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Pokémon Sun and Moon are the perfect getaway

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When Pokémon Go launched in July, the augmented reality app accomplished what few other games had managed before: it got millions of people out into the real world, exploring their surroundings and working together. The communal experience was part of what made the game such a massive, if short-lasting, phenomenon. One might argue that the events of 2016 call for games, and other entertainment, to force us into the public space, and invite us to meet the people with whom we share this planet.

But maybe you want something that lets you forget the world for a bit. Something that’s comforting like a warm blanket. A game that offers a safe and familiar place to explore, with just enough refreshing new ideas to keep your interested. Something where you can become friends with adorable monsters and hang out at the beach. Something like Pokémon Sun and Moon.

The latest main entries in the Pokémon series share little in common with Pokémon Go beyond the familiar roster of characters. Rather, the pair are a humble but important update for the 20-year-old series. You still play as a young kid on a quest to catch pokémon and unlock their mysteries. You still throw balls to capture creatures, and feed them berries to make them healthy. There’s still an evil band of pokémon thieves that needs to be stopped.

But for a series like Pokémon, one that moves forward at a glacial pace, even seemingly minor shifts can change the experience in important ways. In the case of Sun and Moon, these changes make the games more approachable and streamlined, while also introducing a much more chill vibe with a new Hawaii-inspired setting. Playing is almost like going on a brief vacation filled with Slowpokes and Pikachus.

Pokemon Sun Moon
Pokemon Sun Moon

Sun and Moon take place in a new region called Alola, a series of four large islands connected to each other but disconnected from the rest of the world. You play as a new kid who has just moved to the area from the mainland. Unlike pretty much every Pokémon adventure before them, Sun and Moon don’t set you on a quest to earn a series of gym badges and ultimately become a pokémon champion. Instead, you’re off to explore the islands, and complete a series of trials that, for the most part, are a lot different from the gym battles of games past. One has you searching for specific plants in a lush jungle, another has you watching pokémon do a tribal dance, and all end with a battle against a powerful “totem” pokémon. The new setup makes the game feel less like climbing the career ladder and more like self-guided exploration.

I’ll admit, I do miss collecting gym badges; it was a nice way to gauge my progress in past games. But the trials add an element of surprise that’s really been missing from Pokémon. In lieu of badges, completing these challenges will earn you new items called z-crystals, which unlock powerful new moves if you let a pokémon hold onto them (as well as some adorable dance animations for both you and your pokémon).

Aside from changing the game’s structure, the shift in setting also gives the game a “move at your own space” spirit. Alola is a pleasant place to be. The islands are gorgeous — rendered in the best 3D visuals to grace a handheld Pokémon game to date — filled with color and vibrancy. Characters walk around in Hawaiian shirts, and the main professor prefers to go topless underneath his lab coat. You can outfit your character in a tank top and deck shoes, and each pokémon center now features a chill café where you can grab a lemonade or pineapple juice. Alola feels different than any Pokémon region before it, and 12 hours in, I can’t wait to explore it even further. (Also: Sun and Moon are the first games in the series to feature proper 3D movement, so actually walking around feels a lot better than in the past.)

Sun and Moon also make a number of more functional changes that make the games much more enjoyable to play. For one, you get cool pokémon a lot sooner. Previous games often forced you to spend hours fighting and collecting the equivalent of pigeons and rats before moving on to the good stuff, but in Sun and Moon it didn’t take long before I had a satisfactory team at my disposal. Having a Jolteon and Slowpoke nearly right away is a nice change of pace. It also helps that the dud pokémon aren’t quite so crummy this time around. Alola is full of lots of cute and colorful birds (including one that looks like a human cheerleader), and previously dull characters like Rattata and Grimer have been given great island makeovers.

Perhaps the best change is that the game now gives you much more information when you defeat a pokémon in battle. After a victory, the next time you face that particular breed of pokémon the game will let you know which of your moves it’s strong or weak against. It sounds like a minor thing, but it makes a huge difference: it means less memorizing what’s strong against what, and, at least for me, sped up the battles considerably. Things go a lot faster when you stop constantly checking Bulbapedia in the middle of a fight.

A dozen hours in, every change I’ve come across so far has been for the better. Sun and Moon look amazing, the battles are faster and more dynamic, and the world itself is both unpredictable and laid-back, a comforting experience with enough new features to keep longtime fans interested. The only real drawback is that the game is fairly easy, even by Pokémon standards. Few of the battles and trials I’ve come up against so far have provided much of a challenge.

Then again, that also means that you don’t have to do much grinding to make your pokémon team stronger for big battles. That’s the one part of the series that always felt a bit like work. And who wants to do work on a tropical island?

Pokémon Sun and Moon are available on November 18th on the Nintendo 3DS.