Pokémon Sun and Moon, the latest Pokémon adventure since the mobile smash hit Pokémon Go, releases in Japan and North America later this week with Europe not far behind. Though Pokémon Go may bring an entire new generation of fans to the franchise, long-time players already know what they're getting into. Or maybe they don't: Pokémon Sun and Moon introduces more changes to the formula than any installment before it.
Currently sitting at a generally favorable score of 88 on Metacritic, reviewers seem to appreciate the change on the horizon — though they recognize the risk it poses to the game's longevity, too.
A Focused Narrative
Narrative has never been the strong suit of Pokémon titles. At least, not the main game series. You played a child who wanted to be the very best Pokémon Master and everything in between the starting line and the finish line was incidental. Things happened, sure, but they seemed to happen more to give the player something to do rather than to tell a compelling story. The most memorable stories of early Pokémon titles were those not explicitly told, relying instead on the creepy atmosphere of locations such as Lavender Town.
According to early reviewers, Pokémon Sun and Moon have reconsidered the franchise's approach to storytelling: The central narrative is stronger, giving the player character motivations beyond defeating gyms or an Elite Four, and providing them with a supporting cast they'll spend time getting to know. The Daily Dot lays it out in plain language:
The music, characters, and story are some of the strongest in Pokémon history
Faults Of Focus
This restructuring of the Pokémon story does seem to come with some drawbacks, however. The light, cookie-cutter stories of past Pokémon installments worked well for those who cared little for the story but would rather create their own adventures. The games always had a clear series of goals, but players had the freedom to wander off the beaten path to discover secondary objectives and activities. Pokémon Sun and Moon's stronger central narrative drives players down a more linear path — not simply giving players linear goals, but shuttling them straight down that path with little opportunity for variation or surprise.
Polygon found this change in priorities particularly troubling:
Flashy and fun is Pokémon Sun and Moon's modus operandi, and I found it to be an impressive, successful combo. But much of the spectacle is derived from the very linear storyline, which doesn't bode well for the games' longevity after the plot comes to a close. Sun and Moon trades expanded content for a straight, if well-told, adventure, marking yet another deviation from the Pokémon series formula. I found myself even more disappointed by this exchange than I otherwise would be, largely due to fond memories of robust side quests in previous generation games.
Breathing New Life Into Pokémon Gameplay
Pokémon Sun and Moon doesn't shy away from making alterations to its battle system, either. While the gameplay remains the same as ever at its core, the game provides more information in battle than ever. Strengths, weaknesses, and the various effects of abilities are always on display, doing away with the need to memorize the ever-growing list of Pokémon types, moves, and their variants. Speaking personally, I had no problem with such memorization — back in 1996, anyway, before the list of variables began swelling to greater and greater heights. Remembering exactly what everything did in every situation became more difficult with every new title in the series.
This installment of the series also eliminates HMs such as Surf. HMs were special abilities you taught a Pokémon which allowed the player to access new areas of the map. Surf, for example, allowed the player to cross previously unnavigable bodies of water. Though they started as a fun way to allow the player to explore new areas of the map with the aid of their Pokémon, they quickly became a chore: An HM ability took up precious space in a Pokémon's limited number of combat abilities they can know at any given time. You needed Surf to cross the ocean, but Surf wasn't necessarily the most effective move to have in a fight.
Players often turned to behaviors such as finding an HM Mule — a Pokémon who could use as many HMs as possible, which you only pulled out of storage when you needed it. So much for companionship! In Sun and Moon, with the removal of HMs, that's no longer a concern.
While some long-time players might be frightened by these changes after 20 years of Pokémon, EGM appears to appreciate it:
A couple technical issues aside, Sun/Moon might be the best Pokémon game yet. It freshens up a formula some of us PokéManics might not have realized was growing stale until now. Trials and Grand Trials provide variations on familiar gameplay, and the removal of HMs and telling players how effective their moves are rejuvenates battling.
On the topic of technical issues, that's one thing which hasn't changed since the previous iteration of the franchise: When battles get hectic, the game's framerate still has a bad habit of taking a nosedive.
No matter the changes made to the Pokémon formula in Sun and Moon, the fundamentals remain: Catch 'em all and have a blast doing it. If you enjoyed previous installments of the series, Sun and Moon is unlikely to disappoint.
Do you think the Pokémon franchise needed to change to stay fresh? Or would you rather they stuck with the tried-and-true formula which carried them through the last two decades?