Available On: Nintendo 3DS
A lot is riding on Pokémon Sun and Moon. Pokémon popularity is at its highest point since its inception in the 90s, thanks to its 20th Anniversary and hit mobile game Pokémon GO. Yet we haven’t seen a new, non-remake Pokémon title in three years.
Pokémon Sun and Moon represent the largest shift in the series we’ve ever seen. These are still classic monster catching and battling games aimed at kids, but the numerous improvements and new island setting make Pokémon Sun and Moon a hugely successful entry in the popular franchise.
Islands in the Sun (and Moon)
Every main Pokémon title takes place in a new region. But Pokémon Sun and Moon has the most well-realized and interesting region we’ve ever seen. The Alola Region is based off the Hawaiian islands, and the island culture permeates everything, from art style to level designs.
The unique setting also changes up the series’ usual progression. No longer are you traveling town to town battling a successive series of Gym leaders. Instead you’ll be traveling to four different islands, each with multiple zones, unique Pokémon, and several challenges to overcome. Island trials include mini-games and exploration. Progress is still linear with routes often blocked until finishing other events. But exploring and backtracking across each island is enjoyable and rewarding.
A lot of new or vastly improved additions help make exploring fun. A great-looking mini-map is persistent on the bottom screen, letting you navigate with ease. Ridable Pokémon are now added to a permanent roster you can call up any time. You gain them like new Zelda weapons that open up new areas, like Lapras for traveling on water or Taurus for breaking boulders. A slimmed down version of Pokémon Snap is now a mini-game called Poké Finder. You can take pictures of Pokémon in certain spots. It’s delightful.
I was also very impressed with the Pokédex roster. Less than 100 new Pokémon were added to the series now 800+ total, but they’re all welcome entries. Neat, original designs in both concept and gameplay. Favorites include a small fish who bulks up by gathering allies, a ghostly sandcastle, and a sentient meteorite who sheds its rocky casing. Some of the best Pokémon of the last twenty years are also added in, including fun new forms of a few of the original 151.
The story starts out silly, with Team Skull being the most ridiculously goofy villainous gang of wanna-be petty thugs. But later you’re dealing with subjugated towns, evil research corporations, and interdimensional beasts. It’s good enough to keep me engaged, but the heart, as always, lie in the battles.
Gotta Fight ‘Em All
Turn-based combat remains the bread and butter of Pokémon’s gameplay. It’s here we see smaller, incremental improvements that help streamline the classic experience. Like the ability to see all the status effects and changes. Most welcoming is having an attack’s effectiveness clearly displayed on the moves themselves, after you’ve battled that Pokémon at least once. It’s easy to remember Water beats Fire, but was Bug good against Psychic? No more having to open up a weakness chart on your phone!
Z-Moves are the big new combat addition, like Mega Evolutions in Pokémon X/Y. These are flashy once-per-battle moves usually associated with a certain Type, letting you mix and match more than the specific Mega Evolutions. The games are easy enough that you don’t really need them, but it becomes interesting when you face an opponent that can use one against you.
While battling wild Pokémon they occasionally call for help, summoning an ally. This two on one battle adds a fun challenge. Often it’s the only way to see the rarest Pokémon in an area. It adds another element of luck to a fight and a layer to Pokémon hunting.
The multiplayer aspects have been given a full suite in the form of the Festival Plaza. The Festival is home to its own variety of mini-games, and populates from local and online players, similiar to the Streetpass Plaza. The plaza levels up as you complete tasks, making it a rewarding side trek or even a primary destination if you enjoy the many online offerings, from trading to competitive battling to insane 4-player Battle Royal.
Pokémon Sun and Moon are rated E for Everyone by the ESRB, with Mild Cartoon Violence as a descriptor. Combat between Pokémon is a primary gameplay mechanic. There’s no blood or gore, and Pokémon gently fall over and feint when defeated.
When you’re on your seventh main title in twenty years, you don’t have a whole lot of pressure to shake things up. Yet all the changes big and small are exactly what make Pokémon Sun and Moon so compelling. The tropical Alola region is the best setting we’ve ever seen. The gameplay improved in every aspect without losing what makes the series so great. It’s difficult to challenge nostalgic roots dating back to the 90s, but Pokémon Sun and Moon may be my new favorite of the entire series.