Nintendo provided a copy of the game for this review in progress, however it came with the stipulation that we cannot discuss "events or gameplay" after the Hokulani Observatory Trial, which is on the third island. Depending on your playstyle, this is roughly 15-20 hours into the game.
One of my biggest frustrations with Pokemon games over the years has been keeping track of what beats what in the games' paper-scissors-rock battle system. Of course, some match-ups are obvious. Water beats Fire. Fire beats Grass. But I always slip up when types like Fairy or Dark come into the equation. So one of Pokemon Sun and Moon's simplest additions is also its most welcome: the game tells you what moves are effective and ineffective while you're in battle.
That tweak represents one of the many ways that Pokemon Sun and Moon has improved and finally streamlined its menu systems. Previous Pokemon games have made changes to the systems and battle menus, but none as effectively as Sun and Moon.
After your first encounter with an enemy, subsequent encounters let you see how your moves will affect your opponent. But it goes further--you can see that same information when you're swapping out Pokemon to bring into battle. Finding out what an attack does and how powerful it is is as simple as tapping the "i" button next to each move. And when you want to try and capture your adversary, you can choose a Pokeball to throw out by hitting a prominently displayed Pokeball rather than working through a number of text menu options.
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Those are all things you could do during battle in Pokemon games, but they were choices buried under too many nested menus. Even Sun and Moon's non-battle menus are better--when you go to the computer where your Pokemon are stored, you're automatically taken to a menu to move your Pokemon around freely. Every other previous mainline Pokemon game used an archaic system where you first had to boot up a computer, then make a choice between depositing, withdrawing, and moving Pokemon. It should have been trimmed down a long time ago.
But that doesn't mean absolutely everything in Sun and Moon is streamlined. You still have the nostalgic, but slow "handing over and charging up of your Pokemon" whenever you heal them at a Pokemon Center (a holdover that seems especially odd when you sometimes meet characters on your adventure who heal your team instantaneously). Sometimes you have two or more shopkeepers in the same store standing right next to one another who sell completely different goods--if you want to buy healing items, you have to talk to one, while if you want to purchase new abilities and moves you have to talk to the other.
However, the positive changes outnumber the unusual holdovers by far; whether you're a seasoned veteran or completely new to the franchise, Sun and Moon is the most approachable Pokemon game yet (that's not called Pokemon Go). A map on the lower screen of your 3DS gives you an up-close, detailed look at the overworld and shows you where your next objective in the story is located. In previous games, trees, rocks, and water were obstacles that your Pokemon had to learn special moves to overcome, but in Sun and Moon, you have an item that can summon Pokemon mounts to bypass those obstacles, and those creatures don't take up space in your small battle party.
Even with all of these changes, Pokemon is still a very familiar game. The purpose of your journey is to travel around, level up your creatures through turn-based combat, and earn the ability to travel on to the next area with new more-powerful Pokemon to catch and tougher trainers to fight. Yet even there, Sun and Moon introduces elements that make the experience feel a little less predictable. Past Pokemon games tried provided variety by having you run off on side missions with different places to explore or different trainers to fight against, but they rarely felt connected to your quest to become a master trainer. In Sun and Moon, variety is incorporated directly into the game's main quest. In one challenge, a trainer tasked me with gathering ingredients to create a Pokemon-luring concoction, finishing with a (very simple) cooking minigame. Another trial incorporated audio clues into short trivia questions about the game.
So far, my biggest criticism of the new mechanics is the ability for Pokemon to "call in help." Though not as overwhelming as Horde encounters from X and Y, almost every wild Pokemon seems to be able to bring in one additional Pokemon during battle. This doesn't count as a turn for the Pokemon, so it's able to attack and summon a companion in the same turn, though the new Pokemon won't attack until the next turn. You can't capture a Pokemon while there are two opponents on the battlefield, so even though the cry for help only seems to work half the time, there isn't a limit on the number of times a second Pokemon can be summoned. So, during an unlucky encounter, you might go through a continuous cycle of defeating the newly summoned Pokemon, getting hit by the Pokemon already there, and then having a new Pokemon join the battle before the next turn. Oddly, in these battles you're limited to a single Pokemon, though Sun and Moon has separate "doubles" battles where you can face off against two different trainers and can call in two of your own Pokemon.
Otherwise, Sun and Moon has, so far, taken the solid Pokemon formula and made it better. I'm only able to discuss my experience up to the Hokulani Observatory, which is on the game's third island, so there's a lot I still haven't seen and experienced. I haven't played with the game's online functionality and StreetPass systems. Sun and Moon's central "bad guy", the Skull Gang, has been fairly one-dimensional and non-existent through most of my playthrough. The Aether group, a separate team with the stated goal of protecting Pokemon and unlocking ancient, super-powerful Pokemon, is interesting, though highly suspicious. And the tease of a new Pokemon League sits on the horizon as well as tantalizing details about the true nature of the game's new Legendary creatures. Pokemon Sun and Moon releases at the end of this week on November 18, and our full review will follow shortly after.
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