Despite some radical changes, this is still a Pokémon game at heart.
With the 20th anniversary of Pokemon, a brand new generation seemed like a no-brainer. The anniversary, Pokemon Go and other things have brought the franchise back into the spotlight. But who would expect the 20th anniversary game to divert from so many of the series conventions? After two decades of taking a young child through gyms, evil teams and the Pokemon League, these new games are a refreshing take on the series because only the barest of those elements remain.
Pokemon Moon sets you in the shoes of a young boy or girl that has moved to the Alola region from Kanto. You quickly run into Professor Kukui and the residents of Iki Town where your journey begins. The Kahuna Hala presents you with the first Pokemon choice, which sees you picking between three fun and distinctly different options. New characters, like the mysterious Lillie and your rival Hau, spice up the story a little bit. There is a charm to it that makes the game stand out from the other 3DS Pokemon titles. It has a relaxed attitude that kept me playing longer than I expected.
Although the game is dripping with atmosphere, I found the story a little lacking. Entertaining characters can only do so much to boost a slow story, and the early part of the game feels like a railroad from one moment to the next. Further exploration brings out more of the story, and the end game has extremely high stakes but still feels a bit underplayed. The climactic battles didn’t feel as valuable as similar battles in the other 3DS entries. If you can handle Lillie – who is the driving force behind almost all of the non-Island Challenge events – you’ll be fine with how the story plays out.
Instead of gyms, Sun and Moon features the Island Challenge. It largely consists of battling Pokemon that get in the way of reaching a certain goal. The first trial involves battling Rattata who hide in little holes, and then defeat the Totem Raticate at the end. Later challenges include item collection while riding a Stoutland (a large canine) or even recognizing sounds from the game. There’s still plenty of trainers to fight, so the challenges provide a nice respite. The big battles are with the Kahunas of each island, who battle in their own areas in a matter reminiscent of the Elite 4 in the older games.
There was a lot of hype in the preview period about Z-Crystals, which when paired with the Z-Ring obtained early in the game allow for super-powerful moves when a Pokemon holds them. The Z-Moves are incredibly potent, in most cases better than even the most powerful moves the Pokemon can learn. What keeps these Crystals in check is the requirement to have learned a move compatible with the crystal, which allows for the upgraded move to replace it once per battle. There’s a strategic element in play if the Pokemon has more than one move of the same type, as it’s necessary to pick the right Z-Move. The Z-Moves can finish a match quickly, or turn the tide in battle if behind, but the most fun part of the move is the dance that the trainer does to set it up. There are even Pokemon-specific Z-Crystals, which are difficult to find but unlock some of the flashiest techniques in series history.
Sun and Moon have also provided some much-needed overhauls to the battle system. In addition to a sleeker pre-match menu, information about the moves currently equipped by the Pokemon is a tap away. After the first encounter with a Pokemon, the game will also display if the move is super effective or not very effective on the battle screen. This was a controversial addition, but I found it useful to have the quick view of what would be the best move for the situation. The battles play out in impressive fashion on the top screen, even with the trainers visible, though in situations where a lot of Pokemon are in play the battles slow down dramatically. Typically, this will happen during double battles in a matter similar to some horde battles in the previous generation. There aren’t many double battles in the game, so it won’t come up often, but it’s definitely noticeable.
The feeling of exploration is fully realized when exploring the world. The Circle Pad handles all movement in the game, removing the tile based D-Pad layout of previous titles. The additional control allows for more freedom of exploration in the gorgeous environments. Without question, this is the best looking Pokemon game on 3DS, not just in the character models (outside of your character, which seems to always have the exact same expression throughout the game)but also the environments. Each island has a great deal of variety in the surroundings. There’s gigantic hotels, mountains, jungles and the occasional smaller town thrown in for variety. It is all packed in a coherent package that works for the most part.
The plot works in fits and starts, which is a bit of a sore spot with the game. Sometimes there’s freedom to talk to people and hunt items, while other times the Rotom Pokedex is forcing you to go from plot point to plot point without a break. In a world worth exploring, the freedom is minimized by the need to hit the next story event. It’s still possible to hunt down Technical Machines (TMs) for extra battle power in the environment, however. They may not be as necessary to find however, as the game is incredibly easy. I didn’t feel threatened at all during the adventure, and most enemies were easily dispatched.
One of the longstanding complaints about Pokemon games is the need to carry specific Pokemon to handle environmental navigation. In these games, the Hidden Machines have been replaced with Ride Pokemon, which are unlocked during the course of the game and replace the out-of-battle functions of Surf, Strength and similar moves. Summoning a Tauros to smash the rocks or a Lapras to explore smaller islands adds to the variety of options in the game in a major way, and this needs to be a permanent fixture in the series going forward.
Beyond the main game, there is plenty of things to sink your teeth into with Pokemon Moon. The most notable change in the side quests is the Festival Plaza, which replaces the interactive system previous Nintendo 3DS games. used It is here that Wonder Trade, Battle Spot and a whole array of other possibilities are found. Guests, computer generated or via communications, ask you for the best locations on your festival square. If you point them in the right direction, you are rewarded with Festival Coins, which can be spent at the various shops. You can dye white clothing items, get a set of items or test the wits of your Pokemon in different ways. The plaza expands and changes the more you toy around with its options, which makes the hub a novel and long-lasting idea.
The other features I found myself entranced by were Pokemon Refresh and Poke Pelago. Pokemon Refresh is basically a repurposed version of Pokemon Amie, but they completely changed its importance. You will need to keep your Pokemon happy after battle by cleaning them up, giving them a variety of beans and gently rub them to show affection. If you do the right things, the Pokemon will become more friendly towards you. This can help you in battle as they will be more likely to dodge attacks or automatically remove any status conditions. There is no reason not to use this feature, just like the Exp. Share which returns as well. In Pokemon Pelago, you will build islands for your boxed Pokemon to hang out. They can grow berries for you, collect rare objects, train themselves or relax while harvesting some beans. These beans, next to being treats, will allow you to grow more islands and expand them to increase their functionality. The activities are quick to start and fun to check up on in moments of downtime.
While I had a good deal of fun with Pokemon Moon, I couldn't shake the feeling that not everything was sound about it. The story didn't keep my attention as much as I would have hoped, the journey was easy to get through and some of the battles had slowdown. Despite that, I just kept pushing forward and wanting to more see of the world that Game Freak has built. There were impressive sights to be seen, lovely Pokemon to meet and plenty of features to make this game worth your time. From the impressive Z-Moves to interaction with the characters, the charm is hard to deny and it is why the game will have major staying power. For the Pokemon fan who wants a more experimental take on the things he or she likes, Pokemon Moon is pretty much a no-brainer.