After several months of anticipation and near weekly coverage on my weekly news segment, Pokemon Sun and Moon finally arrived to mark the 20th anniversary of this series. One that I hold very closely to myself and ultimately love, but have become incredibly critical of, as the shortcomings of a series become excruciatingly evident after playing every game in the mainline series (except for Platinum). But I’m not going to talk about those right now. For now, it’s time to talk about Pokemon Moon.
Pokemon Moon Review
Platform: 3DS(Reviewed on original hardware)
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company
From the onset, it’s easy to summarize Pokemon Moon as being the same as the prior six generations. It is a game about a child traveling a world filled with super powered animals that they defeat, collect, and train while going on a journey from one town to another before eventually proving themselves to be the greatest trainer in the land. An evil organization is involved, and as always they have ambitions ranging from petty thuggery to desiring to damage the world by snatching up legendary Pokemon.
What makes this iteration unique stems from numerous structure changes with the game, with it actually resembling a more traditional JRPG in that sense, and a more ambitious narrative. The game tasks the protagonist with a quest to become better acclimated to the tropical themed Alola region by travelling across it and undergoing a series of trials to better help them become accustomed with this world, raise a collection of Pokemon to call their own, and have an adventure that would be foundational in their life, but for most people playing the game, it’s the same basic affair as before
The greater emphasis on story also allows for the world to feel far more actualized than many prior entries, sporting more interesting topography with less jarring environmental shifts and larger cities, but most of the effort can be attributed in the story. It actually holds a lot of focus on the Alolan legendary Pokemon from the onset, making for a more rounded story once the legendary hunt begins, and features some of the more endearing characters this series has ever seen.
Such as Lillie, the mysterious girl barring a legendary Pokemon and a load of insecurities. Guzma, the rambunctious and rebellious leader of the endearingly silly Team Skull. Gladion, the ultimate preteen Saturday morning edgelord. Or Lusamine, the leader of Aether Foundation whose fascination with otherworldly beings known as Ultra Beasts clearly foreshadows her true role in the story. For as enjoyable as these characters are, the sense that they are underdeveloped or not used the most efficiently can be felt as the story winds down near the end, and the post-game content that centers around them is not enough to give them the amount of detail they should have received.
However, they still manage to fare far better than most of the other side characters in this story, namely the Trial Captains who conduct the journey the protagonist goes on, and the Kahunas who serve as the gym leaders of each island. They certainly have greater personalities and more dialog than the gym leaders who were barely brought up beyond their domains in prior games, but their limited roles in the story feels like a shame, as their excellent character designs alone warrant far more attention than what they receive.
On that note, Team Skull makes for what should be my favorite team in the entire series by having such a vibrant punk aesthetic, their purpose, symbolism, and general operations are understated, as is their apparent relationship to the equally underdeveloped Aether Foundation. A pro-Pokemon organization that is only lightly developed before they make the inevitable heel turn to an antagonist for a brief while, and the learned about them after that is pretty insufficient. The game in general feels both more ambitious yet often underdeveloped regarding its narrative, as if time constraints required the roles of certain characters to be limited.
Going back to the Trial Captains, serve as guides for the protagonist as they go through, well, a trial. Said trials range from a scavenger hunt, memory game, and general fighting of lower level Pokemon, all before reaching the totem Pokemon at the end. A higher level and powered up Pokemon with the ability to call for a weaker ally Pokemon, making encounters two on one. An interesting premise, or it would be if I wasn’t able to defeat all of these Pokemon in one or two turns, trivializing the whole thing.
Upon beating them, and beating the kahunas in combat, the protagonist is rewarded with a Z-Crystal, a held item that enables a Pokemon to use a supercharged Z-Move and deal massive damage once per battle. There is one for every type, several unique ones for specific Pokemon, and all of them take the form of a decently long cutscene that stops being cute after the third time a Z-Move is used. They are useful in swiftly ending a battle, but take such a long amount of time to prepare and utilize that I actually began ignoring the future, and despite having collected all of them, I don’t know what 70% of these Z-Moves even look like.
I actually think it is worth comparing these abilities to the Mega Evolutions of the prior generation in how they are an attempt to infuse the player with the joy of using something that is very powerful, but is also so fleeting and temperamental that I don’t really think of these features highly enough to regularly use them. Not helped by how this new feature does feel remarkably disposable, kind of like Mega Evolution, which Game Freak hid as part of the post-game here, and clearly went out of their way to make the process of getting every Mega Stone possible almost sickeningly tedious.
Actually, that term, sickeningly tedious, unfortunately applies to a rather large section of this game, or at least large to me. The PPS system in the Generation VI games was a simple menu based online interface that allowed for quick trading, battles, and more. Instead of building on top of this easy to use interface that ran in the background so long as an online connection was maintained, Game Freak replaced it with Festival Plaza. An online hub that must be connected to and disconnected from whenever it is used, serves as an in-game location, and is far more restricting and less understandable than PPS.
The Festival Plaza is a truly baffling metagame location that hosts a collection of player placed shops and is occupied by other players met online. Beyond shopping or using the Festival Plaza menus to connect to other players to battle or trade, the player is asked to speak to the occupants of their plaza, answering a collection of questions and directing them towards shops in exchange for Festival Coins that can be spent at said shops. In order to get more festival coins, the player can also partake in missions that, in my experience, involve running around the plaza as fast as possible and answering questions about Pokemon types as fast as possible in order to earn Festival Coins as fast as possible. Or alternatively, running around trying to find people who are saying a thing.
The most upsetting thing about Festival Plaza is that it clearly trying to imitate the enjoyable Joint Avenue feature of Pokemon Black 2 and White 2. Just without the usefulness, intuitiveness, same quality of shops, social scampering rubbish, and an arbitrary self-serving currency. It is a rubbish feature that I couldn’t help but develop a sense of scorn for as time went on, and the island-based maintenance subgame that is Poke Pelago is unfortunately similar to it in its quality.
Pokemon Pelago is a compilation of small features that serve mostly as a way to remove Super Training from the game and certain intrusive features from Pokemon-Amie that were not based around feeding or petting precious little Pokemon. Which sounds fine, except for the fact that everything is based in real time. Yes, you can collect beans, attract wild Pokemon, gather stones, grow berries, grind EVs, and increase happiness or warm up Pokemon eggs, but it can be difficult to make any progress in a day, and any day spent not playing with it is mechanically a day wasted. Super Training was annoying, but at least it was pretty quick in the grand scheme of things.
Despite there being an EV training section of Poke Pelago, the best and most time efficient way to gain EVs actually involves participating a battle facility and purchasing bands that allow the Pokemon that equip them gain 8 in a specific stat at the end of every battle. However, much like finding out what a given Pokemon’s EVs are, this information is not either conveyed by the game, or regularly reinforced to the player as something that is even possible. Or at least I don’t think that there was a single NPC or sign that said I could check my EVs by pressing Y when checking my Pokemon’s summary.
What is more baffling than all of this is how Game Freak chose to introduce IVs to the general playing audience. After defeating either Red or Blue in one of the most underwhelming and abrupt introductions possible, the player will encounter a character who will let them check a Pokemon’s IVs just by looking at them in the PC. This is ideally paired with the ability to raise IVs to create less of a discrepancy to the number crunching power breeding competitive players and a group who is not so much casual as they are not obsessive.
While there are items that can be used to maximize IVs, in the form of bottle caps, they are inscrutably difficult to obtain. In order to obtain bottle caps, the player can fish in one spot for hours on end in hopes that one would be obtained, get lucky at a daily lottery in Festival Plaza, or get lucky while waiting 12-24 hours in Poke Pelago. If I had the know-how and wherewithal to manipulate my save file and give myself 999 golden bottle caps, I would not only do it, but I would feel justified in my actions. Because this is the most sickeningly tedious element of them all, and cheating is fine if it is done to compensate for horrible game design.
Moving away from the frustration riddled minutia of the mainline Pokemon games, one of the biggest draws of Sun and Moon was the introduction of regional varieties of certain Pokemon, namely 18 Generation I creatures who received new designs, types, and stats in this iteration. They do serve to bring more life to familiar faces, but I still would have preferred to have them be given slightly more different designs and be rebranded as entirely new Pokemon. Especially since some of them now have names that do not fit with their new types, like Alolan Vulpix and Sandshrew. It’s about as baffling to me as the inclusion of the Zygarde cell quest, which amounts to a 100 part collectathon that barely makes any sense from a narrative perspective.
Another supposed draw was the Rotom Pokedex, which is ideally supposed to make the prospect of catching them all more enticing, but instead makes me like Rotom less as a Pokemon because my goodness is this thing underwhelming. First off, Rotom serves as a guide throughout the game who regularly spouts banally written advice about the direction from the bottom screen which they now occupy outside of menus and combat. They normally display a map, but not only is this map limited to areas outside of caves and forests, it only occupies about 60% of the screen, with the rest being relegated to the Rotom Pokedex’s body and eyes. Where they are constantly stares at the player through their oval shaped eyes, the scan lines perpetually drifting as they maintain a static expression, merely blinking, and nothing else.
As a Pokedex, they are actually remarkably not helpful. They cause a fanfare whenever a new Pokemon is registered to the Pokedex, and generally aren’t that useful as a Pokemon locator. Yes, they now pinpoint the exact patch of grass a Pokemon will appear in, but the act of finding certain Pokemon, both old and new, can take upwards of an hour in particularly obnoxious cases, and I simply don’t see a reason for it. I understand the appeal of a rarely encountered Pokemon, but I find no joy in scouring an area for that long in order to find an elusive Pokemon. I find boredom in the whole blasted affair.
I genuinely started to pine for the brilliant DexNav feature from Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, which allowed the player to generate an encounter with any Pokemon they previously encountered and appeared in this route. It was fast, efficient, and still completely optional for those who were not interested in the feature. Instead, they introduce features like SOS battles, which allow for any wild Pokemon to indefinitely call for backup so long as they do not have a status condition, and be rendered uncatchable until then. To exacerbate this annoyance, some Pokemon only appear in SOS battles, some only appear in an SOS battle under certain weather conditions, and this feature only seems to exist for the sake of grinding for shinys and Pokemon with higher IVs. I’ve attempted this process once for a really good Ditto, and it was a sickeningly tedious and woefully boring process.
For as negative as I can be about these features, they are very much the minutia of Sun and Moon, and it ultimately hold the same basic qualities of the past entries in the series. The joy of catching Pokemon, the diversity of teams, and pleasantly simple gameplay all make for an enjoyable title at its core, and while I can scrutinize certain features, that still remains as lovely as it ever was, and brought with it more than a few improvements that will make returning to prior games a bit difficult.
The revised battle menu that actually works far better than I expected, and makes type management far easier for people who struggle to remember the strengths and weaknesses of 18 different types. When learning or forgetting an old move, the confirmation prompt has been removed, thank goodness. There are no longer two prompts preventing the player from moving their Pokemon around in the PC, and the PC itself is very easy to use, barring a slight delay that I don’t recall being in Generation VI. HMs and the like have been replaced with the PokeRide feature, which allows Pokemon to be summoned from the air itself and used for traversal. Using them, the protagonist can move faster through the world on a Stoutland, surf the seas on a Lapras, fly from island to island with a Charizard, and be caressed in the strong arms of a Machamp as they carry them to their destination.
The presentation especially warrants praise as the removal of grid based world design and a more dynamic camera makes Alola a more interesting to traverse than many prior regions. Human characters look wonderful with more realistic proportions and have lovely introductory battle poses. Buildings are more realistically furnished, distinct from one another, and support a higher polygon count, while Pokemon models are wonderfully smooth, although I would have liked to see a select few be updated.
Oh, and as one final gripe, this game was clearly designed around the technical capabilities of the New 3DS, while the regular 3DS is victim to serious framerate drops during busier moments of the game, with some double battle reaching less than 20 frames per second. It’s pretty shameless and makes the sting of not being able to get one of those updated systems while they were discounted all the worse.
I could go on about minor details such as the heavily tutorialized beginning of the game, the slow process of healing Pokemon, the ability to view the summary of newly caught Pokemon, and the fact that the items pouch in the protagonist’s bag becomes filled with literally hundreds of different items in the end. But this review has gone on long enough. Pokemon Sun and Moon are ultimately good games, and I can certainly see why some would call them their favorite Pokemon titles. There are finer points of a truly wonderful game here, but the problems I have with Pokemon and this entry in particular were enough to make this yet another colossally lengthy review, and one that does not even list all of my grievances.
…I really hate using publisher provided screenshots.