Pokemon has had a hell of a year. We've seen Pokemon Go take phones by storm and become something of a global phenomenon, the series is turning 20 with some amazing anime and movie shaped celebrations... and now here we were with Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon, the latest entry in the Pokemon series proper.
Pokemon Sun & Moon is a fitting celebratory game for the series' 20th. That's not because it bombards the player with fanservice, though there is plenty there - it's more because it actually takes a new and different approach to the series at large.
Gyms are no more, for instance. They've been replaced with the Island Challenge, a series of tasks that see you face off against a series of lesser bosses before getting to a character that's more akin to a gym leader and a Totem Pokemon, a super-powerful, uncatchable wild Pokemon.
The challenges you complete on the way to an island leader vary decently. There's puzzles, battles and even just taking on a bit of Pokemon Snap style photography. Most of these make a nice pace-breaker from all the fighting.
Rather than just a quest to be the very best and defeat the elite four Pokemon trainers of the game's given region, Sun & Moon offer up what feels, strangely, more like a traditional JRPG quest-line.
The background of the game is still the typical Pokemon coming-of-age story driven by the island challenge, but Sun & Moon open with a cutscene that's a sort of dramatic chase, a mysterious character pursued by menacing goons. It's surprisingly exciting and engaging for Pokemon, and the game sticks with this. There's revelations about the past of certain members of the main cast revealed in a dramatic manner and generally a surprising sense of urgency about Sun & Moon's narrative.
All these changes end up mattering. Sun & Moon's story is arguably the most interesting Pokemon has ever been, and while Pokemon has always had plenty to offer fans of other more in-depth JRPGs it for the first time feels like the series can stand up next to some of its JRPG peers presentation-wise.
The switch from chubby, chibi characters to designs that look more like the Pokemon anime cast also match this. These characters can do more in scenes and now even stand in the background of every fight scene, even dancing alongside Pokemon when they trigger the new powerful once-per-battle Z-moves mechanic.
Behind the scenes this is still Pokemon as you know it, with the game still using largely the same battle engine that was used in X & Y. Small quality-of-life changes such as helpful hints as to the strengths and weaknesses of any Pokemon you've met before being displayed on the touch screen make things more pleasant, but it's the same old Pokemon.
That's for better and for worse: the battle speed is still incredibly sluggish and performance in some battles on the 3DS even with a complete lack of 3D leaves a lot to be desired. This is a pretty and ambitious game for the 3DS, but those visuals come at the cost of both fully stable performance and 3D visuals.
It's strange that battles are still sluggish - in other ways Sun & Moon seem determined to streamline. There's the strengths and weaknesses mentioned earlier but HMs are also gone, replaced with Pokemon riding.
Pokemon rides fulfill the same world-traversing and fast-travelling purposes as HMs but now have their own dedicated face button to access them. They're faster to access, cooler to look at and avoid you needing to keep a move like flash or rock smash on a valuable team member in order to get around the world. It's just smart.
mart is a key word here, in fact. Some of the changes might well rub some hardcore fans the wrong way, but this feels like a recalibration and reinvention of Pokemon for everyone. When this game was in its earliest phases the wild success of Pokemon Go was but a pipe dream and yet this game feels perfectly pitched to draw in some of the players who fell back in love with monster battling in the wake of Pokemon Go.
Some of this approach also means the game has restraint. There's less added Pokemon here and more a carefully-picked smattering of the classics. I'm fine with that; the new ones added are solid, and the narrative-key Ultra Beasts in particular offer up a style of design not before seen in the series.
The QR Code scanner offers up a very limited but regular chance to catch non-Alolan Pokemon. Poke Pelago offers a chance for players to level up, grow berries and unearth items passively, even when their 3DS is off.
On the multiplayer side there's a neat new plaza functionality and Battle Royal, a fascinating and raucous new mode where four Pokemon trainers go up against each other in a free-for-all four-way battle. The frame rate chokes in this mode, but damn if it isn't great fun and far more tactical than you might think. When I got to play it with four others there was a lot of cursing and laughing indeed.
There are nitpicks, of course. As I said earlier, battles are slow and performance can sometimes dip to be incredibly poor. The game holds your hand for far too long, taking hours to really cast you loose in the way Red & Blue did as soon as you hit the first new town.
It's also too damn easy most of the time - though I made more of a challenge for myself by switching my team up regularly for lower-level Pokemon.
A glance online reveals a lot of far more serious fans have deep issues with some of the changes to the Pokemon metagame, but I have to admit I'm not in that group: I'm not hyper training and IV-calculating, but rather am just looking for a fun RPG romp and some multiplayer battle shenanigans with friends. Call me a filthy casual: In this case, it'd be true.
For my purposes, Sun & Moon is bliss. Its story is exciting and interesting in a way that's new for Pokemon but feels familiar to some JRPG classics. Its beasts are fun, its battle mechanics as good and as timeless as they've ever been. It's only the smaller issues described above and the cage that is the power of the 3DS that holds it from a perfect score.
There's generally an energy and sense of style to Pokemon Sun & Moon that makes the series feel renewed. Some might argue it never left, but if your interest ever wavered this could be the one to make you say 'Pokemon is back'.
Renewal might actually genuinely be what's happened behind-the-scenes: After 19 years there's been a Directorial changing of the guard, and while previous series helmsman Junici Masuda did incredible work and turns in some absolutely amazing stuff for Sun & Moon as its composer, new Director Shigeru Ohmori appears to have been given full reign to leave his mark on the series.
The result is a vibrant, energetic game in a manner Pokemon hasn't managed since Gold & Silver. Sun & Moon have clearly been made with a love and reverence for the series' past but also, crucially, with an eye on evolution. It's all the better for it.
Versions tested: 3DS (Moon)
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.