Sun and Moon may not be the best Pokémon versions ever produced, but technical updates, a relaxed aura, and gameplay enhancements make them quite unique
With two decades marked by record-setting sales and supported by an armada of fans of all ages and backgrounds, the Pokémon franchise reaches its seventh generation with the arrival of Sun and Moon. Like all versions that preceded them, the two installments embrace the philosophy that states things which are not broken do not require any sort of fixing. Therefore, they preserve the series’ universally known trope of assembling a Pokémon team, and catching as many monsters as possible, in order to become the top trainer of a specific region. At the same time, though, Sun and Moon take some noticeable steps towards the elimination, or the improvement, of some of the franchise’s established quirks.
The games’ most considerable trait, perhaps due to the fact it permeates the whole adventure, is the region in which it takes place. Alola, whose name itself is a clear indication of the place’s Hawaiian inspirations, is not one piece of land, but a chain of four islands floating in the middle of the ocean. Such geographic isolation makes the area rather idiosyncratic in both setup and spirit. The former is unique because it shuns big cities and urban landscapes in favor of small villages and wilderness expanses in which people lead simple lives alongside their Pokémon. While the latter is remarkable because of the laid back aura exhaled by the territory and its inhabitants.
Most of all, though, Alola is utterly gorgeous, and not just because of the inspired design of its natural locations. Even though Sun and Moon are housed by the same hardware that powered X and Y, the games are victorious in delivering a significant visual update in relation to their direct predecessors, both in and outside battles (with the animations being impressive in the former, and with the improvement of the latter being particularly eye-popping). That leap, however, causes the game to suffer severe frame-rate drops in a few special battles when played on a standard 3DS.
Away from the influence of Kanto, Unova, Kalos and other lands of the Pokémon world, Alola is devoid of gyms. Trainers who go there, instead, are tested via a series of seven trials scattered across the four islands, dubbed the Island Challenge. Rather than facing a chain of trainers until the gym leader is reached, players are thrown into locations prepared by Trial Captains and are forced to explore the places and engage in battles against a few wild creatures. All trials culminate with skirmishes against Totem Pokémon, the franchise’s take on boss battles, which are Pokémon of standard species but that have boosted stats, much bigger size, and the ability to call for help, thereby summoning other creatures.
Not only are trials refreshing in how they replace, with quality, a core element of the franchise that had been untouched for twenty years, but they are also decently challenging. Totem Pokémon are genuinely hard to take down, even with moves that are super effective, and they reveal one of Sun and Moon’s best features: their difficulty. Unquestionably, Pokémon remains an easy game that gravitates around a rock-paper-scissors chain of advantages, immunities, and disadvantages among the eighteen types of monsters that are available. Still, especially following the walk in the park that the X and Y versions were, Sun and Moon is considerably harder, with the level gap between Pokémon held by CPU-controlled trainers and players being kept to a minimum throughout the whole game.
The tighter connection between Alola’s population and their Pokémon is responsible for the departure of yet another feature, this time one that was undeniably bad, that had been with the series since its inception: the dreaded Hidden Machines. These moves, which were mostly useless inside battles but that had to be taught to Pokémon because they could be employed outside combats in order to affect the environment – hence allowing players to progress in their exploration of the overworld, are completely gone.
It is an undeniable improvement. Hidden Machines are replaced by the ability to summon certain Pokémon, which become available little by little as the adventure progresses, at will, such as Taurus for moving faster and destroying roadblocks; Lapras for traversing bodies of water; and Machamp for pushing boulders. The only setback in the implementation of that feature is how Charizard’s flying is restricted to the island players are currently on, therefore forcing them to use the much slower ferries to move between those locations.
Those changes are overwhelmingly positive to the overall experience of Sun and Moon. This is still a Pokémon game like all others in terms of how addictive and engaging it is to travel this fantastic world with nothing but a backpack and a handful of pokéballs, and the joy of watching one’s team develop from that single starter of choice into a full-fledged combat machine ready for whatever obstacles can be found out there remains the same one that existed in the Blue and Red versions. However, more than the 81 new creatures – some of which have blatantly questionable designs – and the handful of redesigns and retypings of first-generation Pokémon, these morsels of change lend Sun and Moon an aura that is clearly unique and special.
As usual, since Diamond and Pearl, the traditional set of online features, like battles and trading, give these titles endless value; they keep on giving and offering new challenges and goals for as long as players feel like finding them, be it filling up the Pokédex; grinding for EVs and IVs; breeding endlessly so that a Pokémon can be born with an ideal nature (which affects how their stats grow) and an coveted ability (which gives them specific powers during battle); looking for shiny or legendary monsters; building an unstoppable team; or tackling the new, and weird, Battle Royal format – where four trainers battle one another simultaneously and, after one of them runs out of Pokémon, the one that has downed the most monsters walks out victorious.
Some glaring issues, however, keep Sun and Moon from being crowned as the finest Pokémon games out there. For starters, its progression is way too restricted: during most of the adventure, players will only have one specific path to follow, with any routes, caves, and cities that stray away from that predefined trail being blocked by questionable and poorly explained reasons. Truthfully, such measures – which corrode a sense of freedom that would have greatly benefited the title – have always been a part of the franchise. Yet, as gaming progressively moves to more open-ended grounds, never have these limitations been more obvious and annoying.
The second shortcoming, and perhaps the biggest problem Sun and Moon have, is related to the storyline: a component of the saga that has always been, at best, decent. Sun and Moon try to alter the course of that trend by devoting a whole lot of energy to a plot that does indeed show the results of such efforts. Even if it is miles away from being remarkable, it is possibly the best one the franchise has produced, despite some cringe-worthy dialogue lines that are courtesy of Team Skull. Sadly, the problem here is that developments in the story – in other words, gameplay interruptions – are way more frequent than they should have been. Literally, almost every route that is explored or city that is reached will feature dialogues or cutscenes, a reality that disrupts the flow of the adventure regardless of how brief or significant these pauses may be.
At last, where X and Y took major steps towards making EV training – a process that allows players to tweak the individual stats of their Pokémon – accessible and fast, Sun and Moon regress. The two mini-games that support that kind of training have effects at a much slower rate than the one featured in X and Y, making it far more productive for players to grind for those EVs in battles. The fact that Pokémon in Alola have the habit of calling other creatures for help (which can be awfully annoying when trying to capture the monsters since it is impossible to throw pokéballs when there is more than one creature on the field) is quite effective for EV grinding, as the acquired EVs double for every Pokémon that is taken down. However, going out to the wild and waiting until a specific Pokémon summons a specific peer can be ridiculously frustrating.
Like all installments that preceded them, Pokémon Sun and Moon are excellent titles and mandatory additions to the collections of newcomers and veterans alike. They may not be the best versions the property has ever produced, but their technical updates, gameplay enhancements, and online features are more than sufficient to turn them into the definitive games of the saga, at least until their successors come out in a few years. They are charming games with a lot of heart and considerable degrees of depth, and they show that Pokémon is still as big of a phenomenon as it was back in 1996.