It’s hard to believe that Pokémon is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Over the last two decades we’ve been introduced to a diverse cast of characters and upwards of 700 different Pokémon to catch and train across six different regions. From humble beginnings in the Kanto region to the splendour and beauty of the Kalos region, Pokémon has been a series I’ve always loved even though the basic gameplay formula never really changed. The newest games in the series – Pokémon Sun and Moon – are different however. They mark the beginning of a new era for Pokémon and provide a refreshing breath of fresh air in more ways than you may initially think.
• Developer: Game Freak
• Publisher: Nintendo
• Reviewed on: Nintendo 3DS
• Release Date: Available Now
Pokémon Sun and Moon are set in the sunny region of Alola – based upon modern day Hawaii. You begin your journey as a young boy or girl who has just moved to the Alola region from Kanto (the region from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow). Alola itself is very different but similar to regions in previous games at the same time. You’ll be given a starter Pokémon at the beginning of the game and you’ll assemble a team of Pokémon by catching them in tall grass, but there are no Pokémon gyms to earn badges from this time around and the Pokémon league is initially still under construction too. Instead you’ll undertake the island challenge, which sees you hopping between the four islands of Alola taking on various island trials set up by a captain. These trials see you solving puzzles, battling various wild Pokémon, collecting hidden items and much more. They’re more intimate and involved than a traditional Pokémon gym battle and you’ll need to face off against a massively powerful foe – called a totem Pokémon – at the end of the trial in order to progress.
Once you’ve managed to clear all of the trials on an island you’ll be able to take on a grand trial where you take on an island kahuna. The kahunas are as close as Pokémon Sun and Moon come to having gym leaders. They’re strong trainers chosen by the Tapu – legendary guardian Pokémon who reside on each island – and you’ll need to beat them in order to progress to the next island and move the story forward.
Sun and Moon also feature Pokémon Refresh which allows you to feed and groom your Pokémon after battle in order to heal status conditions and build bonds with them. Pokémon that have a good bond with you are likely to go above and beyond in battle such as negating status effects and also holding out from fainting which can be really useful. Pokémon can be fed Poké Beans which can be obtained from the café in Pokémon centres or by growing them on Poké Pelago – a place where the Pokémon you have in storage can find items, grow berries and even level up in their own time.
However, one thing long time players of the series might notice is that Pokémon Sun and Moon do take substantially longer to get into than previous Pokémon games. The beginning of the game is rife with tutorials on how to catch Pokémon, how battles work, how to use items, the use of a Pokémon centre and much more. There’s over an hour of exposition to get through which can be frustrating for someone who knows the basics of how Pokémon works, but it’s understandable as Pokémon Sun and Moon may be drawing in a whole new demographic of players after the success of Pokémon Go. During battle you’ll also be able to see which moves are effective, super effective and not very effective which will also help newer players find their feet as well as guide veterans who might have forgotten specific Pokémon types.
The overall story of Sun and Moon is thoroughly enjoyable and a lot more dark and sinister too. You’re introduced to characters such as your rival – Hau – and your companion – Lillie – early on in the game as well as Professor Kukui, who researches Pokémon moves. All of the characters have distinct personalities and you really grow to love them after a while. Lillie in particular has a lot of character development and grows significantly by the end of the game. Another first for the series is that Sun and Moon have pre-rendered cutscenes. They’re incredibly well done and there aren’t too many of them to get distracted by either.
Little additions such as characters and trainers appearing behind their Pokémon in battle and issuing orders are a nice touch that I absolutely love.
Like previous games, Sun and Moon have very little different in the way of gameplay and story except from certain Pokémon being exclusive to each game and the day/night cycles being inverted in each one.
There’s also the traditional evil team this time around as well, but things aren’t quite as clear cut with them and their motives this time. Team Skull are gangsters and troublemakers through and through. They’re not interested in world domination or destruction like previous teams such as Team Galactic or Team Flare and they offer a lot of comic relief too in their actions and dialogue. Then there’s also the mysterious Aether Foundation who have built a conservation paradise for Pokémon on an artificial island. There are a lot of plot twists and unexpected moments as well as a lot of familiar faces which long-time fans will recognise too.
The story and the game are also complimented by one of the best soundtracks in a Pokémon game to date, taking traditional Hawaiian music and making it distinctly Pokémon themed. A lot of the soundtrack also features lyrics – another first for the series – and this is mostly prevalent in the Team Skull battle music.
Other tweaks include the complete removal of hidden moves – or HM’s – such as cut, surf, fly and strength. Previous games required you to teach your Pokémon these moves in order to help solve puzzles or fast travel. HM’s couldn’t be easily removed from Pokémon however with you having to wait until a specific point in the game to undo them. Most of them were completely useless in a Pokémon battle too.
This time around you’re able to call in ride Pokémon to help you. Tauros can be used to get around quicker, Charizard can fly you to any location you’ve already visited and Lapras/Sharpedo can let you traverse over water. These ride Pokémon can also be mapped to the D-pad for quick access too.
Speaking of the D-pad, it can’t be used for movement anymore. The 3DS circle pad is exclusively used for movement now and the 3D grid based movement from the likes of Pokémon X/Y and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire is a thing of the past, you can roam around without being confined. Whilst these past 3DS titles also use the same engine as Sun and Moon, the new games feel like a refinement of it. Environments are fully 3D and feature a lot more verticality and character models don’t feel as chibi inspired anymore.
Sun and Moon add in around 80 new Pokémon to the mix which takes the grand total of monsters to just over 800. As well as the new ‘mons there are over 200 Pokémon from previous generations to catch as well as new Alolan variants of classic Kanto Pokémon which have different designs and types. The grassy areas where you catch Pokémon have a bigger variety than ever before too. The first route after getting your starter Pokémon has over ten different species to catch alone as opposed to the previous two or three .
One of the biggest new additions to Sun and Moon are the Z-moves. Touted as a replacement for Mega Evolution – which still exists in Sun and Moon – these powerful attacks can only be used once per battle and the Pokémon you wish to use one on must be holding a Z-crystal corresponding to a type of move your Pokémon knows. Z-crystals almost act like badges from previous games as they are awarded by various NPC’s and by completing trials. There is a Z-crystal for every Pokémon type as well as some that are exclusive to specific Pokémon such as Pikachu. Z-moves can turn the tide of a battle in an instant and are incredibly flashy and a great way to show off.
There are also a variety of online features to partake in as well such as the festival plaza where you can meet up with friends and other players to trade and battle. Pokémon can be offered up for trade in the GTS, but you can continue playing and come back later to find out if someone has accepted your offer. It makes catching em’ all a lot easier.
Once you’ve completed the main story there are still things to do around Alola such as taking on the Battle Tree which sees you battle consecutive trainers to see how far you can get. You can also team up locally with a friend and take on the Battle Tree together. The further you get the bigger the challenge and the better the rewards. There is also a post-game storyline that sees you travelling the islands with familiar characters, but to outline it here would be verging on major spoilers.
There’s only one minor and one major fault that I’m able to find with Sun and Moon, but they’re not really enough to ruin what is otherwise the best Pokémon game in years. The games have introduced what is easily the most frustrating piece of gameplay in the series. Wild Pokémon are now able to call for help which can make catching them even more of a pain. When two wild Pokémon are on the field you can’t throw Poké Balls, but when you manage to take out the helper Pokémon another one will almost always be called in. In one case I had a wild Pokémon call in 10 helpers before finally deciding to give up out of frustration.
The major fault with Sun and Moon is from a technical stand point. Old models of the 3DS such as the one I use suffers from a massive amount of strain on the CPU as the framerate tanks in double battles when there are 4 Pokémon and 4 trainers for the game to render. The older 3DS system itself also heats up a lot after extended gameplay sessions which can be rather alarming. Sun and Moon are absolutely pushing the 3DS systems to their limits.
At the end of the day, Pokémon Sun and Moon are fantastic entries in the series. Not only that but they could definitely be the best since Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow. There are so many little refinements and tweaks to gameplay and the story and characters are something to get highly invested in. It feels refreshing to have broken away from the traditional Pokémon formula and it makes Pokémon Sun and Moon feel completely unique. You couldn’t ask for a better Pokémon game to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series with and if you’ve never played a Pokémon game before then Sun and Moon are a great place to get started.