Reviewer’s Note: I played through Pokémon Moon for this review. While there are version differences between Sun and Moon, they’re essentially the same game.
If you’ve been playing Pokémon for as long as I have, then you’ve come to expect a certain amount of predictability. Before Pokémon Sun & Moon, you could lay out the progression of each Pokémon title and see that they’re essentially the same game told in different ways. There are always three starter pokémon, eight gym leaders, an elite four and a champion; an evil organization bent on world domination, legendary god-like pokémon that are always supposed to be “the strongest ever,” and a pokémon that you’re sick and tired of constantly running into. These are several of the gameplay mechanics that have defined the main pokémon games for the past 20 years. Some, myself included, have been more than ok with playing these titles despite the obvious similarities. Others, either those who played only Red & Blue or skipped out on Pokémon entirely don’t see the appeal in playing mostly the same game. Each generation has brought something new to the table to keep things interesting, but not necessarily anything major. Even I’ll admit as a Pokémon fan that these games had become a science rather than an art.
However, Sun & Moon are not like the past generations of Pokémon titles. While particular franchise staples are still present, Sun & Moon breaks from tradition by either replacing key parts of what we’ve come to expect from Pokémon titles or changing them drastically. Sometimes when a franchise makes significant changes to its formula, it doesn’t work out for the best. Do Sun & Moon fall into this trap of changing too much and alienate both new and old fans? Fortunately for us, not only do Pokémon Sun & Moon walk the fine line between new & old wonderfully, it’s a huge milestone for the franchise.
Sun & Moon starts off like every other Pokémon game ever. You play as a kid who has just moved to a new region and almost immediately start their journey to become the best pokémon trainer the world has ever seen. This time the game is set in Alola, a Pokémon version of Hawaii complete with beaches, tropical weather, and vaguely Polynesian influences. You get your first pokémon and battle your rival, this time an almost annoyingly cheerful kid named Hau, and set off on your quest. This is normally when you would head off to the first gym, but veterans will immediately realize that this is when the big changes become apparent. Gone are gym leaders and gyms. Instead, you have trials, captains, and kahunas. This isn’t just a simple name change; these are very different events. Trials range from collecting ingredients in a forest for food to answering trivia questions based what you’ve played so far. At first, it seems a little gimmicky, but when you compare it to what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, you can’t imagine going back to the old way. Trials culminate in battling Totem Pokémon, super-powered versions of pokémon that can call in allies for help. These aren’t always easy fights and can catch any team off guard if not prepared for the situation.
Trials and Totem Pokémon are just one example of large formula changes. Field moves are a thing of the past and no longer do you need a Pokémon to serve as your “HM slave” to help you progress the story. Instead, you’ll call upon specific Pokémon to perform equivalent tasks. The battle interface has been streamlined allowing for more information to be displayed to the player for better decisions during combat. There’s also your Pokédex which now not only talks to you but also keeps track of story objectives
when should you get distracted. Then there’s perhaps my favourite addition to games, Z-Moves. What are basically Limit Breaks from Final Fantasy, Z-Moves are cinematic superpowered attacks that deal tons of damage. Unlike Mega-Evolution which was tied to particular pokémon, any pokémon can learn a Z-Move of a specific type. It’s these new gameplay mechanics and more that make Sun & Moon far more engaging than other titles in the franchise.
But new ideas aren’t limited to gameplay. The story of Sun & Moon has been overhauled too, at least as much as a story in a Pokémon game can. While past games have gotten more story driven over each generation, Sun & Moon are by far the most story driven games in the franchise yet. NPCs are filled to the brim with personality and are far more memorable than in past games. It’s also noticeably darker in tone, again relative to other Pokémon titles. That’s not to say the story is ground-breaking or anything, but it manages to both be an homage to the franchise’s 20-year history while telling a fun narrative complete with plenty of surprises (albeit incredibly predictable ones). Side note: Team Skull, this generation’s Team Rocket, is perhaps my new favourite evil group. They don’t have lofty ambitions, they’re not trying to take over the world, they’re just a bunch of thugs who want to wreck stuff. Plus they’re a joke in themselves about Pokémon bad guys, what’s not to love?
Speaking of the franchise’s 20-year history, both the story’s references to past games and the new Alolan versions of old pokémon are meant to serve purely as fan service to players like me. If you’re new to the franchise and worry that you’re not going to know what’s going on, don’t. Each Pokémon title has always been standalone, and while it might be more enjoyable if you got all the references, it’s still a blast without them.
But not everything is sunny in Alola. While the games introduce a new level of challenge that has been lacking in the past generations of Pokémon game, it’s still an easy game in parts. And while the story is more interesting than in previous games, the writing is rather mediocre. Not sure if it was a poor localization job or dialogue was merely lacking depth in several instances. And while the game is the best looking Pokémon game yet, the limits of the 3DS hardware are plain to see. Like could they have not had your character blink in cutscenes, seriously they look like an emotionless sociopath in scenes when everyone’s supposed to be sad.
But despite these minor complaints, the games are still some of the most fun I’ve had with Pokémon in a long time. I’ve finished the main story and have just started the post-game content, but there’s a lot still to do so I’m not putting this game down anytime soon. I’ll admit I was skeptical as to whether or not the new mechanics would be any good, but I honestly don’t think I can go back to the gym system in future titles. If you’re debating whether not you’d enjoy adventuring in Alola, I urge you to give it a go. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy your little spot of Pokémon paradise.