In the same year that the world’s collective socks were rocked off by the runaway phenomena that was Pokemon Go, we’re rounding out 2016 with the latest generation of the main Pokemon series: Pokemon Sun and Moon. The lead-up to the release of this new generation of Pokemon has been rife with promises of exciting new features and major overhauls to the Pokemon formula; question is, are all these changes enough to reinvigorate the long-running franchise?
I feel like I almost don’t need to explain the plot of Pokemon at this point, but in this game’s defence, it is somewhat different than the usual fare. In Pokemon Sun and Moon, players once again assume the role of a random 11-year-old child, this one having just moved with their mum (of course) to the island paradise of Alola. Tasked with completing the Alola Island Challenges, you set off and…well, its Pokemon. You raise them, you pit them against each other in battle, and you become the best trainer you can be; “gotta catch em all” and so on.
Sarcasm aside, I actually love Pokemon Sun and Moon, and it could be the best generation since Gold and Silver. A big part of this is just how much work went in to this new generation to make it feel genuinely new. A lot of the long-standing staples of the Pokemon franchise have been eschewed in favour of something fresh: the Gyms are gone, replaced now by trials which pit players against unique challenges culminating in a battle against a souped-up Totem Pokemon, and the often maligned HMs are gone, replaced with the far more entertaining and novel Ride Pokemon that make traversing Alola a delight. Alola itself is a wonderful breath of fresh air as well: spread out over four islands with an interesting mix of Eastern and Polynesian cultural flavours, it makes the whole game feel like some wonderful tropical summer vacation, both on a literal level and a metaphorical level from the rest of the Pokemon franchise.
The change of scenery is accompanied by an appropriately drastic upgrade in the quality of graphics. Its almost quaint to think about Pokemon as all pixellated sprites and top-down perspective when looking at Sun and Moon’s fully-realised three dimensional world, further building on the graphical leap that was bought in with X and Y. As a result, Sun and Moon has the most vibrant and lively world a Pokemon game has ever had.
Of course, I would be remiss if in all this newness I didn’t mention the new Pokemon joining the already lengthy list of existing Pokemon. Most of the new Pokemon take full advantage of Sun and Moon’s tropical flavour in their designs, and the results are often delightful. While there aren’t as many new Pokemon as there have been in previous entries into the franchise, the newer Pokemon feel a bit more nuanced and fresh in their designs, as opposed to older generations where some of the Pokemon introduced just felt like re-hashes of old favourites.
And hey, speaking of old favourites, Sun and Moon gave them some love in the shape of the Alolan Form Pokemon: A number of Gen 1 mainstays and favourites have gotten the Alolan treatment…and Exeggutor, for some reason, and it’s a welcome change-up. With there being so many new Pokemon introduced over the last six generations, there were many Gen 1 Pokemon that fell to the wayside. The Alolan Forms of the Gen 1 Pokemon are a welcome change-up that has returned them to relevance.
Another major adjustment Pokemon Sun and Moon introduces is axing the Mega Evolutions from the last generation in favour of Z-Moves. Activated via equipping Z-Crystals acquired through completing trials and various other means, Z-Moves are hyper-charged power moves that can easily end a battle in the blink of an eye, though they can only be used once per battle. While I was a little bummed to learn than Mega Evolutions were scrapped, the Z-Moves are both awesome and fun to use, with each one having its own unique and suitably epic (and oftentimes ridiculous) animation to go along with it, and with the Z-Crystals being usable for all Pokemon, it makes them much more versatile and less restricting than the Mega Evolutions could oftentimes prove to be.
Pokemon Sun and Moon also includes a number of new mini-games and battle types among its many adjustments. Players can now participate in Battle Royals which pit four different Pokemon at each other at once, which makes for some fast-paced, fun, chaotic battles. Players can now also interact through the Festival Plaza, an online hub from where players can easily connect trade and battle Pokemon, and participate in mini-games to earn rewards, among others things. Pokemon Refresh, a refinement to the Poke-Anime feature from the last generation, now allows players, in addition to letting you play with your Pokemon, also take care of them after battles, even curing them of status afflictions, which is both a fantastically practical addition that also gives the player another way to make an emotional connection with their Pokemon. Poke Pelago introduces a curious little Animal Crossing-style mini-game that allows players to build up and refine islands to various purposes: collecting beans to feed for your Pokemon, scavenging for items, and even ways to make your Pokemon more friendly toward you. Much like the larger changes to the formula and visuals, the influx of all these new features makes Sun and Moon feel much more rounded.
The thing is though, for all the new features and overhauling of some of the Pokemon franchise’s fundamental elements, Pokemon Sun and Moon is still very much the same game at its core as any other title in any given generation, save for some minor tweaks and “quality of life” adjustments to some of the game’s mechanics. For the most part, this works to its benefit: Pokemon Sun and Moon feels fresh and new without becoming alienating by straying to far from the formula that made the franchise successful.
At the same time, however, there’s still some minor frustrations: the game can, at times, feel a little overly linear, funnelling you from one trial to the next without much in between. The new Pokemon, though welcome additions, feel a tad limited compared to previous generations as well. While “quality over quantity” might apply here, the smaller number of new Pokemon is a tad disappointing. And as much as I am for innovation, the evolution requirements of some of the new Pokemon introduced are beginning to reach into absurd levels of obtuseness, and its already causing no shortage of frustration among players who can’t for the life of them figure these requirements out. But these are really minor quibbles in the bigger picture of everything that Sun and Moon does right.