Marking the 20th year of the franchise, the buildup to Pokémon Sun & Moon has been a bit intense at times. As each trailer unveiled nuggets of information, the internet collectively went through all the emotions. Laughing at how silly the Water Starter looked, shock at the Alolan Forms for Generation 1 Pokémon, delight at the apparent removal of HMs, and so on. Yet even though we’re seven generations in, Pokémon Sun & Moon managed to surprise me.
For a series that started out as crude sprites on a Gameboy, it looks phenomenally good on the 3DS. Character models are now fully rendered on a 1-1 scale, meaning the models used in battles are the same as those found in the Overworld. Movement is no longer limited to a grid system, instead fully embracing 3D movement, which in turn makes the environments pop with life. With a battle UI that’s wonderful to look at and a soundtrack that’s occasionally spectacular, this is certainly the highest quality with which the series has ever been presented.
Yet while I sing its praises on looks, there are times where the 3DS just can’t cope with what’s on screen. I’m playing using the New 3DS with the improved processor, yet the slowdown in battles when things get busy is noticeable. What’s worse is that the game practically chugs to a crawl during the PokéFinder minigame, making taking the perfect picture difficult, to say the least. It doesn’t help that the photo quality is heavily distorted for those wishing to save the screenshots.
In perhaps one of the biggest shakeups in the series’ history, several key elements are now gone from Pokémon Sun & Moon. Chief amongst these is the structure of the main campaign which now has you taking on Island Trials. Instead of navigating through gyms before battling Gym Leaders for a badge, the Trial requires a specific condition to be met in a dungeon-like scenario. These range from finding and battling specific Pokémon to gathering items hidden in a forest.
After fighting a few Pokémon in each Trial, you’ll eventually encounter the Totem Pokémon; usually an evolved form of those you’ve fought against previously. These Pokémon tend to have a buff or two immediately and will most certainly summon other Pokémon to the battle to help out.
Provided you aren’t over-levelled, these tend to be very tense handicap matches that will test your skills as a trainer to the limit. It’s a great addition, though if you miss the traditional game structure, Island Kahunas act as pseudo Gym Leaders. Completing trials will net you a Z-Crystal of that Trial Captain/Island Kahuna’s type instead of the merely symbolic Gym Badge, which helps make progression feel like it matters more.
With the change of structure, Game Freak has evidently had more freedom to tell an overarching narrative that isn’t limited by series conventions. As a result, Pokémon Sun & Moon has excellent pacing throughout its main campaign. It’s a definite improvement from the frankly dull overarching plot in Pokémon X & Y, with a great cast of characters that ooze with personality.
Battles haven’t really changed beyond the addition of Z-Crystals. These held items can be allocated to multiple Pokémon and, when triggered in battle, give you the option of either performing the attacking Z-Move or a souped-up version of a move that would inflict status conditions. The power of the Z-Move depend on the Pokémon’s moves that share a type with the Crystal, helping keep things somewhat balanced throughout the game. Since you can only use one per battle, they’re essentially a trump card worth holding onto until the right moment, making battles more dramatic.
The new Battle Royal changes the status quo of battle quite significantly, playable both online, in local multiplayer and offline in the Battle Royal Dome. Instead of facing off against a single opponent or entering battles in pairs, a Battle Royal features four players all fighting for themselves in what could easily double up as a wrestling ring. You each pick three Pokémon from your group, with the match lasting until any one player has run out of Pokémon. You get points for each Pokémon you personally knock out and for each of those you have left standing at the end.
While online testing wasn’t available to us before launch, we gave Battle Royal a go in a local multiplayer session, as well as the Battle Royal Dome found in the main game. There’s a great deal more strategy to the battle, as you try to second guess what opponents are going to do, ponder whether you should gang up on the player in the lead, or simply cross your fingers that you get to deal the final blow and can sneak a point.
I certainly have my favourites among the new Pokémon introduced and some even include the Alolan Forms of the Generation 1 Pokémon. New moves and abilities change the game significantly, requiring the player to accept new concepts that were completely alien to the franchise beforehand. Sadly, this is about as much as I can say about the new Pokémon available, but rest assured you’ll most likely find your new favourites too.
Another big shakeup in how Pokémon Sun & Moon plays is with the Ride Pokémon. At various points throughout the story, you’ll be given Pokémon that can be called upon at any time that can deal with obstacles, replacing the HM system entirely. This not only dramatically improves the pacing, but also freedom to customise your teams without having a “HM slave”. It’s a positive step and one we hope the franchise uses from this point on.
There are some features that haven’t returned from prior Pokémon titles that I miss. For example, there’s no DexNav feature to help you search for Pokémon with Egg Moves that have already been learned, but there are some new encounter conditions, like being ambushed by Pokémon hiding in piles of berries, which helps to keep things fresh when exploring new areas.
What Pokémon Sun & Moon does include are plenty of ways to distract yourself from the main game. Pokémon Refresh is essentially a stripped down Pokémon-amie from Pokémon X & Y, except that in addition to building Affection between you and the Pokémon, you are able to heal status conditions here as well. You can access this from the menu, or you can press the prompt that appears when battles end to access it quickly. It’s a handy way of removing pesky statuses, though it doesn’t break the game by doing too much more than that.
Another new distraction is Poké Pelago, which is where your Pokémon now go when you store them in the PC. Here you can develop islands to attract new Pokémon to you via beans, grow berries, find treasure, and improve stats. While I’ve not done a great deal with this mode yet, the seeds have indeed been sown and it may prove fruitful in the future. There’s also the Festival Plaza where you build up shops and handle online functionality, though online play was not available to us prior to launch.
Pokémon Sun & Moon are undeniably a superior evolution to previous Pokémon games overall. It’s a little too much to handle for the 3DS at times, and steps away from certain innovative features, but the fact that the series has changed itself some much 20 years after its debut is as refreshing as sipping the water from a freshly opened coconut. If you can avoid any spoilers, difficult as that may be, Pokémon Sun & Moon eclipse all expectations.
Version Tested: Pokémon Sun
Disclaimer: The embargo conditions specifically stated to not use any online functionality for the Review period.