‘Pokémon Sun and Moon’ review

‘Pokémon Sun’ and ‘Moon’ is a trainer’s paradise if you want to be the very best

For the first time in years, the newest Pokémon games find a flavor all their own.
For the first time in years, the newest Pokémon games find a flavor all their own.
For the first time in years, the newest Pokémon games find a flavor all their own.

Highs

  • Creative new region
  • New versions of old Pokémon
  • Great interface and online features
  • Breeding is easier than ever
  • Breaks the Pokémon mold

Lows

  • Terribly vapid writing
  • Lazy, borderline offensive villains
  • Suffocating linearity and handholding

Pokémon Sun and Moon is the freshest and most different pair of games ever in a series that’s been maligned over the years for playing it safe. Yet these games effortlessly retain the factors that have kept Pokémon popular and beloved for two decades.

There are countless reasons to play Pokémon, but in the broadest possible terms there are three main categories within which most players fit. Many Pokémon players — maybe most players — simply want to go on an adventure; to experience the story, see new Pokémon, beat the Elite Four, and casually battle their friends.

The second type of player feels compelled to fulfill the series’ tagline, “gotta catch ‘em all.” They’ve loyally played every new generation of Pokémon game, from Red and Blue to Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and every time they have one goal: to fill up their Pokedex.

The third category — and the one to which I belong — is the competitive Pokémon player. We spend hours hatching eggs, poring over hidden stat values and meticulously planning team makeups and strategies, before putting it all to the test in battle.

There are annoying features and quirks in Sun and Moon that will annoy you or worse, no matter what kind of player you are. Interestingly, Sun and Moon feels like a major step forward for players looking to invest a lot of time and energy to the experience, either through collecting or competitive play. The primary game, however, where all of us have to start and where many players will walk away, feels overly simplified.

A whole new world

Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the new, Polynesian-style region of Alola, a place far different from any we’ve visited in past Pokémon games. Alola consists of four large islands that all have their own cities, wilds and landmarks. As you travel between them you catch Pokémon and battle Gym-leader-like captains who send you on a variety of “trials,” which prepare you for the big fight with the Kahunas who serve as each island’s ultimate challenge.

If you haven’t played a Pokémon game since the originals you’re in for some shocks, whether in the detailed, animated 3D Pokémon models, the ease with which you can trade or battle with anyone in the world, the sheer ridiculous number of existing Pokémon, or the complexity of modern Pokémon battling. Even if you’ve kept up throughout the years, though, Pokémon Sun and Moon are incredibly different from past iterations.

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Take something simple like locomotion. In every past Pokémon game you got a bike; In Sun and Moon, you call Pokemon with a “ride pager” and ride them instead. These also replace HMs, the moves in previous games that let you “surf” or “fly” around the environment. Tauros charges through rocks, while you fly from place to place on a Charizard you can summon any time, and more.

The change is a mixed bag; one that’s emblematic of the paradigm shift in Sun and Moon. On one hand, the pager make it much easier to get around, and frees you from dragging an “HM slave” with you just to get around. At the same time, there was an element of strategy to making sure you had the right moves on you before venturing into a dangerous dungeon or cave. The new system does not push you to think about your Pokémon team in the same way.

Simpler times

Most of the game feels a little too simple and streamlined. From the opening moments to the final story battles, Pokémon Sun and Moon coddle you and hold your hand throughout.

As fun and creative as the region of Alola is, Sun and Moon totally lack the sense of adventurous exploration earlier entries had. Your Pokédex, which is now possessed by a chatty ghost Pokémon, gives you precise directions to each new objective. Large chunks of the game feel like you’re simply being shepherded in straight lines between long conversations and long cut scenes, which feature boring and hopelessly sentimental dialogue.

Obviously with Pokémon there’s a need to keep things kid-friendly, but kids are not this stupid.

The Pokémon games have always taken place in a magical world in which incredibly powerful yet easily enslaved creatures are totally abundant, yet almost no one tries to commoditize or take advantage of them. The majority of people in the Pokémon universe are just good, even the bad guys, who all eventually realize the error of their ways when they see what an awesome trainer you are.

The writing in Sun and Moon feels even more vapid than in past games. Yes, (paraphrasing) “the strongest trainers are those who form an unbreakable bond of friendship with their Pokémon.” It’s certainly true that “the friends you make on your journey give you the strength to overcome any obstacle.” We get it. Obviously with Pokémon there’s a need to keep things kid-friendly, but kids are not this stupid.

Take the villainous Team Skull, a gang of full on idiots who speak only in dull, imitation hip-hop lyrics (actual quote: “Yo, check how I change the game with my mad Pokémon skills!”), dress like lame ‘90s white kids who thought they were “gangsta,” and have literally no purpose.

They show up now and then threaten to steal your Pokémon, and that’s basically it.

Previous Pokémon games’ villains had real swagger. Team Aqua were environmental terrorists who wanted to awaken an ancient Pokémon and expand the world’s oceans. Team Plasma’s goal was to free all Pokémon from their bonds of slavery. Team Skull has no goal and no identity, and their portrayal as dimwitted thugs who speak only in ebonics is at best tone deaf and at worst pretty offensive.

There’s also Team Aether, a group of Pokémon conservationists who you’re totally not supposed to suspect have a sinister side, despite the fact that the game opens an innocent girl running from them. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Once the main story is done and you’re champion of Alola you’re contacted by — no joke — the international police, who task you with hunting down the dangerous “Ultra Beasts” that entered the region during the main story. Honestly, that idea is way more interesting and would have made for a better story, but oh well.

Beautiful Alola

At the same time, Alola feels more alive than any of the game’s previous settings. The gorgeous Pokémon models, animations, and environments go a long way to bring that world to life. Charming details like the surfy new Pokémon Center music and Professor Kukui’s bare-chested lab coat make Sun and Moon feel like its own game.

Adding to that unique aesthetic is the game’s most novel idea, new regional variations on older Pokémon. Rattata, for example, in Alola has a sinister mustache and new “dark” type. Alolan Raichu, Pikachu’s evolution, is psychic in addition to the traditional electric typing and charmingly floats in the air while surfing on its own tail. The game’s lore includes clever explanations for these regional variants, and breathe new life into 20-year-old designs. That fantastic history is one of the best things about Pokémon Sun and Moon.

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Similarly, for players who care to look deeper, Sun and Moon takes time to answer questions about the Pokémon universe that fans have been thinking about for a long time through thoughtful, loving details spread across the Alola. Sun and Moon occasionally address heavier topics like death (both of Pokémon and of people). The residents of Alola also aren’t shy about the fact that some people eat Pokémon, though they tend to condemn Slowpoke tail soup the way we do shark fins.

Ever wondered what Pokémon do all day when they’re stored in the PC system? Sun and Moon finally answer that question with the “Poke Pelago,” an optional phone game-style feature that lets you collect items and reap other benefits at various real-world time intervals. Many players will likely neglect it, but if you spend some time upgrading the Poke Pelago’s islands and collecting the rewards you’ll find it slightly useful and, at worst, inoffensive.

Poké-moves

While the aesthetic changes are interesting, the changes that affect how Pokémon fight seem to lack imagination. In the wild, Pokémon can now “call for help” in battle, summoning an ally Pokémon that not only fights with them, but also makes it impossible for you to throw a pokéball. It makes catching Pokémon incredibly tedious, especially when they call for help two, three, four, five, or more times in a row.

New to your Pokémon’s arsenal are “z-moves,” extra powerful attacks that require Pokémon to hold a specific item corresponding with their specific moves. For a flagship new feature, Z-Moves don’t really change how you play the game, especially when compared with last gen’s signature feature, the “mega evolution.” Thankfully mega evolutions do return, albeit not until you’re finished with the main game.

Credit where it’s due

We have to give credit to Pokémon Sun and Moon’s massively improved interface and general presentation. Many of the needless complexities introduced in the previous two generations are thankfully gone. Playing with friends in the same room as you has never been easier: you simply both select “quick link” and touch your 3DS screens, and you’re automatically connected after a few moments. It’s so simple, it should bring tears to a longtime player’s eyes.

Multiplayer is so simple, it should bring tears to a longtime player’s eyes.

Its online features — including battling, trading and other interactions — are now handled in some imaginary space called the Festival Plaza. Granted, it’s odd that your character needs to be transported to another space before you can play online, but once you select “Festival Plaza” from your menu and arrive, there are at least massive “battle” and “trade” buttons on the bottom screen.

During normal play the bottom screen is occupied by a decently helpful map. The touchscreen also handles all menu functions, from choosing battle commands to moving Pokémon around in PC storage. Previous games struggled with this, sometimes letting players use the DS or 3DS touchscreen for important functions while relegating other features to the top screen and traditional buttons. It’s great to finally see consistency here.

For hardcore collectors, Sun and Moon add more than just new Pokémon to collect, thanks to the regional variants. Unfortunately there’s a temporary snag in the fact that PokeBank, the 3DS app that lets you transfer monsters between games, won’t work with the new games until January. That means any Pokémon that were obtainable only in past games can’t be imported to Sun and Moon until next year.

Not having the Pokébank will be especially frustrating for competitive players, since breeding powerful Pokémon is highly dependent on having good stock from which to draw genetics. Not being able to transfer all your “synchronize” ability Pokémon or your high-IV Dittos from past games is going to make the first couple of months with Sun and Moon a little slower than they need to be.

The beautiful details

That problem, however, is only temporary. Sun and Moon is ultimately a net-gain for hardcore competitive breeders and battlers, thanks to some new improvement made specifically to cater to that aspect of the game. You can now check a Pokémon’s IVs — its crucial hard-coded base stats — directly from any PC. And all the improvements made in previous generations, like the Destiny Knot’s generous new function (introduced in X and Y), and the ease with which egg moves can now be passed down, remain.

Every time a dead-eyed character says something stupid, you meet a new Alolan version of an old Pokémon and smile.

In fact, Pokémon’s “hidden” abilities — often more powerful than their normal ones — are easier to obtain this generation than ever, thanks to new tactics like “ally chaining.” And in battle Pokémon’s temporary stat changes, like those caused by Swords Dance or Dragon Dance, can be tracked on the bottom screen along with the turns remaining for temporary effects like weather and terrain changes. The interface even tells you how effective a move’s typing will be before you use it. That’s progress.

Ultimately a lot of my complaints with Pokémon Sun and Moon are either trifling (I can’t buy any actual pants for my character, only capris and shorts) or temporary (the story is bad, but although some might care more, all I really want is to get to the endgame anyway). And there’s plenty I love about this new generation, including all the countless ways it deviates from the formula.

Our Take

For many, a new generation of Pokémon is an instant buy. And that’s for good reason: These games have, for 20 years, been unbelievably consistent in their greatness. You can sink hundreds of hours into these, as fans have with every past generation. In that context, any complaints ultimately amount to nitpicking.

Still, for every frustrating or disappointing feature or line of dialogue there are two more that are just as imaginative and enjoyable as you want. Every time a dead-eyed character says something stupid, you meet a new Alolan version of an old Pokémon and smile. Even if the PokéBank isn’t currently compatible there’s more than enough to keep most players busy until it (hopefully) launches in a couple of months. And although z-moves are a disappointing addition to the battle system, many of the smaller changes combine to make the game better overall.

Is there a better alternative?

With an unbelievably complex battle system that’s evolved over 20 years to be one of the most rewarding competitive gaming experiences in existence, no. There is no better alternative. But if you’re looking for a decent story or good writing, yes, there are many, many better options.

How long will it last?

I played for more than 50 hours before I’d completed the main story. Competitive players, or those determined to “catch ‘em all” may pump several hundred hours into breeding, training and battling online.

Should I buy it?

Yes. If you are now or have ever been a Pokémon fan, Pokémon Sun and Moon are worth whatever time you care to devote to them, despite some some unfortunate flaws. You’ll enjoy these games if you can look past the lackluster story and handholding, or if you’re the type of player who just wants to get to the good stuff at the end.