When Pokemon GO found its way onto millions of mobile phones around the world earlier this year, it incited another round of the Pokemon craze, driving fans of all ages to once again hunt relentlessly for the iconic pocket monsters. It’s no surprise that Nintendo would capitalize on this resurgence, and they’ve done it by putting out a third dual-title on the popular 3DS platform.
In the tradition of mainline entries, the Pokemon Sun/Moon pairing ships us off to a brand new location, this time stopping down in the tropical Alola region. The new setting is comprised of several islands of varying size and clime, each one feeling like it’s own distinct region. As is also the tradition, the new setting brings a new generation of Pokemon for us to capture, raise, and battle.
With the 81 new Pokemon, it lifts the current Pokedex to a whopping 802. It got out of hand a few generations ago, and many of the additions in Sun/Moon don’t have the charm to merit yet another huge influx of new Pokemon. That’s not to say that there are some winners; the flagship legendaries are pretty cool beasts, and even some of the revamps of Gen 1 Pokemon are neat designs, but it feels like for every one that gets your approval, there’s two or more that will make you cringe.
Alolan Persian, we’re looking at you.
The most significant change that Sun/Moon brings is one that’s very welcome, though, and it’s been a long time coming. Your quest to become a Pokemon master follows a different formula from what you embarked on in previous Pokemon titles. Gone is the tired system of traveling to eight Gyms and battling the Gym leaders in order to earn badges. In it’s place are the Island Challenges, which see you tasked with various scenarios of puzzle-solving and Pokemon battling before facing a Totem Pokemon–essentially a buffed-up, boss-like Pokemon. Completing the Island Challenges grants you the opportunity to battle the four Island Kahunas, who serve as the Alola region’s version of Gym Leaders.
In the end, you’re still working your way toward a pivotal encounter with the Alola Elite Four and the League Champion, but this revamp of the longtime format definitely freshens things up for a series that dates back two decades and now seven pairings of mainline titles. It also gives the Alola region the perfect platform to show off its rich world building, which definitely feels a little more sophisticated compared to prior games. Taking clear inspiration from Hawaiian and Oceanic cultures, the Alola region has a history, a society, and lore that are all among the most fascinating in the franchise.
Where Sun/Moon don’t feel so fresh is when you’re in the middle of a Pokemon battle or caring for them during your downtime. The game’s turn-based Pokemon battles may look nicer than ever, but they don’t play out all that differently from when the series only knew 2D graphics. The usual additions of new moves and abilities give Sun/Moon no more distinction than it’s 3DS successors X/Y and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire. Z-Moves–powered up attacks that can only be used once per battle–are basically just overly long, cinematic critical hits.
Random encounters in the brush are still a thing. The same for being limited to carrying only six Pokemon at once. That’s not to say that all of these aspects are bad game design, but after twenty years, they deserve an upgrade or reimagining in the way that the flow of events received for Sun/Moon.
The online functionality could have benefited from new ideas the most, but rather than two steps forward, it ultimately feels like one step forward, and one to the side in Sun/Moon. The only new battle option is Battle Royal, where four trainers and their Pokemon duke it out at once. It’s a fun addition, but when this is what we get instead of expanded match making and trading options, it feels like the developers at Game Freak are holding their best ideas close to their chest.
If Game Freak deserves credit for anything about Sun/Moon, it’s on the technical side of things. The games show off just how far handheld hardware has come for Nintendo, even considering this generation, alone. At times, it feels as though you’re playing a handheld version of a Gamecube-era RPG, like a Tales of Symphonia in the palm of your hand. Sun/Moon are far and away the most cinematic titles in the series, telling its story with cutscenes that we view from all manner of different camera angles, not simply the fixed top-down view that was so common before.
The environments also feel like they could fit in on home console titles of a few years ago, featuring density and detail never before seen on a handheld Pokemon title. You can now move in any direction using the 3DS’s analog pad; just three years ago, we could only navigate our surroundings by one of eight directions in Pokemon X/Y. This is a crucial improvement for Poke Rides, where you’ll mount a Pokemon such as Tauros, Charizard, Lapras, among several others, to traverse your terrain with greater speed, and explore areas where you can’t touch down on foot alone. You don’t have to bother teaching your Pokemon Fly or Surf, any longer; once you acquire the items necessary to call Charizard and Lapras, you’ll be soaring over Alola and jetting through its waters at your whim.
And you better believe that there’s a lot to discover across the islands. Like always, Game Freak at least didn’t skimp on the amount of content that any Pokemon fanatic can enjoy. Some of its side content is sure to shower you with nostalgia as we celebrate the franchise’s 20th anniversary this year–including a meeting with Red and Blue, the original protagonist and rival from Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue.
+ Shakes up the structure of your Pokemon adventure after years of a repetitive formula
+ A more cinematic approach and expansive environments that feel like a true leap for RPGs on a Nintendo handheld
+ A rich and fascinating setting that offers hours upon hours of content to indulge in
– Without substantial upgrades, many of the game mechanics are feeling a little stale
– Longtime fans will find the many tutorials of familiar concepts to be tedious
– Many of the new Pokemon are forgettable, if not, hideous
Jeff Pawlak is the Geekiverse’s Nintendo expert, having spent the last twenty-three years playing games with Mario, Link, and the gang. He jumped on the Pokemon bandwagon all the way back in 1996 with Pokemon Red on the original Gameboy, choosing Squirtle as his starter. Some of his favorite Pokemon include Ninetales, Dragonair, Haunter, Pangoro, Arbok, and Arcanine. Catch him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs and on Instagram to find him regularly talking about Nintendo and sharing pictures of his prized Nintendo possessions
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