- Release Date (NA): November 18, 2016
- Release Date (EU): November 23, 2016
- Release Date (JP): November 18, 2016
- Publisher: The Pokémon Company
- Developer: Game Freak
- Genres: Role-playing
Aloha! Or rather, Alola
Did you know, the Pokémon regions of Hoenn and Sinnoh were actually both chains of islands? Well, if you didn't know, that's probably because the games didn't really specify or promote that little factoid. Pokémon Sun and Moon constantly and lastingly do the opposite; every aspect of the lore and environment come straight out of real-world Hawaii. Obviously contributing to this archipelagic emphasis is our new region's title, also used as a customary greeting between citizens of the beautiful Alola islands.
I respect the real adherence to theme presented in these titles. Though the Pokémon designs themselves aren't all indicative of the region's location, most geographical features stay true to the volcanic island theme. The (perhaps overused) mountains overlooking the ocean, the grassy meadows, and the sandy beaches are really fresh environments when compared to the often urban-centric themes of previous titles. Other than the central city, most villages are fairly rural, and have a thematic attachment to Hawaiian traditions. Consistency in the titles' designs is a definite plus which helps engage the player.
But now that we're on the topic of presentation, there is some bad news. I believe that the 3DS is able to process fine-looking titles with the right amount of tweaking and balancing by the developers-- take Kid Icarus Uprising as a good example. A healthy balance of graphical impressiveness and performance is necessary to create an absorbing experience. Unfortunately, Pokemon Sun and Moon achieve neither.
My first complaint is in reference to the character animations. Most character movements look lanky and unnatural. Even the main character's walking animation looks like a Barbie doll with spaghetti for arms is sliding across a newly waxed floor. The horribly low resolutions of the models look overly enlarged, especially on an XL screen, to the point where you can count pixels on the edge of their clothing. Each model is, for some unknown reason, traced by a nasty-looking black outline which makes no graphical sense and makes most models look significantly worse.
Nor does the performance excel as a result of these low-quality models; any battle involving more than two Pokémon makes the framerate drop like a rock. The special animations for Z-moves are brought down by constant framerate drops. Triple and rotation battles were completely yanked from the game presumably due to the poor performance of the graphical engine, and the stereoscopic 3D feature is entirely absent. I know Pokémon was never exactly the gold standard in terms of graphical fidelity, but these shortcomings in presentation are too large to overcome, especially when you consider how the performance affects the gameplay and the whole experience of the titles.
Hold my hand
Pokémon Sun and Moon's introduction seems to last the entire game. Firstly, it is reluctant to let the player, well, start playing from the outset. A full hour of unskippable cutscenes with annoying roadblocks and hand-holding moments really prevented me from getting excited, nor did they really grab my attention like the beginning of a video game ought to. It's only one facet in a sea of many shortcomings which I attribute to an over-reliance on the Pokémon brand name by the titles. After this grueling hour or so of mandatory introduction to the major concepts as well as a full outline of everything you'll be doing in the game, it seems as if the title sets you free for a little while to explore the island, encounter wild Pokémon, and enjoy the ambience. But every five minutes or so, the game is sure to pull you back in with some ridiculous side quest, given by the side characters who annoyingly show up just to stop you from getting to the next major objective. Even the Pokédex has a mouth on it this time around, narrating what your next move should be at all times with objective markers and pestering comments.
I found myself wishing the game would set me free. I've already spoken of my admiration for the plentiful thematic elements and the creative universe; what I don't understand is why Pokémon Sun and Moon are so reluctant to let me stray off the beaten path, or just stop to smell the roses or admire the view. Focusing intently on the player's linear progression while also halting it every five minutes for a meaningless side quest is just a bad model which almost never works well in such an open-ended game like this. One amazing pro I haven't even mentioned yet is the removal of grid-based movement. Full control over the character in a 3D environment feels great in a game like this, but it also serves to make the forced linear progression seem even more restrictive.
Enough about general freedom, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of the battle system and the gameplay changes made by Sun and Moon. In terms of battle, I found myself singing the same tune. Most new elements in battle are either small, negligible additions which really fail to broaden the system as a whole, or "logical" additions which serve to hold the player's hand to an even more extreme extent than present in previous games. Z-Moves are a new addition, touted in favor of Pokémon X and Y's Mega Evolution system: once-per-battle techniques activated by a crystal corresponding to move types, which power up an attack or make a new powerful attack of their own with a fancy new animation. It's not really anything more than a one-hit KO in most situations, and fails to evolve the battle system in any real way.
Certain very practical and needed additions are present, including a shortcut to Pokéballs on the main battle menu as well as the option to place captured Pokémon directly in the player's party and the ability to choose which box to deposit them in. However, the majority of additions are included to either artificially lengthen otherwise mundane fights or hold the player's hand through the already mind-numbingly easy battles. For example, a new feature is the ability for wild Pokémon to call for help, which activates an overly long animation and drops another full health Pokémon down, just to spite the player already annoyed by the increased encounter rate. An example of a hand-holding addition is the ability to see a move's effectiveness against the opponent on the battle screen, removing the previously-sacred concept of type charts and remembering them. I guess kids these days can't handle basic memorization?
Hawaiian rollercoaster ride
One place where Game Freak hit it out of the park was the music composition. The songs are all very thematic, upbeat, and a real pleasure to listen to. It's definitely the best music in a Pokémon game to date.
Another strong aspect of the title are the new Island Challenges, replacing the Pokémon Gyms of the past. Each island has a thematic "challenge" associated with it which usually involves completing various puzzles and objectives and facing off against a powerful opponent near the end. It's really not that different from Gyms when you think about it, but the environments are well designed, and they now actually reward you at the end with a Z-Crystal, significantly powering up your arsenal.
More new features include the mediocre Battle Royal mode, replacing the now-defunct and sorely missed Triple and Rotation battles. QR codes and more nifty online features allow for a bit more lasting interest after the game is finished. The "Pokémon Amie" system from X and Y is once again present but in a new, expanded form which allows for various groomings to be done once a battle is finished. All these and other additions are relatively minor and don't really broaden the experience as a whole.
Lastly, we examine the concept of difficulty which always seems to slip out of Game Freak's grasp. I realize the target audience of Pokémon games, but it's stunning to think how progressively easier the series gets with each passing rendition. As always, the player's starter Pokémon is usually enough to beat nigh every opponent in the game by itself. Catching other Pokémon is really a novelty as opposed to a legitimate way to expand your team, as the "Exp. All" makes it trivial to clear everything with your starter while other Pokémon passively gain experience. Any concepts whose purpose might have been to add difficulty are horribly artificial, such as wild Pokémon "calling for help". Pokémon Sun and Moon are really mind-numbingly easy, and not in a way which allows you to just have fun. You are forced on a linear track which is nowhere near difficult enough to be engaging yet too restrictive to have fun and explore. It's really not right that mashing A will get you through the bulk of the title, regardless of whether or not the target audience is children; at least get creative with the easiness.
- Great atmosphere
- Fantastic music
- Good practical additions
- Obnoxiously linear
- Poor graphical design
- Poor performance
- Mind-numbingly easy
- Too much hand-holding