NOTE: For this review, I played through the Pokémon Moon version of the game.
After a long a painful wait, the 7th generation of Pokémon games is finally here. For two decades now, the monster-collecting RPG series has been iterating and improving on its basic formula. You are a child who is tasked with the simple task of collecting a plethora of monsters that range from cute to terrifying. Historically, there has been little variation in the series, instead opting to focus on adding more content and refining the existing mechanics while adding additional layers of complexity with new features. Sun and Moon is the first time in my memory where the series has significantly shaken up some long-standing conventions, but at its core, it remains a true Pokémon game.
Welcome to Paradise
At this point, I’m going to assume most people have played at least one Pokémon game. The original games, Pokémon Red and Blue, were immensely popular, and the series has continued to be a smash hit through the years. In Sun and Moon, the core mechanics still remain. This time around, you are an 11-year old who has recently moved to the tropical Alola region, which is based on Hawaii. Despite this inspiration, the region of Alola is thankfully varied, with jungles, deserts, snowy peaks and canyons. Like in other games, you immediately meet the local pokémon professor, Kukui, who introduces you to the concept of Pokémon and helps you get your first one.
Unlike all previous games, however, you will not be traveling to 8 pokémon gyms to collect badges and eventually challenge the local Pokémon League. Instead, Alola has a local rite of passage for young pokémon trainers that you will be adventuring through: the “Island Challenge.” The island challenge gives the game a welcome change of pace, while still retaining some familiarity. In the Island Challenge, you travel to each individual island of Alola, of which there are four. You face off against several “trial captains,” who challenge you with specific tasks. Once you complete all the trials on an island, you can face off with the island’s Kahuna in a Pokémon battle. Each trial nets you a “Z-Stone,” which both indicate your progress in your adventure and lets you pull off some devastating new attacks.
The visual design of the Alola region is spectacular, and is easily one of the highlights of the game. there is absolutely no wasted space in the game’s world, and for the first time, the Pokémon game world feels like it lives and breathes. Like with previous games, you are led down a pretty linear story path, but they do a good job of keeping the environments feeling pretty open, and it helps that they introduce fast-travel pretty early on in the game this time around, although this time it is not in the form of the “Fly” HM, but more on that later.
Narrative? In My Pokémon Game?
It would be unfair to say that past Pokémon games didn’t have stories. They have all been coming-of-age adventures with different variations in complexity, ranging from Red and Blue‘s hands off, light-hearted approach to Black and White‘s head on tackling of the moral issues surrounding the very concept of its world. The last games in the series, X and Y, were undoubtedly a step back in this regard, opting for the Red and Blue approach of letting the player do their Pokémon League challenge with as few story interruptions as possible, and when story came into the mix, frankly, it kind of sucked.
Without spoiling much, in Sun and Moon, you decide to go on the Island Challenge for your own personal reasons. You are joined in your journey by Hau, who is the grandson of your island’s Kahuna, Hala. Hau is an airheaded, but positive and cheery kid who just wants to become stronger in order to surpass his grandfather and become the Kahuna himself. You are also joined by the mysterious Lillie, who is not a trainer, but joins you in order to find out more about her pokémon companion, Cosmog. Throughout the course of the game, you will discover more about the intentions of the gangster group Team Skull, and you can trust that they are not as simple as they seem. On your side is the Aether Foundation, a company that works to preserve endangered pokémon, and you will also regularly meet a boy named Gladion, who works for Team Skull, but has intentions of his own. Through the course of the story, you will learn about the Ultra Beasts, mysterious pokémon-like life forms that spawn from another dimension, and the Tapus, who are the god-protectors of each of Alola’s islands.
Sun and Moon go way above and beyond what any other Pokémon game has ever done to provide an immersive story with characters that change and learn through the course of the hardships that they face. I don’t remember ever being as immersed with the characters and world of a Pokémon game as I have been with this generation. Lillie in particular *might* be the best character ever introduced in a Pokémon game, but if you want to know why I think that, you’ll have to play for yourself. Don’t expect an extremely complex story here, but there is just a wonderful child-like sense of wonder and joy in this game that is impossible to ignore.
Rest in Pieces, HMs
At this point, the vastly improved visuals should speak for themselves, so I won’t go too much into it except that I will note that the improved visuals helped to vastly improve the structure of the game world. That said, you can tell this is pushing the 3DS to its limits, since there were noticeable slowdowns in multi-battles, where there are many character models on screen. Additionally, even with the New 3DS, there is no 3D effect at all, even in battles, which is disappointing. The music is incredible, from the beautiful and epic overworld music to the intense battle themes. I’m still not 100% certain where it stands, but it’s coming very close to knocking off Gold and Silver for the spot of my favorite Pokémon soundtrack.
I really want to focus on what has changed from the previous games that makes this a largely improved experience. First, and most significant, is the total removal of HMs. Without their presence, you are free to carry 6 pokémon without having to worry about not having the right HM slave at the right time. Instead, you can focus on having the most balanced team possible for battle. HMs are replaced by a new item called the Ride Pager, which you use to summon a variety of pokémon that perform tasks previously done by HMs, such as Fly, Surf, Rock Smash, Strength, etc. I can’t stress enough how much of an improvement this is.
While disorienting at first, the Island Challenge is a great replacement that definitely breaks the mold. Each island has a different number of challenges, which keeps you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. Challenges can vary. Some involve battles, but most involve other activities, such as answering questions, taking pictures with the new Poké Finder feature, or searching caves and forests for items or specific pokémon. It’s an enjoyable experience that breaks up the gameplay considerably.
Poké (Insert Feature Here)
Sun and Moon are really, really, REALLY good games. I would be remiss to not mention the minor annoyances I experienced though. It often feels like the game is holding your hand through the adventure much more than in previous games, in the sense that it felt like a series of A to B to C quests, unlike the open exploration encouraged by previous games. It also takes a step back in terms of its online features. While online was pretty much ever-present in the bottom screen of X and Y, in Sun and Moon, it is relocated to a new area called the “Festival Plaza,” which you can access from the menu at any time. Many of the features from the previous game carry over, but it was really nice to see if you had any friends or strangers online at a glance, and this definitely feels like a downgrade. Additionally, customizing and actually using your plaza is never really that compelling or fun.
A lot of this can be said about the game’s “extra” features. Pokémon Refresh is essentially a slightly improved version of Pokémon Amie from X and Y. This time around, it has some utility since it helps you cure status conditions outside of battle, but petting your pokémon loses its appeal pretty quickly after the novelty wears off. Poké Pelago is another new feature that allows you to construct islands for your off-duty Pokémon to frolic around in. You get neat bonuses from this, such as beans (the main food of Pokémon Refresh), items and berries. But this is also never as interesting or fun as it could be. The mean reason these features just don’t come together for me is because of how disjointed and mechanical they feel, and never reach the potential that they present. If this sounds familiar, it’s because X and Y‘s neat bottom-screen features suffered from the same problem. They were interesting ideas, but never really complemented the game experience well.
More than any previous game, Pokémon Sun and Moon feels like a celebration. It truly conveys the child-like joy of going on an adventure and learning something about friendship in the process. Right now, it may well be the best game in the series. This is the definitive entry in terms of its story and battle/overworld mechanics. More experimental features that may miss the mark exist purely in the periphery and do not detract from the experience.
At the same time, the core gameplay remains untouched, and the changes that matter here are the quality of life changes. Things like changing the structure of the story, improving the graphics and music, streamlining the gameplay, all have gone a long way here more than in any other game in the series. This is the game for both Pokémon fans and newbies. It is a game that embraces the old and the new, fans of the original 151 and new fans alike. It’s a must-buy for owners of the 3DS, and one more reason for every gamer to own this fantastic handheld system.
- Gorgeous graphics that are leagues above X and Y
- Terrific overworld design. Alola is the first Pokémon region that feels truly alive
- Soundtrack is among the best in the series
- Streamlining is a huge improvement. No more HMs allows you to focus on your adventure and not on tedious Pokémon party management
- Story is compelling and has a child-like sense of wonder and happiness
- Lengthy campaign that breaks the 8-gyms and a Pokémon League structure from the previous games
- Online Festival Plaza feels like a downgrade from X and Y‘s ever-present online menu
- Random new features feel boring and disconnected from the main game, but can be safely ignored if you don’t want to use them
- Not a lot of room to really blaze your own path. You really only have the main quest to go through, and though there are some side quests, it’s tedious since there’s no way of tracking them