With the arrival of Pokemon Go earlier this year, it's safe to say that the Pokemon franchise has finally got its second wind. That statement probably seems a little odd considering what an evergreen property this is for Nintendo, but it has been a long time since the spotlight shone quite this brightly on Pikachu and his pals.
"A worthy sequel for a franchise that has outgrown the handheld format."
No doubt a big challenge for Game 7 here was the need for it to satisfy dedicated fans whilst also appealing to the new players coming fresh from the mobile phenomenon. It's a balancing act that was always going to be tricky for developer Game Freak to pull off, but the job they've done in gameplay terms is certainly an admirable one.
The foremost change this Generation is the removal of the awful HM moves that have dragged this franchise down since its initial release in 1996. Gone are the days of carrying around useless "mule" Pokemon and in their place is the new Poke Ride feature that allows trainers to call upon specific Pokemon mounts. You get free control over these beasties in order to gallop across the land, smash into rocks, fly to pre-visited locations and more. It's the best change that the series has seen in twenty years and it's important to stress how much better off Pokemon Sun is because of it.
Elsewhere Game Freak has added roughly 80 new Pokemon to the Pokedex and they've tweaked the core battle system with several new abilities, moves, and balance changes for players to experiment with. Although the number of brand new Pokemon is lower than in previous Generations, the critter designs here are original and well considered.
Of these interesting new Pokemon you have Salandit; a Poison/Fire lizard who is able to infect Steel types with its unique Corrosion ability. Dewpider is a wonderful cross between a spider and a bubble-helmeted spaceman and then you have another dangerous Bug/Water type in Golisopod, a Pokemon whose powerful priority moves help it offset its dismal speed stat. Golisopod's Emergency Exit ability forces it to switch out once low on health (which can be frustrating for players who enjoy buffs), but then this also restores access to its devastating once-per-entrance move called First Impression. All good and thinky stuff!
Generation VII is a success in terms of brand new Pokemon then, but what's equally disappointing is how these monsters seem to be kept at arm's length for most of the game. The nostalgia factor is strong in Pokemon Sun and you can see it in the sheer amount of Generation I Pokemon that litter the grassy areas.
The abundance of Rattatas, Zubats, Tentacools, and Magnemites (and so many more) is clearly because of Pokemon Go's popularity (which currently only stars Gen I monsters). It might be good marketing sense for Nintendo to play up the nostalgia angle here, but it's irritating for those players who are looking to see and train something different.
Nostalgia is a constant problem in the mainline Pokemon games and the result here is that far too much screen time is given to Generation I Pokemon and their new 'Alolan forms' instead of focusing on the brand new additions. A big draw of playing Pokemon is that initial rush of seeing a brand new monster - "Wait until I get me one of those!" - and it's this experience that feels tapered because of how uncommon the new Pokemon can be in Pokemon Sun. I spent way too much time checking online guides to find out where the new monsters lived (what happened to the DexNav, Game Freak?) only to be dismayed by encounter rates that reached lows of 10% and even 5% in some areas.
Also discouraging are the number of evolution clauses that further delay your experimentation. For instance: I was keen to train the new Bug/Electric Pokemon called Vikavolt, but in order to actually receive one it involves levelling up its younger form in an arbitrary location that takes ages to reach. Likewise is the Fighting Pokemon called Crabrawler who, despite being acquired fairly early, only evolves in the penultimate area of the game. Are you kidding me!?
Z-moves are a new feature in Pokemon Sun and these too don't seem to offer anything particularly new or exciting. These moves are pure power creep and are reminiscent of the maligned Mega Evolution mechanic from the previous generation. Instead of your Pokemon changing form in battle though, Z-moves allow them to perform a one-off super attack as long as they have the correct skill set and Z-Crystal equipped. These colossal fireballs and deadly laser beams certainly look impressive and will no doubt be popular with younger players, but you have to question the balance of adding even more ludicrously powerful moves to a meta that's already swimming in them.
The SOS system is another controversial initiative that Game Freak has put forward. Players will come to find that wild Pokemon now have the ability to call for help. As wild Pokemon lose health in battle the chance that they may summon an ally to their side increases and this can be a problem for collectors as Poke Balls can only be used when one wild Pokemon is present.
Players have been quick to voice their frustration with this feature, but I find myself being slightly more understanding of its inclusion. SOS battles can be annoying as they draw out random encounters to a point where players risk getting bored, but they also bring benefits of their own including stat bonuses and a higher chance for any summoned Pokemon to be rare, shiny, or have hidden abilities. Status conditions block Pokemon from crying out too so you do have options for bypassing the added challenge - it's just that the game doesn't tell you about this stuff which once again forces you to look at Internet guides for help.
The worst thing about the SOS system perhaps (aside from the performance hit of having more Pokemon on screen) is that it doesn't really add that much to the experience and it is concerning if Game Freak are tweaking core systems without strictly improving them for the better.
In terms of setting, the game takes place on the fictional archipelago of Alola which draws its visual and stylistic inspiration from the real-life state of Hawaii. With the preceding region Kalos aping real-life Paris, and Unova being based on New York State, you wonder how many future holidays Game Freak will be able to swing in the name of "research"! It's a beautiful setting though, and one that the Nintendo 3DS hardware brings to life in vivid colour.
Although the game plays exactly like its prequels, there are common elements that Game Freak has tried to remix. Instead of gym battles, each island now features several Trials which task you with exploring a pre-set area before dropping you into direct confrontation with a powerful Totem Pokemon plucked from the new Pokedex. This framework is a lot more interesting than a building full of mild puzzles and static opponents that's for sure. It's also nice because it allows the various supporting characters and Island Kahunas (bosses) to move about the world and more convincingly interact with you as you make progress on your journey.
The initially sluggish pacing is upped midway through when hints are dropped of a wider story going on behind the scenes. Early on you're introduced to the totally-not-evil Aether Foundation; a group who drive forward a hackneyed plot starring morally ambiguous adults with selfish plans that get scuppered by pesky kids who trust their Pokemon and believe in themselves because LOVE CONQUERS ALL!
As you can no doubt tell, this is a typical yarn where Pokemon games are concerned, but it's surprising just how poorly even the most basic plot threads are presented here. Aether's motivations are all but non-existent and even after sitting through entire cutscenes full of exposition I'm still not sure what was actually at stake. There's a trip to an alien dimension that feels completely out of place too and the so-called Ultra Beasts (who are supposed to be threatening the world or something) seem to appear in one brief scene before being forgotten about completely. That's until the post-game side story of course, but then that scenario is so arduously constructed it somehow makes catching Legendary Pokemon boring. Ugh!
There are some ever so slightly maturer themes at work here, when the dialogue isn't busy being cringeworthy or referencing memes (seriously), but it's extremely flat stuff nonetheless. The psychotic main villain for instance is shown to be completely motiveless in her malignity; an utterly despicable and irredeemable character that the weak writing never justifies or develops. A large chunk of script seems to be missing from Pokemon Sun with the developers instead trying to distract players with trippy 3D graphics and short skirts (also seriously) in an effort to hide the story's shortcomings.
If only the plot had been crafted with the same sort of care as the world itself. What's noticeable about Alola is the space offered by the enhanced 3D game engine. The geography of this region is impressive with its uneven terrain and verticality giving your journey a dimension that hasn't really been seen in a Pokemon game before. Hiking through the mountains and navigating swerving country roads only adds to the sense of adventure and it's all helpfully signposted by your Pokedex's new minimap.
As was the case with the previous generation though, Nintendo has decided to completely restrict trading Pokemon with the previous games (even those for the exact same 3DS hardware!) unless you choose to pay for their premium Pokemon Bank service. It's as bad as it sounds and neither is it the only way in which Pokemon Sun has failed to move on.
Everything is still far too prone to grind-based design with "levels" existing for practically everything. You can level-up your Pokemon, their effort values, their individual values (through the new Hyper Training feature), and there's also levels for the side attractions including the Festival Plaza, the Poke Pelago, the Pokemon Refresh, and even levels for the silly photography minigame.
One side quest even has your character picking up litter. I deliberated long and hard for something profound to say about that, but I think paraphrasing an old GameCube magazine review of the Universal Studios game is the best way to go:
"Anybody who makes a game where you pick trash off the ground should be shot in the face."
It's fortunate then that Pokemon Sun is fairly challenging by the series' usual standards and that there are enough gameplay hours to keep players busy for a very long time. This dependable franchise quality is what really saves this game's bacon as between the performance hiccups and almost total lack of support for stereoscopic 3D is a feeling that the series has finally outgrown the confines of the handheld format.
Pokemon Sun is streamlined in all the right places to be a worthy sequel, but Game Freak needs to be doing more than just trimming out things that were bad in previous generations. It's taken twenty years for the Pokemon storage boxes to finally lose that clunky withdraw/deposit option for example and that sort of turnaround is making it hard to get properly excited any more.
It's clear that the series needs more than just subtle tweaks and tired gimmicks from here, but give Game Freak some beefier hardware and the greater flexibility to explore their wild whims and who knows? If you ask me, it's time to see what this Nintendo Switch can do.
Overall rating 3.5 - Fairly Good