Pokemon Sun and Moon, the latest iteration in the 20-year-old monster-battling franchise, provides some of the biggest and most welcome changes to the series yet. While the story is disappointing, the core catch-'em-all gameplay shows how the simple concept of "capture Pokemon, level up Pokemon, and beat the crap out of other people's Pokemon" has endured for two decades.
In my review in progress, I detailed how changes to the game's mechanics create a more streamlined, approachable, and fun experience compared to previous iterations. Sun and Moon removes most of the need for memorizing Pokemon types and mentally tracking the paper-scissors-rock matchups that define the game's combat. Traversing the world is more manageable thanks to a detailed map on the 3DS' bottom screen. And abilities like Fly, Surf, and Rock Smash have been replaced entirely with a new Pokemon Pager system. Now when you come upon an obstacle in the game world, you can summon the Pokemon you need to keep going (provided you've unlocked that ability on your pager).
Sun and Moon is a triumph for the series on both a gameplay and visual level. The beautiful Hawaii-inspired Alola setting pops with color and little details. Trainers you fight hang out in the background of the battle, and even the way they throw their Pokeballs before a battle accentuates their personalities--from the casual side toss of a standoffish scientist to the overhand baseball throw of an energetic grade school kid. And you're no longer on quite the same linear quest of finding and fighting eight gym leaders with a stop-off near the end to catch a legendary Pokemon and save the world. This time, you're a newcomer to an island paradise with various trials you have to overcome, four Kahuna trainers to fight...and a brief interlude to catch a legendary Pokemon and save the world.
The trials take the place of previous games' gyms, with tasks such as gathering ingredients for a Pokemon-luring recipe rather than just battles against other trainers. Then each trial culminates in a battle against a powered-up Pokemon called a Totem Pokemon. As a reward for completing the trials, you earn Z-crystals, which unlock super-powered Z-move abilities for each Pokemon type. But as exciting as that sounds, the crystals ultimately feel like an unnecessary addition. Much like the Trials themselves, they become less involved further into the game--eventually becoming a series of battles against individual Pokemon. And the rewards feel a lot less special when later characters just give you crystals or you find the gems scattered around the world. And while the Z-move animations are impressive the first couple times, going through the same long sequence every time you use one of the abilities gets tiresome. Even with battle animations turned off, the moves still involve over-long summoning sequences.
Z-moves are an addition you can ignore, but unfortunately Sun and Moon's biggest weakness is something you can't: the story. Sun and Moon starts out fantastically, and the changes to the established formula with Trials and Kahunas instead of Gyms lends the journey a bit of unpredictability. As with other modern Pokemon games, you have to take some time out to capture a Legendary Pokemon and save the world before you can finish your journey to become the local Pokemon master. But this detour you take to save the world before the end of the game lacks the same originality and tight pacing as the opening hours. The antagonistic Team Skull enemies you face along the way are one-dimensional and directionless, and the motivations of the central antagonist (who's revealed in a twist you see coming a mile away) are just nonsensical. The final battle in this side confrontation shifts from a confusing diatribe about cleansing the world to your enemy hating their children for not being "beautiful." This side story comes to an abrupt, unfulfilling conclusion, and you're then whisked along to the "real" game, battling the Pokemon League and becoming the greatest Pokemon trainer in Alola.
The story is boring, but it's the core collecting and battling gameplay where Sun and Moon shines anyway. And as is standard in all Pokemon games, once the credits roll, there's still a world left to explore and new Pokemon to catch. In particular, I'm intrigued by the setup of the game's Ultra Beasts--creatures that are glossed over in the main campaign, even though they play an outsized role in the side story's narrative. Sun and Moon's greatest strength is that I want to stay in Alola and see how (and if) the game's other mysteries unfold.
For better and worse, Sun and Moon is essentially the same Pokemon experience that comes out every few years, just with enhancements to make it feel more modern. But this an entry that should appeal to more than just the series' devoted fanbase who'll notice those details. For players who have loved or been interested in the franchise before, but who felt that the growing roster and feature set made it too unapproachable, Sun and Moon is like meeting a long-lost friend again. And for everyone else, Sun and Moon is the perfect game for understanding what makes Pokemon so popular.