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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2016 in Gaming: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Nintendo has been through a relatively rough few years. Their latest home console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. Its eventual install base of about 13 million constituted about a tenth that of their previous console, the Wii. That said, having picked up a Wii U in late 2016, I’ve been impressed by the range of exclusive games available on the console, not least Tokyo Mirage Sessions, one of the best games I played all year.

I also finally picked up a New 3DS in 2016, and have been very taken with the console itself, as well as the enormous library of high-quality games available for the handheld. In a world where addictive free-to-play games are more and more prevalent, Nintendo’s approach to providing quality (and, generally, wholesome) handheld game experiences stands out. At the same time, Nintendo also made waves by bringing two major franchises to mobile phones. Pokemon Go was the video game sensation of the year, making an impact on popular consciousness which few entertainment products matched. The day it was released in the UK, I came back from my lunch break to find a group of young professional women in suits visiting a Pokemon station outside my workplace. The game was important, not just for its own success, but for what it showed about the potential of the medium.

In December, Nintendo released Super Mario Run for iPhones. The game received largely positive critical reviews, but has had a mixed reception largely because of Nintendo’s bold move of, er, charging people to play it. Nine pounds is admittedly quite expensive for a mobile phone game, but the game’s release highlighted the toxic nature of the mobile phone games market. More Nintendo games are on the way for mobiles, including Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem games, so it will be interesting to see whether their reception is in line with Pokemon Go or Super Mario Run.

Nintendo announced their next console, the Switch, towards the end of 2016, and the machine is due out early next year. Most of Nintendo’s useful innovations tend to get cloned by Microsoft and Sony as soon as they’re announced, which might explain why they left the announcment as close to launch date as possible. Essentially, the Switch is a home console which will also supports handheld gaming, as it features a portable device you can pick up and take with you to continue your home gaming experiences on the move. It’s an ingenious idea with great potential, and with a likely price point of around £200 it would remain in the budget of a relatively large proportion of the population. Here’s hoping the console’s launch is well executed and its features clearly explained, and that it doesn’t suffer from the confusing myriad of control options that hampered the Wii U. The end of the year also saw the spectacularly successful launch of Pokemon Sun/Moon, a conventional video game release which proved to be one of Nintendo’s biggest ever, with 10 million units shipped by the end of the year and at least 7 million sold.

Overall, 2016 was a successful year for Nintendo on a number of fronts. It’s good to see the company traditionally associated with gaming doing well in a challenging, and often confusing and chaotic, creative and retail environment.

The Bad

2016 was expected by some to be ‘the year of VR’. Certainly a number of Virtual Reality products hit the market, in the form of Oculus Rift, the Vive, and Playstation VR. Having been fortunate enough to try both a Vive and Oculus, I have a sense of how exciting this technology is, and the extraordinary potential it offers to deliver a range of cultural, educational and other experiences to a very wide range of the population–to pretty much everyone, in fact.

For that reason, it’s depressing if not surprising to see how Virtual Reality has been delivered to the public so far. The year started badly when the Oculus Rift, the first headset to come to market, was priced far higher than most people expected. One of the reasons given was to make the product “aspirational”, which some interpreted as code for making it something only rich people could afford by artificially inflating the price. Later in the year, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was caught up in a bizarre scandal in which he seemed to be aligning himself with extreme “alt-right” internet trolls by offering to bankroll pro-Donald Trump shitposting memes in the run-up to the US elections. Oculus also faced criticism from some quarters for trying to buy up VR games and make them Oculus”exclusives”–a highly controversial strategy in the PC environment, which has always benefited from the lack of platform fragmentation that exists in the console market. But VR technology has the potential to be a game-changer, and in the pursuit of exclusive titles, Oculus owner Facebook seemed to many to be adopting a predatory strategy with sinister implications.

The Ugly

When I was growing up in the 1990s, and into the early 2000s, dedicated video games magazines were my main source of information about games, and I was totally reliant on them for news, reviews, and guides to difficult games. The internet has totally changed the games journalism industry, and most people now rely on online sites for this kind of information. Only a few magazines remain. In the UK, Edge Magazine and Games TM both vie for the same market with ‘mature’ and intelligent games journalism. Post-2008, with declining living standards the reality for most people, it’s harder than ever to pay for print journalism, and the price of these magazines keeps going up just as the page count and format of the magazines keeps getting smaller.

To a certain extent, games websites have filled the gap, with the advantage that they’re updated several times a day rather than once a month. However, websites have to way to monetize a “free” service, competing for clicks and ad revenue, with the result that accessing good and reliable content can be a challenge. The always-on, herd mentality culture of the internet also means it can be difficult to get divergent opinions about games. Even as an independent, casual blogger I understand the pressure of not wanting to be “caught out” with your view on a game, so there’s a tendency for writers to be conservative and hew towards a standard view, and with the internet it takes about 30 seconds to find out what that standard viw is. To me, this explains why so many bang average (or worse) games get a free pass from critics, with franchises like Uncharted and developers like Telltale and Kojima enjoying a bafflingly inflated profile online.

Although sites like Polygon do seem to try to hold powerful companies to account, neverthless the gap in wealth and power between multi-billion dollar publishers and relatively small and precarious news and opinion outlets couldn’t be more apparent. In proportion as their real power wanes vis-a-vis the gaming giants of the world, so games outlets seem to devote more and more time to eulogising arthouse independent or ‘indie’ games. The desire to promote games made outside the big publishing houses is admirable, but games websites regularly go to cringeworthy lengths to shower praise on gimmicky and simplistic games that would have looked and felt primitive on the NES. Emotional manipulation or shock value in game narratives seems to be valorized, even while sincerity or simplicity is regarded as old hat. Until recently this could perhaps be dismissed as a symptom of our “post-modern” times but, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s surely the corrosive effects of this kind of vain intellectual posturing.