Pokémon, while never really leaving the public consciousness, came back with a vengeance in 2016. Earlier in the year Pokémon GO took the world by storm, pervasive in a way that global phenomena haven’t been for some time. Not only were GO-related memes all over the internet, the game was out in the street as well; you couldn’t get milk from the corner store without seeing at least one person trying to catch something more interesting than a Zubat. Several months have passed since then and while the initial craze has died down, Nintendo have our back with the release of Pokémon Sun & Moon for 3DS.
Right from the beginning the game feels like a different type of journey. Your young trainer is moving with their mother to the Alola region, a group of four islands that are essentially the Pokémon world’s take on Hawaii. You’re dropped in your new house and are quickly visited by Professor Kukui, his lab coat over a bare chest making a striking first impression. He takes you to pick from three starter Pokémon, but instead of sending you off to tackle your first gym, you’re tasked with completing the Island Challenge. The Island Challenge is taken up by young boys and girls around the age of 11. To complete it you have to beat the big Kahuna on each of the four islands, but you can only challenge a Kahuna when you’ve completed the trials of each island captain. That’s right: gyms are gone!
In Pokémon Moon you’re not out trying to stop a god or save the planet, you’re just a kid who’s moved to a new place, starting a new life and going on an adventure with friends. Sure there’s still some pretty wacky stuff that happens later on in the plot, but for the most part it’s content being a simple childhood adventure. With all the holiday-season games full of mechs, magical assassins and WWI, Pokémon Moon offers a welcome alternative. It’s cozy, relaxing and happy to just bask in good vibes.
The presentation is top notch and super jolly, everything from the UI to the music to the sound that plays when you press a button. There’s a lot of other welcome changes, despite them being commonplace in a lot of other games for some time now. For starters there’s actual cutscenes now, with the camera moving in close when indoors and not being afraid to get right down amongst the rocks and vegetation. Battles have never felt more engaging, with the backdrop actually matching up with where you are in the world. Moving around the world is far more intuitive than previous entries (the grid-based movement of the late nineties is finally gone!), managing your inventory and Pokémon no longer feels like wading through mud, loading times are improved and for a 3DS title, the game is gorgeous.
There are still plenty of frustrations: the opening of the game has a LOT of handholding. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with tutorials, but in a near 20-year-old franchise that hasn’t changed all that much gameplay-wise there should at least be an option to tone down the amount of explanation. It’s quite some time, probably 2-3 hours, before you’re truly given free rein on where to go and what to do. And even then the game makes sure you know exactly which way you should and shouldn’t go to proceed. If you’ve played even one other Pokémon game before tackling this, it’ll be a bit of a slog.
Pokémon Moon is not a challenging game; in fact, I’ve yet to lose a single battle. I haven’t gone out of my way to grind levels but I have sought out every trainer along each route. This lack of difficulty works well if you’re after a cruisy adventure, but aside from a few tricky encounters (one trainer threw out a Miltank that managed to wreak utter havoc upon my team before I finally took it down), it’s a game you can almost play on autopilot.
There are some other smaller gripes: the annoying and utterly unnecessary electronic thud that plays whenever you walk into a wall or object, Team Skull’s ‘street-talk’ shtick gets old pretty fast, and is borderline nonsensical at times, and the mysterious Lillie is little more than a damsel in distress.
These niggling issues aren’t enough to get in the way of everything that makes Pokémon so universally adored. Watching these weird, often cute, occasionally disturbing monsters fight and grow is just as rewarding and fun to me in 2016 as it was as a kid in 1998. Pokémon Moon may be simple, but it’s simplicity is a large part of its appeal. Any franchise that runs this long faces that very real danger of becoming stagnant, and while Pokémon Moon may not be a complete revelation, it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction. There’s no gyms, no melodramatic stakes, it’s colourful, jolly and deep enough to keep you interested without getting bogged down in the mechanics. Whether this is your first Pokémon game since Red and Blue or if you’ve never stopped playing, it’s a great time to jump in with Sun and Moon.