I’ve played a lot of Pokémon over the years. I started way back in Blue, and only went forward from there. The hardest part for me, was stopping short of the “perfect” livingdex, a Pokémon Bank collection of every ‘mon in the game, as well as their regional, gender, evolutionary differences, and all the legendaries. It’s something that’s taken me more than 20 years, but it’s fulfilling (for me) to have done. Then a new game comes out, like Sun and Moon, and it sparks a whole new obsession and the desire to re-update that that was previously perfect.
It actually took me a long time to write this review for Pokémon Moon. The game brings a lot of changes, due to in no small part from a new director, Shigeru Ohmori. As a long-time fan of the series, it’s hard to separate my nostalgia for the series, which it’s hard to argue hasn’t stayed to the same formula for its entire life, from the vast amounts of quality of life changes, which mix things up a lot.
I’ll start with the big changes. The region the games take place in Alola, which seems fairly reminiscent of Hawaii: a friendly, tropical group of islands, with some Eastern influence. The first thing you’ll notice in Moon is that the time, unlike previous games with a real-time clock, is 12 hours offset. It doesn’t feel like this time is used for very much, I kind of miss the days where specific pokémon were available at specific times, but those are a bygone era ago. Because the time isn’t used much at all, the time ends up mostly being cosmetic but it’s still an interesting choice.
There’s a much larger focus on story now, it feels a bit like this is the focus over “catching them all”. Hell, the majority of the first island acts as a tutorial, and it’s a good few minutes (even speeding through) before you even get your first pokémon, let alone battle it. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, they’ve dabbled with story elements before, and this is an RPG after all, but there were times I wanted to keep hammering the A button to keep things moving. The story’s not bad, the Pokémon games have never been the literary masterpieces, but it’s certainly up there among the better stories. Characters even have real development, which is exciting.
I do love some of the changes they’ve made though. Pokémon no longer need to learn HM moves to move around the world, which means you can have a full, battle-ready team the whole time through the single player. Don’t get me wrong, I miss my Tropius, my HM slave that’s been with me since Ruby, but this change is absolutely awesome. You’re still held back by needing specific moves, but it’s now through a system called the Ride Pager, which ‘calls’ pokémon for you to ride, and they will perform actions, such as breaking through rocks, flying between towns, or sniff around for hidden items.
The Pokédex has also gone through some fun changes. It’s now powered by a Rotom, who’s more than happy to chat to you about what’s going on, your current objectives and the like. They’re nice enough (even if waiting for them to finish chatting to use the ‘dex can be irritating), and it’s a bit of light fun to have an anthropomorphic companion chat to you. Once you’ve seen a ‘mon in the game, it’ll show in battle what is effective and not effective against it, which is a great way of not having to remember all 800-odd pokémon and their strengths and weaknesses, making this a lot more accessible. It’s not perfect, as it only measures type advantages, and pokémon with abilities that render moves useless (such as levitate) don’t factor in, so you still need some know-how. With these change, the other side of the coin is that it no longer marks off what areas are ‘completed’ once you’ve caught all creatures there, which is something I sorely miss.
Gyms have been replaced by Island Trials, which require players to perform different tasks in an area, fight off a few random pokémon and eventually face off against a Totem Pokémon. There’s never any trainers to battle against for these, and they’re quite a nice fresh breath of air from the Gym system. They’re not totally different by any means, but the Totem Pokémon is quite powerful, and can become quite a bit of a challenge if you’re not prepared. Seven trials and four “kahunas” will take you through your Island Challenge, with the Kahunas being much closer to the Gyms of old. Each one of the trials (and kahunas) beaten gives you a Z-crystals, which pokémon can equip to give them a super-strong move once per battle. Until endgame, this is your replacement for mega-evolutions, which take a bit of a backseat. The Z-moves act like a bit of a nuke, and I’ve never seen them not one-shot an enemy.
The game looks good, if you include the caveat “for a 3ds game”. Some games get away with it through artistic choice, style, or avoiding certain things like close-ups. Not Moon though, it dives straight into it, for better or worse. There’s many close-ups, which can look like a pixelated mess, but when the action is further away it looks quite good; almost like smearing Vaseline on the camera to hide people’s wrinkles. Honestly though, it’s barely something you’ll notice most of the time.
The pokémon themselves have always been the focus of the games, and whilst it doesn’t feel like that may be completely true here in the same way, there are still loads to catch. Alola has around eighty new pokémon, and eighteen Alolan forms of Generation 1 creatures. This is a super interesting concept; it’s not just a form change, but a complete type change for them. Vulpix goes from a fire type, to an ice type with their Alolan form, with the addition of psychic typing when it becomes Ninetales. This is an interesting way to reintroduce Gen1 pokémon to players while still giving them a new spin. Only six legendaries though, which is a bit of a bummer.
Finally, there is one change that I’m still not sure how I feel about, and that’s competitive battling. I feel like they put a lot of work into Mega Evolutions, only to lock it away for almost all the game, and barely reintroduce it when it comes back. The Ability Capsule from X/Y is back, which means you can change your pokémon’s ability with enough Battle Points, earned from the Battle Tree at endgame. Hyper Training allows level 100 pokémon to instantly max out their EV’s, and there is myriad ways to max their IV’s, such as Pokémon Pelago, a passive minigame, or via the Festival system, which can instantly max IV’s at the high level. This means that competitive battlers can more easily get the pokémon they’ve always wanted, but it just doesn’t completely sit right with me, as I see it a little bit of a slap in the face to those who busted their ass really breeding the perfect pokémon. I get it though, I do. This opens it up to be much more accessible, so you’re only breeding for natures and egg moves (and hidden power). I think I’ll be in the minority here.
I’ve mentioned a lot of things I didn’t like about Pokémon Moon. It’s not that I don’t like the game, not at all. I’m pointing out things I don’t like because I’ve put so much damn time into the whole series that I can see all of this stuff, and it’s not the game I am used to, and that’s fine. Moon has its flaws. The game is a bit short, it took me around 15 hours to get to end game, catch all the legendaries and start plugging away at the Battle Tree. The endgame isn’t super interesting for me though, Battle Tree seems like Battle Frontier but lesser, there’s not many legendaries to go after, there’s only around 100 new pokémon all up, and as it currently stands, you can’t trade your hard earned critters from earlier games yet (Bank support coming in January, 2 months after the game’s launch), which is probably my biggest hate. Through all of this though, there’s still a really great game with some really interesting changes. This wouldn’t be in my top 5 Pokémon games, for sure, but it does pave the way for a better game in the future.