The Pokémon series has been through a lot, and a casual observer would be forgiven for assuming that the developers must be out of fresh ideas after twenty long years. Thankfully people who spend far too much time playing video games, like us and many reading these pages, know better.
Enter Pokémon Sun and Moon, the latest duo to enter the fray on the rapidly ageing hardware of the 3DS. The previous new-gen games brought about a revolution with the leap to 3D, but fell short in a few small areas for a lot of long-time fans. The question is - can the seventh generation make up for the shortcomings of its letter-based predecessor?
The first time you boot up the game you're not given a moment's breathing room. No title screen appears to welcome you, but rather some new data is created on your ever-shrinking SD card and you're thrust gung-ho into the intro cutscene. It's startling at first but certainly not in a bad way, and this trimming of the fat is a factor that runs through the whole game.
Once you're given control you're ushered into a linear sequence of events that teach you what's what, and it's obviously a tutorial designed to show less experienced Pokémaniacs the ropes. This is long and somewhat slowly paced, but given the complexity the series has garnered over its lifetime it's absolutely necessary to bring the detailed mechanics to the player in this manner. It's frustrating for veterans of the series, but these players will also know how to blitz through in as little time as possible, so whilst it isn't exactly a roaring start to the game this is something that (for all its sins) needed to be done.
Thankfully once this chapter of the game is over everything opens up tenfold. Your shackles are removed, you're given new, totally optional areas to explore, and the freedom that awaits you through the rest of your adventure becomes plain. This is also the moment that the plot comes into play, and in true Pokémon fashion it's up to you to stop the nefarious deeds of the sinister Team Skull and their plot to steal as many Pokémon as possible.
That might make the story sound terribly basic, but you needn't worry about such things. Despite the Team Rocket-esque beginnings, the full scope of what is happening on Alola becomes clear as you march on through the various islands. In fact we'd go so far as to say that the plot in Sun & Moon is the deepest and most ambitious Game Freak has dared attempt. It's certainly not Shakespeare, and it remains accessible to a wide age range, but despite this many of the topics and thematic devices are miles ahead of standard 'evil group tries to take over the world with legendary Pokémon' affair we're oh-so used to.
As you may well know, this plot isn't progressed through the traditional use of Gym Leaders, rather you're given Trials to complete that reward you with a Z-Crystal to enable Z-Moves (we'll come to those later). These vary far more than the gyms ever did in previous generations, and it feels like a natural progression that links in beautifully with the island you're exploring. Rather than feeling like a juxtapose building in which anything could happen, the lay of the land dictates the tasks and nature of each Trial. You're usually battling at some point throughout these tests, but getting to these bouts has various different requirements. Whether it be flushing out a tenacious monster from its den or overriding a security door, you'll never feel like you're doing the same thing twice.
As with every game prior, we've also got a host of brand new Pokémon to deal with, and we have to say it's a really solid bunch of monsters. Past efforts have often fallen into the trap of being over-designed, but the residents of Alola are for the most part cracking specimens. The designers have kept it simple with inspirations from the real-life Hawaii that the region is based on, and they fit in superbly (with a handful of exceptions). What is a little more outlandish, however, is the design of the Ultra Beasts.
These are creatures from another dimension, and good gravy does it show. To save native Pokémon from looking completely ridiculous clearly the decision was taken to allow other-worldly beasts to fulfil the quota of weirdness that every designer harbours. Whilst these designs may not resonate with everyone they are undeniably alien, and bear such variation that we defy anyone not to find a single one they like the look of.
Speaking of aesthetics, we have to talk about the islands that make up the region you'll be charging around. Each of Alola's four main islands is unique in one way or another, and allows for a real contrast of locales in a tight area. You'll come across coves, groves, meadows, mountains, and even a slightly out-of-place ranch with matching old-west stylings. If you've seen any screenshots of any of the areas then you'll know that they're all utterly gorgeous; we should note, though, that the 3D effect isn't utilised in general gameplay, and has been dropped in favour of more reliable performance.
With the ditching of the old-fashioned grid system, meanwhile, every inch of Alola feels naturally formed and wonderfully organic. Long gone are the square clumps of grass and right-angled bodies of water, and instead we're treated to sweeping coastlines, gentle inclines and winding roads. These features are made all the more obvious when you enter one of the many towns, which follow a much more artificial layout for the most part, providing a very obvious contrast between locations which makes us appreciate the natural landscape even more.
And the glorious environments don't just stop at the overworld; every battle you indulge in takes place in one of dozens of available arenas dependent on your location in the world. This can vary as much as a typical grassy patch in one location to a trainer battle on a long, winding road just seconds apart from one another. Moreover the characters you meet along your journey also have a distinct air and variety about them; each one is memorable and easily recognisable for the most part, and their dialogue has never been better, even if it does still suffer from a small amount of the clunkiness you'd expect from a Pokémon game.
But it's not just new environments, new characters, and new Pokémon you'll be able to play with; there are bags of new features to muck around with at your fancy. Pokémon Amie returns in the form of Pokémon Refresh, which does away with the awkward facial recognition system that hated beards and glasses; instead you're able to simply feed your monsters, pet them, and generally make them feel splendid. You can also activate this feature at the end of a battle should a prompt come up by pressing the Y button, which allows you to clean up your fighters to make them happy, and even remove status ailments with the aid of a curiously never-ending medicine tool.
You'll also want to pop in to Poké Pelago, which gives you various micro-management islands that reward you with new Pokémon, items and Poké Beans to use in Pokémon Refresh, boost your Pokémons' levels, and plenty more besides. At first it appears to be little more than tedious busywork with a similar time-limit structure to that of many games on smart devices, but underneath this shell is probably one of the most important features Sun & Moon has to offer.
Instead of using your party, the islands on Poké Pelago use the creatures you've stored in your boxes (you know, those things you caught and forgot about). For the first time in the series these guys and gals and Magnemites now have a purpose beyond being a largely sedentary trophy collection; as we mentioned before, they can be trained up, find new items, and even encourage new, completely unknown Pokémon into your box and therefore your Pokédex. At last every Pokémon you've caught has a reason for you to keep it, and the random items, level gains, and chance of encountering and keeping new members of your ever-growing onslaught horde really makes this a vital feature for everyone, regardless of experience.
If you're more of a connectivity butterfly than a monster hoarder, you'll definitely want to check out the Festival Plaza. This is the go-to hub for any sort of communication you might want to dip your toe into. From standard trading and battling to the Global Trade Station and the lucky-dip known as Wonder Trade, you'll tackle everything through here. But if you just want to interact with someone nearby, in a flash, you can use the new quick connect system, which at the hold of a button on both devices allows you and any friends or rivals to connect for trade and battle. It saves going through the Festival Plaza, which can be a real time-saver.
But anyway, back to the plaza. Beyond the typical features we mentioned above you'll also be able to play certain mini games, buy items in bulk, and even have your fortune told, all from this central hub. The real draw here is the internet and local wireless options rather than the little distractions it has to offer, as we didn't find them all that interesting. It's possible that younger players may get more enjoyment from the simple running around and answering questions, but don't expect it to hold your attention for long. Nevertheless, having all communication take place in a single, conglomerated hub is a welcome relief from the slew of menus that have been present in past titles.
When you do use the Plaza don't think you'll be falling into anonymity amongst the dozens of other avatars. After having a brief hiatus in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, character customisation is back and this time it really means business. The variety of clothing is greater than ever before, and hairstyles no longer have to be hidden underneath a hat as before, so get ready to show off those luscious locks you've been forced to hide since Red & Blue. Whilst we would like even more customisation options available to us, we feel that this is something that could be said about almost any similar system. It's bigger and better than the fashion-focused Kalos and we feel you can't say fairer than that.
So there's plenty to tickle your fancy outside of the main game, but how does your Pokémon quest aim to challenge you? Any veterans of the series will be pleased to hear that although Pokémon games are about as difficult as you make them, Sun and Moon are easily the most difficult to date. The new Pokémon bring a cocktail of new moves, abilities and strategies that you need to employ in order to best what is thrown at you. Subtle changes to older moves means the competitive scene will have to learn a whole new metagame to come out on top, and the inclusion of Z-Moves puts you constantly on edge.
Having said that, we did feel a slightly deflated by Z-Moves on the whole; at first they were extravagant, exciting, and a joy to execute, but after dozens of hours playing they lost their edge and the animations were more of a nuisance than a reason to get excited. They also don't always turn out to be as powerful as you might expect, and whilst that may sound like a bad thing it's actually our favourite part of this new system. Mega Evolution was nearly always a no-brainer, but Z-Moves can potentially be blocked with moves like Protect, and if you happen to waste it as an enemy is switching you don't get another chance to use it or any other Z-Move your party may have access to. They feel underwhelming but that's what makes them viable, especially in a competitive situation. We'd much rather them be this way, as opposed to a method to totally break the system so many have come to adore.
Speaking of mixing things up, the new Battle Royal mode takes just about everything you thought you knew about battles and turns it on its head. The main concept is for four trainers to pit their Pokémon in a free-for-all against the other three currently in play. This mode puts you at the mercy of three opponents, and thus your tactics have to change entirely. Knocking out an enemy grants you a point, but lose all three Pokémon and you'll lose immediately. Moreover the match will also end whenever one player has lost all their available Pokémon, meaning you have to constantly judge and predict what others will do to ensure victory. It's a great new mode that we really hope gains traction. The chaos of it all helps open it up to newer players and all will think twice about what Pokémon they want to take in.
If the story is tiring you a bit, but you're not in the mood for anything too far removed from the main game, talking to NPCs can often yield new quests for you, ranging from finding and catching specific Pokémon to throwing pesky sea-dwelling monsters back into the ocean so they don't hurt themselves or anyone else. They're minor distractions that won't take up too much of your time but it does help to make the world feel much more alive. You'll often need to fly back to previous islands because of new, completely optional areas that you couldn't reach before, and doing so is an absolute joy with plenty of rewards to boot. There's no way you'll be able to do a clean sweep of every area the first time you enter it. Even if you get so sidetracked that you forget how to progress the story, you can rely on your Rotom-powered Pokédex to keep track of everything, and even provide cheerful, text-based commentary on the lower screen so you'll never get lost, even if you put the game down for a week or more.
Simply put, Sun and Moon are best Pokémon games that Game Freak has ever produced. Poké Pelago, the side quests, the absolutely stunning nature of the presentation, it's all a sheer joy from start to finish. Game Freak hasn't missed a beat and has managed to carefully balance the inclusion of new mechanics without totally ruining things for the most hardcore fans. It's got content coming out of its ears, a much more interesting story, and rewards exploration in a way no other title in the series has. Whether you're a Pokémon fan new or old, this is an absolutely essential purchase.