Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign and a surge of interest fostered by the mobile phenomenon Pokémon Go, Pokémon Sun and Moon are now the most pre-ordered games in Nintendo’s history. Expectations are high, and there’s a lot of pressure on this now 20-year-old franchise to impress fans old and new alike.
Fortunately, developer Game Freak has more than lived up to this challenge, creating a game that retains the familiarity and comfort of the series we know and love while changing things up in a way that arguably hasn’t been seen since Gold and Silver.
A whole new world
The most immediately noticeable change in Pokémon Sun and Moon is the game world. Called Alola, this new region is inspired by the real-world location of Hawaii and it’s a joy to play in. The map is split into four islands, each of which is visually distinct and in possession of its own character but still undeniably connected by culture and values. Creating a game world that feels like it could be a real place worth exploring rather than a collection of towns connected by bland ‘routes’ is an undeniable achievement for GameFreak.
Though Alola is inspired by Hawaii, the environment and plot structure changes between Sun and Moon and previous Pokémon games are similar to how the anime series changed between Kanto and the Orange Islands. Like the Orange islands, the climes in Aloa are much more tropical and as a result the Pokemon that can be found there sometimes look different to their Kanto and Johto counterparts in terms of color and form.
Trial without error
Also similar to the Orange Islands is the fact that gyms are completely scrapped. Instead, in Alola players must face Island Trials on each of the four islands. Each island has a Trial Captain who determines what that island’s trial will be, and the challenge isn’t always limited to a Pokémon battle.
Players will find themselves doing a range of things like scavenger hunts or taking part in dance competitions, and the diversity of these trials and the environments they take place in serves to make the whole thing feel less grinding.
Each challenge ends with a battle against a Totem Pokémon. These Totem Pokémon are particularly strong wild Pokémon, unique to the Alolan region, which draw on smaller allies to help them against the trainer.
Of course it wouldn’t really feel like a Pokémon game world without a final battle against a powerful trainer but rather than face a gym leader players will instead battle the islands leader called the Kahuna. Once a player defeats and gains the approval of an island’s Kahuna they will unlock access to the game’s next island.
This structure might seem more convoluted than previous games which simply had players defeat eight gym leaders before moving onto the main Pokémon League but it’s refreshingly different and a big reason Alola is so distinct from other Pokémon regions.
Not having the repetitive grinding of gyms or a structured Pokémon league suits the more relaxed atmosphere of Alola, where Pokémon are natural and respected forces in the community and establishing a strong connection to them is prioritized.
The hills are alive with the sound of Pokémon
The strong sense of character in the environment and the people who inhabit it make Pokémon Sun and Moon feel more connected to the anime than any other games in the series so far.
This connection to the anime is enhanced by the game’s vastly improved animations, closer camera angles, and introduction of genuinely good cut-scenes, all of which work together to make Sun and Moon more cinematic than any other Pokémon generation.
The camera saw a big change in Pokémon X and Y, scrapping the purely top-down view to occasionally drop into the game world. It was amazing how a change as subtle as this could make the familiar world of Pokemon feel fresh and exciting and these more cinematic camera angles have been refined in Sun and Moon with added benefit of better graphics to the same effect.
We immediately felt that our character looked more like an actual person and moved more naturally than we’ve seen in a Pokémon game; they actually feel like they have some weight behind them and subtle things like the fact that they lift their hands up as they move through the tall grass adds to their sense of presence in the world.
To get the most out of Alola’s setting, don’t forget to turn up your sound. The game’s soundtrack is an upbeat and tropical update on the familiar Pokémon tunes and the addition of sound effect such as Pokémon rustling in the undergrowth only makes the island feel more alive.
Same old story
Where Sun and Moon don't change much from previous generations is the main story, but the prevent-the-end-of-the-world and defeat-the-notorious-criminal-gang storyline that Pokémon brings to the table every time is almost charming in its repetitiveness at this point.
This time it’s slightly less palatable as the first few hours of the story feel like an overly-long tutorial and the villains, Team Skull, are laughably bad. In previous games the antagonists have managed to at least be slightly entertaining but Team Skull, with their painful dialogue and questionable animation, made us physically cringe.
Fortunately, once you break out of the restriction of the game’s first island, the pace picks up and the likable supporting cast make up for the terrible antagonists.
Besides this, as anyone who’s played previous games will tell you, Pokémon games are so much more than their story; it’s about the quest to be the very best and exploring everything else the game world has to offer. If anything, sometimes it can feel like Pokémon Sun and Moon have almost too much going on, but as long as you don’t try to do everything all at once it’s manageable.
We can already tell we’re going to log hundreds of hours of gameplay outside of the main story before the year is out.
If it ain't broke...
It's Pokémon, so of course there are battles and though the core mechanic in Sun and Moon hasn’t changed there are some notable alterations.
The first thing you’ll probably notice is that battles no longer place Pokémon on isolated little islands. Instead, they integrate the game’s environment into the scene. This makes battles feel more natural and part of the game world, particularly as you actually see yourself and the opposing trainers issue commands to your battling Pokemon.
Another visual change is that the UI for choosing which action you’re going to take in battle has been given a refresh. The places of the different options for action have been moved and it’s much easier to access more information about your Pokemon and the power and effects of their moves mid-battle.
Efforts are made to highlight the depth of Pokémon battles by occasionally noting which of your Pokémon's moves will be effective, not effective, or super effective against their opponent beneath the move itself. Though helpful, this could prove irksome to those who have spent a good deal of time in the Pokémon world who don’t want to feel like their hands are being held.
However, it makes it easier for those new to the series to identify this more tactical side of the games as something worth delving into. It’s important to note these hints don’t appear every time and though we’re more likely to fall into the category of those who find the feature irksome, we admittedly found it useful when we were faced with all new Alolan Pokémon whose types we couldn’t even begin to fathom.
Ready for battle
Other than this there are only minor differences to the one-on-one battle structure. Probably the most notable difference is that when taking on wild Pokémon they can now summon allies and turn the battle into a two on one attack. Although this forces you to change up your tactics mid-battle it doesn’t really add anything more to the experience of encountering wild Pokémon and can be irritating as you can’t catch them while an ally is present.
A key addition is an entirely new battle mode called Battle Royal, which occurs in a location called Festival Plaza. Festival Plaza is an in-game area where players can buy and trade items and enter battle tournaments against the computer, however, it will also act as the hub for online play where players will be able to battle and talk to their real-life friends.
Battle Royal pits four trainers against one another in a free-for-all match. In this mode, players pick three Pokémon for their team and send one out to battle the three opposing Pokemon.
Points are gained by knocking out other Pokémon and the first player to have all of their Pokémon knocked out loses. Battle Royals require different tactics to one on one battles; speed is key and although knocking out other Pokémon is the goal, you have to be careful not to get a Pokémon down to low enough health that another player could knock it out and steal the point from you.
Overall, during our time spent with it, we found it an enjoyable battle mode that really keeps you on your toes, although it's at its most fun when played with friends rather than in single-player versus the computer.
New moves to show off
Pokémon moves have been given a slight change up with the introduction of Z-moves. Z-moves are essentially the Alolan version of Mega Evolutions, able to drastically enhance the power of your Pokémon's attack . When used, they can completely turn a battle around, but they come with a number of limitations which are possibly intended to lend the move's impact but actually do the opposite.
Firstly, to use a Z-move a Pokémon must be holding a Z-crystal and know a move that’s the same type as the crystal. So, if you want to power up your Pikachu it doesn’t make much sense to equip it with a water-type Z crystal.
The second condition is that you can only use one Z-move per battle even if more than one of your Pokémon is holding a crystal, a shame because they’re initiated by some absolutely great dancing from your character.
A more significant change to moves that has an impact both inside and outside of battles is the decision to scrap HMs. This is a change for the better.
In previous Pokémon games some battle moves such as Surf and Fly could also be used to travel across the map. The problem with these moves was that once a Pokémon learned them they couldn’t then unlearn them and as a result they ended up placing irritating restrictions on players when building their party.
Pokémon Sun and Moon’s alternative to HMs is a feature called PokéRide which acts like the bike in previous games. Need to cross some water? Open the menu and call forth your Lapras. Want to take to the skies? Charizard can be conjured for that. This is a great way to keep using Pokémon to travel without limiting the player’s battle party and it also makes it much easier to traverse the game’s large map.
It's the little things
It’s also worth noting the small improvements and refinements on previous games that just make Sun and Moon feel more enjoyable to play.
The main change that had us thinking ‘why is this only just being added now?’ is that when you catch a wild Pokémon and your party is full, you’re given the option to immediately add it to your party and swap out another Pokémon rather than trek to a computer to do so.
Meanwhile if you do decide to access the computer, you’ll be pleased to know the box management system has improved.
Pokémon Refresh, which is essentially a more stripped back version of the Pokémon Amie feature introduced in X and Y, is another improvement. After a battle, players have the option to enter the Pokémon Refresh screen where they’re able to heal their Pokémon's status condition as well as clean it up and feed it PokéBeans. This won’t be possible if your Pokémon has fainted.
Just like Pokémon Amie, Pokémon Refresh rewards your care by increasing your Pokemon’s affection for you, making it more effective in battle. By taking out the mini games, petting, and decorating of Pokémon Amie, Pokémon Refresh is more streamlined and feels less pointless, making us much more inclined to use it.
Verdict: Play it now
Pokémon Sun and Moon are some of the best additions to the Pokémon series we've seen in a long time. Without dropping any of the things that have made the series great over the past 20 years, Sun and Moon still manages to feel fresh, engaging, and most importantly, improved. In fact, the visual improvements are so noticeable it seems almost incredible that we're still playing on the same platform X and Y launched on.
All of the changes in Sun and Moon, small and large, work together to make the Pokémon world feel more engaging and alive than ever, and for the first time in while there are more reasons to pick up and play than simple nostalgia.
Pokémon Moon was reviewed on 3DS.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.
- Have you missed your 3DS? Here's our list of the the best 3DS games to play.