Pokemon GO caught not only the entire gaming world by surprise last year; it grabbed the attention of people everywhere. The success of this mobile app played a large role in the success of Pokemon Sun and Moon this past November, which became the fastest selling titles in the Pokemon series’ long history. Interestingly enough, where Pokemon GO relied heavily on nostalgia, Pokemon Sun and Moon took the series in a new direction. It threw away many of the conventions the series relied heavily upon, and it came out better for it.
Pokemon Sun moves to a new location known as Alola, which is meant to be a nod to Hawaii. As a matter of fact, characters will often greet each other with, “Alola!” This new series of islands is a welcoming sight for fans of Pokemon because it oozes with good vibes eliciting strong associations with vacation and new beginnings. The game utilizes outdoor beach wear to bring the island aesthetic to life and the various locations seen throughout the islands such as beaches, mountains, and volcanoes play into this portrayal as well. It feels warm and inviting strolling across different environments during the day-time cycle as the sun beams all around and the water shines with a certain gleam. Pokemon Sun is also about the welcoming yet curious mood it tries to drive home.
With the move to a new location, also comes the removal of long time hassles. For the first time, Pokemon Sun does away with HM moves. In their place, you can call specific Pokemon with a single button press and these specially designated Pokemon will perform the task for you, whether it is flying, surfing, or a new function added to the game. Perhaps more surprisingly, Pokemon Sun does away with gym battles. In their place are something known as trials. Across each island, trials can be undertaken and they are different challenges that must be completed. One trial tasks you with answering audio cue questions while a different trial asks you to spot the difference. All the trials are varied and usually feature a Totem Pokemon at the end. This Totem Pokemon is stronger than normal, and will typically call for help, which is one of the gameplay additions. When a Pokemon is low on health or the battle has been a prolonged one, the wild Pokemon can call for help which will summon either the same Pokemon or an entirely different one to its side. You must then defeat both to emerge victorious. However, Pokemon can call for help an unlimited number of times if the battle is an extended affair. This mechanic adds an extra layer of difficulty to Pokemon Sun and it is welcomed, considering the series’ lack of difficulty in the past.
Pokemon Sun is a difficult game. It feels strange saying those words, but they ring true. Not only are the Totem Pokemon fights difficult, the battles with the island leaders, known as Kahunas, are also challenges. With the past titles, I rarely if ever blacked out or used health recovery items. In Pokemon Sun, these items often bailed me out during tense encounters. The Kahuna fights specifically will not only test the capability of your entire team, they can also exploit a glaring weakness if you do not have coverage against a certain typing. The ultimate test as usual, is the Elite Four at the game’s conclusion. This iteration of the Elite Four is arguably the strongest to date. When I first challenged them, I quickly realized that my team was ill prepared for the grueling fights and better than average strategy used by the AI. It felt refreshing actually dying again. The increased difficulty kept me engaged in the game, and it makes me excited about the series going forward.
If there was an aspect that could be pinpointed as to where Pokemon Sun falters, it would be the story. Pokemon games in general have never been known for their stories. They usually consist of collecting badges, defeating the current Team Rocket iteration, and then defeating the Elite Four and becoming the Champion. With the new location and quality of life changes, I remained hopeful that the story may be different as well. I soon learned that was not the case, and Pokemon Sun relies heavily upon many of the same story beats as previous games. There are some new wrinkles with new character types and changing how the rival operates, but they are not enough to save the story. It may seem unfair to criticize a game so reliant upon its gameplay mechanics for its story, but the developers chose to include one so it must be discussed. Going forward, the Pokemon series could really benefit from taking the story in a completely new direction. There is some optimism behind this happening given the other changes done across the board, but it is a difficult task creating a narrative that will appeal to both adults and children.
The Pokemon games were reaching fatigue levels similar to those of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. After the lackluster reception of X and Y, Pokemon took a year off and the extra development time paid off. Pokemon Sun takes the games in a new direction with a more light hearted location. Alola invites players to bask in their surroundings and enjoy the challenges as they come. Not only does the game have a new aesthetic, it changes key gameplay features such as the removal of HMs, and the game is starkly better as a result. While Pokemon Sun falters with its story, it more than makes up for it with its challenging battles. Pokemon Sun does a lot more right than it does wrong, and moving forward Pokemon has a bright future inside and outside of Alola.