I think it’s important to note that I never played the original Pokémon Sun/Moon so this review won’t be comparing the differences seen in this updated version. In fact, the last Pokémon game I played until completion was Pokemon Black and White all the way back in 2011, which was incredibly refreshing. Beyond that I played only about half way through X/Y but simply never got hooked on finishing it, however interesting the introduction of 3D movement was. The Pokémon games have always stood on the shoulders of their predecessors to deliver the same infamous core gameplay, whilst innovating in almost every other way – from the challenging puzzle-gyms, the interesting stories, the online trading and battling features, and so on. After evolving from the regular old Team Rocket story, the player’s journey only got deeper and more involving with every iteration. So what does Ultra Sun/Moon do to earn itself a place in one of the most beloved franchises and classic game series’ on the planet?
For starters, ‘gyms’, perhaps the most iconic part of any trainer’s pilgrimage that all other Pokémon games have based their adventures around, have been replaced with ‘trials’. Each of the four islands of Alola have a number of trials to overcome and culminate in a battle with the island’s Kahuna (pokémon champion). However, what I expected of these trials and what they actually are couldn’t have been much farther apart. I was hoping to be solving puzzles or navigating dungeons – fighting to the last pokémon through intricate mazes but instead all they are is a few run of the mill turn-based battles with zero innovation, begging the question why gyms were replaced at all. In fact, normal battles are the only way the player is challenged at all in this new addition to the series, as the dungeons (if they can be called that) have been simplified to a frankly insulting degree. They are never more than a few rooms with obvious pathways and seriously lacking in treasure to find. The whole game feels simplified, actually, with the introduction of the ‘Ride Pager’ that removes the need for Hidden Machines, as flying or surfing pokémon can be called on demand and the inclusion of a mini-map.
By using a mini-map to display the location of the next story event and the surrounding area makes the whole experience feel incredibly linear and restricted. Even though the older games were still generally linear, the events just seemed to happen all of a sudden when travelling, making the player feel like they were actually swept up into an adventure spontaneously. In Sun/Moon, though, there’s at least 30 hours of completely straight-forward storytelling that revolves around going to a point marked on the mini-map, maybe having a few battles, then setting off to the new checkpoint. The world seems void of all wonder when exploring is reduced to simply following a map and all the characters just bounce the player back and forth around the islands. This monotony may have at least been alleviated if the story would have been as self-aware or absorbing as the Team Plasma plot in Black and White but sadly it’s not. The one element of the game that definitely wasn’t simplified is the overarching plot that includes, but is not limited to, Team Skull, the Ultra Recon Squad (who come from another universe), Nebby (a mysterious and seemingly helpless pokémon), the Aether Foundation, and the Alola Trials.
Even though they do all connect up in the end albeit rather rushedly, and the story itself is actually interesting, there’s simply too much of a disconnect between each of the sub-plots for it to ever feel like there’s a clear goal in sight – am I wanting to beat the trials? Save Nebby? Travel to the Ultra dimension and defeat some kind of light-devouring monster? What about my rival’s story? There’s even a few moments when it seems like your rival is questioning his purpose and if he really wants to be a trainer at all but he just keeps brushing it off and the story just sort of moves on and forgets about it. There’s simply too many tales trying to be told at once and it all melts together in my mind so that none of it stands out. The only parts that do stand out, actually, are the more annoying battles I had to overcome – especially the Necrozma boss fight that took literally hours to grind for, about 15 party changes to find anything that wouldn’t get instantly one-shot before getting an attack in and some heavy TM usage to get the correct abilities akin to its weakness (hint: poison it like crazy then pray to stay alive).
It’s unfortunate for Pokémon, a series that has been consistently good for such a long time, to underwhelm in so many areas but at least the hunting, catching, and battling of pokémon is the same as ever. Now with the inclusion of Z-moves – flashy animated moves that require pokemon to hold Z-crystals of their preferred type and some seriously exciting and challenging normal and 2v2 battles (with the exception of Necrozma, obviously). The online functionality has also been increased dramatically, adding a ton of new features and battle modes, some sadly attempting to include StreetPass even though I haven’t seen a 3DS in the wild for way over a year that wasn’t my own. There’s also a bunch of side-quests to discover just by talking to NPCs – from showing certain pokémon off, trading others, or finding people described by bottled messages, although I do wish there was some way to track them, though, so I could find them again after the story ended.
The end game itself holds a lot of content, actually, and it’s pretty awesome. It’s just sad about the long lead up to it that probably burns out most players. A post-game appearance from Team Rainbow Rocket has the player fight through a number of puzzles and grunts to get the chance to face off against one of several bosses from older games and there’s also the ability to catch half of all the legendaries (half for Sun and half for Moon) if you’re willing to play a pretty awful spaceship mini-game to find them, that is. Personally I’m hoping this release was simply a way to hold the fanatics over until the Switch Pokémon title rears its head in a year or two. Until then, I’d recommend playing Ultra Sun/Moon in bitesize chunks because it can wear pretty thin and quickly become a grind when playing through it rapidly. It should be enjoyed a little at a time or saved exclusively to be played on the go as a fun little time killer. The challenge and fun are waiting right there at the end for those who want to power through for it. It’s just a shame there are so many little things that pile up against the experience, like the pokémon-infused pokédex that never stops asking the same questions over and over or the lack of Pokémon-worthy music.