After repeatedly challenging us to conquer the Pokémon League over the past 20 years, Game Freak has chosen to turn their rule book upside down with Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. Swept up in the excitement that has surrounded the brand’s anniversary celebrations, the Nintendo 3DS exclusives pander to nostalgia while boldly deviating from the norm to present something entirely unexpected.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t stay true to the usual trappings. Cast as an 11-year old that has just moved to the Alola region, your Mom and Professor Kukui encourage you to make new friends by taking part in the Island Challenge. This tasks fledgeling Pokémon Trainers with exploring the region’s four islands – Melemele Island, Akala Island, Ula’ula Island, and Poni Island – and the Aether Paradise artificial island on an action-packed whistle-stop tour.
This sees Gym Leaders replaced with Trial Captains, with seven being scattered across the islands that you will journey to. Their Island Trials are unique to whichever Trial Captain has organised it, whether that be hunting ingredients to cook a pungent meal, spotting the difference between dancing Marowak after they freeze frame or a somewhat manic soundbite quiz. These all lead to encounters with fierce Totem Pokémon at their conclusion, larger versions of their species that are enveloped by special auras that make them far mightier to topple. They will also call on ally Pokémon to join them, and, without a balanced team, these are often a hard challenge to overcome.
Once you have completed all Trials on an island, budding Trainers can then take on the Grand Trial. This sees them battle against the Kahuna – à la Gym Leader – that leads the island, which, if successfully defeated, will recognise your battle prowess and let you move on to the next island. This change dares to be different, and, while I missed the inventive ways in how we had to overcome a Gym’s confines, it is refreshing to see a different approach.
The Island Challenge isn’t alone in objectifying your adventure, the narrative seeing players take on Team Skull, a group of ruffians that steal Pokémon and mess up the trial sites. There is also the Aether Foundation’s work to support, whose lone goal is to care for Pokémon that have been hurt by the uncaring Team Skull. But it is their research into dimensional rifts that riddle the game with intrigue, through which Ultra Beasts appear. There’s also your friendship with the kind-hearted Hau, kahuna Hala’s grandson who embarks on the Island Challenge with equal enthusiasm.
Your busy Island Challenge itinerary will make sure that you are always kept on the go. The Rotom Pokédex may seem like a mischievous companion, but the device’s characterful design makes it an invaluable resource. Whether that be helping direct you to locations that will see the story continue to unfold or scouring the islands for where to capture Pokémon next, Rotom’s chirpy assistance helps to bring Game Freak’s vision for Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon to life.
New Pokémon Open Up More Ways To Approach Battle Strategies
While the seventh generation hasn’t welcomed as many new Pokémon, the new arrivals are more meaningful. Legendaries Solgaleo and Lunala are more pivotal inclusions than those seen before in helping to shape your battle strategies, while the guardian deities that protect each island lend their unique strengths to your party. We can’t forget to mention the rather innocent-looking Rowlet, coolheaded feline Litten, and entertaining Popplio, who easily rank among the best starter Pokémon to have ever graced the series. Whether it’s because I am as similarly nocturnal, I have been #TeamRowlet ever since their reveal. Decidueye‘s arrow-flinging only heightened that loyalty.
And then there are regional variants, Pokémon that have adapted to the Alola region’s microclimates and taken on different forms than those seen in other regions. These are a welcome throwback for those that have been adventuring since Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, and an aspect that I hope Game Freak will continue with wherever the series is headed next.
Their appearances will be familiar to those that have been glued to Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon’s meticulously planned marketing campaign, which has had us fawning over Alolan Ninetales and sniggering at Alolan Exeggutor in equal measure. Given new types, this part reinvention allows us to remember pocket monsters seen in the Kanto region Pokédex and introduces them once again to a new wave of players.
An Improved Pokédex Aids Your Hunt For Pokémon
With critters old and new awaiting discovery across the four islands, the Pokédex has a renewed purpose in how it has been approached to boot. The Alola Pokédex is broken down between each island, and, while there is some crossover between the four, this is a massive help for those that want to catch ’em all. The Pokédex also now groups Pokémon with their evolutions, which will benefit those less familiar with past generations in understanding whether they can work on training a Pokémon that they have already caught or if they need to hunt out an entirely new one.
Once a Pokémon has been registered in the Pokédex, whether through an encounter or capture, this will similarly aid you in battle. When facing a Pokémon that you have already encountered, your team’s Moves will state if they are super effective, effective, or not very effective against your opponent. This will be of little concern to seasoned Trainers, but is an addition that will help newcomers by grasping how to exploit type-weaknesses.
With Pokémon X and Pokémon Y adding Mega Evolution, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon’s significant introduction to the battle arena lies with Z-Moves. This requires a Z-Ring to be worn by the Trainer, and a Z-Crystal to be held by a Pokémon in your team. These Z-Crystals correspond to the 18 different Pokémon types so, for instance, Electrium Z could be given to any Pokémon that has Electric-type moves.
When a Trainer and Pokémon’s wishes resonate with one another in battle, the Z-Ring and Z-Crystal combo allows them to release their full power together. That results in your Trainer performing an evocative dance, after which your Pokémon can unleash a Z-Move, almighty showpiece moves that can be used once per battle. Impressive to behold, these can soon turn the tide of a losing battle in your favour and I am fascinated to see their impact on the competitive scene.
Poké Ride Is A Perfect HM Replacement
Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon strive to create a world where people and Pokémon live in harmony, with another welcome change being the removal of Hidden Machines (HM). These are replaced with Poké Ride, another aspect that is unique to the culture in the Alola region. Removing the need to allocate HM moves to your team, players can simply summon a Ride Pokémon whenever they wish that each serve their own purpose. Tauros Charge can break rocks, Stoutland Search can sniff around for buried items nearby, Lapras Paddle lets you traverse water, while Charizard Glide allows you to fly to any previously visited location. You get the idea, but this is a change that will be wholeheartedly welcomed.
Post-Game Content Promises To Keep You Hooked
There are plenty of features to distract you. Pokémon Refresh can be seen as an evolved Pokémon Amie, allowing players to care for their Pokémon. This can see you cure status conditions inflicted in battle, removing the need to buy Burn Heal or Paralyz Heal – even though they are still available at Poké Marts. Interacting with your Pokémon will build their affection for you as their Trainer, which, while feeding them Poké Beans can feel superficial, will improve their performance in battle – avoiding attacks or holding out when they are on the verge of fainting.
Then there is Poké Pelago, a place where Pokémon placed in Boxes can enjoy. This allows your Pokémon to explore islands, keeping them occupied rather than statically sitting in a Box. The more Pokémon that you send to Poké Pelago, you will have the chance to develop the isle’s facilities or unlock more isles for them to visit. This is worth spending time in, as it can help raise your Pokémon, see them collect valuable items such as evolutionary stones, or even see Wild Pokémon appear that may choose to join you – helping to complete your Pokédex.
Next up is the Poké Finder, which can be used at photo spots peppered across the Alola region. This can partly be seen as a spiritual successor to Pokémon Snap, letting you use the Rotom Pokédex to take pictures of nearby Pokémon. Your pictures are judged with thumbs up, and, as you take better pictures, you will unlock more features to help take better snaps such as zooming in. (Prepare to lose plenty of hours with this!)
The fun doesn’t end there either, with the bustling Festival Plaza becoming home to Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon’s communication features. This is where you can meet Pokémon Trainers from around the world, whether that be to battle or trade either over an online or local wireless connection. Battle Royal is the new battle mode that players can tackle, a free-for-all format that sees four players have the chance to take each other on for the first time. It’s a dynamic addition and will challenge even seasoned Trainers in uncovering new strategies to deal with the newfound threat in facing three Pokémon at once.
You will steadily rank up in Festival Plaza as you accumulate Festival Coins by chatting to visitors and responding to their requests, which will soon open up the opportunity to host missions where players can team up to cooperatively complete a designated goal. These can be attempted online or locally, and Game Freak has teased that global missions will be held down the line where everyone will be encouraged to work together to accomplish them.
Festival Coins can be spent at stores that line Festival Plaza’s circular balloon-filled street, which will let you have your fortune read, take part in a lottery to win prizes, train your Pokémon at the bouncy house, and provide a chance to dye your clothes. This is a great place to invest your time and another welcome distraction beyond the main quest.
Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon promise to occupy you for a long time to come, and that’s not to mention other elements such as gathering Zygarde Cells and Cores in the Zygarde Cube, the QR Scanner that will let you register Pokémon in your Pokédex to find out where they live, or the Battle Tree, where you can partner with opponents that you have been victorious against to fight alongside them in future battles.
By this point, it should be clear that Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon are packed with more than enough content to fuel your hunger for a definitive Pokémon adventure. But, it isn’t all plain sailing. The lilting soundtrack is once again commendable with Team Skull’s punk themes being a particular highlight, but there are still struggles in graphical performance. There can be no question that the Alola region’s colourful landscapes are joyous and captivating to wander, but larger battle instances are still unable to overcome framerate woes that have been present since the Pokémon series arrived on Nintendo 3DS. It’s not a particular deal-breaker given how superb the whole package is, but it’s a notable notch in what is otherwise a near-perfect realisation of what many hope to see from a Pokémon adventure.
Version Tested: Nintendo 3DS
Review copy provided by Nintendo