I enjoyed Pokémon Moon a whole lot more than I was expecting to, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect game. Far from it, in fact; I would say that Moon (and likely Sun, since the stories will probably be the same with some ‘mons swapped over) is a very conflicted game. Some themes try to be child-friendly in the face of stuff that’s just downright horrible. There’s been a significant shift in how some of the game’s mechanics work, which is mostly enjoyable, and gel well with what’s already there, but there’s also a stubbornness to go all-out in changing up the series as a whole. In some areas, I feel like the game didn’t go far enough in how some of the new changes were used, making them more of a novelty than an intrinsic part of the game. None of this is to say that Pokémon Moon is bad, and overall I enjoyed my time with it, but there’s some stuff I really want to see changed in future games.
I also don’t care what anyone says – Wraith-Like Space-Bat Monster is way cooler than some stupid Super Saiyan-looking Entei knock-off.
Set in the new Alola region, the story revolves around the player character, a mysterious girl named Lillie, and your “rival” Hau, travelling around Alola while you and Hau complete your Island Challenge. There’s some nice little nods to characters and events from previous games, which introduce small, intriguing distractions, or side objectives for you to carry out. I enjoyed the way that Team Skull (as silly and ridiculous as they are) and the Aether Foundation impact the story. The pacing of events and the unfolding of their involvement in your adventure was unexpectedly well thought out, although not exactly well written. This is my biggest gripe with Pokémon Moon: it’s clear that Game Freak was trying to cater to both their younger players and the mature audience still playing the series. It doesn’t work very well, feeling weird and awkward whenever darker moments are followed up with long spiels about “LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP, OMG <3!"
On the one hand, you've still got the very child-friendly presentation and overall atmosphere of Pokémon, keeping things well-rooted in the franchise's comfort zone. On the other hand, there are moments where this game gets dark, sometimes downright grim, and very unlike the traditional light-heartedness of the series. Although a lot of the time this is through indirect player interpretation of what's happening, there are definitely moments that had me shocked at how straightforward the game would be with certain subjects. Now, more than ever, I think it's time to stop faffing about with attempting to pander to an extremely wide audience, and just create a mainline series for a more mature audience. The series has been around for literally two decades, Game Freak, your core audience is far from being just children anymore.
“Also: Don’t read your Pokedex at night. Just… Trust me on this.
As far as Pokémon games go, Moon (and by extension Sun) has done more to innovate an already iterative design than any other entry in the series, and what changes are present actually feel useful. Mostly. There’s still a bunch of weird side stuff that’s not strictly connected to the main story in any way, but it does a lot more to support what you’re doing in the main game. Instead of stupid, pointless things, such as using your stored Pokémon to help develop islands that provide some useful items. There’s also the Festival Plaza, offering online play and trading, and some of the booths offer stat boosts or items for your Pokémon. There’s also a weird, poor man’s version of Pokémon Snap thrown in that, honestly, offers nothing practical for pursuing it (at least, not after the 35 hours I’ve played), and is generally boring as hell. The biggest downside for me was, oddly, the battle system.
Firstly, I’m not really a fan of the turn-based combat that has become a staple of the series anymore. Seriously, the combat system has barely changed at all in the 20 years of its run, and almost all of the interesting battle types from X and Y are mostly gone now. The constant back and forth of turn-based battles just feels stale now, and no amount of new types thrown into the mix is going to change that. Pokémon-Amie is also now Pokémon Refresh, which is used to build affection between you and your Pokémon, and on occasion can even be used to heal status ailments outside of battle without having to use items. Keeping your friendship level high with your Pokémon helps during battles, as they’ll dodge attacks or land critical hits more frequently, and endure normally fatal attacks. However… It’s still Pokémon-Amie, essentially, which means playing a glorified Tamagotchi mini-game all the god damned time, which become tedious very quickly.
And yet, I spent a shameful amount of time customising my character’s clothing.
You know what’s really frustrating to include in a game about exploration on a whirlwind, coming of age journey, and learning to take on the world on your own? Being constantly led around against your will, having your hand held so tightly that it fuses to that of the NPC’s. Having side-characters like Hau and Lillie regularly travelling with you brings an element of the cartoon series into the games that you’d think would enrich the story, and at times it does. Most of the time, however, they’re an irritating distraction at best, and an absolute pain in the ass at worst, always dragging you every which way to do what they want, not what you want. I can’t even begin to describe how much I hate Hau in the role of your “rival;” I’d need almost a whole extra article to go into detail, but a legitimate, competitive spirit he is not.
The first couple of hours of the game are really frustrating for what I was just talking about, being lead about all the time, and lacking the freedom to truly explore. It sucks, but it doesn’t last forever, and it’s great to see what’s different in Alola compared to other regions, not the least of which are the “regional variants” of classic Pokémon. Once the leash is loosened proper, and you’re allowed to legitimately explore, I feel like there’s a lot to the game that I’ve still yet to see, even after completing it. There’re hidden collectables, strange little side-quests of sorts that usually involve catching Pokémon for other people, and even a decent end-game that takes place after the elite four.
In the end, I didn’t even use my Rowlet much. Yungoos/Gumshoos4lyfe, yo!
A lot of these changes are excellent, showing a willingness to at least try to mix things up with the series’ classic tropes after so long. The problem is that a lot of these changes don’t go far enough, or are underused in a lot of ways. An example would be the Island Trials, which take the place of gyms, and each one has a different set of requirements to make them feel unique. They’re honestly fun, if maybe a bit simple, and are easily one of the best changes in the game. Towards the end of the Moon, however, it starts to feel like less effort went into their design, and start falling into the same pattern as the gym battles of old before them. Another example would be the Pokémon Pager, which does away with bikes, and replaces them with different Pokémon that you can ride on. This was so awesome at the start, especially when each on has a unique ability, but a lot of them are neglected in their overall use throughout the game, and it feels like a lot more could have been done with them.
I also need to just get a few basic things out of the way, about what is and isn’t okay in directing gameplay. Firstly, if you put unskippable credits in your game – you’re the worst, and I hate you. If you artificially lengthen your ending by repeating what is ostensibly the same scene over and over, contributing little to nothing to the story – your story clearly doesn’t have a lot going on, and you’re being a blowhard. If a vast majority of your character interaction is made up of meaningless nods and gestures, as though to affirm that the writers honestly couldn’t put anything worthwhile in their place – don’t bother, it’s painful to sit through. And lastly, if you have characters speaking on-screen, but don’t show what they’re saying – there better be a good god damn story reason behind it because why would you take away player control to show them something that means nothing, and is infuriating to watch. Also: I’ll still hate you, just a little bit more.
Also: If Charizard was just going to be a glorified “Fly” HM, why not just let me use fly? You could have let me ACTUALLY FLY AROUND THE ISLANDS, GAME FREAK. FOR SHAME.
The length of some of the cutscenes in this game, given it’s a Pokémon game, and what’s in each one, is obscene. It’s actually incredibly frustrating to sit through a lot of them because it feels like nothing of any real significance happens. Your own character, especially, the wide-eyed, silent, forever-smiling pseudo-person that they are, offers no tangible way for the player to interact with other characters, in or out of cutscenes. You’d have to be a weeaboo of the highest calibre to get any kind of enjoyment out of these moments. The silent protagonist might have worked at one stage, but it’s time that something replaced that particular trope, at least in this series. How am I supposed to care about any of these characters when the most impactful way I have of interacting with them is by grinding them into the dirt during battles?
Don’t get me wrong, the game looks incredible (for a Pokémon game), and where the cutscenes actually had significant information to convey, it felt like a great video game/anime blend. The change in animation style and a more cinematic approach to showing different events does make a huge difference in how you experience the game. They just need to work on putting stuff in there that’s worth viewing, and not trimming down on the darker stuff whenever it appears. That, again, comes back to the need for a more “mature” mainline series of games. The music was fun to listen to for awhile, but nothing spectacular, or outstanding, and I spent most of the game with the sound off, not feeling as though I was missing out on anything for doing so. I’m also still disappointed that Pokémon aren’t saying their names in the game like they do in the cartoons. That’s just me, though, that’s a personal preference – you may feel differently.
By no means do I consider Pokémon Moon (and Sun, I guess) to be a bad entry in the series, just underdone in comparison to what it could have been. It’s still enjoyable to play, and there’s a lot to love about it, but the overall design feels awkward in places. Pokémon has always been recognised as being a series aimed at kids, but a huge part of its fan base aren’t kids anymore, and I think Game Freak are slowly beginning to understand that. Instead of creating a new series aimed at a mature audience, however, they’ve shoe-horned in a lot of adult-like themes that don’t gel well with the established “feel” of your classic Pokémon game. While new, interesting ideas have been introduced, great ones from X and Y were dropped, and the battle system still feels stale. If you’re a fan of Pokémon, however, or a returning player of the old-school series, there’s still a lot to enjoy, and it regardless remains one of the most innovative entries in the entire series.