Pokémon Sun is probably the best Pokémon game ever made. Not just in terms of being brilliant, looking, sounding and playing like a joyful adventure in the sun, but also in capturing the spirit of what Pokémon is all about better than ever before.
A very first glance might seem like business as usual. One of Pokémon’s themes is evolution, and the series has for a long time opted for this rather than revolution. From Pokémon Red and Blue 20 years ago right through to the most recent games, the pure mechanics of the game are relatively unchanged.
For reasons obvious to anyone aware of the rabid community of competitive battlers, the combat is mostly the same but refined – more on that later – but the overworld of the game around that has been updated considerably.
Gone are the gyms of old, replaced instead with the island trials. Rather than a series of buildings in which to fight a procession of similar trainers, we are treated to area-specific challenges, ranging from minigames with dancing Marowaks to explorations and quiz-based escapades. If Pokémon is a game about youngsters going out into the world to explore it, have new experiences and come of age, this is a much better realisation.
It does unfortunately mean slightly fewer battles against other well-prepared trainers. Just as Dark Souls is at its peak when fighting bosses like knights and warriors, and Bayonetta’s best fights are against Jeanne or the Lumen Sage, Pokémon games shine when the player is pitted against a rival trainer with their own squad of monsters, all with different strengths and weaknesses and abilities.
Though these are only lightly peppered through the early game, a series of late-game setpieces left me feeling very satisfied by the end. Multiple clashes against interesting characters with interesting teams marked a big change in the big player character’s progression from child to champion.
Built from the environments you explore, each trial has a flavour very unique from the others. They each culminate in a battle with a totem Pokémon, a particularly tough example of a local species. Trials are set by Captains, who are much more fleshed-out characters than many of the stationary gym leaders of old. Because they merely set a trial then challenge you to fight a single monster, overcoming them feels less incongruous with the position the fiction establishes for them.
Characters are served well by this game overall. Many of the series’ major tropes do appear, rivals and professors and evil teams, though each is remixed with varying levels of success. The story does good work with enemies and allies alike, which I’ll go into here to avoid spoiling anything for anyone. Team Skull are amusing from start to finish.
The main recurring rival, Hau, is so unthreatening as to be boring but luckily he is far from the only person you’ll bump into repeatedly. Suffice to say, the evil team and some of the recurring characters are up there with the best, despite a few damp squibs.
What this culminates in is a pretty decent approximation of the cartoon’s feeling of Ash adventuring not alone, but with friends like Misty and Brock. The small cast of Sun are endearing, and don’t get in the way of actually playing the adventure like the forgettable array of losers from X and Y.
Elsewhere, minor gameplay tweaks have excellent effects. HM moves no longer take up space in your team of six Pokémon, replaced instead with a separate list of monsters that can be called to help out in the overworld. Elsewhere, Z moves that can be performed once per battle are this game's equivalent of the Mega Evolutions last generation, and ultimately as inconsequential. The most significant gameplay tweak is in what at first feels like a tacked-on Nintendogs mode.
The biggest theme in all of Pokémon, across the games and ancillary media, has always been the relationship between trainer and monster. The text always tells us how important it is to love one’s beasties, whether it’s Silver learning from Gold or Ash constantly learning that lesson in each new season of the Animé. Unfortunately, this has never really been reflected mechanically.
This ludonarrative dissonance has always been what stopped me getting along with the competitive game. When friends tell me about breeding for perfect values and stats, meta game rules and tiers, a little part of me dies. That’s not what Pokémon is about!
I’ve long been seriously invested in the series, allowing myself to get attached to the creatures. I was of the generation obsessed with Harry Potter, Pokémon and Digimon. The fantasy fiction that really appealed to me allowed me to insert myself into it. I didn’t need John Wayne or Han Solo, with just a letter from Hogwart’s or a Charmander from Oak, I could be the hero.
The series repeatedly tells me to love and respect my Pokémon as though they were real pets and friends, and it gets me every time. Unfortunately, the systems at play always favoured those who treat their monsters like numbers or machines, bullets to load into a revolver, point and shoot. Bred values, meticulous training and a very well recorded hierarchy of Pokémon need to be taken into account, which doesn’t gel well with catching Pokémon that look interesting and growing to adore them.
The game can still be played much as before quite successfully. The big change comes from the seemingly innocuous Pokémon Refresh function, a touch screen minigame which lets you feed, pet and administer first aid to your Pokémon. It can be a handy way to remove status afflictions after battles, and a cute little aside to get the most out of your furry friends. Most importantly, it raises your Pokémon’s affection and strengthens your bond.
More than in any previous Pokémon game, this relationship has massive consequences in-game. Affectionate monsters level up faster, can power through opponents’ moves thanks to the power of love and will sometimes dodge attacks entirely after their trainers tell them it’s coming. For heartless bastards who find being forced to spend time cooing at their Pokémon irritating, it’s all entirely optional but for anyone else it adds a nice little bonus advantage.
Admittedly, additional advantages aren’t an especially pressing concern. Pokémon Sun wasn’t a difficult game by any stretch, though unlike the previous game there were a few battles which required genuine thought. Whether the games are getting easier or I’ve just played enough of them now, I found that as long as I kept my team at a fairly even level I was more than capable of handling every enemy I met.
Pokémon games’ interactions don’t hinge entirely on win or lose. More interesting is the infinitely varied ability to play the game uniquely. From the Pokémon on your team to the character customisation that is drip fed as one plays, no two players will have the same experience. Every little aspect of the mechanical gameplay is used cleverly to build the world and introduce interesting monsters.
While some new features make the game easier than before, they also make individual moments more interesting. When I trust my Raichu to get a critical hit because I know it wants to impress me, or my Lycanroc weathers a blow so I won’t worry, the victory is memorable and emotionally resonant in a way beating a tough boss after hours of grinding never was. Similarly, while aslightly heavier emphasis on story might make some players feel less free than before, amusing dialogue options and interactive moments can make it feel like a story you’re part of instead of one that happens to you.
The huge amount of character comes not just from mechanics and writing, but from sumptuous visuals and rich sound. Colourful graphics might not have a huge amount of gritty realism, but they have a wonderful summer holiday vibe and can occasionally impress with big vistas or gorgeous lighting.
This was my first Pokémon game after getting invested in a Monster Hunter game for the first time. I was worried those games, with their wonderfully realised believable animals, would make the cartoonish Pokémon lifeless by comparison. Certainly I can’t see them in the same believable light or imagine Attenborough narrating them, but the animation, writing and mechanics in Pokémon Sun bring the eponymous beasts to life in their own way.
Humans and Pokémon alike are served wonderfully by animation in the overworld and in battle. Attacks hit with some welly, Pokémon express emotions with a tug on the heartstrings and people walk, run and stumble through a more three dimensional world than the series has ever seen.
New monster designs are mostly quite cool, with a nicely on-theme Hawaiian style. They all have convincing animal sounds, and even older monsters have had their cries remixed a little so they sounds less like R2D2 scratching a vinyl.
The music starts off chirpy and inoffensive, but expands to include a great array of styles and moods. Some of the battle themes are real earworms, and the story beats are accompanied by wonderfully cinematic numbers. Team Skulls cheesy hip-hop into theme will be remembered for years to come.
The game starts slow, going out of its way to cater for new players brought in by the success of Pokémon Go, but this doesn't last too long and is softened by a steady stream of loveliness. The final act of the game races from major battle to major battle at breakneck speed, which might feel rushed but for me was pure excitement.
How is the post-game content, often the life or death of a Pokémon game? I don’t know yet, but reports are looking good. How will it be judged by the competitive scene, as a mechanical piece of software and in terms of the meta? I’m not the guy to ask. How will this batch of monsters be judged alongside previous generations? It’s too early to tell. What I can say is that right now, having just completed the game and seen the credits, I feel better about this game than I have any Pokémon game for a while.
Much like the oft-quoted rule of even numbered Star Trek movies being better than odd, I believe it’s a safe bet that a new Pokémon generation coming second to its host hardware will be an all-time classic. Gold and Silver, Black and White and now Sun and Moon. It might be a kids’ game, but from the first time you pick up your starter until the credits roll, you’ll feel like a kid all over again.