Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Reflections of Alola: Pros and Cons of Sun and Moon

Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are less than one month away and I have been reading the various news releases and fan hypotheses based on them. As I read them, I am surprised to find there is such a negative opinion of Sun and Moon. I don't know if this an prevailing opinion or if there is a skew since people like to complain on the Internet. I personally enjoyed the games, however I do have a few friends who haven't even finished their copy for whatever reason. I don't think they were bored per sé, however if they had been excited about the game I would have figured they would have finished. Now, I'm not oblivious to Sun and Moon's shortcomings, however I don't think they were failures. So, rather than just paint an unjustly sunny picture or straight up crapping on the games, I plan on pointing out a few points that I thought were highs and lows.

Spoiler Alert: Lunala and Solgaleo only meet up in Sun and Moon to make a baby.
High Point: The Scenery and Characters
If there was any high point to Sun and Moon compared to other games I would have to point to the characters. While playing I was genuinely interested in the story elements revolving around Lillie, Gladion, and Lusamine. To a lesser extent I was interested in the Trial Captains and Kahunas, but interacting with them so often kept them interesting and it was rewarding to see several return as Elite Four members or challengers. Alola itself was also fun to navigate. I felt there was enough variance in the four islands that made them possibly more of a success as a tropical region than even Hoenn was. Granted, Hoenn was designed originally as a 2D region, but still. Alola seemed more alive than Hoenn in a lot of ways, which means a lot coming from me. I love Hoenn. New regional formes (Alolan formes) were also a high point that really set Alola apart from any other region before it.

Alola is a vibrant environment in Sun and Moon, but it appears it will be more vibrant and active with overworld Pokémon in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.
Low Point: The Trials
Don't get me wrong, I like the IDEA of the trails. For years people have been calling for a change from Gyms, then we got it, then they said they wanted Gyms back. Hypothetically, trials could have been amazing. However, what we got was essentially a "gym puzzle" followed with a battle with the totem pokémon. The totem pokémon battle didn't really function that differently from fighting a gym leader. If it called for help, you probably fought between 2-3 pokémon for each totem, less once you figured out to just focus on the totem. What that meant is a flip from what we get from gym leaders. With gym leaders, part of the difficulty increase was facing more pokémon the farther up the ladder the leader was. With the totems, the better you understood the game the easier it was. Just take out the totem first. That meant your last trial may have just been versus 2 pokémon at most. Not very challenging. If anything they took what was lame about gym battles and re-branded it, at worst it's watered down.

This appears more exciting than it really is.

High Point: Z-Crystals and Z-Moves
I'm sure this will raise a few eyebrows, but I think the Z-Crystals and Z-Moves were a good addition to the game. Generally speaking, I think "super moves" in games are a lazy way to make something seem fresh. With Z-Moves, I felt the same way until actually utilizing them. Unlike how other games handle "super moves", Z-Moves do require some thought into their utilization. They are customizable to the point of how wide a particular pokémon moveset is and can be utilized for set up, coverage, or simply a one shot nuke to hit as hard as one can with a STAB.

On the topic of Z-Crystals themselves, they also pair well with Mega Evolutions. Since Z-Crystals count as a hold item like Mega Stones, it makes for some unique variability in commonly used pokémon. For example, one could run Scizor with a Z-Crystal, a Mega Stone, or a standard hold item like Choice Band and still be valid.Also, I'd assume at some point we would get more Megas, but thanks to Z-Moves, we have variance to balance them. New gens, for example, could introduce new Megas AND new exclusive Z-Moves to revamp pokémon rather than having to rely solely on just giving older pokémon Mega Evolutions. A good exclusive Z-Move could be just as good as having a Mega Evolution, depending on the circumstance. I'd also like to add that Z-Crystals are WAY better than badges. Z-Crystals not only show you beat a trial, but they also give you access to a new move. Prior to Z-Crystals, Gym Leaders gave badges AND a TM for a new move. Z-Crystals are now both.

This is actually LESS flashy than they are in-game.

Low Point: NPCs vs Z-Moves
From a competitive standpoint, I think Z-Moves are fun. On the other hand, from a casual stand point they make the game WAY too easy. For veteran players, pokémon games are pretty much always "easy mode" and they often make up their own play rules to make it more challenging (ex: Nuzlocke). However, Z-Moves take that "easy mode" and make it even easier. NPCs have NO IDEA how to handle a pokémon with a Z-Move, unless you take into account the Battle Tree. To be fair, they don't know how to handle Megas either, but you can't get any Megas prior to the Battle Tree, outside of Alakazam, unless you trade and download Mega Stones from Mystery Gift. Z-Crystals are everywhere in Sun and Moon, yet so few NPCs use them against you. If more NPCs used Protect, or their own Z-Moves, then the game wouldn't seem so easy. Players have been asking for difficulty settings for a while, but it doesn't seem like we'll get them soon. At the very least, it would be a good idea to have more NPCs utilize the "big mechanic" of the game they are in. Otherwise, they don't stand a chance.

High Point: Legendaries We Care About
Prior to Sun and Moon, legendaries were just the strong pokémon at the end of the game. Starting with Gen III, they were the ones that evil teams wanted to be able to meet their goals. However, outside of "being cool and strong", legendaries weren't really characters. Nebby (Cosmog) and Tapu Koko change that a bit. I'll admit Tapu Koko is kind of forced on you in terms of a connection, but Nebby's antics are meme-worthy. I don't know anyone who has played Sun and Moon who doesn't know what it means to "Get in the bag!" I know I cared way more about Nebby than I have any other legendary. I was playing Moon, so when Nebby eventually evolved into Lunala and I caught it, I named it Nebby immediately. This is stark contrast to how I usually deal with legendaries, specifically the "box art" legendaries and Mewtwo. I don't name them. They are legendary and I doubt they'd acknowledge my crappy little name for them. I mean, would someone nickname Zeus? No, he's just freaking Zeus, King of the Greek Gods. Not so with Nebby. Nebby is my friend. Nebby is it's name. Also, the connection that is shown between Lillie and Nebby was touching for a pokémon game. If Lillie had asked Nebby to go with her after evolving, I would have been fine with that (as long as she went with me to Lake of the Sunne to get my own Cosmog to raise). In my mind, Nebby is her pokémon. It's just hanging out with me until she gets back from Kanto.

*PEWING INTENSIFIES*

Low Point: The Ultra Beasts and the Post-Game
Again, like the trials, I like the Ultra Beasts hypothetically. Despite how much Lusamine likes Nihilego I remain unconvinced of its beauty. I think Celesteela has it beat. Design-wise though, I like all of the Ultra Beasts overall. They don't all "look like pokémon", but I personally like when "what a pokémon should look like is challenged" just so long as the design doesn't go overboard. A couple did have to grow on me (Nihilego & Buzzwole), but they eventually did. The aspect I like least about the Ultra Beasts is their part in the story, which is essentially just as targets for Lusamine. Even then, it's not even all of them she's after, just Nihilego. Outside of Nihilego, Pheromosa, and Buzzwole, they don't even show up AT ALL until the post-game. Although this is similar to lower level legendaries in other gens (like trios), these guys were such a big part of marketing I thought they would play a bigger role in the main plot. Lucky for me it seems that IS the case with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. In which case, this may be something that is quickly fixed.

These guys are nuts. As much as I like Beast Boost, I hope they eventually get Hidden Abilities.

Verdict: Not Too Shabby, but Didn't Live Up To It's Potential
For being such a departure from a 20 year formula, it's not bad. I feel they played it safe with the trials and if I had to chose one portion of the game I was the most disappointed with, that would be it and the post game would be a close second. If Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon beef up the trial difficulty (move away from just being "Gym Challenge Lite") and integrate the Ultra Beasts better into the story, I don't see why they wouldn't be two of the best pokémon games to date. The sole point that the post game is supposed  to be so much more involved than any other revamped title before it (like Emerald or Platinum) makes Ultra Moon a personal Day 1 grab for me. I hope it builds from the Sun and Moon mythos to be a truly exceptional experience.