Reviewed on: Nintendo 3DS
A young child, having recently moved home, embarks on an adventure of exploration and discovery, meeting all manner of people and creatures along the way. Fundamentally this is the story of Pokemon dating back to the series’ original titles, Red & Blue.
Since then each main entry brings with it a new land, a slew of new Pokemon to catch, a nefarious group with goals of world domination and, most importantly, a Pokemon League to conquer in order to call oneself a Pokemon Master. Pokemon Moon doesn’t stray from this template, but it does re-contextualise and tweak the formula enough to make this newest entry feel like a revitalisation of the series.
For its 20th anniversary (although Red & Blue saw their UK release in 1999), another new region has been introduced; the collection of islands known as Alola. While previous titles have been influenced by foreign lands, most notably Black/White’s United States flavour and the French-inspired designs of X/Y’s Kalos region, Alola brings with it a change of culture, a slice of laid-back island life, that separates it from its peers. While the game opens with a new-to-the-series cutscene and hints at a larger overarching plotline, the primary player motivation is beautifully minimalistic: You have just moved to Alola from Kanto (a welcome nod to those who recall the original games), it is a visually distinct departure from the home you know, would you like to explore it?
This is arguably one of the strengths of Pokemon and why its brand remains so strong. Though the aforementioned cutscene points towards more serious events, there is no grim motivation for the player quest nor is there any controversial material. At its core, Pokemon has always been about encouraging players to go out and explore, to see the beauty of the world we live in and make new friends. Moon excels at this, displaying a level of warmth and enthusiasm that few games can match.
Beyond this visual motivation for exploring Alola are some welcome revisions to accepted archetypes within Pokemon’s world. A standout evolution is that of Poké Ride, in which players gradually attain a series of mounts that aid in obstacle traversal; from a Tauros that can charge through boulders to a Lapras that sails across the water. These Pokemon completely supplant the cumbersome HM (Hidden Machine) system of games past and make the act of exploring Alola that much more fluid and enjoyable.
The geographic structure of Alola, its collection of islands, also makes this act of exploration feel less linear than past titles. Each isle is circumnavigated, with more being revealed as the player completes more milestones, numerous small villages and some larger towns scattered across them. In reality it is just as curated as the linear routes of past games, though its presentation does a fine job of masking this, making the journey feel more organic.
The boldest change is the removal of Gym Leaders. A series staple who serve as roadblocks to test the player’s skill level, they are replaced by Island Trials & Kahunas; spiritual successors that ostensibly serve the same function yet feel more suited to the relaxed Hawaiian-inspired world of Alola. Trials involving defeating a native Pokemon in a powered-up form, while are effectively Alola’s version of Gym Leaders. Small, cosmetic changes, but changes nontheless.
Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of Moon for returning players is that of Alolan Forms. Further presenting its land as being far removed from those of previous games, some older Pokemon have seen redesigns, the reason given that the unique climate of Alola has caused them to evolve and develop in unique ways, and this is represented in-game with new moves and abilities. The first time you lay eyes on an Alolan Exeggutor is not something you’ll forget anytime soon.
Despite the number of changes and alterations made in Moon, the act of battling Pokemon has not seen many advancements. Teams are still comprised of six Pokemon, each can learn a maximum of four moves (plus a powerful Z-Move that can be used once in a fight) and battles are primarily fought on a 1v1 plane. It is a system that still excels and is not necessarily in need of a total overhaul, but considering the scope of alterations made to the world and presentation of Alola it can feel somewhat underwhelming to enter battles that are effectively those from Red & Blue with a newer coat of paint.
However, considering that prior games’ attempts at extending the battle system (triple battles, rotation battles, sky battles, etc.) have felt gimmicky at best, perhaps some recognition should be given to Game Freak for understanding their limitations.