The Pokemon Sun and Moon Conundrum

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It usually takes me around a few weeks before I’ve moved on to my second playthrough of a Pokemon game. It took me until the start of January before I’d even finished Pokemon Sun and Moon, and this has nothing to do with the length of the game. Instead, it was constant stopping and starting: a loss of the interest that has pulled me through Pokemon games I consider much less accomplished than this one. In this review, I want to see if I can work out why Sun and Moon have caused such a roadblock for me. So, it might be better to think of this less as a standard review, and more of a personal process for my own interest. Have I just fallen out with the Pokemon formula, or is it something that Sun and Moon have done specifically?

I think it’s important then, to start at the core of Sun and Moon and see what, if anything, has changed there. As I see it, the three main aspects of every Pokemon game are battling, exploring and to a lesser extent, the Pokemon themselves. Yes, trading and social aspects are important to the experience, but I don’t see them as core per se. Let’s start with battling, because for the casual observer this has remained pretty static throughout the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon makes a lot of quality of life adjustments to the battling system that I really liked. The effectiveness system streamlines the process for those who have yet to memorise type-effectiveness charts, and the stat chart is just helpful for those not wanting to keep track of those things in their head. It’s nice to see Pokemon embrace what was standard in Pokemon Showdown for years. The biggest and most heavily advertised change to the battling system is the Z-Moves, and these sit less easily with me. In theory, they improve significantly on Generation 6’s ‘Mega Evolution’ concept, while still keeping much of the idea behind that. A held item that makes your Pokemon stronger is a good idea, because it forces the player to sacrifice the longer term benefit of a held item like a Rocky Helmet or a berry for a shorter term large advantage of a Z Move. Unfortunately, the Z Moves themselves are let down by a few crucial things. The most glaringly obvious is their complete disruption of pacing caused by long animations. These things are 32 seconds long on average, which is much too long to go without player input, and when you’ve seen the animation happen multiple times before. What makes this doubly frustrating is that X/Y already came up with a solution to this problem; when the game first starts up you see the full transformation animation, but subsequent mega evolutions skip that animation in favour of a much shorter one. Sun/Moon could have easily employed a system like this but fails to do so, and thus discourages the player from using a significant mechanic. I was also slightly annoyed that Z Moves weren’t that powerful. One hit KO moves would be silly and overpowered, but having to sit through that animation for a move that is ultimately not that powerful is more frustrating than anticipated. Of course, this is one of the more minor quibbles with the mechanic, which I regard as a step-up from Mega Evolution. I’ve seen Z-Moves get some negative press, and besides the animation problem, I don’t see them as anything but a good idea; just inventive enough to seem like a revitalisation, just not powerful enough to seem like overkill.

The battle system, then, isn’t that much of a problem. Trainer battles, however, are. It’s worrying when I can count on one hand the number of trainers I remember having a full team of 6 Pokemon during the campaign. Even in OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire, some of the easiest games in the franchise, there was a trainer class (the breeder) which specialised in having full teams. That isn’t to say the game is too easy – some boss battles pose a challenge, especially the Totem Pokemon battles that you face at the end of every trial. Still, what this does represent is that the standard trainer battles are quicker and less involved, as well as simply easier. When travelling the region, they become less like fun challenges and more annoying roadblocks – a decrease in difficulty means that battling loses a lot of its draw. When battling trainers becomes an annoyance, there’s something that’s gone wrong. I did like the inclusion of trainer quotas on routes as a quick fix solution to this problem. The idea of this is that defeating every trainer on a route allows you to battle a stronger trainer, often with a reward at the end. This is a basic solution – and from a theoretical design perspective it works, but practically this does nothing to stop the core problem that battling becomes rote without a challenge. Yes, this game’s difficult bosses represent a step-up in difficulty from previous games in the series, and I respect that. However, in a game that fixes many of its predecessor’s problems, this is one that annoys me when not addressed in a meaningful way. Still, I got through those games so I doubt that this is my main problem with Sun and Moon. I think to address that we should move onto exploration.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so this might take a while. Alola itself is the new region that Sun/Moon take place in, and for all extents and purposes, it’s one of the best region designs for quite a while. The multiple islands lead nicely into a non-standard, less linear route path, and it helps that the islands themselves have routes that are twisty and curve around landmarks and cities to create fun paths that allow for different terrain and environment to naturally flow into one another one a single pathway to your destination. It also allows for route design with branching pathways and hidden secrets. It still relies perhaps too heavily on the old trick of a choice between grass or trainer battle, but the idea I talked about earlier of the ‘route boss’, means that some trainers are almost hidden out of the way. Some routes even incorporate small gimmicks, such as finding a number of hidden Snufful in the grass. It’s also worth mentioning how lovely Alola looks – the series finally returns to what feels like truly dynamic light patterns in the sky, so that the changes in time are really marked (I played Moon version, for reference). No, the route design still doesn’t match up to the lofty heights of Sinnoh, but perhaps what I was most impressed by was how natural the routes felt to traverse. In X/Y, the designers seemed to have made routes using the grid based philosophy that worked for the top down games on the DS, where routes felt boxed in by trees, but that was a necessary limitation of the system’s hardware. On 3DS, when those routes were transplanted into a 3D landscape it felt odd and boxy. Meanwhile, Sun/Moon’s routes actually manage to feel properly free from this – maybe due to the removal of the grid from the map. So not only do islands and routes feel more natural, you can explore them more naturally as well. So far, so good.

It’s a shame, then, that the game seems determined to hamper your enjoyment of its beautifully designed region with some of the most egregious progression blocks and markers I’ve seen in a Pokemon game. Literal road blocks prevent you from moving to certain areas (getting rid of any of the creative semi-excuses from previous games.) However, these road blocks have existed for a while in previous games, if less commonly. What I was more annoyed by were the flag checkpoints on the map, which have much to do with the game’s new found emphasis on telling a compelling story. Other Pokemon games have always given you markers as to where to go next; usually in the forms of the gym battles. Literal markers, then, much like literal walls, aren’t necessarily something new, as much as they are making a pre-existing feature less subtle. Nevertheless, the flag checkpoints are symptomatic of a creeping problem that I’ve been mentioning throughout the review series that I made; the sacrificial trade off Pokemon has been making by giving preference to story over exploration. This was at its most egregious in X/Y, where the story had nothing to offer, but here the story has really taken over – it’s the subject of each and every flag, and if it’s not a boring story battle against a number of Skull/Aether grunts, then it’s a boring story cutscene that aims to provide some semblance of character development to Sun/Moon’s expansive cast of characters.

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The story of Sun/Moon has received a lot of praise from critics, but I fail to see exactly why, except in terms compared too other Pokemon games. Yes, the story in Sun/Moon is miles ahead of any other Pokemon game. However, in my opinion it doesn’t reach the heights required to affect the gameplay in the way it does. Yes, Lillie’s arc is strong, but other aspects of the story don’t quite stack up. Lusamine’s story is fun, but rob her of enough agency that it robs some of the impact from her as a villain. In that respect, Guzma and Team Skull feel like the stronger villains – their slapstick routine isn’t as threatening, but it works just enough; when they were on screen I wanted to spend time in their company, whereas the Aether Foundation were nothing more than an obvious twist. The crux of the story, then, revolves around Lillie, who’s undoubtedly a likeable protagonist, but her plot also annoys me in its follow up effects. You see, we don’t play as Lillie, we play as bland smiley boy/girl who runs around chasing Lillie, and yet still somehow fights all her fights. The game, then, struggles to maintain a weird balance between gameplay and story, trying desperately to have two cakes and eat them both. Focusing fully on Lillie’s story might have meant a named playable protagonist, or at least a situation where Lillie could solve her problems without fighting. Instead you do the grunt work for Lillie while she picks up the emotional development, which feels less earned – a compromise. I think this compromise comes as a result of Pokemon being unable to leave the core of the past behind, while being content to change the edges. What I mean by this is that Pokemon will never stop being about a nameless protagonist wandering around a region, catching and fighting wild beasts, but that doesn’t stop the directors from attempting to enforce change that runs contrary to that core idea, the best example being the one of a story focus.

Those features, then, make up the core of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but the game is pleasingly stuffed full of content. Sadly, I’m not the sort of game reviewer to pore through every little feature, but I will give a cursory glance over some of the features that stuck out to me. The new Pokemon introduced seem exceptionally well designed – they all have a simple aesthetic and a priority on the animation of the 3D models to give them character, which works surprisingly well in game. Some of the Alola forms are a little questionable and I think they could have pushed the idea much further, but some work nicely as a proof of concept. The removal of gyms was touted as a ‘major shake-up’ for the series, but I’m not sure that it is. Instead, gyms are replaced by often annoying, mostly mercifully short mini-games which end in fun boss battles against super-powered Pokemon. Totem Pokemon are a welcome addition, but I’m not sure if the removal of gyms was necessary, other than to give a refreshing face-lift to the franchise. The best change is clearly the removal of HM moves, which is the sort of common sense move that should have been done ages ago, but inexplicably wasn’t. I think the only thing left to talk about is the Rotom Pokedex, which is a forgettable kind of annoying – a clear send up of the once more popular Yokai Watch.

So then, what’s the conclusion? Why couldn’t I finish Sun/Moon quickly? Let me be clear with one thing here – these are good games. In fact, I like these games. Probably a lot, when I think about it. I’ve spent about 2000 words mostly complaining, but the core Pokemon formula topped off with a multitude of clever quality of life upgrades and a few cosmetic changes that allow that core some room to breathe will always make for an enjoyable experience. No, they aren’t perfect Pokemon games (HeartGold/SoulSilver already did that) but they are good, a marked step up from X/Y.

Annoyingly, this still fails to get to the root of my problem with the game. If you’ll excuse me from getting a bit meta, I had to rewrite this review multiple times in the vague hope that I’d reach some sort of personal conclusion as to why I wasn’t the greatest fan of the game. Each individual aspect I could work out my feeling towards, but as a sum of its parts, I was left slightly clueless. It could be, and this is something I’ve seriously considered, a result of a fatigue on my behalf towards Pokemon. Whether that’s caused by a year of replaying Pokemon games for review, or a lifetime of playing Pokemon games for fun, seeing a game like this that makes mild but insubstantial steps to improving on a well-trod path isn’t maybe enough to pull me through. Which might be unfair on the game. I do sometimes think that perhaps the way I reviewed this is completely unfair; I focused a lot on the negatives, and framed this review in a negative light. Not that anyone looks to me for a critical consensus, but that I care some about how I present my views. Clearly all reviews of this nature will be subjective, that’s in the nature of a review, but that doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t strive for balance when framing his argument. This review has caused me a lot of existential grief; in case you couldn’t tell. At least it came in a lot shorter than I originally had it…

Yeah, that was… a post. I guess. I think I rambled a bit towards the end there because I was so fed up with the whole process (I think I rewrote this review maybe 3 times in total?) Anyway, my review of The Good Place should be up within a few days, so look forward to that (Spoilers – it’s good)

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