It’s hard to believe that, at the start of this year, I had little interest in playing Pokémon again, still happy with my nostalgia for the franchise and to see it represented in Super Smash Bros. alongside some other games that had gained my attention, like Fire Emblem and Xenoblade. Yet here we are, at the end of 2016, with me doing a review of Pokémon Moon after having spent several months catching up with three generations of the game while also playing a remake of the third generation (still not got to the first gym yet, but I’ll get there eventually!), replaying the first generation and dipping back into the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise (no luck on the remakes of the second generation, but I’ll get to that sometime in the future, I’m sure!). To say this has been the best year for the Pokémon franchise since the original wave of Pokémania back in the late 90s/early 2000s is probably an understatement of epic proportions!
Still, as any fan of the franchise would be able to tell you, Pokémon never really died out once Pokemania stopped. To most people, Pokémon stopped being a thing when the second generation came out (maybe the third at absolute latest), so it might be surprising for a lot of people who haven’t been following the franchise to learn that, in addition to the three (or four, depending on where your cut off with the franchise is) generations of the games before the release of this generation, there has been many spin-offs of the franchise, including the earlier mentioned Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. The anime is also still ongoing (as are the movies, which have reached a quite staggering 19 movies since 1998!) and there is a trading card game which is still being made now. There’s even manga for the franchise which is completely standalone from the anime and cuddly toys available (heck, I STILL have a Pikachu toy I got when I was a kid sitting around the house somewhere)! While the quality of much of the stuff released to the franchise is up for debate, one would have to really stretch to say that the Pokémon franchise has returned, as it never really went away in the first place, it just didn’t get the mainstream attention it used to have.
Most of that, however, isn’t really that important to know, unless you’re particularly determined to catch up with everything in the fandom or have far too much free time on your hands and like to know huge amounts of information that isn’t helpful to most people (guess which one applies to me?). As the first game to come out in the Pokémon franchise to be released after the insanely popular Pokémon Go hit the world and coming with several changes to the standard Pokémon formula, we have to take the time to ask one question: how does this game hold up on its own merits?
Well…I’m a bit mixed on it, if I’m honest. I would definitely place it above Pokémon Black and Pokémon White in terms of overall quality, it is in no way a bad game and there’s a lot about it which works well (even the new features), but there’s still issues with it that I think hamper the game overall and I can see the appeal of the game potentially wearing thin over time.
Because of how much there is to cover, I’m going to focus on what has changed since the last generation before I move on to discussing how the usual elements of the formula hold up, as there’s a surprisingly large amount that is different from what the franchise has done in the main series over the years. As such, consider this an opportunity to get the lowdown on the new additions and main changes if you’re still on the fence about returning to the franchise and are wondering what has changed over the years.
One of the obvious changes from the previous generation is that the game does not go for an overhead perspective, instead going for a viewpoint that is somewhat akin to an elevated third person viewpoint. This is not an entirely new thing for the franchise as a whole (one need only look at the Pokémon Colloseum games for proof of that), but it is definitely new for the main franchise, which had generally stuck with 2D sprites and the occasional use of 3D modelling before the last generation (and even that stuck to a 2D grid unless you used the roller skates or bike and the circle pad, so it wasn’t a complete break from it). On that technical level alone, this is quite a change from what the main franchise has offered and whether you like it or not will really come down to whether you feel that the break from the franchise’s 2D roots is long overdue. Personally, I’m not all that sold on it overall, as it can be harder to find your way at points due to the angle and would have personally preferred that the game had stuck to a 2D grid, but I can’t deny that, objectively speaking, the shift is done well and works more often than not.
The next obvious change is the addition of Z-Moves. Probably the best way to describe them is that they are rather like one move Mega Evolutions in that you have to have your Pokémon hold a special item called a Z-Crystal and, if they are holding the appropriate Z-Crystal for the Pokémon or move type, you gain access to a special attack which you can use once per battle. I will admit that I like the tactical side to them and they are FAR more versatile than Mega Evolutions due to Z-Crystals mainly being type dependant, but they’re ultimately not all that different from Mega Evolutions, as the only major differences are that you can have them work for any Pokémon that has a move of the same type rather than just for specific Pokémon and they’re one use per battle while a Mega Evolution (even if you can only have one per battle as well) lasts until your Pokémon faints.
Another change is that there are no moves which have an impact upon the game outside of matches (like Strength of Surf). Instead, you can call upon Pokémon to do things like transport you across water or move boulders for you (and without having them be members of your party as well). While I will admit that I miss the old way of doing things on a personal level, I can’t deny that it is actually an improvement overall, as it means that you aren’t stuck with Pokémon for the sake of progress if they don’t suit your team makeup and aren’t potentially wasting move slots on moves which you might only need to use once or twice. It’s a good way to handle things and I actually hope this becomes the standard from now on with the franchise, as it is far more convenient overall.
Another, more subtle change is that you now get told on the move selection screen how your attacks will impact upon your opponent (but only if you have previously seen that Pokémon before). It’s a minor thing overall, but, considering how many Pokémon there are in the franchise now, it can be a godsend if you’ve had a memory blank on what a Pokémon’s weaknesses are or just aren’t sure what is the best Pokémon to send out against an opponent. I can see why longtime fans who can remember all of this stuff due to having gone through all of the games regularly might see it as unnecessary, but it is pretty helpful to everyone else and is especially nice to have when you meet the Alola forms of Pokémon, since many of them have different types compared to their original forms which might trip up even longtime fans the first few times they meet these Pokémon.
The Alola region itself is pretty interesting, but it does seem to have little variety of environments in comparison to the other regions and the number of new Pokémon (not counting the Alola versions of classic Pokémon) is pretty small overall, to the extent that it is pretty easy on a casual glance to assume that there isn’t really a lot to the region that is all that interesting to most people. That said, I don’t think Alola itself is a bad region: being focused around several islands gives it a vibe that feels a bit more exotic in comparison to previous regions (which makes some degree of sense when you consider the whole region is based on Hawaii) and there is some pretty neat design work across the whole region, with each island feeling large enough to encourage exploration while not being so large that it is easy to get stuck on routes for large periods of time. Oddly enough, the whole region reminds me of the original Kanto region games in this regard!
Interestingly enough, this is probably the most story focused game that the main franchise has produced to date. Let’s be frank for a few seconds, the main Pokémon games don’t normally have a real story going through them: while there IS story to the games, the only games which actually have a story which doesn’t feel like it goes out to lunch for large amounts of the game are Pokémon Black and Pokémon White. Here, though, there is always a bit of story driving you forward, whether due to the presence of the great supporting cast or through little distractions on the way to trials. Personally, I’m in two minds on this: on the one hand, it is nice to see the franchise actually try to tell a story throughout the whole game and it is competently told, but, on the other hand, it can feel a bit unnecessarily intrusive to the game at points and it is still basically going through the same motions of the previous Pokémon games when you really boil it down to the essential ingredients: get given Pokémon, gotta catch ‘em all, take out criminal team, become champion of the region. The only major difference is the “collect all of the gym badges through beating the gym leaders” part, and that spot is still technically covered by the island kahunas and the Z-Crystals they give you for completing their trials, so it’s not really THAT much of a difference.
Moving towards the more typical stuff…well, it’s still the same basic battle system as usual, really. Newer players will have to get their heads around the fairy type that first made an appearance in the last generation of the franchise and getting used to Z-Moves and Mega Evolutions (which aren’t part of the main game) might take some time, but the vast majority of the gameplay is still the same as it was back in the original games. So, there’s not really a lot to go over here unless you’re genuinely coming into the franchise for the first time ever with this generation of the franchise.
Still, for the benefit of those who have crawled from under a rock and are wondering what this game is about, then Pokémon is a franchise where you capture wild animals in devices and battle with them, using their types to determine their strengths and weaknesses against your opponent and deciding which six creatures with four moves available to them you wish to have with you on your travels. It’s probably best to think of it as a far more complex version of games like whist mixed with rock, paper, scissors, as the aim is to use the resources you have (in this case, your team) to defeat your opponent and the whole game operates on a battle system which is pretty much like the aforementioned card game, as you take it in terms to battle each other and how it all works out is based on a variety of factors like the strength of the attack, the match up of the type of the attack and the type of the opponent’s creature, the speed of the creatures (with regards to who attacks first) and a bunch of other factors like that. In more specific terms, it’s a turn-based strategy game which emphasises the interaction between appropriate elements to make victory easier.
So, with pretty much everyone on board, let me move towards the more personal critiques of stuff. For the most part, I think the character designs for the new Pokémon and the Alola versions of older Pokémon tend to lean towards the “OK” side of things: there’s no new Pokémon who I feel have designs as poor as that of Trubbish from gen 5, but there aren’t a lot of new designs that really stand out in comparison to the older Pokémon either, (with a few glorious exceptions, like Cosmog (aka Nebby)). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does feel like something is lacking a bit as a result to help produce some truly amazing designs. The actual human designs, however, are pretty great, with a couple of surprise returning faces to help sweeten the deal for longtime fans (anyone remember Professor Burnet? Game Freak does!). I suppose, if I had one criticism, it is that the region’s professor, Professor Kukui, doesn’t really LOOK much like a professor…although this is kind of par for the course since Pokémon Black and Pokémon White, so it’s not really a major criticism.
Oddly enough, the game is probably the closest the franchise has had to a game that celebrates the whole franchise. Even if you ignore the gen 3 remakes meaning that you could fill a lot more of the gen 7 Pokédex pretty easily if you wanted to (once Pokémon Bank becomes comparable with it in January, at least), you get nods towards gen 1, gen 2, gen 5 and gen 6 throughout the whole game (already a pretty impressive feat, considering Pokémon X and Pokémon Y focused a lot on gen 1 nostalgia), Pokémon from all generations of the game make appearances and there’s a general feeling that the game is tying together elements from outside the main franchise as well: you get the nods to the anime (indeed, one could argue that this generation is based on the Orange League arc of the anime, albeit to a minor extent), a few ideas from spin-off games sneak their way into the game (the ability to take pictures with the Rotom Pokédex is a nod towards Pokémon Snap, to name just one) and there’s a general feeling that the game is trying to offer a good balance between old and new here. I definitely would say that, in terms of what the franchise has done over the years, this is probably the best game that Game Freak could have made for showcasing that in one complete package while still avoiding coming across as a mere collection of random ideas.
In stark contrast to when I played Pokémon Y in my free time, I deliberately left the Exp. Share on in this game and, while I didn’t have any MAJOR challenges, I can say that the difficulty has stepped back up from the last generation a bit. Some of this is due to the game using the gen 5 experience system which means that you get less experience from battles where you are higher levelled than the opponent (which I wasn’t a fan of then and still aren’t, although, to Game Freak’s credit, it is MUCH better handled here), but there’s also more of a sense that the difficulty in general has been scaled up a bit and the end result is a game that is just challenging enough with the Exp. Share on to avoid coming across as too easy, but more than capable of providing a challenge if you wish by turning it off.
Ultimately, while I do think that there is room for improvement, I do think that Pokémon Moon is a rather solid game and a pretty good indicator of what to expect from the franchise as the next game in this generation (which I’m guessing will be either remakes of the gen 4 games or a third game called something like Pokémon Eclipse, if the previous track record with the franchise is any indication…actually, that’s a really cool title, someone tell Nintendo to make a Pokémon game with that title even if it isn’t a mainline game!). I wouldn’t call it the best game in the franchise, as there are too many issues which I feel drag it down to warrant that level of praise, but, taken as critically as possible, this is probably the best game that Game Freak could have made to celebrate the franchise on a purely mechanical level and, in spite of a few sticking points in the actual content itself and the lack of any major shakeup to a lot of strongly established conventions in the franchise, it still is a very functional game that holds up reasonably well and doesn’t really do anything that I’d say is particularly bad. It’s the sort of game that is equally worthy of being given the “for die-hard fans” label as it is the “for everyone” label, so, if you’re the owner of a working Nintendo 3DS and you like RPG games, then this is a pretty easy game to recommend!