After 20 years, Pokémon is still not only one of the greatest video game franchises of all time, but its appeal seems to grow even stronger across audiences of all kinds. The new 3DS double-entry, Sun and/or Moon, arrives on the handheld with the tricky aim of both hitting the right notes with fans and at the same time rewriting some of the staples we know from the main series. After playing both the preview version and the demo, and now at last the final game for many, many hours, we can now evaluate how the franchise is evolving.
Before we get started, we should note that in our case we played Pokémon Sun. Also, keep in mind that Sun and Moon are set twelve hours apart. On top of that, each edition has a selection of unique creatures and there are slight changes in some of the trials in the Island Challenge.
Of all the new features included this time, we must start by telling you about the Alola region. This archipelago, which is made up of five islands (four natural and one artificial), represents most of the changes that anyone who has played one of the main entries before will notice right away. Here things are rather different, as humans and Pokémon live together in a much more natural way than in regions such as Kanto or Johto, thus it's perfectly normal to see people walking alongside one of these little monsters, or even bumping into some poor pokémon begging for alms. It might look like a shallow design choice, but the fact that this is shown in such a natural way actually helps you to feel immersed in the game's atmosphere, and underlines the notion that pokémon are more than just critters that eventually show up to either battle or be captured. They're part of the society and their cohabitation with humans is something absolutely normal.
But of course introducing a new region also means new creatures and, in contrast to what some may believe, this time the selection of monsters is great in terms of their design, and everything works as expected regarding the tropical island setting. The new pokémon perfectly suit their new habitat and are clearly influenced by the pokémon that have come before them. There are now also new Alola forms of some classic creatures, the mutations to the likes of Meowth and Grimer caused by their adaptation completely different conditions. It's all very Darwinian. You might like or dislike them based on personal feelings, but the new appearances offer a change of perspective that manages to turn something well known into something fresh, and the good part is this renewal can bee seen in every other aspect of the game.
The story also references the series' past, but it's not a carbon copy. We once again step into the shoes of a young adventurer who leaves home to explore a new continent and learn all about pokémon, all the while facing an evil organisation and being taught by a professor. However, that's where the similarities end. There are no gym leaders to defeat, nor a Pokémon League available from the start. Instead you'll find the aforementioned Island Challenge, a series of trials that every youngster in Alola has to complete when they come of age. They're split into Kahuna Tests (some sort of leader for each island) and the Captain Trials (pokémon trainers a rank below these leaders). The good thing about this is that none of these challenges involve a direct showdown with a single trainer, as there are all sorts of missions and objectives to complete in order to progress, whether that be finding some specific creatures, collecting ingredients, or even answering hilarious questionnaires. This helps to change the game and make it feel more like an RPG, putting aside one core mechanic that seemed immovable, leading to a wide range of situations that enrich the experience.
How the story unfolds itself is really nicely done. The narrative is much broader and more interesting than any we've played in the series before now (although perhaps Black and White were close). There's shoddy bad guys who aren't that bad, the lovely members of Team Skull, some good guys who aren't that good, the shady Æther Foundation, and the mystery surrounding the enigmatic Ultra Beasts. We won't tell you more to avoid spoilers, but we can tell you this time dialogue and events from the story are worth your attention. It's good that they finally managed to craft an improved narrative, and on top of that long-time fans will love the nostalgic references, such as those that refer to the region that started it all.
But even though there are no gym leaders per se, the concept linked to the combat is still there. Completing the Kahuna Challenges involves defeating leaders, but you also need the approval of the Tapu (special pokémon protecting each island). They always trust you, but just keep in mind that the bond with these creatures has some weight. In fact, even the choice of a starter is different here. Now you don't just take it from a Pokéball, but the monster has to accept you before joining you throughout the Island Challenge adventure, which at the same time leads to the creation of the first league in the region and a series of multi-dimensional problems involving creatures from other worlds. But we'll let you uncover all this for yourselves...
The combat itself is kept pretty traditional. High grass is the spawning point for monsters, though now they can also approach you from underground or by diving at you from the sky; but once the fight starts you'll notice that the battle system is still pretty much the same, with creatures and moves of different types, each with strengths and weaknesses. There are some nuances to this, such as the efficiency of the turn-based attacks being shown on screen, or the option to see the stats by touching the screen. We thought this new feature, despite being useful for newcomers, could break the trial and error aspect inherent to Pokémon games, however, we appreciated that it's still just as necessary and fundamental to learn the type charts and to study each single creature.
And why is it so important to learn all about the different types? Because the difficulty level has increased this time around. Maybe this isn't so evident during the first few hours, but in the latter parts of the game it becomes more obvious. Examining your rivals and coming up with the best strategy is vital. We should also mention that there's a chance that a pokémon might call in some allies during combat. A simple battle versus an innocent-looking Magby could end up in a seemingly endless series of Magmar looking to ruin your day.
So, perhaps due to this added difficulty, the developers opted to implement another new feature, which in turn is friendlier to the player; when a fight is over you can heal the altered status conditions of your pokémon by taking care of them. By pressing Y after your successful battle you enter a first-person view in which you can brush, dry and even feed your creatures, looking after them and increasing your affinity. It's important as you can even increase their dodging skills.
With all this, it might look weird that the Hidden Machines are absent, as everything leans towards a more natural setup, suited to a world in which humans and creatures leave together. That's why Pokémounts fit so well and are so welcome. Now you can mount your Tauros and walk around, search for hidden items on your Stoutland, or even hover on the water by using a Lapras. Pokémon aren't just for battling and capturing; they also help you navigate the world, and even if this system replaces traditional features such as the HMs, it works and feels better, and thus it looks a must for upcoming games.
Considering the many little touches and improvements found in Pokémon Sun and Moon, it's a pity that the Nintendo 3DS itself just isn't there when it comes to the technical side of things. It's true that the performance is solid, but they had to kill the 3D effect in order to keep it steady, and there are some poor/limited textures and models. You can only enjoy 3D with the Pokévisor (the photo mode), but the frame-rate drops significantly, thus breaking the atmosphere created by being able to watch pokémon in their natural habitat.
Elsewhere the visuals are decent, all things considered. Cities and environments are full of life. They offer some neat details, such as the ability to listen to nearby monsters' grunts. The graphics are the best we've seen from the series to date and, besides, they offer plenty of variety, everything from the details in the Alola region, down to the customisable avatar's appearance.
Beyond the base gameplay experience there are multiplayer modes too. There's Quick Play for battling or exchanging pokémon with locally sourced players, and then there's a Plaza where you can connect with online world, play mini-games, and even enjoy some social features. Of course you can also engage in combat and exchange here. Above all there's Battle Royale, a four-player showdown which could very well be called the Poker of Pokémon battles. It offers tons of fun and comes highly recommended if you want something fresh and tactical.
And of course the endgame plays a vital role here. Unfortunately we can't talk about it in detail, but we'll tell you there's a good range of surprises in store and lots to do after you finish the story. So much, that it'll expand Pokémon Sun and Moon's lasting appeal almost endlessly.
This new entry is a giant leap forward for the main series. Sun and Moon offers a truly great evolution of Red, Blue and Yellow. Everything has been changed to offer something new, different, but yet it still manages to remain familiar, and be it the story, visual style, setting, creatures, combat, or even the fan service, this game delves deeper into the RPG genre and it's better for the shift. It works flawlessly for both people knew to the franchise, as well as those playing for more than a decade.