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Review: Pokémon Sun and MoonPokémon Pokémon Sun & Moon Pokémon Sun Pokémon SM Pokémon GO Alola
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: November 18th, 2016
ESRB: E for Everyone
Note: This review is based on a playthrough of Pokemon Sun, though Pokemon Moon is largely the same game with minor differences, such as its own exclusive Pokemon and the clock being twelve hours ahead.
Many people call me many different things. But — without a doubt — I am “the Pokémon guy” of my friend circle. My long-running feature articulates my love, minor compulsions, and many criticisms of the series in a way that what I’m about to write... must concentrate into something much shorter, more concise.
As I’m sitting down to write this, I’ve spent over a hundred hours with the game. I’ve absorbed everything the main story and the plot-driven portions of the post-game have to offer. My Alolan Pokédex is even 100% complete. It’s probably the furthest I’ve ever sunk into a game before sitting down to review it, if I’m being honest. Brevity has never been my strong-suit, in both playing Pokémon and attempting to analyze it. But without further ado, let me say this: Above all, I am very conflicted about Sun & Moon.
The newest games actually have a brand new director behind them, Shigeru Ohmori. A different pair of eyes overseeing all aspects of development is likely one of the key reasons that Alola, the new region... feels like the most refreshing thing to happen to Pokémon since fan-favorites Gold & Silver. Anyone who’s been playing these games forever will likely sing praises of major and minor adjustments to “the Pokémon formula,” as it were. That’s where I’ll start.
Moves called Hidden Machines used to force players who wanted to fully explore the world to build their Pokémon team around them. Want to cut obtrusive bushes that block the way to hidden items? Better raise a Grass Type Pokémon with you that can learn “Cut,” or you won’t be able to proceed. Want to fast-travel from one town to the next? Put a Flying Type Pokémon and “Fly” on your team, lest you be inconvenienced. Sun & Moon finally make HMs obsolete with Riding Pokémon. Folks who want to fast-travel can use their nifty Ride Pager to call up a Charizard on a whim, who’s happy to take you wherever you need to go. Want to Surf? Eventually you’ll get a Lapras to call on, even if you never put a single Water Type Pokémon on your team.
Pokémon games used to be about collecting eight Gym Badges, then taking on the Pokémon League and becoming the Champion. It was that way from 1996 to 2013 — always the same song and dance, no matter where you were or what system you were playing on. Alola introduces something else brand new: the Island Challenge. While this concept serves a very similar purpose to the one Gyms used to... it knocks down the archetypes of four walls and eight people being the biggest trials you’ll ever overcome. I’ve personally found Gyms to be the biggest reason why each new Pokémon region and game amounted to predictable fodder at best. Their removal meant me approaching Alola itself... and the game’s story... with unpredictability and wonder.
Instead of conquering gyms, I was doing things like... exploring a haunted shopping mall, taking pictures of Ghost Pokémon with my PokéFinder before they discovered me and challenged me to a battle. Instead of Gym Leaders, the biggest challenge of each Island Trial was its “Totem Pokémon” — a big, burly boss with buffed up stats. This boss could call underlings in what I would soon learn was called an “S.O.S. Battle.” More on those, which extend far beyond Island Trials, in a bit. After clearing each and every Island Trial of a particular Island I was on... I would take on its “kahuna”... a leader figure to each island that serves more like a mayor, or a defender of justice, than a mere “Gym Leader.”
Riding Pokémon and the Island Trial are the two biggest changes to what longtime fans know. They’re what you’ll see in every single review, and probably what’s on the back of the box (I can’t verify since I went digital). But there are several minor adjustments that I’ve been waiting for someone, somewhere to implement too. I’ve already blabbed about the evolved GUI for the length of a full review. I could probably double that with the new things I’ve learned about it since playing.
Suffice to say: if you’re brand new to Pokémon... and most of what I’ve been saying sounds like complete gibberish? The game wants to help you. It’ll tell you how effective a particular move you want to use will be against a foe, once you’ve seen for yourself what type of Pokémon it is. If you’re carrying the maximum six Pokémon you can take with you and catch another... the game will ask you whether you want your new friend to join your party, or be sent off to the PC. It lets you see a full summary of the Pokémon’s moves and Nature, as well as the ones currently with you, before you ever leave the capture screen!
There’s just so much. Sweeping and small mechanical changes are just half of what makes Alola so refreshing, to me. I loved the characters and “world” more than any other Pokémon game, so far. Hau, your rival... completes every island trial after you do, is brimming with optimism almost to a fault, and deeply cares about Pokémon and the people around him. He reminds me of Pokémon Trainer Red from the Game Boy days. He’s always happy lagging behind someone more experienced, with a Pikachu no less... but with seemingly great potential, too. Lille is a character who’s got a bit of mystery around her, and undergoes the most evolution and development in the story.
The Pokémon Professor Kukui, the kahunas and the trial captains, the bad folks (Team Skull), and every other major character in Alola... all help communicate this idea that Alola is a truly unique place in the world of Pokémon. If creating something refreshing and new, that feels welcoming to new and returning players alike, was what Director Ohmori endeavored to do... I’d say he achieved his goal.
It’s just a shame that I feel so many compromises were made in the process.
In 2013, Pokémon X&Y introduced players to the Kalos region. With it, the total Pokémon count went from 649 to 721. Of the 721 known Pokémon at the time, 450 of them were available to catch with just Pokémon X or Pokémon Y. Each time you visited a new part of Kalos, you were given a new piece of the “Regional Pokédex” that had 150 or so brand new critters to find, to help make up that total. There was never any overlap. You could never really run out of things to catch or evolve, unless you were the compulsive type like me.
And therein lies my biggest problem with Sun & Moon: the Alolan Pokédex is tiny! With these games, the total Pokémon count goes from 721 to 802. The DexNav from Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire helped catalog the tons of Pokémon you could find in any given area. I suppose that feature was removed in Alola because... there aren’t nearly as many to worry about. In order to make Sun & Moon less intimidating on newcomers, it seems, the total catchable critters in the game is only 300. That’s less than the Kalos region, and less than half of the total Pokémon out there.
Alola is a region of four islands. Each island has its own “Regional Pokédex”, similar to Kalos. This time, though, there is definite overlap. Upon arriving to the game’s final island... I’d already completed over 50% of its Regional Pokédex... indicating that I’d see most of the same critters I’d already been seeing, over and over again, despite being in a brand new place. Alola’s environments are refreshing and new... but its fauna doesn’t boast the same qualities. There’s not even a “National Pokédex.” For the first time in 12 years: the 300 Pokémon currently native to the Alola Region are all that will ever be recorded in your game’s Pokédex, as far as I can tell. It encourages newcomers to “catch ‘em all” and be card-carrying Pokémon Masters... by actively ignoring over half of the Pokémon that aren’t in these games.
But see: that’s just something I personally don’t see eye-to-eye with. The fauna of Alola, and one’s Pokédex progress, could bounce off a whole lot of you. And that’s fine. But let me get into properly explaining what’s so flawed about the concept behind S.O.S. Battles.
After completing the first Island Trial of the game... normal Wild Pokémon can call for help in the same way the Totem Pokémon do. If you’re trying like heck to catch a Pikachu... you’ll have to put off catching him if he calls one of his buddies at the end of your turn. Over and over again, until the “help doesn’t appear” or it decides not to. I was trying to catch a Cubone... and I had to knock out 16 other Cubones to get to him. That’s just cumbersome, no matter how you slice it. I get trying to add an extra layer of challenge to catching Pokémon. But I think S.O.S. Battles take things a little too far sometimes.
Of the 300 Pokémon available to catch in Alola, 39 of them are “S.O.S. Battle Exclusive.” This means that they only appear in the wild if a friend calls them for help... and their appearance is typically hinged on a 10% or 5% chance, if not lower. That... is how you take “a little too far” even farther, to the point where I’ve relied on trading online to complete my Pokédex more than ever before. Even outside of S.O.S. Battles — there are several Pokémon with a 1% encounter rate by normal means. Some evolution items, like Sneasel’s Razor Claw, can only be found being held by Wild Pokémon. You have a 5% chance of encountering a Wild Jangmo-o in a certain place... and said Jangmo-o has a 5% chance of holding onto the Razor Claw you need. That’s a problem! Your only solution is to have absolutely incredible luck, or to spend forever having Jangmo-o call for help in an “S.O.S. Chain” until one shows up that’s holding the item.
The concept of a “rare Pokémon” or “rare item” is taken to absolutely obscene levels in Alola... making most not worth the effort to seek out without online intervention. And hey: if you experience a communication error while trading or battling online, you will be unable to use those features for “a while” — anywhere from fifteen minutes to up to 72 hours.
There really is a lot to love about Pokémon Sun & Moon. I didn’t even address some of the other stuff I enjoyed: like how Poké Pelago is going to be worth investing time into for the unique items and rewards it yields, with minimal effort. Trainer customization is back, too; you can style your character in heaps and handfuls of different ways. And the soundtrack, which I consider to be the best they’ve ever produced, by a long-shot. There’s at least one major “dislike” I didn’t get to either... because mentioning the changes to Effort Values and competitive play would keep me here forever.
To most, the Alola Region, and these games, are probably going to be widely hailed as the finest hour for the franchise so far. And I’d agree with them... but only to a point. I love that Alola is the most refreshing place I’ve had the pleasure to explore in my twenty-year Pokémon journey. I’m vexed that handfuls of Sun & Moon’s more obtuse mechanical changes, and artificial means to make “rare stuff” all the rarer, make me miss the games that came before.
+ Several long-awaited mechanical changes help to make this the most refreshing, and somewhat unpredictable Pokémon game you'll play so far.
+ The region of Alola is expertly crafted, with a strong sense of individuality and community that extends far beyond the narrative, to even influencing the GUI and altering traditional sound-effects.
+ I didn't run into a single new Pokémon I don't like...and hey, Pokémon you might know, like Raichu, have new appearances and battle styles!
- The Alolan Pokédex is the smallest compendium of creatures since Pokémon Diamond & Pearl, which released almost ten years ago.
- The concept of a "rare Pokémon" or "rare item" has been stretched to levels border-lining the obscene. More than one Pokémon has a 1% encounter rate by normal means, Almost forty others are hidden behind "S.O.S. Battles"
- "S.O.S. Battles" are extremely tedious to work with, outside of the Island Trials. If you want to catch a Pokémon, you'd better be ready to take down 2-6 of its buddies, minimum.
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
The Alola region of Pokémon Sun & Moon is probably the most refreshing place to hit Pokémon games in sixteen years. But some oddball design decisions may make some longtime fans miss how certain things used to be.
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