A phenomenon like Pokémon is difficult to go into objectively. Whether you’ve ever played one of the many, many games before or not, it’s difficult to deny that everyone has some sort of impression on the series.
At the same time, as has been widely reported prior to the game’s release, the changes in this version are perhaps some of the most notable for a decade. Series staple the gym battle, a series of one on one duels leading up to a leader who specialises in a specific type of Pokémon, are out, replaced with trials which mix up the formula by introducing everything from dance move analysis to collecting ingredients for a recipe.
Director Shigeru Ohmori and the team at Game Freak never stray too far from the tried and tested formula however, with the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and over-the-top personalities of NPCs on full display.
For the most part the new Pokémon stray on the intriguing end of the spectrum, with the odd one or two which raise an eyebrow - as ever.
Most notable of these is the borderline ridiculous Team Skull, who are accompanied by a vague mix of generic rap beats whenever they appear, immediately putting them out of place and yet fitting in with the various oddities of the game as whole.
While the NPCs, and even cutscenes and a fairly solid story, are a nice distraction, let’s not kid ourselves - we are here to see some Pokémon battles. There’s a relatively modest 81 new Pokémon on show, with some unique to Sun or Moon respectively as usual, and for the most part they stray on the intriguing end of the spectrum, with the odd one or two which raise an eyebrow - as ever.
The main new creature you will get to know is your starter, and you get to choose from the Grass and Flying-type Rowlett, Fire-type Litten and Water-type Popplio (above). Each have their charms, though Popplio has already taken a lot of flak for looking the least cool of the bunch, and you’ll learn to get to know them through the Pokémon Refresh mechanic, which lets you pet, feed and groom your creatures between battles.
It will undoubtedly be something which appeals to some players more than others, but with some evolutions relying on a high Affection score between Pokémon and trainer it becomes somewhat essential. The reality is occasionally pressing Y after a battle to dry off your Pokémon if they’ve been hit with a water attack, comb their fur or get rid of mud or sand.
While it is something of a mini-game, there are significant benefits in battle, such as Pokémon dodging enemy attacks or holding onto 1 HP after a vicious attack to avoid fainting. There are also dialogue differences and comments about what Pokémon are thinking or feeling about. It is all a bit unnecessary, and yet is a key part of the charm of the game experience as a whole, staving off the feeling of boredom when training up your team ahead of a greater challenge.
Historically there was always quite a lot of grinding needed to have a decent chance of beating the later stages of the game, but in Sun and Moon the balance is actually spot on. While there’s always time for a bit of wandering about grassy areas, looking for easy prey, you could largely avoid it and stick to trainer battles across the region and end up with enough XP to get by.
The setting of Alola, loosely, but quite blatantly, based on Hawaii also adds to the endearing quality of the game, thanks to the world being split up into four islands, all with their own regional Pokédex (used to keep track of those caught creatures) and different challenges to take on.
Each time you board a boat or visit a new area you’re greeted with another twist on what this island paradise has to offer, as well as a selection of new Pokémon to discover. It’s here where things become a bit unstuck in some ways, as the selection of creatures feels somewhat reliant on the original 150 Pokémon which many know and love, rather than embracing what makes this title special and unique.
There are still new regular creatures of course - the Donald Trump-esque Yungoose and woodpecker Pikipek being the most common - and we can definitely forgive the early inclusion of Pichu, Pikachu’s unevolved, baby form, but generally there’s not a lot of variety considering this is a series which now boasts over 800 varieties of creature across its many games.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why the developers have done this. The last thing you need when trying to get into a new game (or one you haven’t played since 1997) is to remember crucial details about 800 different Pokémon at once. The game does go someway to ease this burden in gameplay as well, highlighting the effectiveness of specific moves on foes once you have already faced them, but it would have been nice to go further.
Specific knowledge is rife on the internet at large, with Bulbapedia in particular being an invaluable resource for move-sets and, more importantly, evolution requirements - some of which are so obscure that you’d never stumble across them on your own.
The question is, why not feed more of this knowledge into the game itself? This game’s Pokédex has something of a personality, so why not develop it into a fully fledged personal companion, much as it acts on the animé television show. Having to look something up every five minutes in fear of missing something crucial (did you stumble across the right NPC to teach Pikachu Volt Tackle?) can grow tiresome.
The shiniest part of the gameplay this time around is the Z-Move, a one-use-per-battle ability which spins off a Pokémon’s standard move based on type. To use them, your Pokémon has to carry a Z-named stone, which are picked up following the game’s trials (or gyms) when you defeat each captain (or gym leader).
Visually, almost every one is an amazing spectacle, almost making you wish the same level of visual detail was thrown into every move (some already commit almost to the same level as it is, while other animations are simple enough to be mistaken for their 20-year-old counterparts). Disappointingly having a Z stone active does use up the slot for Pokémon to hold any other item, which is a shame when there are so many subtle, tactical differences which can be lost in battles as a result.
So, are Pokémon Sun and/or Moon worth buying? After countless encounters, earning thousands of XP and a handful of wry smile-inducing nostalgic moments our official verdict is yes. The sheer amount of baggage present in the Pokémon universe is huge and to strip a lot of that back into a compelling, enjoyable experience which stands on its own two feet without any prior knowledge is no small feat.
Sure, it could hand-hold a little less at the beginning, and veterans will certainly feel the pace more comfortable after the first island or so, but to be a series which has been consistently active for 20 years and now release an iteration that’s possibly the best yet is exceptional.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a Poké Polago to shake.