A less engaging plot, but a lot more Pokemon. What are you searching for?
Exactly one year ago, I played Pokemon Moon. The newest entry in the main series was a solid amount of fun, but not everything about it was sound. The story wasn't as great as I hoped and it was a rather linear adventure that didn't stray away much from its set path. With the arrival of Pokemon Ultra Moon, I was hopeful that the Pokemon Company would go back and fix some things to keep me more entertained. Was that a realistic expectation? I think so. With newly added story beats and additional content, there is once again much to like in Ultra Moon. That being said however, it makes an equal amount of missteps, which I do think are worth discussing.
The storyline of last year's game is mostly in place. You are put in the shoes of a young boy or girl that has moved to the Alola region from Kanto. Your character chooses the first Pokemon, meets up with some local residents and goes on his/hers merry Island Challenge way. The majority of the characters you meet were present in the previous game, but there are changes in the text to underline the differences of the plot. The story here focuses on Necrozma and how he plans to steal the light of Alola. You will constantly will run into the Ultra Recon Squad, who try to help set everything right.
While the introduction of the Ultra Recon Squad and Necrozma sound cool on paper, it didn't benefit the game. You see, the story and its characters had some very compelling arcs in the original. It were things like the Ultra Beasts and Lusamine's character that really made the latter half shine. Those have been altered or completely removed in ways that I think are underwhelming. The pieces that have replaced them are now just okay. Without knowing the difference, you might react differently to it than myself. That being said, I don't consider this the ultimate version when the plot comes into the picture. The pay-off slightly bums me out.
Apart from those changes, there are plenty of things that are improved in this version. The Island Challenge itself has been remixed and the trials have been altered to keep it fresh. Some of the Totem Pokemon are different and a number of the objectives have been changed to create a little bit more interaction. In any case, it prevents the adventure from feeling exactly the same as the original. The challenges that you face are also slightly more difficult than before. The emphasis should be put on slightly, but I had to at least think over my moves.
Another benefit is the added Pokemon variety. As you explore the early routes, it becomes clear that the monsters available are very good. I would find Pokemon like Zorua, Mime Jr. and Growlithe soon after starting. It made creating a solid team such a breeze and much more engaging. Before I left Melemele Island, I was completely up and running and ready to become the next champion. It didn't help my Pokemon catching OCD mind you. After 45 hours, mostly spent on actually playing through the game, I am now up to 170 pocket monsters and nowhere close to everything I want to really see.
While on the topic of seeing everything, that won't be too tricky. Pokemon Ultra Moon remains a linear game and a slog in its opening moments. It feels like you are guided from moment to moment without really slowing down. There is stuff to hunt down, but you aren't significantly rewarded for completely going off the beaten path. What doesn't exactly help matters is the added speech to the Rotom Dex. He simply doesn't know when to shut up and points out the obvious at every turn. This can range from telling you when to take pictures with your evolved Pokemon to kindly asking about the current state of your Pokemon. You are rewarded with special Rotom powers if you go along with him, so there is at least that I guess.
Next to existing side activities, like the Poke Pelago and Festival Plaza, Game Freak saw fit to include brand new ones as well. There is Mantine Surfing, which is a ton of fun. You glide over the water, try to get some air and do various moves that are easy enough to understand. Sure, its inclusion is nothing important, but the experience was truly something charming. Another grand inclusion is The Battle Agency, found in the previously mentioned Festival Plaza. In this mode, you rent various Pokemon to form teams and duke it out against others. This gave me instant Pokemon Stadium vibes, which can't surely be a bad thing.
One of the bigger time sinks will be exploring Ultra Space. You will hop on the back of either Lunala or Solgaleo and jump into various wormholes to fight a stark selection of monsters. These can be creatures not found in the Pokedex, legendary Pokemon or the Ultra Beasts. It is a very rewarding aspect of the game, which I haven't seen the complete depth of. Somewhat off putting is the fact that you have to tilt the system to control your travels through Ultra Space. The first time around this felt absolutely dreadful. I've gotten better at it, but that doesn't mean I think it is a great way to collect the required energy orbs. At the end, I just felt indifferent about these controls.
As a follow-up to last year's game, Game Freak has somehow found a way to make Ultra Moon more striking. There are bunch of locations added that don't look out of place. They added new beaches, new realms in Ultra Space and some cool post-game treats that look absolutely sharp. It remains the colorful experience that the Nintendo 3DS deserves. That being said, they still haven't found a way to make double battles not chug on a New Nintendo 3DS. That is truly baffling to me. That being said, the added tunes fit right in with the rest of the existing music. The tune while in Ultra Space always puts me in the right mood.
In the end, I feel the same about the original and this newly updated version. Pokemon Ultra Moon tries hard to include many new elements that make the adventure pop. This only succeeds to a certain degree as new problems arise as a result. The story feels lesser than before and Rotom simply doesn't want to stay silent. On the flip side, the new slew of activities are a lot of fun and make it feel a bit friendlier. If you can deal with the same slow opening, you will find truly some stuff to like as you explore Alola for the second time.