Thursday, 24 November 2016

'Pokémon Sun' and 'Moon' Offer a Much Needed Escape

Turn that frown upside down. Image: Nintendo

Let’s be real: It’s been a rough November. This is the kind of month where you’d ideally like to hop on a boat to a beautiful tropical paradise, far away from people spewing hate-filled bile on every available outlet. That sort of thing is a bit tough to do on short notice, but there’s an option out there that’s almost as good: turning off every TV, computer, and connected device in your house except your DS and spending the rest of November playing Pokémon Sun and/or Moon instead.

I’m totally serious, here. These two titles just released last Friday, and having played them for quite some time now, I honestly can’t think of a better game to help counter all of the rampant negativity in the air right now. Now, I’m not advocating we bury our heads in the sand and totally ignore very real world problems entirely, but let’s face it: this shit is tiresome, and without joyful, personal experiences to offset societal awfulness, we can really get lost in misery. The bright, smiling world of adventure and discovery within Pokémon Sun and Moon is what the world needs.

Sun and Moon are the games that mark the 20th anniversary of the famed franchise, which originally launched in Japan way back in 1996. To mark such a momentous occasion, Pokémon Sun and Moon have been designed expressly to appeal to a huge swath of players: longtime Poke-fans, folks who fell off the Pokémon wagon but hopped back on with Pokémon Go, and players young and old who’ve never touched Pokémon before. You only need to buy one of the games—there are some differences between the two, like which Pokémon are available and how the day/night cycle works, but the overall presentation is mostly the same.

If you’re only familiar with Pokémon Go, you’ll find that while the core conceit of catching Pokémon is still the same, the methodology is completely different. You’ll need a more strategy-based approach to catching the creatures -- you can’t just lob Pokeballs and items and cross your fingers, you have to make a Pokémon you want easier to catch through wearing it down. It might take a bit of getting used to, but fortunately, these games are really good about teaching you the ropes without being overbearing. There’s also a fully-realized fantasy world, story, and characters to interact with, as opposed to the rather dry augmented reality of Go.

In fact, this fantasy world is part of what makes Sun and Moon so great. The section of the Poke-verse these games take place in is modeled after the Hawaiian Islands. The choice of setting here is brilliant: there’s a lot of variety in the places you explore throughout the game, from shimmering waterfalls to exotic tropical forests to seaside farms. The Nintendo 3DS might not be a graphical powerhouse, so if you’re expecting vistas at the level of detail as say, Uncharted, you’ll be disappointed—but if you put those lofty HD expectations behind you, you’ll find that the design quality of the cartoony visuals and environments is still quite superb. It might not be as high-fidelity, but there’s a lot of passion on display that went into making this tropical world, and it leaves you eager to press ahead and see what sights and sounds lie beyond.

The core conceit of every Pokémon title is progressing from a beginning Pokémon trainer to an acknowledged champion, collecting bountiful beasties, training them in battle to become bigger and better, and putting the smack down on some misbehaving villains along the way—that hasn’t changed. However, the story, characters, and writing in Pokémon Sun and Moon are a step above some of the other recent Pokémon games, with character development, moments of cute humor, and even some genuinely emotional moments. The characters in the game don’t feel like stilted, obvious tip-givers, either: the way characters interact with you to help you learn the basics of Pokémon training feels organic and inviting. The whole package has a feel akin to a quality animated movie or TV series—You know it’s safe and accessible for your kids, but it doesn’t feel like it’s dumbed down for them.

But where Pokémon Sun and Moon really make great strides are in areas related to gameplay and the overall flow of the game. Many of the traditional progression structures in place for Pokémon games were established back in the Game Boy days, and had barely changed since—even though the hardware limitations that necessitated them no longer were an issue. Sun and Moon have changed up a lot in this regard. Gone are the series of “Pokémon gyms” where you had to solve a puzzle, fight a few rival trainers, and then battle a boss-like gym leader before you could progress to the next set of roads, caves, and cities—they’re replaced by Trials, which are unique and progressively challenging tests of strength and courage that have you doing a different task each time before fighting a fierce, powerful Totem Pokémon. (You’ll still take on some tough boss trainers, known as Kahunas, but they’re pretty few and far between.)

Frustrating elements of gameplay have been completely re-thought, too: In previous games, beating a Gym would often reward you with a Hidden Machine, a device that taught Pokémon skills to help you remove environmental obstacles and cross various terrains. Hidden Machine skills, however, would take up valuable skill slots in a Pokémon’s movelist and were generally worthless in battle, plus they couldn’t be replaced, making them a frustrating part of progression. Instead of Hidden Machines, you now have special Ride Pokémon that can be summoned instantly and can smash or push path-blocking rocks, fly, swim across water, and even help search for hidden items. Not only is it fun as heck to ride around the islands on a giant floppy-furred dog, it means you can actually make a functional Pokémon team of your choosing with no compromises.

The battle interface is another area that’s been completely redone for Sun and Moon, and it’s fantastic, allowing players to easily see things like buffs/debuffs on Pokémon, how effective skills will be on the opponent, and detailed information on every move and option available to you. The turn-based, strategy-laden fights of Pokémon are quite different from the fairly mindless battles of something like Pokémon Go, which makes the presentation a challenge: it needs to be simple enough for new players and kids to understand while being able to present as much detailed information as possible. The new format nails it to a near perfect degree, making it easier than ever for everyone to enjoy Pokémon battling.

I could go on about other great things: the redesigns for old favorite Pokémon that appear throughout, the robust online trading features, and the goofy-fun Power Rangers-style Z-Move attack skills, but I think I’ve more than expressed my extreme satisfaction at this point. There’s a fundamental joy that lies at the heart of the Pokémon games, embodying the spirit of discovery, adventure, and personal improvement. Games can transport us to beautiful, exciting fantasy worlds in a way no other medium can—but too often, we choose to spend our gaming time in bleary, bloody battlefields instead of imaginative lands of colorful wonders and fascinating creatures. Now, more than ever, we deserve to let ourselves into a happy place, and these games are just the ticket.

from 'Pokémon Sun' and 'Moon' Offer a Much Needed Escape

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