Pokémon Sun and Moon review

Pokmon has often been a series trading on nostalgia. That warm, fuzzy and sort of sickening feeling some of us are prone to when thinking back to simpler times of link cables, your dad’s Game Boy, and maybe the occasional semi-exploitative playground trade. Pokmon’s relied on the stirring up of wistful reflection for so long that even pointing it out feels like a tired and unimaginative observation itself.

Yet with Pokmon Sun and Moon, things have changed. Junichi Masuda, a founding member of Pokmon developer Game Freak, legendary creator of the ‘Masuda method’ and long-term game director and composer, has dutifully watched over some of my favourite childhood memories from the days of the original Ruby and Sapphire right up to the latest generation of Pokmon X and Y. The guard changed, however, with the recent Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire remakes and, for the first time in more than a decade, a main series Pokmon game has a new director.

That man is Shigeru Ohmori, and the result is one of the most characterful, exciting, and fun Pokmon games of them all. It feels curated, crafted, with a cohesive vision in mind that informs everything throughout – from the way your Ride Sharpedo skips over waves like a jet ski to the comical ‘whappah’ sound effect of a challenging Blackbelt. Without willing to set too many Pokfan pulses a-racing, that overflowing sense of style and character means that Pokmon Sun and Moon are genuine rivals to Gold and Silver as some of the very best games in the series.

Sun and Moon brings some pleasing-but-predictable tweaks to an otherwise protected central formula. Ordinarily, with each new Pokmon game we get more Pokmon to catch, more towns to visit, some more slightly uninspiring sideshows – beauty pageants, athletics tournaments, et cetera – and another ten-year-old on a quest be the very best, just because.

But with Ohmori’s direction the sacred formula hasn’t just been readjusted. In some cases it’s been totally reinvented. Gyms and Gym Leaders; the Elite Four; Day Care; HMs; out-of-combat moves; even recent poster children like Mega-Evolution, the hallowed secrecy of Individual Values, and the series’ very operating parable of how we all need to just love our Pokmon have been either re-worked, re-thought, or totally removed.

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There’s been plenty of talk about how Pokmon games have been trying to get closer to the anime, but Sun and Moon’s charming world is the first to really deliver.

That, I admit, was a little scary for a someone who has lent so heavily on the game’s crutches of comfort and familiarity. I’m one of the more staunch defenders of HMs, for instance; they force you into an old-school, zero-sum tradeoff between the most powerful team and the one which is most well-prepared, and balancing that – finding the best ‘HM Slave’ and team to go with it – became something of an art in itself for the community, too. But for every cause for concern, on learning something else had been tweaked or changed, my hesitancy has been proven wrong. Time and again, Pokmon Sun and Moon surprises with its thoughtfulness, detail, and craft.

A major change is that, instead of the traditional system of eight Gyms and an Elite Four, the player must now take on a series of seven Island Challenges, each comprised of a Captain, a trial, a powerful Totem Pokmon, and a Z Move-enabling Crystal as a reward. The trials vary wildly, from collecting hidden ingredients to carefully analysing Pokmon dances, but whilst that all sounds frightfully gimmicky they are executed well, with variation and identifiable character letting them stand well above the sterile, rigid, repetitive grind of the battle-focused Gyms of old.

Completing all of the trials on an island will grant you a battle with that island’s Kahuna, meanwhile. Powerful trainers who maintain a close bond with their island’s respective guardian Pokmon, the Tapu, island Kahunas are also some of the best things about Sun and Moon. They benefit from some wonderful animation, an elongated involvement with the story, and some genuinely funny cutscenes – yes cutscenes! In Pokmon! And they’re good! – and with that added room to grow, those characters flourish.

The same can often be said for the new Pokmon themselves. The debate over the franchise’s relentless introduction of new creatures to the Pokdex, and their respective inability to capture imaginations of both the hardcore and the wider Pokmon-acknowledging public, will of course continue. Yet a point many have grasped at but never quite landed on is the fact that the newly introduced Pokmon of generations past aren’t failing to inspire because they’re somehow worse – there’s a pile of slime and a magnet for every bag of rubbish and floating keychain, after all – but because they simply haven’t been given the chance to do so. Aside from the odd blurt of exposition from a passing NPC, previous newcomers have had no time to make an impact; no detail, other than a line in the Pokdex, to bring a little flavour to the party, whilst the original 151 had the anime series, the films, and the trading cards we grew up with – and 600-odd fewer Pokmon to compete with, to boot.

Sun and Moon deftly handles that issue by corralling the Pokmon you’ll find in the wild to a smaller number of more specific locations. The issue’s also helped by a rebalanced experience system and Exp. Share item, too. With much lower experience yields, but a re-tooled Exp. Share, leaving it switched on generally means you can defeat a Route’s trainers, catch all of it’s Pokmon, and be just about the perfect level to tackle the next stage right away, without the need to grind. It’s a decision that lends Sun and Moon some valuable momentum.

Being a devotee of Pokmon’s competitive community – if, admittedly, as more observer and collector than participant – I can’t ignore the drastic changes Sun and Moon bring to the competitive battling and training scene on top of the shifts in the main story.

Z Moves are the headline addition, and in light of what I would expect to be the huge impact they have on competitive battling that spotlight is rightly positioned. You can use just one Z Move per battle, but can equip as many Pokmon as you like with the enabling Z Crystals – much the same as Mega Stones and Mega-Evolution in generation six – and I would expect most tournaments to allow both a single Mega-Evolution and a single Z Move per battle. The significance will come from the fact that a Z Crystal empowers any move of that type from the Pokmon holding it, and so those previously handicapped by a weak movepool or offensive stat could now, all of a sudden, see far greater use.