20 years on, everyone’s still into catching ’em all! Pokémon hasn’t gone anywhere since its introduction back in the 1990s. In fact, it’s only gotten more prevalent over time, and we’ve seen the franchise grow and evolve into one of Nintendo’s strongest, most collectable pillars. The mindblowing popularity of mobile spinoff Pokémon Go earlier this year only helped to secure Pokémon’s place as one of gaming’s premier series, and now we’re seeing the release of another hotly anticipated entries (for 3DS) with Pokémon Sun and Moon.
Welcome to Alola! This tropical island chain is a vacation hotspot around the world, but more importantly it’s your new home. Alola is a region steeped in tradition, and you’re going to partake in one of those traditions by going on a journey around the islands with Pokémon by your side in an effort to complete the Island Challenge. This might be a great spot to take some time off, but that doesn’t mean the Island Challenge is a walk in the park; you’re going to have to deal with vicious wild Pokémon, villains like Team Skull and maybe even other no-goodniks waiting in the shadows…
In a surprising twist from, well, pretty much every other Pokémon game, Sun and Moon don’t have your character traveling around the region challenging Gyms. Instead, your goal is to collect Z-crystals from around Alola, taking on Island Captains and Kahunas along the way. Z-crystals are typically found after completing Trials, mini-dungeons where you’ll typically have to solve a short puzzle and defeat a boss – a powered-up Totem Pokémon – before you can claim your prize. The lack of the series’ usual Gym-focused storyline is a nice touch and makes Sun and Moon feel a little more nonlinear and open; that’s an illusion, of course, as your explorations are still gated behind story progress, but it’s a nice touch regardless.
That’s not the only interesting change that Sun and Moon bring to the table, though. Those Z-crystals I mentioned? Yeah, those aren’t just status symbols. By having your Pokémon hold then and using the power of the Z-Ring, a bracelet you obtain early in your quest, you can empower your Pokémon to perform Z-Moves. These are fantastic, cinematic attacks that deal out loads of damage or have other unique effects, but you can only use a Z-Move once per battle. They add a nice layer of strategy onto Pokémon’s battle system (which was already surprisingly deep) since you’ll need to decide when to use these moves and also if it’s worth having your Pokémon hold an item that doesn’t have any effects outside of Z-Moves.
Other changes revolve around quality-of-life issues that Pokémon has been saddled with for years. Long-time fans will rejoice when they discover that Hidden Machine moves, typically used for map navigation by teaching them to a Pokémon, are gone! They’re replaced by a number of Pokémon mounts that provide similar effects, ranging from a boulder-smashing Tauros to a Lapras that replicates the Surf ability. Hidden Machines were always a pain in the butt, acting as artificial limiters to a Pokémon’s move set that couldn’t easily be removed, so their absence is a breath of fresh air.
The more intense players out there will also be pleased to find that it’s finally possible to adjust a Pokémon’s Individual Values, or IVs, which are the “genetic” factor determining a Pokémon’s potential. A lot of the painful grind involved in becoming the very best, like no one ever was, can be removed by not having to endlessly breed Pokémon while seeking just the right stats.
Naturally, Alola is jam-packed with Pokémon both old and new. Personally, I’m pretty fond of the new faces and found myself using several on my team as I progressed through the game; you’ll also see new takes on old friends as the extreme climate in Alola results in classic Pokemon like Raichu and Vulpix taking on Alola Forms. Alola is pretty fond of unusual type combinations, it seems; you’ve got a new Poison/Fire combination in Salandit and Salazzle, an Ice/Fighting in Crabominable and even one of the starters bucks tradition by becoming a Ghost-type as it evolves. I ended up becoming especially good pals with Mareanie, a sea urchin with an interesting gimmick that lets it rack up critical hits against poisoned opponents. I found that the Alola region’s type diversity encourages slightly more creative team composition throughout the game, since the series’ standby badasses might not be as badass when their weaknesses are more readily available.
A couple of my few complaints with Sun and Moon lie in the new Pokémon roster, though. For one thing, the Speed stat is almost universally low in Alolan Pokémon, meaning that they rarely get to go first in battle; this is a critical consideration in both competitive play and later in the game’s story, where you’re fighting powerful opponents who need to be addressed before they can strike your team down. Another quibble is that several of the Alolan Pokémon have unusual evolution requirements that aren’t available until many hours into the game, meaning that if you happen to stumble upon one of those guys and add them to your team, you’ll be stuck with a less-than-great party member who can’t reach their full potential.
Finally, I can think of at least one or two Pokémon I had trouble finding at all thanks to the unusual requirements to make them appear, but with guides readily available now that’s not as much of an issue.
Something must also be said about the game’s boss battles. Unlike previous games where pretty much every serious fight was against another trainer, Sun and Moon go in a new direction. As mentioned, you’ll have to take on Totem Pokémon during your Island Challenge; these are more powerful foes that come with built-in status bonuses and can call on pals to help them out. More significantly, later in the plot you’ll find yourself taking on some other unusual creatures that, uh…without spoiling anything, they might not really be Pokémon at all, which is a new concept to the series that’s bound to get you stoked to progress through the plot.
Sun and Moon look great, of course; they stick with the full 3D engine we came to know and love in Pokémon X and Y. The places you’ll explore in Alola are gorgeous, you’re able to customize your trainer to your liking and the new Pokémon are all charming and interesting. Another of those little complaints pops up when we’re talking about the game’s presentation, though: the poor 3DS struggles to keep the game running at an acceptable framerate at times. In particular, Sun and Moon are fond of multi-participant battles, and these can cause the proceedings to chug horribly. Most of the time the framerate’s fine and everything looks wonderful, but when things get bad, they get really bad. One would assume that the rumored Nintendo Switch Pokémon game would address that…
Nuts-and-bolts nitpicks like that aren’t enough to take the wind out of Sun and Moon’s sails, though. These are, without question, the best the series has been in years…and that’s saying something, since X & Y, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were all fantastic games in their own right. Pretty much every improvement made to the series is present and accounted for here, from a vastly boosted experience curve to readily available multiplayer that encourages trading and battling with friends and strangers alike. Sun and Moon’s new region, interesting story, great graphics (when the framerate is cooperating) and shocking depth and breadth of content all work together to make this one of the best games out there.
Long story short, whether you’ve been a fan of the series since you were a kid or you’re just starting to explore the Pokémon world thanks to the whole Pokémon Go fad this summer, you can’t go wrong with Pokémon Sun and Moon.