After years off the Pokemon train, Nintendo’s got me again: I’m back in.

It’s been a long time, but Game Freak, Nintendo and The Pokemon Company have finally done it: I’ve been sucked back into Pokemon properly. Let’s get the broad stuff out of the way right here at the top: I think Pokemon Sun & Moon is a bit brilliant. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s best Pokemon release in years.

“Pokemon Sun & Moon is a bit brilliant. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s best Pokemon release in years.”

For the Pokemon mega-fans or those just curious, here’s where I stand on the series: I vividly remember getting Pokemon Blue within a few weeks of its original release. I loved it. I was obsessive. I’d later get Yellow, then Gold, then Sapphire, then FireRed and finally Diamond. I completed them all, pumping anywhere between 15 and 30+ hours into each. I loved a variety of the spin-offs too, primarily Pokemon Stadium’s Mario Party-style minigames on N64. But then… Pokemon sort of lost me.

I picked up Black, Black 2, and X, but all failed to hold my attention after a few hours. Pokemon Go was a novelty, but not what I needed to fully draw me back in. I got the furthest with X; it felt like it was taking great strides towards a new and more interesting vision for the series but ultimately fell short for me. Here’s the good news: Pokemon Sun & Moon are a continuation of that vision in the strongest sense, taking the ideas for a more exciting Pokemon expressed in X & Y and bringing them to their natural conclusion.

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Nintendo has made much of the top-level changes to the Pokemon formula for Sun & Moon. Gyms are gone, replaced by the Island Challenge, a coming-of-age quest that tasks trainers with defeating four powerful island Kahunas and wild Totem Pokemon that guard each island. These are bosses that are akin to gym leaders. The truth is, things aren’t all that different when push comes to shove.

“It takes the concepts of previous games and twists them in a way that might sound more adventurous than it actually is but also develops them to be more satisfying all the same.”

Each Kahuna has a series of lieutenants under them meaning that while on the first island you quest around and then battle the Kahuna in a structure quite different to gyms, later islands carefully funnel you from one task to the next, from lieutenant to lieutenant until you’re ready to face the Kahuna. Like the gyms of the past, lieutenants and their challenges are all themed: a ghost Pokemon loving lady can be found to ply her trade in an abandoned, haunted supermarket, while another chap can be found atop a mountain and so on.

This is ultimately very similar to gyms, but the game still feels fresher for the shift. You’re no longer entering identical-looking buildings in towns, but heading to unique locations that match the person in question. Each one has a challenge attached outside of battle, too. The aforementioned ghost supermarket asks you to take photos of the reticent and camera-shy ghost-type Pokemon within. Another turns into a weird little game of spot-the-difference. It’s cool stuff. None of it is particularly difficult since Pokemon remains an all-ages affair, but each challenge provides a welcome change of pace.

This is generally a theme for Pokemon Sun & Moon: it takes the concepts of previous games and twists them in a way that might sound more adventurous than it actually is but also develops them to be more satisfying all the same.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Sun & Moon’s general presentation. After a sort of awkward middle stage with X & Y, Sun & Moon feature more realistic character models. Gone are the chibi blobs that represented characters for the past 19 years, replaced by full-sized, anime-proportioned characters that wouldn’t look out of place in a Final Fantasy or Tales Of game, and to be more specifically accurate look a lot like the characters from the Pokemon anime TV series.

With this style comes a greater degree of expression with those characters. Rival Hau is fun to be around and more a genuinely likable friend than a bitter rival, while major plot player Lillie is really rather endearing thanks to a snappy translation and some fun touches with facial expressions and the like. These are simple character models, but there’s a charm to it all.

That expression allows for a deeper focus on plot, too. This is a Pokemon game that opens with a chase scene with changing camera angles and the like. Later on, dark clouds roll over and obscure the skies as threatening events unfold – it’s surprisingly Japanese RPG. Pokemon has always been a JRPG of course, but a lighter touch on the genre. Sun & Moon step closer towards the sort of epic coming-of-age plotting that’s defined that genre while clinging tightly to the simple charm and appeal of Pokemon in general. It works. The mysteries and more epic quality of the story also draw me in deeper: I remain more engaged in this story than in any other Pokemon tale yet.

While some fans have expressed frustration I think the game strikes the right balance between old and new, and that goes for the included Pokemon, too. There’s some new Alola Pokemon, but a handful, plus the Alolan forms of classic beasts. The Pokedex is a mixture from all previous generations plus new stuff, and it feels like a sizable amount of Pokemon to play with. All those not naturally found in Alola are on the cart – so if you desperately want a Charizard, that chance will come down the line via trades and the like even if you can’t naturally catch one right now. There’s even some very limited opportunities to catch a broader range of Pokemon by scanning QR codes, a nifty addition since any old QR code will work.

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Sun & Moon feels to me to from a design perspective be the best Pokemon game yet, though there are elements and areas where the game offers frustration. There’s a plodding nature to the game that appears to be a direct result of designing down for kids. I’m not always sure this is a good idea: kids get it. Kids got it in 1996 in Red and Green and today’s kids are just as capable. Sun & Moon takes its sweet time all the same, though – it plods along, taking two hours to reach its first real non-tutorial content.

Battles remain slow by nature even on the higher speed settings, too. Even once it gets going Sun & Moon’s pace remains somewhat lackadaisical, but by that point the game had sunk its claws into me in other ways – I didn’t care.

“As soon as you enter a battle with more than two Pokemon the frame rate tanks even on my New 3DS – I can’t imagine how bad it gets on the original 3DS and 2DS. That stuff is a shame since it’s an amazing looking game.”

Another thing that quite literally lags is the performance. The game looks absolutely amazing for a 3DS title and features a more fully realized 3D world than Pokemon has ever managed, but the trade-off for that is that there are no 3D visuals for the 3DS to display at any point. As soon as you enter a battle with more than two Pokemon the frame rate tanks even on my New 3DS – I can’t imagine how bad it gets on the original 3DS and 2DS. That stuff is a shame since it’s an amazing looking game.

The pacing perplexes me, but other streamlining adjustments make so much sense you wonder why they took so long to arrive. Hidden Machines (HMs) are gone, replaced instead by the ability to summon and ride certain Pokemon. Need to fly somewhere? Charizard can be summoned to fast travel you around and you don’t have to have him in your party or take up a move slot with the Fly move. Need to smash some rocks? Same deal, but Tauros will take care of you. There’s a number of these rides and I won’t spoil more, but it’s a great system to replace the HMs. It also replaces bikes and skates – if you want to dash around more quickly, ride a Pokemon.

One of the smartest, simplest changes uses your Pokedex data to assist you in battle. Once you’ve caught or defeated a Pokemon once, its strengths and weaknesses will be flagged to you on the bottom screen when choosing an attack or switching your Pokemon. There’s nearly 800 Pokemon now – this is a welcome helping hand so players can keep track.

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I’ve talked for an age but I’ve barely touched on some aspects of the game, a testament to just how much there is to do. The way it handles multiplayer is smart, and its new Battle Royale feature an excellent twist on Pokemon Battles that while unlikely to replace the format for the more serious competitive players is a much more fun way to casually play. We’ll talk about this more separately in another article. Single-player features like Poke-Pelago and the QR code scanner all mean there’s a ridiculous amount of places to lose hours.

While there’s nothing as jaw-dropping as Gold and Silver’s trip back to Kanto there’s still a shed load of post-game content once the credits roll, too. A lot of this I haven’t even yet had time to touch. There’s a lot of game for your money here. I wish some areas like character customisation were a little more in-depth (Why can’t I get some pants that aren’t shorts?), but there are few areas of the game that don’t feel massive.

“As Pokemon turns 20, I can’t think of a more fitting celebration than this: A really good game.”

For the longest time I haven’t been able to finish a Pokemon game. The series had gotten stale; too samey, not interesting enough. Sun & Moon has changed that. There’s a variety of reasons, some of which I can’t even fully articulate, but as far as I’m concerned this is the best Pokemon game in years.

While I realize fans of the competitive scene have an entirely different set of criteria, for a player like me who wants to experience an adventure and then play some casual Pokemon battles online and against friends, almost every one of the nuts and bolts that make up the Pokemon experience has been smartly polished and tightened. It’s a bit too easy, performance isn’t great, it hand-holds too much… but it’s great.

Yes, there are flaws in its pacing and this is a game for which the 3DS barely manages to pass muster. Yet as Pokemon turns 20, I can’t think of a more fitting celebration than this: A really good game.

Read more here: VG247