(Note: I played the Moon version so I can’t comment on any exclusive content found in Sun. I will keep spoilers to a minimum but some new features of the game will appear in this review. Read at your own risk!)
The newest addition to the long running Pokémon series, Sun and Moon, is here. The many trailers and new Pokémon that Nintendo unveiled in the lead-up to this game’s release has raised hype among fans to a fever-pitch. Could the game possibly live up to the hype? Could the game satisfy old players and attract new ones? Could it introduce enough new elements to freshen up the old formula while still respecting its roots? Fan speculation ran wild in the months leading up to the game and now that the game has dropped we finally have the answers to all of our questions. Let’s examine the game in depth and see if Sun and Moon have lived up to the astronomical levels of hype that it generated.
Let’s begin by examining the game’s story. Pokémon isn’t known for telling brilliant tales. Most of the games boil down to a simple formula: a kid from a small town befriends some Pokémon, goes off a journey to win eight Gym badges, defeats an evil team and then conquers the Pokémon League and its champion. Sun and Moon don’t deviate too far from this formula but they introduce a few new elements. The first is the elimination of Pokémon Gyms and the introduction of Trials, an Alola tradition that tests Pokémon trainers on their ability to work with their Pokémon to solve puzzles and defeat a powerful boss called a Totem. The Trials make Alola feel much different from all the other regions of the series, worldbuilding in a way that the series hasn’t seen since its very first entry. The different customs and cultural institutions like the Trials give the player a strong sense of immersion in Alola. I feel as though I know enough about Alola to write a travel guide! Alola feels like a real place, a perfect setting for its plot.
The second major change in the writing and plot of Sun and Moon is its focus on character drama rather than large-scale events. While the Alola region does face a grave danger, that same danger is downplayed to focus on the relationship between the player character and their friends Hau and Lillie. While Hau is underdeveloped, Lillie plays a major role in this game and is integral to its plot. Much of the game’s dialogue reveals Lillie’s development, chronicling how she grows from an incompetent person into a strong-willed and confident person. Her personal growth ties in nicely with the threat looming over Alola (and the Legendary Pokémon who help you fight that threat) and so Sun and Moon have a unity of plot that the series hasn’t seen since Black and White. I was surprised to see Pokémon focus so much on the development of a single character but that narrower focus paid off. Lillie is the second-best written character in the series (the first place honor belongs to N).
The writing and plot of this game are not perfect. One major issue is the pacing. The game spends a lot of time setting up mysteries in the beginning, then it spins its wheels with repetitive scenes and dialogue for several hours in the middle, and then finally concludes in a climactic battle. That middle section is tedious and is in serious need of a script doctor. The second major issue is the main antagonist. While they do play a major role in Lillie’s character development, their exact motivations and the nature of the threat they pose is glossed over and some important details about their backstory appear tardily in the post-game. I didn’t feel a sense of urgency in confronting them as I did with Team Galactic or Team Aqua, for example, whose goals are clear. Who wouldn’t rush to stop a madman who wants to create a whole new universe devoid of emotion or a crazy ship captain who wants to drown the world in a primordial sea? Sun and Moon lack that same urgency and the game’s antagonist lacks the charisma and menace that made Cyrus, Archie or Giovanni so intimidating.
Despite any weakness in the game’s story, its gameplay is top notch. Sun and Moon represent the largest step forward that the series has made in many years, with changes as radical as the introduction of two new Pokémon types and the day/night cycle of Gold and Silver. The two biggest changes, as first viewed from the demo version, that Sun and Moon make to the Pokémon formula are the aforementioned Trials taking the place of Gyms and the elimination of HMs. The Trials both give Alola a unique identity among the other regions of the series and refreshes a stale portion of Pokémon gameplay. Over the years I’ve come to find Gyms to be too predictable and a bit boring. How many times can one solve a simple puzzle, fight a few Trainers and then face a Gym leader? The Trials task players not with solving uninspired puzzles but with missions as varied as taking photos of ghosts, cooking up a meal to lure powerful Pokémon to you and even spotting the difference between several dances. Each Trial and its captain are bursting with charm and character, distinguishing themselves from one another in a way that the Gyms of the past never did. I hope that in the future when we visit different regions, each region will have its own unique challenge and not rely on stale old Gyms.
The elimination of HMs is an even more radical and necessary change to the Pokémon formula than the booting of Gyms. HMs were a plague on the Pokémon series. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished that the series would do away with them. Each time I’ve dragged along a level 5 Geodude to use Rock Smash in a random dungeon on my team of carefully assembled and trained level 60 Pokémon, I’ve groaned and longed for the day when HMs would be no more. That day is finally here: Sun and Moon give the player a pager with which they can call a Pokémon to surf across a lake or smash a rock or move a heavy boulder. Now you can use those six precious slots on your party as you like! No more carrying around deadweight Pokémon just to cut down a tree or two! HMs were archaic and clunky; their elimination vastly improves moving about Alola. Good riddance to them!
As much as Sun and Moon depart from the old formula, they retain the same beloved turn-based gameplay that has carried the Pokémon series for years. The major changes as regards the combat in Sun and Moon are Z-moves and the overall higher level of difficulty. Z-moves are powerful attacks that may be used once per battle and, like X and Y’s Mega Evolutions, they require special items. I found that Mega Evolutions made the last generation too easy. Pokémon like Mega Gardevoir, Mega Kangaskhan, Mega Metagross and Mega Latias/Latios could easily sweep away any and all opponents in X, Y, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Z-moves allow the player to have an ace in the hole, a desperate measure to earn a quick knock-out rather than an all-powerful Pokémon that no one in the game could touch. It introduces much-needed difficulty balance: while the player does feel powerful when unleashing a Z-move, it’s only one move and will not be enough to earn complete victory.
The Z-moves aren’t the only adjustment made to the game’s difficulty. Every encounter, from ordinary trainers to rivals to antagonists to Totems, are much more difficult than they were in the previous generation. Other trainers in the game have better, more balanced teams and use their moves smartly. The Totems, the bosses of the Trials, are especially challenging as they have boosted stats and fight strategically, calling in aid when they need it and using powerful items to augment their attacks. Sun and Moon don’t just hand their players victory! The previous generation was much too easy and so Sun and Moon’s added difficulty is a welcome change.
Whenever a new Pokémon game is in the works fans speculate about every aspect of it, analyzing every second and every frame of every trailer, trying to tease out any hidden details. One aspect that I’ve found fans speculating wildly over is the postgame. Will the new Pokémon have anything to do after the main story is over? Will the Battle Frontier ever return? Will the Battle Maison continue to take its place? Will it continue to be unfair, with its ability to put up three Protect moves in a row and its 100% accurate Fissures and Guillotines? Sun and Moon deliver a mostly satisfying postgame experience. The game features a roundup of Legendary Pokémon, rematches with powerful trainers around the region and a new battle facility called the Battle Tree. While the Battle Tree is no Battle Frontier it’s less of a headache than the Battle Maison, at least in my limited experience. Without spoiling too much, those who felt underfed by the postgame challenges of the last generations will find much more content to sink their teeth into in Sun and Moon.
Despite the high praise I’ve given the game for its gameplay there are a few hiccups. I played Moon on a standard-model 3DS and there were significant framerate issues whenever I entered a Double Battle or any other sort of battle that had more than two Pokémon models on the screen at a time. The game has an annoying habit of lowering the resolution of text and squishing it to fill a text box whenever a character delivers a long speech. The game also took a long time to launch and close from my 3DS’s Home screen. All of this evidence suggests that Sun and Moon are optimized for later models of the 3DS so those of you who are still using a launch model, beware.
In sum, Sun and Moon are a huge progression for the Pokémon series. With its vastly improved gameplay and well-executed story it stands with the best games of the series. Despite a few flaws here and there, Sun and Moon is a breath of fresh air for veteran Pokémon fans and a wonderful invitation to new players. The release of Sun and Moon is a great closing to Pokémon’s twentieth year and, if the games continue to be this good and innovative, I hope the series lasts another twenty years.