In its 20th year, Pokémon has shaken things up. With Sun and Moon, players travel to the new Alola archipelago. This region breaks with tradition; it has no gyms, new forms for old favourites, and lets players explore the narrative in a different way.
Pokémon Sun and Moon
Initial release date: November 18, 2016
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Pokémon Sun and Moon are a mixed bag. Change for the sake of change doesn’t always yield the best results. The games fall into this trap from time to time. But there are a lot of things that Sun and Moon do right.
At their best, Sun and Moon feel like Pokemon Colosseum, an exciting development in an ageing franchise. At their worst, Mario Party 10: festive but doesn’t hold up to the previous entries.
Right around the second island, Sun and Moon hit their stride. You’ve had enough of an opportunity to know what to do. The game opens up and you start to see the organisations, Aether and Team Skull. It cultivates its narrative and brings the player deeper into the world.
It’s also around this time that we start seeing more and different wild Pokemon. Most of the first island is inhabited with the usual dregs: Pikpek, the 7th gen Pidgey, Yungoos, the 7th gen Rattata. Other Pokemon found on the first island are largely Kanto Pokemon: Abra, Pikachu, Magnemite, and Growlithe feature prominently.
From an in-game perspective, the new Pokemon are of good design. While X & Y introduced a new type, Sun and Moon took its attention to type combinations. Salandit is a perfect example of a never-before-seen type: Fire/Poison. Some Ultra Beasts also give us odder types, like Nihilego’s Rock/Poison.
Again, in direct contrast to its predecessor, Moon aims a little smaller in the scope of its narrative. X & Y drowns under the weight of vaguely-referenced historical events. Moon’s narrative periphery is cemented firmly in the traditions of the Alolan people. There’s a sense of richness but the game’s focus largely centres on the events of Aether and Skull.
Sun and Moon are geared up for a satisfying endgame. From starter Pokemon to Champion does feel a little shorter than average. I’m inclined to forgive this, though, because once you are the champion, the game opens up new areas, new stories, and new challenges. Sadly, the Looker makes a comeback.
Thankfully, his goal this time is aid in the capture of the Ultra Beasts, not an inane, tacked-on subquest. The nature of Alola’s archipelago is that you’ll naturally bypass some areas and relish the opportunity to go back in.
It’s not all peaches and cream for Pokemon Sun and Moon. Although the game does shape up for a strong post-league experience, the rest of it feels like a guided tour through the Safari Zone. You’re almost never left alone.
Lillie, one of Moon’s more irritating characters, follows you around, constantly pushing you to your next objective. Indeed, the only freedom you have is to make a u-turn after completing an island. Before I felt in control of my own game, I was already around level 28.
Much of Alola feels like a wildlife safari. It’s a small thing but there is a strong case of specific types living together in one area. For example, the Fire types live on the volcano; and the Grass types live in the forest; and so on.
From a design perspective, this makes sense. It drives the concept of Alola being a place of true evolution for Pokemon. On the gameplay side, however, it hurts.
Want an Ice type but haven’t gotten to the Ice habitat (which, by the way, is towards the end of the game’s story)? Too bad. Find something else.
Sun and Moon’s extended cast is the biggest let down. All in all, about 3-5 people come with you on your journey – depending on how broad your definition is.
Lillie, Hau, Kukui are the main three. They have about two personality traits each. Clumsy but determined, happy-go-lucky and competitive, mysterious and ambitious. They wear thin. Fast.
If I see one more reference to Kukui being the Masked Royal, I might break my 3DS over my head.
In the spirit of progress, Sun and Moon change many things. Not all are hits but they will resonate with different people.
The removal of HMs is a pretty significant change. Original games had you explore to either catch enough Pokemon (for Flash), find someone off the beaten track (Fly), or complete a challenge (Surf/Strength). Later games gave you the HMs at important parts of the story but mandated the completion of a gym.
In Alola, your Ride Pager gives you access to Pokemon that will perform the same tasks. Lapras will let you Surf, Charizard will let you Fly, and Tauros uses Rock Smash.
Overall, it’s a nice change. HMs had already morphed into an nuisance. Once they were important stepping stones to game completion or convenience. They transformed into devices to artificially inject motivation into duller portions of the game. Removing HMs has been a positive step forward.
On the other hand, a prominent feature in previews for Sun and Moon was the lack of gyms. Alola subscribes to a different method of testing its young trainers. Each island has Captains who oversee Trials. Completing the Trials of an island lets you square off against the Kahuna.
A nice idea. Ultimately, it’s a meaningless change. The names may be different but the concept is the same. After a short quest, you battle a type-restricted boss who grants you passage to the next section of the land. Sun and Moon go to great lengths to ensure you definitely know that this thing that you’re battling that looks like a gym and fights like a gym totally isn’t a gym.
Pokemon Sun and Moon aren’t without their warts. But they’re a worthy entry into the franchise.
I’m not convinced enough has been done in this reinvention. When a 20 year old franchise goes through a rebirth of sorts, a thin replacement of terminology and recycled plot won’t do.
It’s impossible not to get caught up in the festive atmosphere of the Alolan isles, however. When the game lets you play, it shines. It, like Colosseum before, takes the series in a new direction and weaves our expectations into a larger world.
For lovers of Pokemon, this is the game to play. Sun and Moon easily beat out Diamond, X, and Black as games and encompassing narratives.
While they may not do as much as 4th gen for altering the competitive space, Sun and Moon are what Pokemon needed.