Pokemon Sun & Moon hands-on: a potent and timely reminder that Pokemon is so much more than Go

By Alex Donaldson, Wednesday, 12 October 2016 16:01 GMT

This might be the Pokemon game to properly drag me back into the fold.

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With the wild success of Pokemon Go, it’d be easy to think… well, that’s that. That’s the future of Pokemon; apps and bite-sized games for a ludicrously broad audience, its core concepts stripped down to the bones. Pokemon Go is basic, but it’s also decent. That’s how it’s captured such a large audience. I lived and breathed Pokemon Go for a little while, producing page after page here on the site – but a little time with Pokemon Sun & Moon was a sharp reminder and wake-up call. This is what Pokemon is really all about.

“This entry has grabbed me more thoroughly in its opening hours than any other Pokemon game in years.”

Whenever I’m covering a series with such an enormous lineage I feel the need to establish where I stand with it, so: I remember getting my copy of Pokemon Blue vividly. It was a holiday present (to keep me quiet, no doubt). I fell in love with that game. I played it religiously, and the same was true for Gold and Silver, my favourite entry in the series.

Over subsequent years my interest waned. I completed the following two generations and the remake of Red, but by the time we reached Black & White I fell into what’s been a rut for several games now: Buy them, enjoy around the first half of the game, lose interest. This was true for Black/White, X/Y, and even the remakes of Gold/Silver and Ruby/Sapphire, games I originally loved.

With that noted, here’s my headline takeaway from two hours with Pokemon Sun & Moon: This entry has grabbed me more thoroughly in its opening hours than any other Pokemon game in years. I can’t wait to play more. Let’s talk about why.

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The theme for my time with Pokemon Sun & Moon is familiar but not. So the game opens of course with the typical spiel and gender choice from this game’s Professor, for instance, but it also opens with a full-on cutscene that feels unlike anything the Pokemon series has ever really attempted before.

I’m forbidden from discussing details of the scene, but it seems to drop a lot of mysterious hints at a larger plot than ‘become a Pokemon Master’. Over the years Pokemon has gone more down this path with Pokemon being tied into the world’s creation myth and all sorts, but this is the first time it’s felt intrinsic to the game from minute one.

The cutscenes betray a generally improved sense of style and presentation across the board. Again, the games have gradually tended towards this look but this marks the end of the more chibi-style characters that the series started with. What we have instead now look more like typical anime characters, but with that increased sense of detail comes an ability to tell stories more through animation and the like.

All this is personified in the decision to now constantly have trainers standing behind their Pokemon while in battle: the characters are now detailed enough in their design that they belong there. To get reductive about it, the characters now look more like they do in the Pokemon anime, and that’s no bad thing.

It’s all about the little touches. When you get to a point where you’re about to be in the line of sight of a rival trainer the screen narrows with black borders top and bottom to warn you – it’s almost Metal Gear esque. The areas feel like they open up more quickly than previous games too, making skirting around rivals easier.

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When you catch a Pokemon you’re given a Pokedex percentage not just for the entire land of Alola but also for each of the game’s islands, allowing you to more accurately track if you’ve caught anything in a given area. When a Pokemon evolves it shows their evolution path on screen, letting you know that you’ve either topped out the evolution path or have another mystery evolution to go.

Another touch, a favourite, is how once you’ve discovered a Pokemon’s strengths and weaknesses your moves are marked if they’ll be effective or not on your opponent in the same-as-ever turn-based battle menu. It’s just easier.

“When I imagine what the console Pokemon game I dreamt about around the Gamecube era would’ve looked like, the image in my mind is remarkably similar to Sun & Moon.”

There’s lots of little quality-of-life improvements like this. They make a world of difference. For lack of a better term I’d describe my impression of Pokemon for a long time as stodgy; it stuck to the tempo laid out in the original almost uncompromisingly, and that sometimes made the games a little slow and plodding by modern standards. X & Y took steps away from this, but Sun & Moon feel like the culmination of this intent.

Everything looks better, moves more slickly and feels more… well, modern. When I imagine what the console Pokemon game I dreamt about around the Gamecube era would’ve looked like, the image in my mind is remarkably similar to Sun & Moon. There’s a sense of scale and spectacle here that feels invigorating, and while this is something that X & Y shot for, again it feels more accomplished here.

There’s all this, but then at the same time there’s much that’s familiar. There’s still that low-pitched thud noise whenever you walk into something and can’t walk further, and that strange Game Boy sound effect when you enter and exit buildings.

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As with X & Y this game feels confident enough to not have to lean on its new Pokemon too heavily as well. There’s plenty of newcomers in the opening hours, but both familiar and new versions of classics are featured prominently also. I’m a big fan of the new starters – I picked firey cat Litten, because I’m convinced bloody everybody is going to pick the Owl-like Rowlet, and I’m ever the rebel.

In this sense it feels like the perfect mix, and in these early hours the game makes a strong case for being the perfect game for Pokemon’s 20th. It feels new and different but also comfortable and familiar. As a semi-lapsed fan I’m very interested in continuing this story. This might be the perfect timing, what with all those lapsed fans feasting on Pokemon Go’s nostalgia for the original 151.

The biggest change is by now not new information, but Pokemon Gyms are gone: there’s no Pokemon League to speak of in the land of Alola. Instead, the game sets up a more organic coming-of-age journey of discovery that seriously shakes up the series’ pacing. In this Sun & Moon might resemble a more traditional RPG, especially if its plot escalates.

“In these early hours the game makes a strong case for being the perfect game for Pokemon’s 20th. It feels new and different but also comfortable and familiar.”

There’s a lot else I liked, but this preview is getting long. The new Hawaii-inspired locale of Alola seems a fun and different place tonally, and the localization and plotting seems fun and just the right level of self-aware, from a ‘my body is ready’ reference down to the game acknowledging how one character keeps bursting into houses unannounced.

Players will be able to try out a slice of what I played come October 18, when a demo will hit the Nintendo eShop. I think people will be impressed – after years of still being a Pokemon fan but not feeling particularly strongly about the new games, I’ve been grabbed once more.

2016 has been a banner year for Pokemon thanks to Pokemon Go alone, but I understand from friends in the know it’s also been a good 20th year for the anime, card game and other outlets of the series. The most interesting thing about my hands-on time with Sun & Moon is that it clearly stands a chance of being the best and most exciting slice of Pokemon this year. In this year especially, that’s worth something.

We’ve got more on Pokemon Sun & Moon on our dedicated hub page, plus our Pokedex page which lists all the newly-added Pokemon this time around. Pokemon Sun & Pokemon Moon are due out in Europe on November 23, while Americans will get their hands on the game a little earlier on the 18th. If you can’t wait to try the game for yourself, a demo will hit Nintendo eShop next week on October 18.

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