool Alolan forms of some Gen 1 Pokemon. #Gen1forLife

Even with all of the difficulty decreases though, halfway through the game I came face to face with what I’ve heard described as “Pokémon Exhaustion”. The feeling that you’ve basically experienced everything new the game has to offer, all your Pokémon are evolved, and you are still stuck with 25 hours of a game left to play (note: it took me about 52 hours to play through Pokémon Moon). But how does Game Freak work around this feeling? Cutting down the normal Pokémon gameplay time to 30ish hours would probably just alienate fans of the series and make them feel like they were getting ripped off on content. However, adding a bunch of time wasting junk like berry farming, super training from X and Y, Ruby and Sapphire Pokémon contests doesn’t work either.

I would say the solution to PokéXhaustion is to take from the above listed examples and cut down the time of the main story to a more manageable 20 hours, but then include a series of side quests that can be indulged if the player wants to experience more of the game. Areas and characters that are set aside for post game playing with meaningful storylines would be there for the players that want it and could be skipped for the players that just want to beat the Elite Four and then call it quits. Would this work for main entry Pokémon game? Maybe… maybe not, but the 11-year old Pokémon trainer in my heart can dream.

If you have enjoyed all Pokémon games to date, then Sun and Moon are a near perfect fit to what you want and expect. However, if you haven’t played much Pokémon since its heyday and are looking to see what’s changed, you might be getting yourself into an unexpected juvenile time sink.

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