Pokemon Moon – The Most Distinct Installment in the Franchise

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We all know how Pokemon works by now. In an alternate reality all the bastard children of the world are kicked out of their homes at age ten. Living on the streets and gutters, these dispossessed masses must provide for themselves by journeying into the wilderness, finding wild animals, and ripping them away from their natural habitats by forcing them into air tight little balls from which they are released only to fight one another in gladiatorial combat. With a legion of enslaved animals toiling for your personal profit, you will wage war against your fellow street urchins, laying them low one by one until you at last emerge as Champion of your Living Hell. You know. Kid stuff. These moral hiccups have plagued this formulaic franchise for years, and these new games certainly haven’t escaped them. Unlike their many predecessors however, Pokemon Sun and Moon make a genuine effort to reinvent and revitalize the franchise’s familiar formula, giving us one of the most distinct installments in Pokemon’s history.

Nearly every element of these games have been given a significant overhaul. Structure, mechanics, story, and overall design have all been reworked for this latest generation, and I applaud Nintendo’s efforts. What with their tendency to adhere to franchise formula as though it were entrenched dogma, this game represents a remarkably bold step for this series, and it is one that has paid off. Pokemon Moon stands apart from its immediate predecessors, and though it is far from perfect and certainly not comparable in quality to the series’ older entries, it is still the best Pokemon game Nintendo has made in years. One of the ways in which Pokemon Moon is different is that its overall design has a consistent, obvious theme.

Our setting this seventh time around is the Alola region, a place which, despite having a few anomalous Japanese elements, is clearly supposed to be Hawaii. Hula dancers, wreathes of flowers, and tourism brochures sprinkle the four main islands which comprise our game world. The setting provides a good excuse to slip ethnic diversity into Pokemon for the first time. Brown skinned islanders are suddenly everywhere, and you can now select your race when making your character (a nice touch). Most notably, the designs of the new Pokemon often incorporate elements of this setting.

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The new Pokemon take two forms this time around: there’s the suite of new arrivals which always accompany a new generation, and there are also updated forms of old Pokemon which have gained new designs and new types. In addition to being overtly Hawaiian, many of these new Pokemon have a clear islander, nautical, or at the very least tropical design. Some obvious examples are Comfey, the wreath of flowers; Palossand, the sand castle; Konmo-o, the vaguely tribal looking dragon (a personal favorite); Raichu, who is now surfing on its tail; Exeggutor, which is now a coconut palm; Marrowak, now a fire dancer; and Dugtrio, who now sports the flowing golden locks of a hula dancer. Taken together all of this grants Pokemon Moon a more distinct sense of place than perhaps any generation since the first two (which were clearly Japan), and this empowers the game to make design choices which further differentiate it from its predecessors.

The most obvious example of this is the Alola region itself. For the first time, our game world is composed of islands, and they give us a welcome reprieve from the world design of generations V and VI, which seemed content to arrange their cities, towns, and caves in a big, boring circle and let the player trek through them all in a loop. Progression this time around is still annoyingly linear (more on that later), but the world seems a little less contrived with the addition of island hopping.

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The islands themselves also shake up the familiar game structure we’ve come to expect from this series. Pokemon Gyms and their accompanying series of trainers, puzzles, and leaders are gone, and in their place we have the Island Challenge. Unlike Gyms, Island Trials take place in natural settings such as caves, forests, and canyons, have a unique set of tasks to complete in each Trial, and end with a battle against an exceptionally powerful wild Pokemon, called a Totem Pokemon, rather than a gym leader. These boss fights make use of one of the game’s new mechanics: S.O.S. Battles.

Wild Pokemon can now call for help and have their buddies gang up on you two on one. This is an S.O.S. Battle and it can happen in any wild Pokemon encounter. When it does, it is usually pretty annoying. You can’t throw Pokeballs when there are two opposing Pokemon, so if you’re trying to catch a stubborn one and it keeps calling for help things quickly get frustrating as you are forced to spend time knocking out its mates over and over rather than tossing Pokeballs at it. Furthermore, there are many rare Pokemon that only appear when they are summoned by their more common brethren. Catching them will require you to tediously farm S.O.S. Battles hoping that eventually your target will get called in. It is an irritating mechanic on the whole, but it is nonetheless used to great effect in the aforementioned battles against Totem Pokemon.

Unlike in normal battles against wild Pokemon where things are totally random, the fights against Totem Pokemon at the end of Island Trials are scripted. Here, the Pokemon which get called in complement the abilities of the boss, offering stat boosts, health restoration, or beneficial weather effects. In short, the helper Pokemon will make your life difficult. This gives Island Trials an interesting flavor that battles against Gym Leaders never had. Each fight is distinct not only in terms of the types of Pokemon you face, but also in the form of what combos and synergies the opposing Pokemon will throw at you. It’s an enjoyable challenge and a refreshing upset on the usual formula. In a further divergence from the norm, completing these trials will reward you, not with a badge, but with a Z-Crystal, an item intimately tied to this generation’s signature new mechanic.

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Generation VI’s gimmick Mega Evolution has been cast aside in favor of a less obtrusive mechanic: Z-Moves. This pleases me since I always thought Mega Evolution was a bad idea that was too overpowered for its own good (though I will miss Mega Charizard Y). Being able to transform into a super duper powered up mode that lasted for the entire battle at no cost was a bit too much. This time around we have Z-Moves – super attacks you can unleash once per battle. They look cool, they hit hard, and most importantly, they don’t overstay their welcome. You can no longer clobber an entire team with one powered up Pokemon. Instead, you have one strong hit and you need to make it count. To use a Z-Move a Pokemon must hold the corresponding Z-Crystal, and to get Z-Crystals you must clear Island Challenge Trials. Thus, your ability to use the game’s signature mechanic is neatly tied to your progression through the game in a nice bit of design that no previous generation enjoyed.

Another notable refinement in game mechanics is the Ride Pager, a new key item that at long last liberates us from the yoke of HMs, which have finally gone the way of the dinosaur. Surfing, flying, smashing rocks, and all the other overworld busywork that once took up slots in our team and in our movesets is all handled by the Ride Pager. Specially trained Pokemon can now be summoned at the push of a button to clear obstacles and carry you around. This is an improvement that has been a long time coming and the convenience of it all is wonderful. We no longer have to build teams to accommodate environment navigation, carry around HM slaves, or, most irritating of all, make lengthy backtracks to our PC boxes to pick up a Pokemon that knows Rock Smash. Instead, we move steadily and briskly towards the next event in the story, which like the rest of the game, takes a fresh approach that turns out to be quite good.

For one thing, the story has gotten a little bit self aware and it makes an effort to shake up the franchise’s more entrenched tropes. This generation’s team of bad guys, Team Skull aren’t so much villains as they are incompetent nincompoops trying to be villains. Obsessed with the image of how bad they are, they bumble their way through the plot more like comic relief characters than anything else. The Professor takes an active part in the plot this time around rather than sitting around in his lab waiting for you to beat the Elite Four. He accompanies you on your journey, a constant source of information, advice, and items. The biggest divergence from tradition however is in the story’s overall structure and how it relates to the character Lillie.

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Pokemon Moon is the first Pokemon game to have a clearly character driven narrative, and that character is Lillie, not the player character. Lillie is the Professor’s assistant. She is not a Pokemon trainer, but a meek and mysterious girl who conceals an unknown but mischievous Pokemon named Nebby in her bag. In the beginning of the game she seems like a stereotypical damsel, but as things progress her overall importance to the story grows until she becomes the primary agent driving the plot.

In fact, were this story being told in any other game, Lillie should by all rights be the player character. All the significant character relationships belong to her, and she is the only character to experience a genuine arc over the course of the game. She goes from a anxious girl riddled with self doubt to a confident young lady poised to take control of her own life. It may not be the most original transformation, but compared to her, the other characters are bland cardboard cutouts defined by a single personality trait. She is by far the most engaging character ever to appear in a Pokemon game, and while it is a bit of a shame that we must experience her story vicariously, part of her intrigue stems from her relationship to the player character.

The player character is the same empty vessel that Pokemon has always had, and thus the only growth you experience is that which is tied to gameplay. However, the player character is directly involved in Lillie’s story of personal growth. In fact, it is her relationship to you that drives her arc. Your accomplishments in the Island Challenge and periodic thrashing of Team Skull inspire her to take charge of her own life. As you grow stronger as a player by leveling up and defeating Trials, so too does Lillie grow stronger as a person. In a sense, Lillie reflects the personal growth that the player character cannot exhibit due to the constraints of the franchise.The two characters are intimately wrapped up in each other, an interesting dynamic made all the more effective by its subtlety. Still, I can’t help but wonder if things would have been even more engaging had Lillie not been forced to speak and emote opposite an expressionless mute.

Nevertheless, I found myself genuinely invested in Lillie’s story and her relationship to my player character. By the time the third act rolled around I was driven to complete the game purely out of a desire to see how things ended for the two of them, and I was not disappointed. The ending is satisfactorily touching and even includes a moment where, had you not been trapped in the E rated, sexless world of Pokemon, you and she could have shared a kiss, or at the very least held hands. While it may sound odd to speak of potential romance in a Pokemon game, rest assured that this story is one of the best in the series and is one of the greatest strengths of this exemplary, thought admittedly, not quite perfect game.

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Despite the fresh approach to nearly every aspect of the game, there is one huge, lingering problem: Pokemon Moon is depressingly easy. Just like the preceding generation, Pokemon Moon‘s difficulty curve more closely resembles a flat line, one maintained by a steady IV drip of victories. Opponents are consistently under leveled, grinding is totally unnecessary, and no independent thought or deductive reasoning is required to progress through the game.

In addition to there being no significant puzzle elements, you are surrounded by helpful characters who constantly remind you where to go and what to do next. To ensure that you never have the opportunity to forget what you’re doing, the developers added a helper character in the form of your Pokedex. A Rotom lives within it now and, like Navi and Fi from the Zelda series, the little bugger never misses an opportunity to tell you things you already know. Thankfully, the Rotom’s text is confined to the bottom screen where it can be easily ignored, but its mere presence in the game is a little insulting because the environments are unabashedly linear.

Contrived barriers constantly funnel you towards your next objective. These aren’t even things that are part of the world like trees, rocks, and rivers; most of the time they are just people standing in your way and telling you to “get bent and come back later”. I found my ability to explore the game world was constantly impaired by the developers’ apparent paranoia that I would somehow get lost, something that couldn’t happen even to a drooling Neanderthal of a player since the mini-map on the bottom screen constantly shows you where to go next with a giant red dot. The level of developer hand holding in this game is truly obnoxious and it is the only significant issue with what is otherwise an amazing experience.

Pokemon Moon injects much needed new life into this long lived franchise. After 20 years and seven generations, a fresh approach was needed and this game certainly delivers. With a genuine effort made to overhaul the franchise’s structure, design, mechanics, and story, Pokemon Moon stands apart from its predecessors as the most distinct installment in the franchise. Though not perfect, it is one of the best Pokemon games in years and is certainly the standout of the more recent generations. I, for one, am optimistic about the future of Pokemon and look forward to what Nintendo has waiting beyond the stars.

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