Note: Full spoilers for the game.
For a series with evolution as a major theme, Pokemon has ironically never been afraid of stagnation. The series stuck with 2D sprites for some time past the industry’s collective adoption of 3D, and the basic story hasn’t really changed all that much in 20 years. While the number of Pokemon has continued to grow, myriad other aspects of the series have strayed little from the path that Pokemon Red and Blue paved in 1996.
Into this legacy enters Pokemon Sun and Moon, the 3DS’s second brand new installment, following 2013’s Pokemon X and Y. And for both better and worse, Sun and Moon approach this 20-year legacy by offering some of the biggest shakeups to the formula of any generation yet, but with mixed success. The series is finally freeing itself from some of its more restrictive chains, while at the same time making missteps along the way.
It is admirable that after so long Pokemon is still able to shift its foundations and take a look at what works and what doesn’t, and Sun and Moon is the result of a series that has analyzed and questioned aspects that fans — and the games themselves — have held on to for decades. What may seem like incremental changes can feel large when a series isn’t known for revolution, but Sun/Moon shows developer GameFreak in the process of figuring out just how much they can change, and how such changes will be received.
Where the birds sing and the flowers croon
In some regards, Sun/Moon and the resulting Hawaii-based Alola region feel like the most realized and living Pokemon world yet. It’s the small details that advance this: the multi-colored battle swirl before every fight, the movements and animations of the Pokemon, and the subtle tribal drums in the battle theme. The denizens and locations are also more lifelike: trainers actually have 3D models on-screen during battles, physically move to throw their Pokeballs, and Pokemon are out and about way more than in past games, populating towns and locations alongside humans.
The increase in finer detail makes other areas that aren’t as polished stick out more, though. Some Pokemon still unrealistically shoot attacks from their faces without opening their mouths, and stoically refuse to open their wings to fly. The game is also scattered with oddly-worded localization text and unintuitive map and menu choices. The game never uses the 3DS’s 3D technology outside the tacked-on, Pokemon Snap knock-off side mode, yet it still has framerate problems, at least on my original 3DS XL. The graphics are jaggy, too. And even though the 3DS has lower screen resolution than a smart phone, it’s still weird to see sharper-looking Pokemon models in Pokemon Go, a spin-off title, than in the newest flagship entries.
Welcome to Alola
As with any Pokemon generation, there’s always a lot of focus placed on the new monsters themselves. This time around, though, that means not just brand new Pokemon, but also new Alola forms of older generation one Pokemon from Red/Blue‘s Kanto. However, instead of the much superior approach Pokemon Black and White took, Sun/Moon follows X/Y by having both old and new Pokemon mixed together right from the beginning. It spreads out the new Pokemon over the adventure, but early on it left me wishing for more new Pokemon to discover and encounter.
This approach provides a good argument for the game’s Alola forms — but with so few of them, it makes me wonder why GameFreak included them at all. The new forms did provide me an excuse to revisit old companions: I don’t think I’ve ever had any reason or want to use a Grimer before, yet I carried the Alola variant on my team for a bit.
Either way, Alola is still a far cry from the larger waves of new Pokes in past generations. It does feel light, but there are some good new Pokemon out there to catch — enough so that I had more new Pokemon that I wanted to raise than I could fit on my team. However, I’m not quite sure if there are any I feel as strongly about as some of my other recent-gen favorites. (And for a region based on Hawaii, there’s no proper tiki Pokemon, unless you count the Tapus? Come on.)
That’s no moon
Instead of the tried-and-true Pokemon gyms and gym leaders, Alola offers up a new alternative: the Island Challenge. Each of the four islands of Alola has different trials, under the stewardship of a trial captain and a totem Pokemon. Clear all the trials on the island, and players can battle the island kahuna. The kahunas and captains are basically just different nomenclature for the gym leaders of old It’s a change to the gym system that somehow manages to stick a bit too closely to the original idea while also moving it in a different direction. It’s nice to see things freshened up, but the trials themselves never end up amounting to much: they’re piss-poor stand-ins for even the most meager puzzle-based gyms they replaced.
Totem Pokemon, however, are a welcomed addition. These powered-up wild Pokemon act as the final fight at the end of each trial, and they provide battles that feel like actual boss encounters in more epic-scale RPGs, and present an interesting way for wild Pokemon to have higher stats and thus present an increased level of difficulty. Many of the totems took multiple tries for me to beat, and the challenge throughout the game is a welcomed step up, especially from the past games in the series.
On that note, if you play with the EXP share off, you will find an almost perfectly balanced and paced leveling system in Sun/Moon that manages to be difficult without having to rely on the grinding the series is known for, something I only had to resort to a few times toward the end. The game has some teeth, in a good way.
Sun/Moon’s overall scope, while welcomingly hefty in length — it took me roughly 45 hours to play through the main campaign — does lack for options to explore, a linearity issue both Black/White and X/Y suffered from as well. There are some great scenic locations, but giant caves, mountains, and dungeon-like areas that serve as places to explore and get lost in are few and far betweeen, and the ones which do make an appearance are for the most part short and nearly devoid of puzzles. Instead, the bulk of the game takes place across routes that serve more as places to traverse and stroll through than to attempt to overcome. Sun/Moon also draws in a lot of inspiration from past games in its design choices, both making the overall Pokemon universe feel larger, but also to a sometimes detrimental effect: Pokemon games need an official moratorium on Diglett Caves or Sudowoodo blocking routes. There are 800 other monsters that can all make natural formations or bock progress somehow. Utilize them.
Some of the series’ other unnecessary fat has been trimmed away: HMs are finally gone, replaced by ride Pokemon, which can be called upon at any time to assist with your travel needs. It has some clunky implantation and in-universe grounding, but it’s at least a solution to a problem the series has had almost from its start, and a step in the right direction.
And while Sun/Moon offers changes to the core of the Pokemon experience, there are still some relics of the past that GameFreak seems unwilling to let stay there. Team Skull serves almost no function at this point, instead acting as yet another reminder of all the various Teams we’ve seen over the years. This is made even worse by the fact that the game at one point briefly flirts with an interesting idea that could have been used to actually flesh out the group, only to drop it and tie Team Skull in with the rest of the on-going plot. If a team is going to be used for nothing more than checking off some arbitrary “Pokemon game requirement box,” there’s no reason for an opposing team anymore. Get rid of them.
Pokemon battles, for the most part, remain largely unchanged, but with a few new elements thrown in the mix. Wild Pokemon encounters now have a wrinkle: Pokemon are able to call out to allies, which summons a second Pokemon to fight alongside them against the player. It’s a good idea, in theory, since it brings a change that seems almost Bravely Second inspired to random RPG fights. In practice, however, it ends up getting annoying having to face off against two wild Pokemon when you can only use one, and the feature just acts as a barrier to both catching and leveling.
Z-moves are also new to fights this time around. Z-moves are Sun/Moon’s new apparent stand-in for X/Y‘s Mega Evolutions. These new souped-up attacks require the Pokemon to be holding the proper type Z-crystal, which then allows the Pokemon to perform a flashy and over-the-top — yet not unfairly overpowered — attack, offering battles something similar to what summons might offer in other RPGs. While they are a pretty superfluous addition, I think I’d be sad to see them get sidelined in future titles like Megas now seem to have.
However, the Z-crystals are given too much emphasis in the overall plot and aren’t great replacements for the gym badges that the series has long kept sacred. I did eventually like the (sadly lesser-used) passport stamps players get for beating the kahunas, which fit in with the region’s identity, at least. Z-crystals also represent yet another way the series is now trying to extend its merchandizing line: you can buy an actual Z-Ring — the bracelet-like device that holds Z-crystals — replicas, and crystals, which work with your 3DS.
Sun/Moon’s plot brings the Pokemon universe quite far into science fiction territory, with alternate dimensions and the new Ultra Beasts acting in the background to the player’s island challenge.
However, as good as the story’s conclusion is, it does take quite some time to really decide where it’s going to go, and it could have done with more narrative reasoning for the player’s role and rationale in the adventures from the start. I avoid reading other reviews while still working on my own, but it can be near impossible to avoid every comment on social media, and I was, for sometime well into the game, wondering why reviewers were trumpeting Sun/Moon so strongly. Most of the first chunk of the game wasn’t super impressive. Eventually I got out of my own head a bit and just enjoyed it and finally found some new Pokemon I connected to, but it was the penultimate resolution of the Aether plot (I really don’t want to spoil it) that justified the rest of the game. It was a creative risk, but it paid off.
Over the course of one game — with elements like the Totem boss Pokemon, the more sci-fi inspired story, and even the environment designs — Sun/Moon have shifted the series into something more akin to other JRPG territory than ever before. I was getting some Ni No Kuni vibes. It’s probably a necessary change at this point, even if it does make Pokemon a touch less unique, but it does manage to expand the boundaries of what exactly is considered “a Pokemon game” to include more flavors than just the Vanilluxe fans have come to expect, so to speak.
It’s commendable that Sun/Moon manages to expand the Pokemon universe in such a way, while also garnishing the story with an emotional plot that centers around family, growing up, and eventual parental confrontations. It carries a bit more heft than usual — I don’t think I’ve ever gotten watery eyes over other Pokemon games — and while it does have some problems along the way, it manages to conclude in some pretty striking, or at least striking for Pokemon, moments.
But, at the end of the day the story really is about the NPC Lillie, the professor’s unsure assistant whom you meet early on in the adventure. The plot places more development on her than the main avatar character the player controls. The protagonist ends up being the eye of the hurricane as the plot work its way around them, just as it was all the way at the start of the game where players take off on the Island Challenge for seemingly no reason beside Professor Kukui tells them to. But by making the story about Lillie, her family, and her development, Sun/Moon is able to able to do things that it perhaps it felt couldn’t do with a player-controller character, and imperfect as it may be, it’s still hard to argue against the successful and shocking (in a good way!) end results.
Overall, despite the growing pains apparent in Sun/Moon, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I found myself enjoying playing and looking forward to spending more time each session in Alola. It’s not the best Pokemon game or generation, nor does it radically reinvent the wheel, but it does manage to provoke change and push the series in new directions, both good and bad, and ultimately results in an enjoyable tropical vacation, and one that’s hopefully a sign of future changes and experimentation to come. Just don’t forget that suntan lotion. Or to bring a towel.