Over the past two decades I’ve played nearly every entry in “Pokémon’s” core game series. “Red,” “Blue,” “HeartGold,” “Black,” “Alpha Sapphire” — you get the picture. But you can only challenge so many gym leaders and traverse Victory Road so many times before the whole “Gotta catch ‘em all” thing starts to feel stale. “Pokémon Go” the augmented reality smartphone game that became a frenzied obsession for about two months, was a nice change of pace, but it just wasn’t the same as a traditional “Pokémon” game.
So for the series’ latest iterations, “Sun” and “Moon,” “Pokémon” itself is evolving.
Available for Nintendo’s 3DS, “Pokémon Sun” and “Moon” offer some of the biggest changes to the series since its 1996 debut. The core premise of the game is still there — you’re still a young kid on your way to becoming a Pokémon Master — but the setting, story, graphics and interface have all been improved to make the game feel new and exciting again.
(Correction: A previous version of this review indicated you couldn’t relearn old Pokémon moves. You, in fact, can.)
Let’s start with the basics. “Sun” and “Moon” take place in a tropical island chain known as the Alola Region. The area doesn’t yet have a Pokémon League so you’re not going to take part in traditional gym battles as you have in previous “Pokémon” games.
Instead, you participate in seven Island Trials, a set of tasks ranging from defeating certain wild pokémon to collecting specific items. Once you complete your Island Trial, you take on a Totem Pokémon, a super strong pokémon that uses a special Z Crystal to tap into its innate abilities and unleash a single devastatingly high-powered attack.
Think of Z Crystals as “Sun” and “Moon’s” version of Mega Stones, except instead of mega-evolving your pokémon and changing its look, your pokémon develops an aura and gains the ability to launch highly modified versions of its base moves. It’s a bit disappointing that the Dragon Ball Z-style mega-evolutions are gone, but Z Powers offer enough cool cinematic cutscenes to make up for it.
Once you defeat the Totem Pokémon, it’s time to move on to the trial’s Island Kahuna. Kahunas are “Sun” and “Moon’s” equivalents of gym leaders, but the game presents them as more than just weirdos who like to make tiny animals beat each other unconscious. Kahunas are fleshed out characters whose appreciation for pokémon and the Island Challenges makes them feel more like coaches who genuinely want you to succeed.
It’s also nice that “Sun” and “Moon’s” narratives have moved beyond the standard, “you’re a kid who wants to become a pokémon master, and oh yeah, there are some bad guys” structure. Without going into too much detail, the story in “Sun” and “Moon” actually manage to hold your attention throughout. It’s not exactly “The Godfather,” but it’s pretty solid.
A time to change
Outside of its story, “Sun” and “Moon” offer a handful of meaningful changes to the series’ overall look and mechanics. The most noticeable difference is the unique color palette of the Alola region. Landscapes, buildings and people are drenched in beautiful turquoises and fuchsias and yellows. The game’s cutscenes and character animations are also more refined, making for a more cinematic experience than previous “Pokémon” games.
“Pokémon” developer Game Freak clearly wanted to make the game more approachable than previous iterations. It’s not that playing “Pokémon” was ever difficult, but there were always parts of the game that needed improvement.
For example, remembering which moves were effective, super effective or had no effect was a hassle when fighting your 176th pokémon species. This time around, the game tells you which moves work best against specific types of pokémon. It’s a small change, but it make things significantly easier. The last thing you want to do when trying to capture a rare pokémon is to accidentally down it in one hit. Knowing which moves to use in order to lower its health slowly is a huge help.
Your Pokédex — now home to an electric-type pokémon named Rotom that turns the gadget into a living horror with lifeless eyes — also gets a major upgrade through objective markers. Rather than forcing you to remember where your next objective is located (which can be a problem if you put the game down for a few days), your Rotom ‘Dex drops a marker on the next spot you need visit. Rotom will also provide you with occasional tips about where to go and whom you’re supposed to speak with next.
Of particular note is the new Pokémon Refresh mechanic. Accessible from your Rotom ‘Dex, Refresh lets you interact with your pokémon outside of battles in order to improve your connection with them. You can pet them, brush dirt off of them, blow dry them if they were blasted by a water-type move and feed them Poké Beans. Especially helpful is the ability to heal status conditions from Pokémon Refresh. Now instead of wasting a Paralyze Heal, you can go into Refresh and clear its paralysis with a cotton swab. The wonders of modern medicine, people.
But “Sun” and “Moon” aren’t necessarily easier because of these changes, it’s simply more refined. In fact, “Sun” and “Moon” throw a new wrinkle into the standard ebb and flow of the game by forcing you to fight multiple pokémon more often than previous entries. In the wild, individual pokémon can call in reinforcements in an effort to take you down when their health runs low. They’re never guaranteed to get help, but there’s always the chance you could end up fighting two high-level fire-type pokemon when you’re down to your last grass-type.
Poking the world
“Pokémon’s” online components include the standard wireless and internet battles, as well as a new Festival Plaza area where you can purchase unique items such as meals that raise your pokémons’ levels and high-end potions. There’s also an area for you to participate in Global Link battles where you can fight players from around the world in the hopes of climbing the ranks to be the best pokémon trainer on Earth.
I’m more of a loner when it comes to playing “Pokémon.” I prefer exploring the world and finding new creatures to competing against other players. But being able to fight people I’ve never met and prove that I’m a subpar pokémon trainer is actually a lot of fun. If only Nintendo didn’t make it so annoyingly difficult to get online with your 3DS.
I’m an obsessive completionist when it comes to games, which means I tend to pour hours and hours into each “Pokémon” title in the hopes of catching every last creature and cramming them into tiny multicolored balls. “Sun” and “Moon,” like other “Pokémon” games, deliver an enormous amount of content. It took me almost 7 hours to get to the game’s second island and I genuinely enjoyed all of it.
My one major gripe with “Sun” and “Moon” is how often you’ll end up getting attacked by wild pokémon. In open fields that’s not so bad since you can avoid tall grass to stay out of trouble, but, as usual, caves are another story. Walk more than two feet and you’re going to get jumped by another freaking Zubat. It tends to get old fast, and you sadly can’t avoid caves altogether.
Still, “Pokémon Sun” and “Moon” are the best “Pokémon” games in years. “Alpha Sapphire” and “Omega Ruby” were great entries in the series, but they were largely re-skinned versions of “X” and “Y.” For the first time in ages (or at last since I uninstalled “Pokémon Go”), “Pokémon” feels like a new, exciting experience. If you’re a fan of the series, you’re going to love “Sun” and “Moon,” and if you’ve been gone for a while, you’ll be happy to come home.
What’s Hot: Tons of new, interesting pokémon; well-told campaign; refinements abound; Z-Powers!
What’s Not: Still no easy way to reverse learning moves; walking in caves is still a nightmare
More games coverage:
- ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ review: The future is dated
- ‘Titanfall 2′ review: Big-hearted mechs power this excellent sequel
- Addictive ‘Civilization VI’ keeps the wonder alive
- Review: ‘Skylanders Imaginators’ has plenty of character, if you can afford it
- Here’s how the 4 top virtual reality systems stack up
- Review: Beautiful ‘Battlefield 1’ gives the War to End All Wars its due respect
- Nintendo unveils the Nintendo Switch a hybrid console/handheld system
- Review: Impressive storytelling can’t get ‘Mafia III’s’ tired gameplay off the hook
Email Daniel at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.