2016 has been a banner year for the Pokémon franchise, across all of its platforms. The anime is venturing into new territories, the trading cards are having a special reprint set of the original Base Set cards, and most importantly, the games are celebrating their 20th anniversary. It’s fair to say that the Pokémon franchise transcends any and all barriers, be it age or gender or nationality or anything else, and it’s a franchise that knows how to reel its audience back in, with the right appeal. Of course, after six generations of the same formulaic game, things start to get a bit stale, as was the case in Pokemon X and Y, even with the introduction of the Mega Evolution mechanic. You can only follow the same formula so many times over, so to breathe in some new life, you have to change some things around. Enter Pokémon Sun and Moon, the seventh generation of Pokémon games, bringing in a familiar experience with some unique changes to the usual routine. Is it a major step up, or is it really just more of the same? Let’s dig in and find out.
DISCLAIMERS: This will not contain any vital, descriptive storyline spoilers, within the main game or the after-game. Due to technical limitations, all screenshots are taken from the official game trailers.
Set on the tropical and coastal region of Alola, made up of four large islands, the game starts like any other game in the franchise; you’re a new kid who just moved across the world to this new area, and you’ve been given the opportunity to get your very own Pokémon, fill out a Pokédex, and travel across the land to become the very best like no one ever was. Only there’s quite a few twists and turns to be found, this time around: the biggest point of difference in these new games is that there are no badges and no gyms to challenge. Instead, there are seven island trials that you, the player, must take on and conquer, followed by a Grand Trial at the end of each island. And what are the rewards for defeating each trial, you ask? Well, in leu of badges, you are rewarded with Z-Crystals, special little… well, crystals, that give your Pokémon special super-moves in battle, called Z-Moves, which are pulled off by doing special poses; think of them as summoning a Stand, while doing some awesome bone-breaking poses, a la JoJo Part 2. It’s more fun that way.
What are your options for starters, this time around? Well, you have the Grass/Flying-type, Rowlet; the Fire-type, Litten; and the Water-type, Popplio. Without revealing too much about their final evolutions, here are some things to consider, for your own starter choice: Rowlet will grow into a pretty balanced attacker, Litten grows into a Physical striker, and Popplio is a pure Special specialist. All three are pretty lacking in speed, though, which is an unfortunate plague that most Alola ‘mons suffer in this game. Think of what you want out of your team, and work from there, and know that, this time around, your rival in the game actually chooses the starter that’s weak to yours. There’s a reason for that, though, so be alert and don’t let yourself get punked out. And speaking of, let’s talk about the rival in this game: Hau is quite the energetic Alolan native, with a big ol’ smile and an even bigger love for malasadas. He’s with you in the game, every step of the way, and he’s a much peppier version of Wally (minus the illness, of course), which makes for a pretty fun character. And then there’s Lillie, the interesting girl who the bulk of the game’s story centers around. Her and her Pokémon companion, “Nebby,” are there from the very start of the game, and as the game progresses further, more and more is revealed about both Lillie and “Nebby.” And then we have Professor Kukui, Alola’s resident Pokémon extraordinaire who never wears a shirt under his lab coat. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you.)
So, even though there are no more gyms, how does everything progress in the game? For the most part, it plays out more like a linear RPG, in a way reminiscent of the GameCube games, Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness. I’ve heard this change be both praised and lamented, with some liking the difference in progress style and others feeling a bit confined because of it. Personally, I’m in the camp that likes this change-up; the Pokémon games have always had a bit of linear progress to them, and while this one continues on with that same formula, there’s an added JRPG element to it that was seldom present in past games. For instance, there are some small NPC sidequests, wherein if you show an NPC a certain Pokémon, or if you fulfill a certain objective for someone, they’ll reward you with some money for your trouble. There’s also a longer sidequest in the game, centering around the mysterious Legendary Pokémon from X and Y, Zygarde, where you’ll be gathering cells and cores of the creature from all over the region, and in turn, combining all of those pieces to materialize a form of Zygarde. But aside from that, everything else is just like a standard Pokémon game, with wild encounters to fight and catch, trainers to battle, and rogue teams to defeat and crush: enter Team Skull.
Alola’s ragtag troupe of renegades are very street, very white, and very rough around the edges, going so far as to take over an entire town, leaving it in shambles, abandoned, and decrepit in the pouring rain. It’s honestly pretty creepy and disturbing, a complete 180 with their “street” schtick. As is the case with each villainous team in each game, Team Skull is made up of several nameless grunts, who follow the orders of YA BOY, Guzma, a would-be baller G with some serious anger issues. But hiding in the background is their Admin, Plumeria, and taking a much larger role in the story is their enforcer, Gladion (who looks a lot like Yurio from Yuri!!! on ICE, seriously, look down at it), whom the latter of which has ties to another organization in this game, the Aether Foundation. They’re the typical “we just want to make the world a better place” group, kind of like Team Plasma minus all of the creepy Ghetsis elements. They’re more chaotic neutral than anything, until you meet Lusamine, their leader and just a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But you’ll see what I mean by that at about the mid-point of the game. As a whole, Sun and Moon have, arguably, the best characters since Black and White, with a lot of personality to them and some great model designs. Can the same be said about the new Pokémon in this generation?
Well, not so much. Granted, I wouldn’t call a lot of the new ‘mons “memorable,” per se, but there are some interesting creatures, such as Komala, a sleeping koala bear that looks a lot like Nom Nom from the Cartoon Network series We Bare Bears, there’s the Yungoos family that looks an awful lot like our President-Elect (I know, tired joke), but to fill in the gap of only 80 new Pokémon introduced in this generation, we have Alola Form Pokémon, regional variants that offer a bit of a shake-up for players old and new alike. It is a point of contention, though, with some forms just not making a lot of sense – Exeggutor having a DRAGON subtype, for instance, what sense does that make? But it does offer a good bit of challenge and puts a new spin on some old favorites. The inhabitants of Alola make up the culture of Alola; despite it being modeled after the island state of Hawaii, there are a lot of landscapes in this region, ranging from beaches, to rocky mountainsides, to tropical forests, to quaint farm towns.
And now we come to the meat of the game: the mechanics. As mentioned earlier, the Z-Move mechanic takes the major place of the Mega Evolution mechanic introduced in X and Y (although it’s brought back into Sun and Moon, only WAY later on), but there is a limitation to this mechanic – you only get to use it once per battle, period. Doesn’t matter if you have a Z-Crystal on each member of your party, you only get ONE use of your Stand in any battle. Returning, in a new form, from X and Y is a revamped version of Pokémon-amie, renamed Pokémon Refresh, which comes with a bit of a caveat; the bulk of the PSS system’s ease of access and functionality from X and Y has been taken out and completely overhauled, namely with Super Training. Enter the Festival Plaza, a weird cross between Join Avenue from Black and White and the Super Training mechanic from X and Y, with a little bit of the 3DS Miiverse functionality and interactivity built in. And that’s where it starts to tumble; the introduction of Super Training in the Gen 6 games was a large step forward for the meta game, but in Sun and Moon, it’s been changed completely with Festival Plaza.
To do the EV training, which is, of all things, a bouncy castle, you have to obtain Festival Coins, or FCs, from visitors and missions within this part of the game, and it just isn’t the best change or update to what was, for the most part, the best way to EV train. That’s not to say Festival Plaza is all bad, though; you can purchase and earn rare goods and items, as well as buy food items for your party members that will raise their friendship with you. But, again, the one caveat is that you need FCs for the best goods. Festival Plaza is also the new central hub for all of the multiplayer and online aspects of the game, where you’ll find access to the still-loved Wonder Trade, but this does bring in some issues with the peer-to-peer trading; in short, it breaks it completely. No joke, I did some trading with Joey and Tyler, and we spent five minutes trying to figure out how this works because we didn’t know what we were doing. What you have to do is, you need to see your online friends show up in Festival Plaza, pick them out of your guest list, and then request to do a trade. Something like trading, which is one of the major foundations of the entire franchise, should not be this needlessly complex to pull off.
With that out of the way, let’s get back into some good mechanics and features, now; namely, once you catch a Pokémon, you can immediately check its move pool, its stats, its nature and ability, and can even swap it into your party without having to go into a Pokémon Center and go through the whole PC rigmarole. What helps this further is that the stats screen has been updated to present a more RPG-esque hexagonal display spread, and the stats that get a boost and nerf, depending on nature, are color coded as red and blue, respectively. (Of course, neutral natures will not have any indications.) This could also help when you find yourself in SOS battles, new to this generation; often times, wild Pokémon will call for help and bring out an ally, turning your 1-on-1 match into a handicap match. At first, this will be really annoying, but there are some big incentives for those who are patient enough; one such case is on a route where you have a 1% chance to find a wild Bagon, and if you’re patient enough, it will call for help and it could possibly call for a level 10 SALAMENCE. So if you have a lot of time to roam around, you could get an insanely great pseudo-legendary in one of the earliest parts of the game.
Since Black and White, the newest games have often tried to change up the battle formulas in new and innovative ways: there was the Triple Battle and Rotation Battle in the Gen 5 games (the latter of which SUCKS), and then there was the 5-on-1 Hoard Encounter in the Gen 6 games, but in the new Gen 7 games, along with the new SOS Battles, there is the Battle Royal, similar to a WWE Fatal Four-Way match in which the first person to knock out an opponent’s Pokémon wins. You’ll find yourself doing this at a specified location in the game, and can also do this though multiplayer. And now, let’s get to what may be the biggest mechanic change in the entire game: the Ride Pager. Throughout the game, you will get Pokémon that are assigned to your Pager that will allow you to get through certain areas, swim, fly, and even find items for you. In short, the Ride Pager completely replaces the HMs that have existed since Gen 1, and in my own personal opinion, it is a far overdue change, and a welcomed change, at that. One great element that has been carried over from X and Y, though, is the character customization, with an array of skin tones, hair styles, and clothing options for you, the player, to do with as you see fit.
There’s plenty more that I could talk about, but I’m already talking at length about all of these features, so before I forget: there’s also the Poké Finder. AKA, a mini-game of Pokémon Snap-meets-Instagram. You take a picture of a Pokémon at designated areas, pick the best one, and people give it thumbs-up’s and comment on it. It may not be the Pokémon Snap sequel we’ve been wanting for over 15 years, but it’s pretty close, and still pretty fun.
But what good are a bunch of game mechanics without a solid story to the game? Thankfully, for a lot of people, Sun and Moon’s story is a large improvement over X and Y. Of course, you’re the new kid who has also been deemed the chosen one, and you’re taking on the island trials of Alola to prove your mettle and become the island trial champion, but Professor Kukui has other plans. Inspired by his past journey through the Kanto region, Kukui decides to give Alola their very own Pokémon League, with an Elite Four and a defending, by-default Champion for any and all comers to run through. But then there’s the mystery of Lillie and her Cosmog, “Nebby,” and her ties to the Aether Foundation. Suffice to say, the Aether Foundation ties into the mythos and the resurgence of the Ultra Beasts, not quite Pokémon but not quite aliens. Just sort of in between.
One big element that Sun and Moon fixes is the difficulty gap that was, admittedly, a bit low in X and Y. You’re going to get the Exp. Share pretty early on, along with a lot of money, so you’re getting a large head start in the early game, but that’s not wholly indicative of the fixed level balance that exists in these new games. Don’t ever get too underleveled, you will find yourself facing a large difficulty spike when you least expect it. The game does have a pretty slow beginning, though, both in progress and in story development, and there will be a feeling of going through the motions at the start, but when you get to the end of the third island? Hoo boy, things will go into overdrive, and the game’s storyline goes from “just okay” into “wow, this got really great.” Again, no vital spoilers, but I’d go as far as to say that these games have the best storyline since Black and White. And again, without giving too much away, the ending will give you those tearjerking feels, much like the lasting moments of X and Y supplied, even though the post-game in Sun and Moon isn’t quite as lush and bountiful as it could have been. And to be fair, they may never be any topping the post-games of HeartGold/SoulSilver and Black 2/White 2, but there’s still a good amount to continue on with, after the credits roll. Without giving too much away, you’ll be able to encounter the Ultra Beasts and Island Guardians (the “Tapus”), and there’s an interesting little spin on re-challenging the Pokémon League; in short, you will definitely be the defending Champion of Alola.
Graphically, Sun and Moon are very on par with the past Pokémon 3DS games, with one distinct advantage: these new games are scaled a lot better than past games. No longer does everything feel miniaturized, you and everything around you are presented with a proper scale, for the first time in the mainline series. But there are some unfortunate moments of slowdown when engaged in double battles, which is a real shame since the rest of the game plays incredibly smooth. (Note of reference: this was played on a New Nintendo 3DS XL console.) This may not be a problem for most people, but I’m still not completely privy to the game’s moments of the camera turning to an isometric perspective. I’d much rather prefer an over-the-shoulder camera, instead of the camera shifting angles to an overhead perspective in certain moments of the game. As for the music in the game, I would go as far to say that Sun and Moon has one of the best OSTs, complete with the coolest enemy music in the entire series: the Team Skull music. It is rocking, it is street, and it absolutely fits their gimmick, and as a whole, the Team Skull music is the true high point of the OST.
Speaking as a fan that’s been enamored with Pokémon since the very beginning, watching it on KMAX-TV at 3pm back in 1998, this is a franchise that has always been very near and dear to my heart. But as much as I enjoy the tried and true formula with the occasional change-ups here and there, I can openly admit that things did start to get a bit stale. X and Y was a large step forward, jumping to the 3DS console and improving many of the elements that needed to be improved, but Sun and Moon take it one step beyond and supply players and fans with a great overall story, charming characters, and a refreshing experience for players old and new alike. In a way, I can liken this game to Star Wars: The Force Awakens; as a whole, it’s more of the same of what made the franchise so memorable, but it offers a refresher course and changes some of the dynamics around to offer a fresh experience with some welcomed changes for the more veteran players. Are Sun and Moon the best installments of the series? Well, that’s not up to me to decide, but I do know that Sun and Moon offers the best experience since the start of Gen 5. I assure you all, you have to go out of your way to feel disappointed with these new installments.
One last thing, readers: Hau is the best and I will not hear otherwise. PROTECT THAT SMILE.
Verdict: Buy it. The only bad elements are few and far, and having the best storyline since Pokémon Black and White, combined with a refreshing revamp, make for an experience that’s both familiar and new.
Pokémon Sun was played for 33 hours for this review. Pokémon Sun and Moon is available now for the Nintendo 3DS family of consoles, in stores and in the Nintendo eShop.