The Pokemon series is odd in that as much as many call it out for being milked, and as many decry it as creatively bankrupt, not only do the games still sell like gangbusters, but they continue to garner critical and commercial success, largely because the Pokemon games are built on a solid foundation. The series has treated the core lineage roughly the same since Red and Blue, but the old maxim here applies: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." This isn't to say that Pokemon games couldn't use some twearking, but the foundation of the games is still quite solid. The premise is the same as always, as the player chooses a protagonist, male or female, and sets out to claim gym badges, solve rudimentary dungeons, catch wild pokemon, and battle trainers for currency and more experience. Along the way the player will grow a stable of Pokemon, storing some, using others as part of their active six creatures, and trading others with other players. The single player mode is reasonably lengthy, and most players will find that 40 hours is a good minimum bet; players who choose to play on after beating the game, completing sidequests and challenging tougher foes, will find themselves in it for a much longer period of time. Beyond the basic quest, to stop Team Aqua (in Sapphire anyway), the game also throws in lots of different mini-games and side quests.... beauty pageants, berry mixing, fruit-planting, breeding Pokemon, and more all comprise the periphery of the title, and although they're not terribly complicated or engaging, they do provide small breaks from the main plotline, and in doses, they're mildly entertaining. The battles themselves have changed very little since Red/Blue; combat is turn-based, and each Pokemon can have up to four moves to employ during battle. While it does force players to make a few decisions as to strategy, this method is very limiting, and it would be nice to see the games lighten up in terms of moves per Pokemon. This also comes more into play as certain special moves are necessary for navigating the game's overworld, and when trying to keep one's stable of Pokemon diverse and powerful as possible, throwing in some of the less useful moves can affect said Pokemon's performance. And don't even think about trying a five-monster lineup with a #6 utility Pokemon; in some of the tougher fights, that last Pokemon makes all the difference. Limited move sets aside, it's still the very basic rock-paper-scissors gameplay, and each Pokemon has one or two elemental affinities that affect their abilities to fight specific types of foes. Managing to keep a balanced stable of Pokemon at all times is part of the challenge and fun of the game, and each player will have a different lineup, based on a Pokemon's affinity, abilities, and personal taste. New to the series are the game's two-on-two battles, but this aspect is less impressive than one would expect... not only is it woefully underutilized, it's not very different from the normal mode... if the game took a step away from the rigid turn-based combat and added a particular Pokemon's speed or at least forced alternating turns, it would have made more of an impact. Still, the battle system is largely a means to an end, as Pokemon is all about collecting and capturing as many Pokemon as possible. In this, the game is as fun as ever, and since the Pokemon are largely all-new, it's nice to catch different creatures; the downside to this, however, is that many will find themselves without the opportunity to play as their favorites. The visuals are much improved over Gold and Silver, but considering the hardware jump, that was to be expected. The graphics are still very much based on the same concepts, and other than somewhat improved animations and models, it's not all that impressive in terms of technical proficiency. It's actually pretty underwhelming. Pokemon's greatest visual strength, however, has always been its monster design, and this holds true here. With monster design both based on real animals and totally original designs, there's a nice mix of whatsits and winks to real life creatures. The audio is also pretty good; Pokemon has always had catchy tunes, and this version is no different in this respect. The sound effects are still pretty bad, but the music is what one listens to for 40-60 hours, and it holds up well. Although at times the game is uneven in difficulty, and at others feels a bit too simple, Pokemon Sapphire is another Pokemon game greater than the sum of its parts, and the end result is a very enjoyable RPG that could simply use a bit more depth and a bit more in the way of battles. Still, even as simple as it is, Sapphire is entertaining, and better than any other monster-catching franchise aroun.
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