I was so tempted to begin this review by describing what a huge role Pokémon played in my childhood, but I had to stop myself — because honestly, what person my age can say they weren’t obsessed with the franchise when they were young? I will admit as much to this, though: while others claimed to “outgrow” the wiles of the collectible creatures, I’ve dutifully returned to each entry since those formative years with Pokémon Red & Blue, totally unable to shake the Poké-fever out of my system.
There’s something inherently comforting about the series’ infectious cheeriness and predictable formula, even though that latter bit has really started to wear out its welcome in recent years. That’s why I’m so excited to report that Pokémon Sun And Moon make more strides to streamline and switch things up than any entry in years; this is the most fun I’ve had with the series since the Black & White games made similar changes six years ago.
Part of what makes me so thrilled about this new pair of games is that, once again, some significant effort has gone into the narrative. While the Pokémon multimedia empire as a whole isn’t exactly known for compelling stories, the games have had some unforgettable journeys into darker and more mysterious places that — while undeniably slight — inevitably capture the imaginations of younger players.
Remember the implications of rival Silver’s relationship with his father, Team Rocket mob boss Giovanni, explored in HeartGold & SoulSilver? How about the dark and twisted tale of Team Plasma and its central figures, N and Ghetsis, in Black & White? That latter continues to be my favorite Poké-tale even after Sun & Moon’s offerings, but what we have here comes very close. After the crushing boredom of Team Flare and Lysandre’s nonsensical, tedious plans in X & Y, we at last have another set of villains worthy of the player’s contempt — and since I don’t dare spoil anything, suffice it to say that this game comes up with some truly wacky things for them to do.
Thanks to these story improvements, Pokémon Sun & Moon makes getting through the obligatory opening a lot more interesting. I still wish the franchise would have the confidence to let younger players learn things on their own, or at the very least allow older and more experienced users to skip past a lot of the hand-holding segments, but alas — that’s not one of the improvements in this pair of titles. Thankfully, the rest of the story on what’s new is a lot stronger.
The 100+ new creatures offer a lot to love; personal favorites of mine include Mimikyu and Lycanroc. As an added bonus, the new Alolan forms of old friends are mostly ridiculous in the best possible way (I still haven’t quite stopped laughing at Alolan Dugtrio). The basics of the series — catching and battling — remain largely unchanged in their addictive nature, albeit with a few meaningful additions. The battle interface is now a lot more organized and easy to use, with helpful new buttons that tell you at-a-glance what moves do and what effectiveness they’ll have on your foes.
These might seem like small improvements, but perhaps that’s the biggest news about Pokémon Sun and Moon as a whole: a collection of little changes and additions add up to a much stronger, more streamlined adventure. The world map on the bottom screen is more detailed and offers up objective markers; you’re given the option to switch a newly-caught Pokémon with one in your current party if it’s full, or send it to a Box; and at long, long last, those pesky HMs are gone forever, meaning you won’t have to take up useful slots in your party or beloved creatures’ movesets to traverse the world.
Other alterations may seem bigger, but I wouldn’t say they shake the very foundation of the series so much as they freshen and enliven it. That goes for the strange and mysterious Ultra Beasts, bizarre Pokémon with codenames that the villainous Team Skull are obsessed with, as well as the new “island challenges” that replace the series’ longstanding gym battles. This latter addition, which involves a multi-step series of trials rather than a puzzle-and-battle-filled building, was particularly welcome for me (I’ve been arguing for the replacement of gyms for quite a while now).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t all that impressed with the new “Z-Moves,” which are essentially equivalent to the summons of old Final Fantasy games — their animations are stunning, to be sure, but bludgeoning enemies with ultra-powerful attacks has never been as interesting to me as taking them down with careful strategies.
In terms of graphical prowess, visual appeal and character design, Pokémon Sun and Moon are the strongest entries yet. It’s wonderful to see the 3D chibis of the X & Y games make the leap to fully-proportioned characters and worlds in just a few years, and the sights are all the better for it. This is a wonderful game to look at, from the Hawaii-inspired setting of Alola to the adorable characters that inhabit it (I’m looking at you, Professor Kukui). Perhaps even better is the attractiveness of the user interface — beyond being easier to use, as detailed earlier, it’s also a lot more stylish and organized than what we’ve seen previously.
Music-wise, Pokémon Sun and Moon continues from X & Y in that it represents a bit of a departure for series conventions. While most other entries have used the sort of simple, jingle-esque earworm tunes that come with the limitations of simple sound chips, Sun and Moon’s tracks offer a bit more complexity in their composition. A lot of what’s here will sound familiar to fans — the unforgettable Pokémon Center motif is still there, and the majority of the battle themes are high-energy and repetitive — but for every enjoyable predictable track, there’s another that’s off-the-wall in an interesting and new way. Team Skull’s theme, for example, includes a bunch of distorted rap-style vocalization over thrashing hip-hop drums; while rival Hau’s sunny battle tune blends ska guitar and surf drums with an infectiously cheerful melody. It’s nice to hear such a blend of the expected and the unexpected, to say the least.
Pokémon Sun And Moon are the strongest entries in the series in a long time. Longtime annoyances like HMs are gone at last, and the series finally eschews the tired formula of gym battles in favor of fresh new island challenges. Alola’s Hawaii-inspired setting is a joy to explore, too, bringing color to a series in dire need of a diversity upgrade. I wish the games didn’t take so long to get started, and I would have appreciated a good deal less hand-holding, but once things open up they offer a good deal of fun and freedom. Whether you’re a lapsed fan wanting to jump back into the wonderful world of Pokémon or a lifer who can’t wait to get their hands on the new creatures, this is one iteration that’s not to be missed.
This review is based on the 3DS-exclusive Pokémon Moon version of the game.
Pokémon Sun And Moon feel like the freshest new iterations of the series in a long time. They're not complete reinventions, but they do finally fix a number of problems that have plagued the franchise since its inception.
Pokémon Sun And Moon Review