Pokémon Sun review: Light at the end of the 2016 tunnel

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We’re sure we’re not alone when we say that 2016 sucked.

We won’t go through the specific reasons why, because we’re already depressed enough for today, but this year was a train wreck.

So enter Pokémon Sun which is the perfect, relaxing remedy to end off this hellish year and leave us with a smile on our faces, which it has done by betraying everything that makes the Pokémon franchise fun.

Sun and the slightly different version Moon have traded in a difficult, grand adventure for an easy story-focused game that feels neutered when compared to past titles. It’s still Pokémon, but it’s missing a lot of features which make the games good.

Pokémon Sun review: Starting the journey

Boot up Sun and everything looks as it should. All the game models are still full 3D after X and made that jump a few years ago. There’s no fancy new graphics because it’s still running on the ageing 3DS hardware, but it looks good for what it is.

You start Sun as a kid who is new to the region of Alola. Let’s not beat around the bush: Alola is Hawaii. Like X and Y’s Kalos region was clearly France, Alola is (ahem) The Aloha State. Everyone is very laid back and kind, there’s a sense of calm and caring in the air, and the word “alola” is both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

Once you’re finally free of the overly long opening cutscene and unskippable dialogue – two things that will become continually irritating aspects of the game – you’re finally left to wander about with the goal of getting to the next town.

At sunset, when you find yourself running up a hill bathed in myriad colours, it becomes apparent that Hawaii was an absolutely perfect fit for a new entry in the series. It feels like you’re on a laid back adventure that you can complete in your own time, and the real world of 2016 feels very far away. We played most of this game in a little home office, but it felt like we were on holiday overseas.

You’ll soon be given the basic outline of your quest in this game through another drawn out cutscene. In place of previous game’s gyms – a building attached to most cities filled with trainers and a boss you need to beat to progress – Alola instead has the “Island Challenge”. This is type of rite of passage; each of the islands that make up the region have several trials, which need to be overcome to continue.

While it serves the same purpose as gyms, they’re much more interesting with a wider variety of tasks needed to be completed in order to battle to win. It’s a nice shakeup of one of the series’ main gimmicks, but the way the challenges are thrown at you feel haphazard at best.

The gyms provided a nice structure and gameplay loop in which you need to battle your way through the spaces between towns to earn the privilege to fight at a gym. Now it feels like they pop up at random and you’re never really looking forward to them.

Pokémon Sun review: Adventure continued

Once you’re past the tutorial, which doesn’t really end until more than two hours into the game, a lot of little changes and additions start to rear their ugly heads.

Once you’ve got the hang of capturing, training and fighting your various Pokémon, the game starts handing you shortcuts. The map, for instance, will now always display a waypoint indicating where to go.

We cannot stress how weird this addition feels give the franchise’s history. A big part of the older games in the series was fighting your way through and blazing your own trail. Even when the game gave you the illusion of choice with only one path you can progress through, finding it was a huge payoff.  Now you’re pretty much progressing through a corridor almost all of the time.

Frustrations continue to when you’re out in the field trying to play. Your Pokédex – a device that records the Pokémon you catch – is now a Pokémon itself. It spouts out tips and hints like Navi from the Legend of Zelda. Everything you do comes with a comment from this little electronic git, and it really should have been left out.

Map simplicity and the fact that many, many NPCS continually heal your Pokémon and give you items for no good reason really help bury any sense of difficulty. Instead you’re strapped in for the story and you let it wash over you.

The story is, unexpectedly, a strong point here. Without spoiling anything, it’s a very adult tale of love, power, loyalty and abandonment. Yeah, in a Pokémon game.

All the characters, with the exception of the player-controlled protagonist who stands unblinking as the whole world goes into chaos – are likeable by virtue of good design. The dialogue is still sorely lacking, but the story pulls through despite that.

Pokémon Sun review: The not so hot heat of battle

Outside of navigating the neutered map and experiencing story, you’ll be battling most of the time.

It’s the same battle system we’ve had for decades now, improved with little additions such as Z-Moves – powerful once-per-battle attacks that both the player and NPCs can use to clinch a match.

There are loads of new Pokémon to fight and catch and the process in both these fields feel as satisfying as ever. It’s not going to win ardent haters of turn-based battle systems, but it’s one of the best examples of it out there.

Unfortunately the creeping additions which seek to make the game easier reach into the battles too. After fighting a Pokémon, the game will automatically inform you of how effective your attacks will be against it in the future.

For example: a fire-type Pokémon will obviously take more damage from your water attacks. In other games you had to remember this effect and apply your knowledge in every battle. In Sun – and presumably Moon – you don’t have to remember – the game will do it for you.

This gets even messier when there is more than two Pokémon in a battle. Aside from 2-vs-2 battles which have been around for a while, certain wild Pokémon can call for help, resulting in a 2-vs-1 situation. This is a great addition to the game which really adds a level of difficulty to encounters, if not for the fact that the game truly struggles to make sense of them.

That type indicator we just mentioned is absolutely flummoxed as soon as there is a second Pokémon on the screen and it will display incorrect effectiveness for your moves. Worse still is massive framerate drops as the 3DS tries to render everything. The game will chug and splatter until the encounter ends, making you want to actively avoid them.

It’s still a hell of a lot of fun, don’t get us wrong, but it needs improvement. Those who play the game competitively in online games will revel in a lot of the new under the skin changes, and those who only play single-player will have a ball.

Pokémon Sun review: Verdict

There are a lot of new additions we glossed over, some of which we liked and some we hated, but Pokémon Sun is a perfect reflection of the year it was released it.

Longtime fans of the series may be confused and frustrated at times by the new mechanics, which drastically reduce the difficulty and the series’ sense of adventure is sapped away by waypoints and cutscenes. New players, on the other hand, will find a truly enjoyable experience.

For both groups, however, this game is a charming break from life which feels more like a little holiday every time you turn it on. The Hawaii-inspired setting, more casual mechanics and detailed world go a long way to make this a great escape from 2016, even if it isn’t a great Pokémon game.

  • Pokémon Sun was reviewed on 3DS. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

[Image – Reddit]

Clinton Matos

Clinton Matos

Clinton has been a programmer, engineering student, project manager, asset controller and even a farrier. Now he handles the maker side of htxt.africa.