Considering that it was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, 2016 has certainly been a huge year for the Pokémon saga. Fans were spoiled throughout the year with distribution events, the Pokémon Generation series, the unmissable Pokémon Go, and much more. What better way to complete 2016 than with a new pair of Pokémon games, with an unprecedented generation that takes place in an entirely new environment? 3 years after the 6th generation, Pokémon takes us in a much different universe with Alola, an archipelago that breaks a lot of the features we took for granted and changes the experience of the series.
Fresh off Kanto, our young trainer is found on the island of Mele-Mele, one of 4 that you will have the opportunity to skim over during your adventures on the Alola archipelago. In its structure, the game offers us a major difference from previous episodes by emancipating itself from the principle of gyms: forget the 8 badges needed to go to the Pokémon League, and welcome the concept of island Challenge Trials and Grand Trials.
While the Captains (in charge of challenge trials) and the Kahunas (in charge of Grand Trials) will be somewhat stronger than regular gym leaders, do not, however, expect to be blown away by the level of the regular battles, these being a lazy nap on the edges. Indeed, regular trainers seem to have been debuffed for some reason or another, and even as you explore the 3rd island, they will only generally have 2 Pokémon at most with them. And before you even make it there, most trainers will only have one Pokémon to challenge you with. While this does make it easier on those new to the series, who seem to be main target audience for these two games, I myself would have preferred a more challenging experience. Maybe it’s about time Nintendo and Gamefreaks introduced difficulty settings to the franchise.
But putting that aside for now, the island trials are a wind of change compared to the gym system that was getting a little too repetitive. They are also pretty fun, including one that requires you to use your Poké Ride to find items in a forest, or even one where you have to observe various dances and spot the difference between them. Regardless of the challenge, at the end of each of them you will need to face a Totem Pokémon. These are generally stronger than their counterparts, and will summon allies to assist them in battle. Upon defeating them, you will be rewarded with a crystal that allows your Pokémon to use a Z move, another novelty that we will discuss a little further. As for the island Grand Trials, they will be somewhat similar to battling Gym Leaders, with the difference being that you cannot challenge the Kahunas before clearing all the island trials first.
The story is rather pleasant, even though it seems to take a little long to really settle itself (something rather common with the series). While childlike in its treatment and its twists (you can pretty much predict what’s coming next), it still manages to be a little more present that the plots of the previous episodes, accompanying the player through careful staging and numerous sketches . But it all comes at the expense of the feeling of exploration: while Pokémon was never an open world, it is now almost impossible to leave the main trail, an NPC or a slightly coarse barrier quickly reminding you of the path to take. Most will, however, enjoy the removal of HMs, which takes away much stress in regards to the attack slots of your Pokémon.
Pokémon Refresh and Poké Pelago
By emancipating itself from certain features, including gyms, Pokémon Sun / Moon has opted for a different construction, with more emphasis on caring for and raising your allies, rather than pure fighting. The evidence of this direction, introducing the Pokémon Refresh (which further adds to the previous Poke Amie system). With this new feature, it is possible, at the end of each battle or whenever you feel like it through the bottom screen, to heal your Pokémon from status effects, feed them or simply pet them. A well cared for Pokémon can later benefit from some combat bonuses, including the ability to withstand a fatal attack with one health point remaining, or achieving more critical hits. The idea is frankly interesting and useful, but tends to break pace given the still large presence of combat in the game.
The Poké Pelago, on the other hand, is an entirely new concept that is perfectly integrated in the game and pleasant to use: it is a series of islands with various features that you can unlock and upgrade with conditions such as the of Pokémon you’ve caught. Grow berries, attract new wild Pokémon, send Pokémon to find rare items in a cave, improve your creatures’ stats accurately, or let them rest to make them happy. These islands are automatically populated by the Pokémon in your boxes, and you only need to assign tasks to them.
Even the daycare has been modified: Pokémon no longer gain experience when left in one, and eggs seem to hatch even faster. Put it all together and you get a title tailormade for fans of creature capturing/raising games.
If the tone is resolutely focused on the progress of your beloved creatures, catching ‘em all remains at the core of the gameplay. Mainly we regret the loss of certain features introduced in the previous generation, such as the hordes, substituted by the possibility of wild Pokémon calling at ally for help. Note also the presence of aggressive Pokémon that chase you as you enter the bush is inspired from the bush system of Pokémon X / Y, where stronger Pokémon would shake the grass (although in that case they ran away when they noticed you). There are also Pokémon that hide and move beneath the sand (usually Digletts), which can be a hassle regardless of whether you wish to catch or avoid them.
The online aspect has also been modified in favor of what the call a Festival. This is, as its name implies, a festival with various booths and minigames for players to earn reward from. The festival can be leveled up to have access to new booths and rewards. This is also where players will have access to the various online modes of the game, including Battles, Wonder Trades and the everlasting GTS.
New Generation, New Battles
One of the key innovations of this episode: some of the Pokémon from the first generation are got a complete makeover, changing not only their looks, but also benefiting from new typings. The result is mixed, both in terms of design and the attribution of the types. If the Psychic/ Electric Raichu seduced most, I remain particularly sceptical about Persian’s Dark typing, but even more so about its new look that has had most compare it to Garfield. Regardless, the changes are interesting, and new additions to the Pokedex are always welcome.
On the fighting side, we especially appreciate the fact that the effectiveness of the Pokémon moves is now directly stated in the attacks trigger menu, especially since we are encountering most of these Pokémon for the first time. Granted the game might have proven to be more of a challenge without this feature, but with the growing number of creatures and the resurgence of double types, the absence of such a tool would have been detrimental for new and younger players. The other thing that convinced us is the addition of Z moves. These give Pokémon access to special moves, under certain conditions, that are basically overpowered attacks that can only be used once per battle. First you need a crystal connected to a type. Let’s take the Normalium Z for example. Equip it to a Pokémon with a Normal type move, and it’ll be able to use a normal type Z-move whose power depends on the power of the original move (a Z moved based on Tackle won’t have nearly as much power as one based on Body Slam).. Nothing too complicated, although there are some variations like crystals that can only be equipped on specific Pokémon. The introduction of this mechanism makes confrontations more upfront, and certain battles harder to win even with a Pokémon leveled higher than the opponent’s, or with a type advantage.
While this is definitely the episode of change for the Pokémon saga, these changes did not come in the expected proportions. Indeed, a lot of us were expecting the game to be far more challenging. However, with its varied landscapes and pleasant to go, Alola remains a wonderful playground that you can’t help pacing through, despite an increasingly interventionist progression that will annoy fans of freedom. It is finally on its end game (that we’ll let you discover) and it’s still impressive content that the episode will truly shine.