Ever since its inception 20 years ago, Pokémon has been the main seller of Nintendo mobile hardware. Fans young and old flock to their portable devices in droves for every entry. But for all the fanfare and goodwill the series amassed over two decades, there’s a feeling of sameness. Pokémon Go helped buck that feeling by completely changing the game while bringing in new fans as well. Now, all eyes are on Game Freak as they head into their first post-Go game with Pokémon Sun and Moon. This is the perfect time to take inspiration from its smart device counterpart and inject some much-needed changes to freshen up the formula. Clearly, that timing was perfect, because this is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon title in a very long time.
The new direction is apparent right from the start with an actual cut scene. Players are plopped in the Alola region, a series of disconnected islands in the vein of Hawaii. As a young child who moved into the region to start a Pokémon adventure, trainers are thrusted into the world of legal animal fighting. But before you can profit off the pain of your super-powered pets, you actually need a pocket monster or two. That’s when a professor who doesn’t wear a shirt under his lab coat greets this young child and his mother by just walking into the house. Even though he just barged into this single mother’s home, he’s welcome for some reason – I guess his casual lab attire makes him trustworthy. During this visit, he talks about getting this trainer to see the village elder to get a Pokémon. Unfortunately, he’s nowhere to be found, and during the search, the island’s deity Pokémon rescues the trainer to be, so that means this he’s special or something. While this is the start of your Pokémon adventure, it’s also the beginning of a side story involving the professor’s assistant and her Pokémon.
While the narrative is still very cookie cutter, it’s presented in a way that’s new for Pokémon as a series. Pokémon Sun relies heavily on cinematics, more than ever before. Cut scenes are prevalent, and plot points are more than just text boxes. It’s refreshing to see so much effort put into changing up the formula.
The job of the player, however, remains the same. Fill out the new Pokedex powered by an actual Pokémon while also completing the new take on gyms, the Island Challenge. This is an interesting change up on what is a pretty essential part of the Pokémon formula. Instead of going from city to city, fighting gym leaders and winning badges, players perform different trials set up by captains. These trials can vary from defeating a set amount of Pokémon, or locating items, things like that. At the end, you fight a “Totem Pokémon” (a large, super charged creature) in a boss fight of sorts. Don’t worry, there still are gym battles, but in a much looser sense, and they still fall under the guise of trials. At the end of the trial, Pokémon masters receive a Z-Crystal instead of a badge. Z-Crystals are another new addition to the game; they activate a series first Z-Move, which is pretty much a special attack where players can unleash super-charged moves for the full effect. Once the trial is complete, and trainers get the new Z- Crystal, they are deemed strong enough to move to the next area.
This is my first big issue with Pokémon Sun – its hand holding. Pokémon has never been a hardcore RPG, but it’s still an RPG. It’s hard to feel that I’m part of a huge adventure when it is so linear. Maps follow very specific trails with little chance to deviate, and you can’t move past literal barricades until you complete trials. RPGs are supposed to be big, open adventures, and while Pokémon Sun feels big, it is far too streamlined. But that’s not very new for the series.
Still, the world is easier than ever to move through with the ability to call on Pokémon to ride. This isn’t completely new to the series, as riding Pokémon has been part of the franchise since its inception. However, that was always reserved for either the water or air. Now, players can call upon land Pokémon to ride. From the start, players are given a Tauros, whose charge is strong enough to break rocks that dare stand in its way. It’s a nice addition to the game that eliminates the need for a bike or roller blades, which again makes this feel like a new direction in the series.
Continuing with this new line of thinking, the process of initiating battles changes in Sun. Trails are filled with NPCs, some looking to battle, others looking to talk. In the past, there was no way to differentiate between the two. Now, when you walk past another trainer, your screen changes. Black lines cut across the top and bottom of the screen, and everything gets a little darker the closer you get to a character looking for a fight. Even battles with Pokémon are a little different. Pokémon in tall grass can now charge at trainers, and bird type can initiate combat outside of tall grass swooping in on unsuspecting adventurers. Touches like this buck the trend of past titles, but sometimes they aren’t completely refined. At one point while playing, two Pokémon attacked me one after another, despite standing in the same place with very little time between attacks. It felt like I was being punished for checking a text on my phone.
Thankfully, the battle system is still familiar even with its new additions. In the middle of battle, Pokémon can call a friend to drop down and help. While this is very prevalent in Totem battles, it does happen with regular, run-of-the-mill Pokémon as well (they just have less of a chance someone will answer their plea). This adds a bit more intrigue to any battle, but for the most part, the Pokémon that answers the call of duty is severely under-levelled, making it easy to make quick work of them. I use the term “quick” very loosely here because it makes the frame rate drop to an embarrassingly slow chug. I played on an original 3DS, so perhaps that was the cause for this issue, but whenever there were three Pokémon on a screen, it felt like the game couldn’t keep up. There were times when even going into a regular battle, old hardware might cause issues. The frame rate on pre-battle animations before the Pokémon would appear on the screen would drop completely, and that issue was prevalent outside of battles as well.
Pokemon Sun also boasts a new online feature called the “Festival Plaza”. In this area accessed in the options menu, players can interact with other trainers through local wireless communication or the Internet and they can trade or battle. By meeting with NPCs, doing tasks, and battling, players can gain Festival Coins to spend on the minigames littered throughout the land. They serve a purpose though, these help trainers upgrade Pokémon or get items that help them grow faster. As a social platform, it’s a pretty ingenious way to keep people playing and coming back.
And I can see myself picking this game up a lot. For the first time in a long time, Pokémon feels fresh, and some occasional frame rate issues won’t change that. This is the accumulation of all the small steps the series implemented over the years mixed with legitimate leaps by Game Freak. Pokémon Sun captured me in a way the series hasn’t since the first time I popped my first Pokémon game all those years ago, and much of that is because of these new changes. While it can feel a little linear at times, there is something magical about the start to any Pokémon adventure, and that’s what makes Pokémon Sun so great. This is the title for those who grew tired of the franchise or felt it stagnating.
For those who haven’t felt the series needed change, this is still a strong Pokémon game, and quite possibly one of the best titles in the Pokémon line.