Pokemon games are nothing if not formulaic. Pokemon Red and Blue were released in North America 18 years ago, and subsequent games have largely felt like iterations on the structure of those initial titles. Little improvements were made here and there along the way, but for the most part, the core of Pokemon stayed the same. Now, in anticipation of Pokemon’s 20th anniversary, Nintendo has released Pokemon Sun and Moon in an effort to give us something that feels both like a Pokemon game and a fresh start at the same time. For the most, it’s successful in doing so too.
Version tested: Pokemon Sun
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Price: $39.99 MSRP
The fact that Pokemon Sun and Moon are different from their predecessors is obvious from the moment you start. Gone are the truncated openings where you quickly receive your starter Pokemon from the region’s professor. Instead, you’re greeted with the early stages of an actual story that involves more than just becoming a Pokemon Master and defeating this entry’s evil organization along the way.
It’s a refreshing change of pace, because it makes the characters that populate Sun and Moon’s Alola region feel a little less one-dimensional than the NPCs that came before them. This is especially true for the characters of Professor Kukui, Lillie, and your rival, Hau.
The trade-off, though, is that the opening hours of Sun and Moon can drag a little more than the beginning of other games in the series. Not only is there more of a focus on character development, but Sun and Moon changes the structure of the games as well, replacing traditional gyms with island trials and gym leaders with captains and kahunas. This all needs to be explained to players, which means that Sun and Moon get off to a slow start.
Still, this really only lasts as long as the first island, and once you leave it, the game begins to hold your hand less. Consider the first island in the Alola region as something of a tutorial area, where the new concepts found in the game are explained to you before you’re given free reign. There’s a lot to get through too, as Sun and Moon offer quite a few changes to Pokemon’s tried-and-true formula.
The most obvious change comes in the disappearance of gyms. In Sun and Moon, you have to prove yourself as a strong Pokemon trainer by completing a variety of trials. Some of these will be given to you by captains, while others will be given by kahunas. While Pokemon battles are still at the heart of many of these challenges, you’ll also have other objectives to complete. Some trials end in battles with Totem Pokemon, which have more defense than their more standard counterparts and can call in help from other wild Pokemon.
Calling for backup is an ability all wild Pokemon have, not just Totem Pokemon. This adds an extra layer of difficulty to the game, especially when a wild Pokemon attempts to call for help every turn. This new feature is both a success and a frustration at the same time. The extra difficulty is appreciated in a series that has been notoriously easy, but if you’re just trying to get from point A to point B and you keep encountering wild Pokemon that continuously call for help, it can be annoying to say the least.
Luckily, some of the routes in Pokemon Sun and Moon seem to be laid out in a way that allows you to avoid most of the patches of tall grass on return visits. This gives you more control over whether or not you encounter wild Pokemon, which is an great addition.
Another excellent change comes with how Sun and Moon handle hidden machines – known as HMs to many. In previous games, HMs taught your Pokemon moves that were required to traverse the environment. Those moves could be used in battle, but the problem was that only a few of them were actually good. Since each of your Pokemon can only have four attacks at any given time, having one of those slots taken up by a move you’ll only use in the overworld was frustrating.
To counter this, many players would often catch a Pokemon that could learn a variety of HM moves, leaving the monsters they actually wanted on their team free to fill all four move slots with attacks that would actually see use in battle. But even that method wasn’t perfect, as it meant players would only be able to take five viable Pokemon into battle with them
In Sun and Moon, hidden machines don’t exist anymore. Some of the stronger HM moves like Fly and Surf have been turned into technical machines, and the player is given a number of Pokemon they can summon and ride to traverse the environment. If you need to fly somewhere, you’ll summon Charizard and pick your destination from the map. If there’s a body of water you need to cross, you’ll hop on the back of Lapras and go for a swim.
These Pokemon can be summoned at any point in the overworld and don’t take up an ever-important spot on your team. For the first time ever in the Pokemon series, you play through the game with a full team of six Pokemon who don’t know a single HM move between them. That is a beautiful thing, and Game Freak’s approach to rideable Pokemon is an very clever solution.
The way Sun and Moon handle trainer battles is the best in the series as well. Now there’s no more guessing if an NPC you encounter in the overworld is a rival trainer or one who exists simply to give you information. When you’re nearing a trainer who will challenge you to a battle, you’re given an on-screen alert. You can then step into their line of sight or talk to them to initiate the battle.
This is a small change, but it’s a huge help because it takes the guesswork out of exploring the routes that connect towns on each island – something that is infinitely handy when your team is in shambles and you just want to find a Pokemon Center to heal them up.
Z-Moves are a new additions that allow your Pokemon to let loose on your opponent with an absurdly powerful attack. They can only be used once per battle and, much like Mega Evolution from X and Y, require that your Pokemon hold a special Z-Crystal. Z-Moves look great when performed in-battle, and they can shift the tide of a fight that isn’t going your way.
You aren’t the only one who can use Z-Moves, however, as powerful trainers who will only battle you once you’ve defeated all the other trainers on a certain route have access to them too. Watching an NPC trainer score a one-hit KO against you for the first time is a jarring experience, to say the least, but it’s exciting that NPC trainers can offer that level of challenge.
Pokemon Amie from Pokemon X and Y is returning in this game, changing its name to Pokemon Refresh. With Refresh, you can pamper your Pokemon and feed it items called PokeBeans to make it more affectionate toward you. The higher a Pokemon’s affection is, the better it will do in battle, capable of doing things like shaking off status ailments such as paralysis and poison, dodging attacks that would have otherwise hit, and earning extra experience. Refresh is unquestionably an improvement over Pokemon Amie, as it doesn’t require you to play boring and time-consuming mini-games to earn more food for your beloved monsters.
This review may seem a little disjointed thus far, but that’s because so much has changed that it’s hard to talk about it with any kind of structured approach. Sun and Moon are games that simultaneously feel familiar and fresh, keeping the Pokemon gameplay we know and love but making a large number of changes, most for the better. Nearly every improvement Game Freak and Nintendo have implemented make Sun and Moon more fun than the games that came before them, and even though many of them are small, together they make a strong statement about the future of the series.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Pokemon Sun and Moon look great, either. If Pokemon X and Y were the stepping stone meant to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D Pokemon games, Sun and Moon are the games where Game Freak’s vision for 3D Pokemon is fully realized.
There are no more awkward overworld sprites – the models used in the overworld are the same ones used in-battle. This offers a level of cohesion that simply isn’t present in other Pokemon titles, and Sun and Moon stand out among its predecessors as a result.
Character and Pokemon models are only one part of the equation, though. Thankfully, the rest of the world looks just as good. The Alola region is possibly the most aesthetically pleasing region yet, and each island features visually distinct routes and cities that are great fun to explore. The days of straight routes connecting cities are gone, too, with the routes in the Alola region twisting a turning, offering multiple paths and hidden areas to explore.
I’m also very pleased with the new Pokemon found in Sun and Moon. Alola forms are welcome reimaginings of classic Pokemon, and the brand new monsters are (mostly) excellent as well.
Sure, there’s a Pokemon called Gumshoos who looks little too much like Donald Trump, along with a Pokemon that is nothing more than a haunted sandcastle, but the number of eye-roll inducing new designs seem to be at a minimum with this new group. In fact, I’d say that this is the strongest roster of new Pokemon we’ve had in the past few generations.
Even though there are a lot of positive things about these games, they aren’t without their faults. As I said above, the story starts off slow, and the ability for any wild Pokemon to call for help can be annoying, particularly when you’re trying to catch specific Pokemon that keeps bringing friends into the battle.
Though the story is solid as far as Pokemon games go, it can’t really be considered excellent or captivating. Sun and Moon also seem to be too much for the 3DS to handle at times. During double battles – or times when more than two Pokemon are participating in a scuffle – the game seems to lag, which is surprising. I’m playing on a New 3DS and even that can’t keep the lag away at points.
While I’ve yet to really dig into post-game content, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot for folks who aren’t interested in the meta game. I’m also sad to see that Friend Safaris – one of the coolest features found in Pokemon X and Y – haven’t returned in Sun and Moon. I thought that Friend Safaris were a great way to not only find fellow Pokemon players, but also to fill out your Pokedex. It’s a real disappointment that the concept didn’t carry over to Sun and Moon.
At this point, I’ve spent many paragraphs on Sun and Moon and I feel like I still haven’t scratched the surface of what makes these games great. There are so many little changes that come together to make Sun and Moon feel like a real improvement over their predecessors. At times, it can be difficult to take stock of all that’s changed since just X and Y.
Yes, these games have flaws, but for every misstep Sun and Moon take, they take three steps forward. Z-Moves are an excellent addition to the game, and presence of an actual story is a refreshing change of pace. Features like the Festival Plaza and Poke Pelago are great for when you want a break from the action. Participating in island trial is much more exciting than traveling from town to town just to conquer gyms. The list of everything great about Sun and Moon goes on and on, and it makes me excited to see what Nintendo and Game Freak do next.
Before that happens, though, I have plenty more time to spend with Sun and Moon. A new feature called Hyper Training means the competitive meta-game is more accessible than ever, and I view that as a good thing. It may be too early to make such a call at this point in time, but I have a feeling that I’ll be spending more time with Sun and Moon than I have with any other entries in the series (and I’ve played a lot of Pokemon, let me assure you of that).
It’s clear that Nintendo wanted to create something special for Pokemon’s 20th anniversary, and in attempting to do so, it’s delivered the best pair of Pokemon games since Gold and Silver. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing Pokemon for two decades or you’re a newcomer to the series, Pokemon Sun and Moon won’t disappoint. Ten years from now, they’ll be considered two of the best 3DS games ever created.