As Pokémon fans dive into the seventh generation of befriending monsters, the series moves in a new direction and has would-be trainers island hopping on the newest outing. Fret not, though: you’ll still be catching fluffy creatures in tiny balls, only letting them out to brutally fight one another.
Pokémon Sun and Moon takes place in the island region known as Alola and brings with it a few new changes – some of which veteran players will greatly appreciate and others they could’ve probably done without.
At its core, you’re still a young (this time 11 years old as opposed to the traditional 10 in previous installments) Pokémon trainer on a mission to be the best around, but this time instead of taking on gyms around the nation you’ll be competing against island trials headed up by captains and the even more talented Kahunas.
If it wasn’t already painfully obvious, Game Freak and Nintendo have done their best to really push the island theme in Sun and Moon, and mostly with great success. As a long-time fan of the series, starting when I was six and still playing two decades later, I have to say travelling around islands and taking on trials was a nice way to consistently push the story forward without making the experience feel too formulaic.
In previous installments I’d got so used to the storyline, travel, fight gym leader, rinse and repeat equation that it almost seemed to be the only way for the series. Luckily, the change was one that quickly made sense to me, and always has plot and character development close at heart. If you’re fighting a captain, it teaches you something about the lore, or reveals an important piece of dialogue – rather than just, “Gimme that shiny badge because I need to be the very best or whatever!” It’s small changes like these throughout that help Sun and Moon bring its own personality to the table.
Another positive change was the decision to do away with HMs all together. Instead, the new Poké Ride feature allows trainers to call upon ‘mons that aren’t in the trainer’s party. Now you can take to the skies, trample over rocky terrain, cut through Alola’s waves and even smash boulders to pieces with just the touch of the d-pad.
While it seems like a small change, it has a big effect on the overall management aspect of Pokémon. This way you’ll never have to dip into a creature’s precious move pool or even devote a slot of your six-member team that only knows HM moves, also known fondly as ‘HM mules’ (I’m looking at you, Mew).
These minor changes also successfully bleed into the mini-game portion of Sun and Moon.
Poké Pelago and Festival Plaza are both features accessible through the start menu, and offer items to players that are relevant to the main game. Poke Pelago is my favorite of the two and is as simple as touching the screen in order to collect Poke beans, a form of food that can be used to make monsters on your team friendlier. These beans also happen to fuel each individual island in the mini-game (five in total), where trainers can cultivate berries, catch new Pokémon, find evolution stones, train monsters in their PC and harvest more beans daily. I’d be lying if I said I spent anything less than three hours in my total play time of 37 hours playing these mini-games — not bad for such a minor part of the experience.
I would be remiss not to mention Pokémon Sun and Moon’s soundtrack, which might be one of the best to date. The game’s songs not only match the island atmosphere but also add just the right amount of intensity when it’s needed. Throughout each installment, I typically fall in love with about two or three tracks, but Sun and Moon has had my head bobbing along from start to finish, and I’ve never played without my headphones in because of this reason.
Although Pokémon gave me plenty of reasons to be happy, it also had a few setbacks that need to be addressed.
Firstly, Sun and Moon introduce a new battle mechanic that could have used a bit more fine-tuning, especially in regards to the “call for help” mechanic employed by wild Pokémon and trial boss monsters. While its use during boss fights are completely warranted and add a much-needed layer of difficulty that the game mostly lacks, it also adds another, far more annoying layer of complication while in wild encounters. To understand just why it is such a pain, you need to know how it works.
Whilst in the midst of battle, wild Pokémon can call for help at the end of their turn, which summons an additional animal to their aid. It’s not always successful (thank God) but when it does work, it never fails to act like a thorn in your side, primarily because if you were planning on catching either monster, you have to wait until the other has fallen in battle.
This is where the next issue comes about: after one of the Pokémon is dispatched, another can just as easily be called upon at the end of that turn, giving the trainer no chance to act. In other words, it’s a crap shoot. This means that some unlucky soul has had to wait more than ten turns just to throw a Pokéball at a possible capture — all the while taking attacks by one or two creatures, and therein lies the problem. A monster can both attack and call for help in the same turn, so if the game just balanced the issue out by making the defender do one or the other, the mechanic would feel a heck of a lot more fair. As it stands, it just feels like you’re taking damage, giving a little back and praying nothing comes to the aid of a struggling ‘mon (a feeling that both makes me feel like a bad person and a bit of a bully).
Other than making me feel like a bad person, Sun and Moon are also a bit lacking in their storyline development. Don’t get me wrong: there are emotional moments that took me by surprise and let me get behind the motivation of a character. It’s just that those moments are few and far between and, quite honestly, mostly reserved for the final ten minutes of the game. Again, if anything, this gives me hope for more fleshed-out stories in generations to come; I just wish we could have had that now.
Something else I wish we could have had more of in Sun and Moon is well-designed Alolan Pokémon. For the unaware, Alolan Pokémon are generation 1 monsters with a fun, new island-themed twist, which the game describes as a “habitat-assisted change to the appearance or typing”. For example, the Fire type Vulpix is now Ice type and evolves into a Ninetails that is both Ice and Fairy. This design is an incredible change in contrast to some of the poorer variants, such as a Dugtrio that looks like it’s formed a 70s rock trio, a Grimer that looks like it found its way into a paint factory, and a Persian inspired by the comic strip cat himself, Garfield. While I do respect Nintendo’s efforts to appeal to their older players, I just wish they had tried a few more Alolan forms out, because as they stand they’re very hit or miss — mostly miss.
Despite these few small problems, Pokémon Sun and Moon are still able to captivate players from start to finish, and will always have trainers moving toward the next trial, collecting as much they can and forming bonds with their teams as they get closer and closer to the inevitable final battle. If that’s not the aim of each successful Pokémon game, then I don’t know what is.
Despite some misfires along the way, Pokemon Sun and Moon are still the addictive, monster-catching adventures we've been waiting for.