Pokémon Sun’s story initially follows the very traditional beats; the island challenge isn’t, in terms of the overall narrative, that different from Pokémon Leagues of old. Team Skull, as hilariously on point as their Jesse Pinkman routine is, are just another evil team. Rival? Check. Professor? Check? Legendary powerful Pokémon mentioned early and encountered at the end?
Where Sun shines is in the details. For all their criminal and bullyish tendencies, Team Skull’s veneer soon cracks to show a believably scared bunch of kids, taking strength from an identity. These are down on their luck losers playing at gangstas, and come across as a family in their own little way.
The real villains of the piece are Team Aether. The Aether Foundation is introduced as a benevolent force, but soon reveals itself to be headed by a maniacal leader obsessed with the “Ultra Beasts”, powerful Pokémon from a parallel universe. This duality, the street toughs of Skull and the heartless white coats of Aether, makes for compelling villains.
The leaders, Guzma of Team Skull and Lusamine of Aether, balance eachother well. Guzma is a bully, frustrated by his own weakness and living like a criminal bum. Team Skull idolise his strength, and flock to him to escape their own similar inadequacies. It is a surprisingly nuanced picture of youth gang culture and the appeal to a disenfranchised generation of separating oneself from proper society.
The real villain of the piece is Lusamine. Presenting herself to the outside world as a wealthy philanthropist, she is cold and obsessed with beauty. While Guzma has a surrogate family who fear but clearly love him and one another, Lusamine has a pair of estranged children and a family situation so dysfunctional it would fit into Game of Thrones.
It feels like the storyline is right on the cusp of making a really interesting point about the difference between legality and morality, the vilification of poor people driven to lives of crime and the whitewashing of large scale crime. Team Skull are hated for theft and vandalism while Lusamine is cared for and offered rehabilitation after she summons monsters that might destroy the world
Speaking of her children, her daughter Lillie follows the player for much of their island adventures. Not a trainer herself, she carries a Pokémon it later transpires she’d rescued from Aether. While her constant need for rescue might annoy some players early on, her eventual development as a character works well and I look forward to seeing more of her, hopefully, in the post-game.
The other character who appears as regularly on the journey. A chirpy, fun-loving, good-natured donut eater, he is insufferably dull. Battles with and against him lack drama or tension, and as a rival he falls badly short of the highs of Blue, Silver and N.
On the other side of the coin you have Gladion, Lillie’s brother and a surprisingly well handled example of the classic animé villain-cum-friend. Battles with him have a little more edge to them, and his development is far more exciting.
Finally, we have the traditional Professor. Gone is bookish Oak, in is buff Professor Kukui. Early on I was amused by the way him saying “Oh Yeah” reminded me of Macho Man Randy Savage, but seeing his Masked Royal persona and hearing more and more Wrestling references showed me that it was deliberate, which is even better. You gotta beat the man to be the man!