Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS) – Review

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2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.

The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.

Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.

For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.

As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.

As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.

This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.

I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.

In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.

7/10

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Liara

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As I mentioned in a previous blog post, we got Liara six months or so after we got Gizmo. Part of the reason was so that Gizmo would have some company when we’re at work and so on, and also because of the nice symmetry in having two cats, a boy and a girl, one cream, one blue.

Liara was lovely when we met her and seemed happy in the home of the family who were selling her; but introducing her to our home was emotionally and logistically challenging, and took a while. We had to keep her in her own room, separate from Gizmo, for a month, and for a month after that we couldn’t leave them alone together. Gizmo was curious about her: he spent the first night after Liara moved in crying outside the door of her room, and T. had to walk him up and down the corridor for hours, rocking him like a baby.  As a nine-month-old cat in a new home with new people and an older, male cat, Liara was afraid, and would regularly hiss through the door at Gizmo and swipe at him if we let him in. It was difficult for us because obviously we wanted them to get on, and a big part of getting Liara was to try and improve Gizmo’s quality of life and get some more company for him. For a while it was touch and go whether we would be able to keep her, and we wondered whether a Ragdoll or something would be better matched to Gizmo’s personality.

If Liara hadn’t been so wonderful with us, there’s a good chance we would have re-homed her in the end. But despite her nerves around Gizmo, she has always been very friendly with people. She likes humans and has a becoming shyness about her when faced with a large group. She is much more typical of British Shorthairs than Gizmo, and hates being picked up, but loves being stroked and petted–so long as it’s on her terms. She’ll just shy away and scurry off if she doesn’t feel like it, or if she feels uncomfortable.

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We’ve had Liara for 18 months now, and although her and Gizmo have learned to share the flat without major problems, they’re still not as close as we would like. He often approaches her when she’s sleeping and clumsily tries to groom her, which always ends sooner or later in a wrestling match as she escapes his tender embrace. They’ve both been neutered, but presumably some of that instinct remains in them both. This threat of Gizmo appearing out of nowhere probably explains her occasionally skittish behaviour, and she’s more alert and wary around the place than he is.

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Not all of that is down to Gizmo’s presence, though. Although Liara is a pedigree cat, her pedigree is not as high as his; and there is a bit more of the street moggy about her. I think that’s the ultimate source of her relative nervousness and alertness: she is just a bit closer to the street than Gizmo, and less of her instinct has been bred out of her. Liara still makes a very good house cat–she’s friendly, lazy, and sociable–and in a way she’s a good counterpoint to him. Whereas Gizmo is the ultimate momma’s boy, Liara’s personality is definitely a bit more that of a streetwise daddy’s girl. Unlike Gizmo, she doesn’t mind going to the vet, where (again unlike Gizmo) she behaves impeccably. The only exception was the time we took them both at once, and Gizmo’s incessant crying in the taxi encouraged her to start, too. Fortunately the driver was more amused by our feline chorus than anything else.

It’s a cliche, but in our experience pets do bond more with an owner of the opposite sex. We each adore both our pets, of course, but there’s no question that Gizmo’s bond is strongest with T. and Liara’s is stronger with me. I don’t know whether that dynamic emanates from the cat, the owner, or both, but it’s real. Gizmo most often seeks out T.’s lap in the evening, while in the morning it’s me that Liara seeks out for a stroke before we leave for work. Liara hates it when I leave the flat, whether it’s going to work in the morning or going to the gym, and will often tip over on her side at the top of the stairs and indicate she wants to be stroked. (Of course, I have to oblige.) While she will rarely plonk herself down on your lap like Gizmo will, she does like to be in the same room as you, and I probably underestimate how much company and attention she actually needs. Maybe some of that’s down to the fact she’s much less vocal than Gizmo, who constantly talks to us when he wants a chat or feels like complaining about something (and before meal times). She does have an adorable kind of chipmunk chirrup, though, which she only uses when she’s very excited (about food) or wants your attention. If I hear that noise I know she’s overdue a bit of TLC.

Mass Effect fans will know this already but her name is a homage to one of the main characters from that series. She’s our own blue and true love.

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Gizmo

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T. and I have two cats, Gizmo and Liara. Both were about eight months when we got them, six months apart in 2014. Although they’re not related, we tend to refer to them as brother and sister, and that’s more or less how we treat them. They’re both British Shorthairs: Gizmo is a chocolate and cream colourpoint, and Liara is a sort of greyish-indigo–not quite the classic ‘British Blue’, but close. We love them both, and they’re both terrific pets who at times feel more like friends (I know this will sound insane to anyone who doesn’t have cats). British Shorthairs are quite a long-lived breed–that’s one of the reasons we chose them–but nevertheless, their lives fly by in relation to our own. I try not to think about it too much, but I thought that the process of writing about Gizmo and Liara, my relationship with them, and their place in my shared life with T., would be a good thing for me. Also, I enjoy reading about animals and their behaviour, so hopefully others out there may enjoy this, too.

Gizmo joined our family just over two years ago, in January 2014. We first contacted animal shelters, to see if we could re-home a cat that needed a family. Sadly, none of the shelters we approached thought we were suitable, because we don’t have an outdoor area. I know some people have an objection to keeping cats as ‘indoor-only’ pets, but some cats (like Gizmo) have been specifically bred to be as tame as possible, and have little interest in going outside; moreover, in the area we live in, cats are at the mercy of a dense population of foxes, dogs, traffic, and other cats. And let’s face it, in an urban environment there are enough people around that there’s a chance there will be humans who wish to cause harm to vulnerable animals, too. So in short, we were and are comfortable with the decision that our cats would be indoor-only, but the shelters didn’t think we would make for a good home.

That’s when we decided to buy a cat, and started researching pedigree cats.  We had fairly specific requirements: we wanted a British Shorthair, preferably blue or chocolate/cream colourpoint, preferably male, and young but not a kitten. Both of us work full-time, and couldn’t stay home with a kitten. Maybe it was the time of year we were looking, but it was harder than we expected to find the perfect pet. Then we found him.

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The first photo we took of Gizmo.

Gizmo was actually the first available cat we visited. It’s something of a cliche, but in this case absolutely true: we fell in love with Gizmo as soon as we met him. I was in a foul mood at the time, too, as we had to get the train up from London to Watford after work on a cold January evening, followed by a long bus journey and a walk through suburbia. But it was well worth it. Gizmo was about eight months old when we met him, and already had a well-developed personality. He happily got up into the lap of one of our hosts, allowed us to stroke him, and generally did a great job of making himself agreeable. We also had an insight into another part of his personality when he climbed the stairs to sniff at the door on the landing, behind which a couple of large-sounding dogs were barking vociferously. His owners explained to us that Gizmo liked the dogs and got on well with them.

Gizmo had been bred by experienced breeders as a pedigree cat and was registered with the GCCF (Governing Council of the Cat Fancy), but as a ‘non-active’ cat, ie, we wouldn’t be permitted to breed him and register his offspring as pedigree cats. That wasn’t an issue for us, as we wanted him as a pet, not as a breeding cat. He wasn’t neutered, but we expected we would have to take him for neutering and this was also the advice we received from his breeders and also from our vet. If you’re not planning to breed a cat, it’s generally thought to be the best thing to do. Gizmo’s owners took to us and thought that Gizmo would be well-suited to life as an indoor cat, and we were able to arrange to take him home at the weekend. We were ecstatic.

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Getting settled in.

He’d actually been named Gizmo by his previous owners, but it just felt so appropriate for his appearance and his nature that we decided against changing it. He’s a really simple and uncomplicated cat, although he is somewhat unusual, especially for a British Shorthair. He’s extremely friendly and affectionate. He loves meeting new people and he loves company. Sure, he doesn’t always feel like it, but when he wants to be alone he’ll just quietly walk away and curl up in one of his favourite spots in another room. But much of the time he is happy to curl up on T.’s legs, especially if she gets out his favourite blanket. He’ll happily spend hours dozing in that position. From what we understand, this is quite unusual for his breed, as they usually like to relax next to you, rather than on top of you. That’s definitely the case with our other cat, Liara, who normally likes to sit next to or behind us.

If you pick Gizmo up, he goes completely limp, and will let you carry him around for ages without squirming or asking to be let down (again, literally the opposite of Liara). Hilariously, he’s terrified of heights, unless he’s being held, in which case it doesn’t matter how high up he is. Overall, he’s so friendly and accommodating that we’re often put in mind of what people say about Ragdolls, although he doesn’t really look like one. At night, he likes to sleep on the bed, especially if it’s cold, and will often sleep on top of the duvet between us, or on top of my feet/legs/knees; often getting up to give our noses or ears a sniff during the night and to settle down for some heavy purring next to our pillows. It is absolutely adorable and very comforting but not always conducive to a good night’s sleep.

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Indeed, Gizmo’s generally quite a noisy cat. In particular, he really likes to talk. Ever since he moved in Gizmo has been talking to us morning, noon, and night, especially just before meal times. When I get home from work he comes and meets me at the stairs leading up to our flat and tells me about his day. If he finds a moth or bug around the flat, he’ll strike up a conversation with it for as long as it takes Liara to come and gobble it up. His volubility is another endearing part of his personality and another unusual trait for a British Shorthair, being much more reminiscent of a Siamese. His colouring is quite like a Siamese too, of course, and we wonder whether some Siamese DNA was introduced a few generations back; but his pedigree information is all there, and there’s no mention of it.

Gizmo’s toilet routine can be a bit noisy as well, partly because he sometimes miaows and runs around a lot before he goes, but also because he sometimes scratches around the litter tray for ages afterwards. He rarely covers it up, but will instead scratch every surface of the covered litter tray as well as the adjacent wall and the floor. He sort of knows he’s supposed to do something but not exactly sure what. When we got Liara we thought he might learn from her, but instead she’s picked up Gizmo’s bad habit, inevitably. If he goes at night then all the scratching and scraping around the tray can wake us up, which is a joy. But it’s basically impossible to have any kind of negative feeling associated with Gizmo, partly because he never seems to have any negative feelings toward anything himself. I’m able to get grumpy about pretty much anything but I’m never grumpy with him, or Liara for that matter.

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Posing for the camera.

One of the main reasons we got Liara was so that Gizmo would have some company when we’re at work or during the rare occasions when we go away. Introducing Liara to our home was a difficult process which took longer than we expected, and for a while it felt touch and go whether we would be able to keep her. One of the reasons it was so difficult was precisely because of Gizmo’s good nature. Whereas Liara was shy and scared and prone to lashing out, Gizmo was just curious and friendly–but too curious and too friendly, when a little less enthusiasm would probably have made it easier for the newcomer. It took a month of keeping them in separate rooms before they were calm enough to be in the same space, and a further month before we could leave them alone together. Since then they’ve been fine, but their behaviour has had the following pattern: Liara generally wants space and rarely initiates play or contact, while Gizmo regularly tries to start play or tries to groom her, which she’ll tolerate briefly before running away. It’s a shame that they don’t have the kind of close relationship we would like, but they get on well enough, and both of their lives are more interesting and less lonely with the other around.

I know that it’s the same for me, too.

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Get this lump off me!