Better late than never is not only how I feel about this review, but is probably how Ash Ketchum felt in that first episode of Pokémon we saw back in 1996 or 1997. Because Ash was late getting to Professor Oak’s lab, the three starters (Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle) were all taken and he was left with a surly Pikachu. A late start, a reluctant partner, and a lack of skill meant that by the time Ash caught his first Pokémon, the other kids from Pallet Town had probably gotten their first Gym Badges already. But that didn’t stop Ash from persevering and having the epic adventure of a lifetime to “be the very best, like no one ever was,” and we were right there with him, rooting for him every step of the way.
Like Ash, I was a latecomer to Pokémon Sun, but that didn’t stop me from playing and enjoying every last moment of this game, especially since Pokémon has played a huge part in my life this year. I spearheaded our Pokémon GO Perspectives feature earlier this year, one of the students I support at my day job is a fan who’s basing his multimedia school projects on Pokémon, and my most recent audiobook narration was a Pokémon storybook. So I knew it was my destiny to review the latest mainline Pokémon game for RPGFan.
Sun and Moon are set in Alola—a region inspired by Hawaii. I visited Hawaii for the first time in my life in the summer of 2016, and anyone who’s ever vacationed there knows full well that it is a beautiful and magical place you wish you could be at right now. This air of magical wonderment is why I, and others, get so into Pokémon; we want to live in that brightly colored world where we can have our own Eevees or Pikachus to go on grand adventures with. With reality being a killjoy much of the time, we want to explore flights of fantasy where the rulebook we know is thrown out the window and a flower (Bellossom) could hypothetically defeat a whale (Wailord) in a fight.
As with every Pokémon game since Crystal, players can choose a male or female avatar, and Sun/Moon offers some nice little additions to X/Y’s customization options. There are more skin tones to choose from during initial selection. I also liked that, when buying outfits, hats are an optional part of the ensemble. It bugged me in Y that I would give my avatar a stylin’ new do only to have to plop a hat on it.
Even though you are a new trainer in a new land with a new professor (the shirtless Professor Kukui, who seems to enjoy showing off his chiseled abs) and new starter Pokémon, there is plenty of familiarity as well. No matter where you go, Pokémon Centers are still staffed by the comforting, pink-haired Nurse Joy, who heals your Pokémon with a smile. Battles are still turn-based, and the rock-paper-scissors mechanics are simple to learn, yet difficult to master. The basic Pokémon tenets of going out to discover all the amazing creatures of the region, collecting them, and training them to take on various challenges are all here.
The journey differs somewhat depending on which version you play. The internal clocks for Sun and Moon are set 12 hours apart, so Sun players will theoretically explore more during the game’s daylight hours and Moon players will enjoy the game’s twilight. Of course, each version has several Pokémon exclusive to it, and some of the shared Pokémon, like Rockruff, evolve differently depending on the version. I chose Sun because I am a morning person and orange (especially sunrise orange) is my favorite color.
Alola has a few “laws of the land” unique to the Pokémon universe, and the one I like best is the “PokéRide” system. Gone are the days when you had to keep a Zigzagoon or Bidoof as an “HM slave” to harbor those obstacle removing skills, like Cut, that are necessary for exploration but often middling in battle. Instead, PokéRide lets you call upon a Pokémon to get to new places, as if you’re hailing a taxicab. For example, using your cell phone, you can call PokéRide to hail a Tauros and ride it around the land, also using it to smash boulders in your way. Conveniences like PokéRide make the journey much smoother than in prior games. This might sound crazy, but I didn’t even miss not having a bicycle. Considering that obtaining a bicycle is a rite of passage in a Pokémon game and I am an avid cyclist in my spare time, that’s saying something.
Another change is that there are no traditional Pokémon Gyms in Alola. Instead, there are a series of ventures called Island Trials to progress the game and gain clout in Alola. These trials involve battling aplenty, but some also have dynamic components that expand upon the modular elements of X/Y’s exploratory or puzzle-oriented gym facilities. It’s definitely a clever change that the Island Trials and Challenges are organic extensions of the environment that involve getting to know the land and its culture alongside the classic “king of the mountain” competitions to earn Z-Crystals (the Alolan equivalent of Gym Badges). During these island trials, players will face “Totem Pokémon,” which are Super Saiyan versions of regular Pokémon. These occasionally differ between versions. For example, the first Totem in Sun is a superpowered Gumshoos, yet in Moon it’s a superpowered Alolan Raticate.
The Island Trials themselves tend to spike and dip in terms of difficulty throughout the game, but it’s the encounters with wild Pokémon where things get the most dicey. See, wild pokeémon now have the ability to call for help, which summons another Pokémon to aid them. This “calling for reinforcements” tactic is nothing new in JRPGs, but it gets annoying. I wouldn’t have minded if this mechanic was only used during Trials or just by Totems, but a random enemy calling for help every other turn makes regular field battles incredibly wearisome. Why can they call for reinforcements but I can’t call one of my other Pokémon as a tag-team partner? Admittedly, this nuisance allowed me to build levels rapidly, and evolving a Magikarp into a Gyarados took surprisingly little effort.
Because Alola is an archipelago of islands separate from the mainland, many familiar Pokémon have slightly unfamiliar forms as a means of adapting to the new land. For example, Exeggutor is now a full height palm tree and not just a bush. It also has an altered typing (Grass/Dragon as opposed to Grass/Psychic). This really makes the Pokémon world as a whole, from Kanto to Alola, feel more organic and alive. Everything looks great thanks to the games wringing a little more out of the stellar graphics engine introduced in X/Y. I especially like that character models for the humans are more believably proportioned than in X/Y, where they had more chibi proportions. One downside to these lush visuals, especially during storyline cutscenes, is that some of the loading times are intrusive during transitions from gameplay to cutscene. Another minor downside is that the special moves, called Z-Moves, have lengthy animations, but it is possible to turn off battle animations in the options menu to speed things along.
Sun and Moon are cutscene-heavy games with a bigger emphasis on storytelling than usual for the series. I’m totally cool with that, because it really makes the game feel like an interactive anime show. On the other hand, more competitive players who just want to jump into the fray will likely find the lengthy, cutscene-filled intro that precedes getting that precious starter Pokémon downright maddening.
I will say that Sun/Moon has one of the best, if not the best, storylines in a mainline Pokémon game. I don’t expect Citizen Kane levels of storytelling in a Pokémon game, but Black/White raised the bar and offered an engaging tale with heartfelt characters. X/Y’s story was a step down from that, but those games were more about mechanical upgrades. Sun/Moon really excels in the story department, as the protagonist’s friends and rivals are some of the most colorful and well thought-out I’ve seen in a while, both in terms of personality and visual design.
Despite being set in the blissful tropics, there is an underlying darkness, indicating that paradise has skeletons in its closet. The tale presented here starts off innocently enough like any Pokémon adventure, but it develops a fair bit of moral ambiguity and is not afraid to address the crueler aspects of the Pokémon universe while still remaining kid-friendly. After completing the objectives in the game’s third island (of four), I was gut-punched by climactic story content that ramped things up to a new level of intensity for the series. The storyline enthralled me even beyond the bitter end, and I feel that adult Pokémon fans can appreciate it just as much as kids do.
It wouldn’t be a Pokémon game without a team of villains to make things difficult for our heroes. In the past, we’ve faced the likes of Team Rocket, Team Galactic, Team Flare, and several others. In Alola, we have Team Skull. Team Skull operates more like a thuggish street gang than a more elite mafia-type crime syndicate, and I found their poseur tough-guy stances and attitudes a hoot every single time I encountered them. Unlike some previous villainous teams, Team Skull’s members don’t take themselves quite as seriously and give off the “mischievous miscreants” vibe that Jessie, James, and Meowth embody in the anime. One of my favorite Team Skull interactions early in the game was when a pair of grunts, whom I’d trounced earlier, came back for revenge. They asked if I recognized them, the dialogue gave me a “Yes/No” choice, and when I said “No,” that messed with their heads in a hilarious way. I liked that throughout the game, there were sometimes goofy dialogue choices that led to amusing exchanges, allowing me to inject some personality into my avatar.
A major offline side activity lies in the Battle Royale arena, where four trainers battle simultaneously in a wrestling ring. The only time that was fun for me was the first time I went because of a plot point. Otherwise, Battle Royales didn’t really add anything particularly interesting to battling, and I found them cheap and frustrating. To be honest, I would have preferred that the Battle Royale arena be a Pokémon Contest arena instead, plot relevance be damned. Contests need to be featured more often in the mainline Pokémon series. I’m not talking the no-frills ones from earlier generations, but rather the lavish extravaganzas from Omega Red and Alpha Sapphire that mimic Dawn’s Contests in the Diamond and Pearl seasons of the anime. (Yes, I’m a Dawn fan and am aware of the “Dawn fan/ Donphan” pun.) Given how native Alola Pokémon are so colorful, like the Oricorio birds that adopt different forms based on the color flowers they feed on (e.g. the yellow one has a cheerleader motif, the pink one has a hula dancer motif), I was surprised at the absence of contests.
Although the main story-driven portion of the game kept me hooked, it’s the online component that attracts most players. The usual online content like trading and competitive battling is still intuitive, though building the valued EV and IV stats for competitive Pokémon is more tedious than it was in X/Y. Online interaction in Sun/Moon happens via a hub called Festival Plaza. This is something of a “town builder” where you can make your Plaza a hip hangout spot with various vendor stalls (including attractions for your Pokémon) and social mini-games called Missions for when you need a breather from the main game. My favorites were the stalls where I could dye my white garments different colors, and I hope future games expand on this to include, say, a shop where I can design my own T-shirts. Although Festival Plaza is sound in theory, there is room for refinement in its execution. In the early going, people I would encounter asked where they could eat, but I didn’t have the option to set up food stalls in my Plaza till much later on, so my guests were left unsatisfied.
Alolans like to talk about the bonds of friendship between Pokémon and humans, so there are some side activities to facilitate that. Pokémon Amie from X/Y makes a return as Pokémon Refresh, where you use the stylus and touchscreen to pet, groom, and give treats to your active party Pokémon. There is also a Care option following battles to clean up your Pokémon and/or remove their status effects. Doing this is intuitive, but sometimes stylus input when scrolling through the ribbon menu to give my Pokémon particular treats was sketchy. Other than that, the overall menu interface looks great and operates ergonomically.
The most involved of these non-battling side activities is Poké Pelago, which is available about halfway through the game. The Poké Pelago works like the Digimon Farms in Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth in that your Pokémon sitting in storage boxes can run around, play, train, and even go on secret item-finding missions at a lush outdoor facility. A nifty side activity is building more islands in your Poké Pelago so that more of your boxed Pokémon can engage in a variety of enrichment activities while waiting for their turn in your active party. Building the Poké Pelago isn’t as interactive as, say, the Pokéathlon mini-games from HeartGold and SoulSilver were, but it offers a pleasant distraction. That being said, I would have liked the option to do Pokémon Refresh-type interactions with my Poké Pelago Pokémon.
The superb soundtrack heartily offers the complexity and depth I expect of Pokémon music, but with a more lilting Hawaiian flair in select pieces. I’m always surprised at how Pokémon soundtracks remain so consistently pleasing, considering the sheer vastness of them. I would assume the number of music tracks in this game are on par with X/Y (whose OST had over 200 tracks), and not a single one displeased me. Even the intentionally annoying track for the value-oriented superstore chain sounded right to me, because it felt like a subtly clever way of mocking the corporate “Wal-Mart-ization” of otherwise charming places. My favorite pieces of music, outside of the battle themes, were the various Team Skull themes, especially the funky music that played whenever I encountered an operative in the field.
Despite my gripes (including a few frivolous ones I didn’t mention), Pokémon Sun and Moon are great games that take X/Y’s base and create a vivid new world with its own special culture and unique features. I hope the new PokéRide feature continues in future installments so I no longer need HM slaves. Conversely, I would also like to see future installments reduce, modify, or discontinue the annoying mechanic of wild Pokémon calling for help in battle. I would also like to see Contests make a dramatic return as well. Pokémon Sun may not have been my favorite Pokémon experience, but it was my most inspiring. After my time with Sun, I’m now inspired to attempt a Nuzlocke Run of Moon during the summer of 2017 and write a playlog of it for the site. It may not be another vacation to Hawaii, but it will be the next best thing.