Ekans see clearly now
Pokémon Sun and Moon isn’t meant for you. At least the current you, that is. The you who started out playing these pocket monster games two decades ago, and who stuck by the series through thick and thin. The you who has now become an adult, jaded and responsible for raising a more lifelike brood of monsters.
But Pokemon Sun and Moon is the game that you wish you had when you first started out exploring the various regions of that weird world. It is a tonal reboot that wants to focus on attracting a newer and younger audience to its shores and help secure handheld dominance for another twenty years. It’s not the best Pokémon game (LIKE NO ONE EVER WAS!), but it’s certainly a step in the right direction as it overhauls the mechanics behind a familiar system of battle monsters in your pocket.
And that’s because Pokémon at its aforementioned best is when you play it as a hyper-quick. Fast-paced battles, over within two to three turns and then onto the next battle. On the surface, it’s still the same game then. You’re still playing an elaborate JRPG of rock-paper-scissors but with a dozen and a half variants, you’re still thrust into a wide world and left to your own devices between plot threads and you’re still collecting them all.
Throw in a mysterious Pokémon who leads the way through to a bigger plot, a team of misfits to plague you every step of the way and it sounds like the usual Pokémon formula. But it’s not, it’s so much more than that. What Pokémon Sun and Moon excels at this time, is restoring a sense of mystery to the franchise.
Gym battles are gone, replaced now with Island Trials and Kahuna battles that very rarely follow a tangible formula. This time, you’re tangling not with mighty regional gym leaders but rather the Totem Pokémon of their islands, bulked-up brutes who’ll give you and your team a run for their money with a proper challenge at any level. Combined with various tasks handed down to you by the trial captains, and Pokémon Sun and Moon feels remarkably fresh on a technical level.
Where Pokémon Sun and Moon does falter however, is that it perhaps holds your hand slightly too hard during the midst of all this. There’s the obligatory setup for the game that explains all of its mechanics, a two hour slog that’ll have veterans tapping A as quickly as possible so that they can get past and roam the hills looking for new Pokémon to enslave I mean befriend yes that.
The boys Arbok in town
Your patience is once again tasked with an annoying pair of companions who show up to move the story along every five minutes it seems, slowing down the pace outside of battle tremendously. Listen, I get that one of the core values of Pokémon is friendship. There’s nothing wrong with that that and it’s a good lesson to teach your kids. It’s just that I’d rather spend my time being friends with cosmic lion from another dimension, not tweens who annoy me at every turn.
But when it comes to gameplay? Pokémon Sun and Moon may be the most polished entry to ever be released, and the changes that it brings with it will be felt for generations to come. Everything has been streamlined here and augmented, with the more visually demanding Alolan Islands necessitating such changes. HMs are a thing of the past, now replaced by a Page Rider which can summon friendly Pokémon to help you past obstacles.
Wild Pokémon can summon help during battle, generation one favourites are back with a slick coat of Alolan paint and combat now includes a heavy emphasis on Z crystals. While Mega Evolutions may be relegated to the days of X and Y, Z moves are their worthy successor. Imagine an elemental crystal raised on a steady diet of WWE and then attached to your relevant ‘mon of choice, and you’ll get the idea here.
Right Z Crystal, right Pokémon and you can unleash an Earth-shattering finishing move once per battle to help turn the tide on a battle that may not be going your way. It’s a new wrinkle that once again gives battles a feeling of the unpredictable while looking gloriously over the top when used. But more than that, Pokémon Sun and Moon does a stellar job in making your squad of pocket monsters feel valuable.
There’s a higher emphasis this time on caring for them, grooming them after battles and curing any ailments using new tools on the touchscreen. Small, but subtle additions that make you want to stick with the Pokémon that you find along your journey. I’ve had an Umbreon since the Generation 2 days, having traded him up with every new generation and lovingly used him in every run at the Elite Four.
I’ve got a lot of love for that Umbreon, but dammit man, Pokémon Sun and Moon is a masterpiece at making me split my affection with my new zoo crew. It gets even better with new hubs to explore in Festival Plaza and the Poké Pelago, zones filled to the brim with useful content and that further encourage a social safe space to hang out in. I’m almost 30 hours into this particular Poké adventure, and I’m still discovering new secrets within this massive new entry.
And I could wax on even further. There’s a lot of content on offer here, but the gist of it is that Pokémon Sun and Moon is a familiar but brave reinvention of the formula. It tends to slow down when you’re forced to continue the tepid story, but it’s the franchise at its very best when you’re left to wander over yonder.
Game Freak has once again gone above and beyond in packing as much content as possible into this seventh generation title, a handheld experience that could give other bigger-budgeted games on home consoles a lesson in rewarding players with value and fun. The Alolan Islands are a joy to explore, the visuals are crisp and of the more than 80 critters available exist some of my favourite designs of all time.