Review: Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon (Nintendo 3DS)

Developed by: Game Freak
Published by: Nintendo

Last year, I gave a very in-depth look at the seventh generation entries in the Pokémon game series, Sun and Moon, a pair of games that changed up a lot of key elements that fans of the franchise have come to expect from past games. In short, they were the change-up the series needed, after the rather underwhelming Gen 6 games. Now, one year later, we’ve been graced with a dual-release “third version” in the form of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, the first revised entry since 2008’s Platinum. This leads me to a bit of a challenge: how do you review a game that’s 75% the same game as before? Well, for one, if you want a heads-up on all the changed mechanics, read my Sun and Moon review, it’ll save a lot of time on here. And for two, I’ve decided that the best way to properly review these entries is to just lay out the pros and cons, the goods and bads, and all the further change-ups brought upon by the mad scientists at Game Freak.

To begin, allow me to lay out a rather simple question: what is a “third version” Pokémon game? Well, it’s a revised “director’s cut” of sorts, to compliment the initial release and offer a different experience, either for those who want an enhanced challenge or for those who didn’t get the initial games the first time around. For me, my first game in the series was Crystal, the “third version” to Gold and Silver, and for any kid in 2001 looking to get into the series, it was the perfect entry point. Of course, it all started with Yellow in 1999, the anime tie-in to Red and Blue, but this practice carried on for the third and fourth generations, with Emerald in 2005 and Platinum in 2008, only for it all to be changed up with the introduction of Black 2 and White 2, the first true sequel games, in 2012. 2013’s X and Y never got a “third version” game, which was a shame as those games really needed one, but alas, here in 2017, we have two titles serving as Sun and Moon’s “third version,” and doubling as the final 3DS games – and by that, the final handheld games – for the franchise, as development for Pokémon is moving over to the Nintendo Switch, going forward.

So how do these games fare, in comparison to the original Gen 7 games?

Storyline-wise, the narrative of US/UM follows the same way as the first games; you start out as the new kid in town, get your starter Pokémon, encounter your friendly rival, and begin the Alola island challenge. The Aether Foundation is still there, being chaotic neutral, as are Guzma and Team Skull, but the new Ultra Recon Squad enters the fray to change up the story a bit, talking about the danger of Necrozma, who takes on a much larger villainous role in these new games. (Additional note: the “legendary fusion” method introduced in Black 2 and White 2 returns here, with Necrozma’s new Dusk Mane and Dawn Wings forms.) This difference in dynamic also means the Aether Paradise section of the game has a different outcome; before, the character of Lusamine wanted to harness the power of the Ultra Beasts, but now, it becomes a mission to quell Necrozma from within a different dimension, in an effort to prevent it from carrying out a rampage of destruction.

It’s worth noting that the intro sequence is considerably shorter than in the first Gen 7 games, so that you’ll get your starter and go through the main tutorials in less time, which was a welcomed fix for these games. The end of the third island is where the story deviates into its alternate narrative, and how you feel about this change is all a matter of personal preference. Some have said the original narrative is better, others like this alternate story better, and I’m in the camp of the latter. Again, personal preference.

With the battles throughout the game, I can tell you that these fights are hard. The enemy AI has been increased, as have the move coverage with the opponents and their teams, and if you’re not ready and prepared for them, you will have a tough time ahead with the boss battles in these games. Study up on the enemy teams and plan your team accordingly, or else you’ll run the risk of team wipes, especially when you encounter Ultra Necrozma, a fight that took me four attempts to beat, and just barely got out of it. Now, if you know what’s coming, you can plan and beat it without any problem, but odds are, most people won’t. These are games that heavily rely on change-ups and unexpected surprises, which is where the enhanced difficulty and AI come into play. I certainly don’t envy those who are going to do Nuzlocke runs on these games, good luck to them, because this is like playing Sun and Moon on Challenge Mode.

Now, let me get the bad stuff out of the way: the story is still very linear with a set path implemented in place, these games are still very cutscene-heavy with the reliance on the story taking the front focus, and these cutscenes do take a good amount of time to run through. The frame rate drop and lag in double battles is still present in these games, since having up to six 3D animated models running simultaneously on one screen is quite taxing on 3DS hardware, and the forced introductions to the new features – Battle Royale, Battle Agency, Festival Plaza, Poké Pelago – are still present, which do cut into the flow of the gameplay and story. And let’s not forget, Rotom talks a LOT more and seems to always want to talk, no matter what. However, these are more of annoyances than game-ruining cons, if that makes it better.

Ultra Megalopolis, for all of the fanfare it received, ultimately doesn’t serve to do a whole lot. It’s a lot like the Sky Pillar or the Distortion World, a set location that serves as a battleground for the big bad Legendary. It’s all aesthetic, and great aesthetic, and nothing much more. But I’ll explain why that’s not completely a bad thing in a moment.

As for the good stuff in these games, I’ll start with the two “mini-games” introduced, firstly with Mantine Surfing. It’s exactly as advertised, you get to surf on a Mantine, rack up a high score with some sick tricks, and earn points to earn for stat-buff items and moves to be taught. And if you get the high score in all three sections of this feature, you can earn something pretty special. Then there’s the Ultra Wormhole feature, set in the after-game, which allows you to roam through the deepest parts of space and time, traveling lightyears away, in search of hard to find Pokémon, as well as the Ultra Beasts. Kind of makes sense in that regard, I’d say. But what sells this feature is how broken Shiny hunting is as a result, as well as the ability to fight and obtain EVERY non-event Legendary Pokémon from every past generation.

Game Freak has always put it upon themselves to push hardware to the max, be it with the dual-region compression in the Gen 2 games or the swift 60fps gameplay in the Gen 5 games, and these games are no exception. Like before, these games push the 3DS hardware to their furthest limitations, both in the location designs – which have been improved upon with more vibrant colors – along with the battle mechanics and pre-rendered cutscenes. The lag in double battles and in Battle Royale is more present in 2DS and standard 3DS hardware, but it will still be shown in the newer models. And it all comes at a size of 3.6GB, equal in size to Xenoblade Chronicles 3D.

The changes made in the main story add plenty to these games; first, the whole Zygarde cell mission has been abolished in favor of a collect-a-thon of one hundred Totem Stickers, wherein when you collect a certain amount, you will be rewarded with the Totem Pokemon you battled. A bit more rewarding, I’d say. The characters, as I said earlier, have been fleshed out a bit more, with Lusamine and Guzma earning some face turns toward the end, and both Lillie and Gladion receive some much more solid character development. No spoilers, but Lillie actually does stuff and Gladion becomes more than the broody brood master he was before. O-Powers have returned in a new form, called Roto Powers, obtainable in a new feature called the Roto Loto – when Rotom’s eyes glow, you get to play the game, and you earn powers that serve as stat boosts, experience boosts, and so forth.

Now, remember Mina, that one woman you saw before the Pokémon League who just gave you a Z-Crystal and left? Well, she’s now a Trial Captain, and her trial is both rewarding and HARD. Do not underestimate this woman, she will get savage on you with her Totem. And as for Ultra Megalopolis, it may be a hollow battleground that serves few purposes, but it’s also the perfect “Final Destination” type stage for Ultra Necrozma. This battle is, arguably, one of the hardest Legendary battles in the entire series, with one of the best battle themes ever made for a Pokémon game, and for it to be in this grand stage, devoid of light, I like to think this is Game Freak going, “Okay, you made it this far. Here’s your final battle against the Devil himself. Give it your best shot, you’re gonna need it.”

Then you have the Rainbow Rocket postgame story, a clashing of old and new. Let me just say, going into this, I knew it wouldn’t be this big 10-hour aftergame story, it was just going to be a bit of fanservice with some tough battles. And sure enough, it was a bit of fanservice with some tough battles. It’s not as widespread as, say, the Delta Episode postgame in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, but for what it’s worth, it’s a fun addendum to an already solid game. It’s about 90 minutes to 2 hours, which seems like the right amount of time to run through the big bad bosses from the previous generations, and as an added bonus, ya boy Guzma’s got your back throughout. Though, personally, I would’ve liked the ORAS designs for Maxie and Archie instead of the Gen 3 game designs, but that’s just me.

So, in short, you have a revised telling of, arguably, the best storyline in a Pokémon games since Gen 5, coupled with some tweaks and enhancements, raised difficulty, more Pokémon to be found, and a postgame that brings in the villains of years’ past. What does that make Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon?

As perfect a sendoff of 20-plus years of Pokémon on handhelds.

Yes, these games are just something to hold people over until the Switch game comes out. Yes, it’s a glorified “third version” game. And yes, the changes are fairly minimal, up until the later portion of the story.

But those facts do not hinder these games in any way.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are, in my eyes, as much a sendoff for 20 years of the series on Nintendo handheld consoles as they are a celebration of the Pokémon franchise as a whole, combining elements old and new to create a set of games that both newcomers and veterans can enjoy. In addition, from start to finish, this game is loaded with Easter eggs, with everything from a Gen 1 tribute mock battle to lore from past generations to references of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. And as “third versions,” Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon fulfill the modus operandi by bringing out fuller games to what were already great games. It’s like a “point-five” version, with added content and revisions that move the game story forward, and while these games are more challenging, there’s also a great amount of rewarding experiences to be had in these games. When you beat a boss, it feels like you really earned that victory, and less like it’s just “Press A to Win.” And compared to Gen 6, that was a change that was very much needed, so point to these games for taking things one step further.

With all of that being said, I completely get why some won’t be as enthused about these titles as others. Black 2 and White 2 came out about a year and a half after the first ones, and I felt similarly towards them, as did a few others; I just wasn’t into them after playing both Pokemon Black and White back to back. Five years on, reception has been more positive toward them for the reasons I listed for USUM: the added difficulty and challenge, the development in the storyline, the added features, and the packed postgame content. So in that sense, I can’t outright tell you all that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are must-buys. If you’re feeling a bit tired, I’d say wait it out for a while and then pick up USUM. Because you never know what’ll surprise you with more open eyes.

: Buy it when you’re ready. The changes made are far later in the story, but the changes made are exceptionally well done.

Pokémon Ultra Moon was played for 50 hours for this review. Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are available now for the Nintendo 3DS family of consoles, in stores and in the Nintendo eShop.

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