It’s been a rough year.
This summer, post-Brexit, many people turned to Pokémon Go, the augmented-reality game from Niantic and the Pokémon Company, as a nostalgic and social respite from the ills and ails of the world. As if on cue, another Pokémon game – Pokémon Sun and Moon – has arrived to help numb the sting of being a person in the never-ending car crash that is 2016.
Sun and Moon, much like its predecessors, puts players in the shoes of a young Pokémon trainer. The protagonist arrives from the Kanto region of the previous games to the four Hawaiian-inspired islands of Alola, where many new iterations of well loved Pokémon from previous generations can be found. They will, as trainers must, try and catch ’em all, be the very best there ever was, and probably save the world.
Pokémon has been around for 20 years now, which means that for many gamers there have been more years with Pokémon than without. The structure of the series is fairly cemented. You are now 11, and the world is ready for you. Travel to new areas, collect Pokémon, battle a gym, roll out of town. Many Pokémon games have given a few tweaks here and there to the structure or appearance of the game, but none have gone so far as Sun and Moon.
The most notable difference is the absence of gyms, in favour of Island Trials: a series of small feats with Island Captains scattered across the island, which eventually lead up to a battle with an Island Kahuna. These Grand Trials reward victors with Z-Crystals instead of badges, which offer powerful Z-moves for Pokémon to learn – a far more useful prize than the badges in years previous.
At first, these Island Trials felt too kitschy – not in the shabbily decorated Havana-themed bar sort of kitsch which endears itself, but rather, as seemingly tiresome fetch quests, or “Spot the Difference” puzzles, which would intermittently reward players with battles. As the game progressed, however, they started to feel like textured additions to the world, or a way to better understand the people and culture of certain islands. There is not the grandiosity of gyms, the image of an 11-year-old girl walking wide-eyed into a series of high-stakes battles devoted to a single-type of Pokémon so that she can prove her worth. These trials are more flexible and laid back, but the trade-off is tangible.
The world and story are both deliciously nuanced and alive. For the most part, Pokémon games have never leaned too heavily on “plot”, as it were; favouring the stop-the-shadowy-corporation-with-friendship school of thought, and leaving it there. Sun and Moon has a more focused narrative. It’s clear that this attention is new for the franchise, as it can get a touch cutscene-heavy, keeping players on rails for too long in some instances. You may wonder, “Since when is Pokémon a JRPG?” as your thumb almost gives out from A-press fatigue. Overall, however, the world is lush, and the characters characterful (though the questionable caricatures of street-dressed “troublemakers” could have been done without).
More technical differences include changes to battle systems, such as the “Call for Help” move for wild Pokémon, allowing them to call another Pokémon to battle at their side when under duress. This means that many encounters overstay their welcome, and savvy trainers should keep repels in their bags at all times.
A more welcome addition is the effectiveness indicator for moves in the battle interface. While in previous games it took an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of type-relationships (Psychic moves are super effective against … Fighting? Ghost? Steel?), Sun and Moon logs the effectiveness of each type against a certain Pokémon after its first encounter. This is a relief for many who, even after 20 years of exposure, still find themselves Googling what will best take down a certain type of Pokémon.
All-in-all, fans of battling, wonder-trading, and scratching their Pokémon behind the ear will still find things to love in the game, and for many, the changes in Sun and Moon are a refreshing reinvention of a classic formula. It may be initially jarring to veterans, but it is an attractive option for those who have been away from the series for a time to return. It is not the blow-away game of 2016, nor does it seem to have the staying power of Ruby and Sapphire, but it’s enjoyable. Pokémon games are their own beasts, and hopefully Sun and Moon is a show of further changes and things to come for the franchise.
Nintendo / 3DS / £35 / 7+
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