Few gamers are completely unfamiliar with the Pokémon series, and many of us are old fans who have been waiting for its developer, Game Freak, to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. Pokémon has always been a traditional series, evolving its system of battling and raising pocket monsters slowly and with subtlety while maintaining a rather dated look and feel. Finally, with the release of Pokémon X/Y on the 3DS, we have a series entry that looks and feels contemporary, from its graphical overhaul to its convenient multiplayer features. In fact, X/Y feels like a reboot that sets the stage for a new era of Pokémon games.
The differences are apparent from the very beginning, in which the player is able to choose from three skin and hair colors during character creation. Then, the familiar ritual of taking the first steps out of the player character’s hometown is transformed when the camera swings back behind that character, showing an impressive view of the tree-lined path ahead. Then, when entering the notorious tall grass in which wild Pokémon lurk, we’re treated to a close-up view of that grass parting to reveal first a mysterious silhouette, then a close-up of the wild Pokémon in full 3D. It’s glorious, and it gets even better when one realizes that the game is packed with an incredible variety of Pokémon to catch from the very first patch of grass onward.
Set in the region of Kalos, which is inspired by France, X/Y is our first European-style Pokémon game. Its creators have not squandered the opportunity to show off the beauty of Europe’s natural and historic scenery. There are quaint villages with cobblestone paths, museums, and palaces that look like they were built during Louis XIV’s reign, and a Paris lookalike capital starring a Pokémon Gym that resembles the Eiffel Tower. There are even new French-inspired Pokémon resembling poodles, pastries, and perfumes–certainly a more complementary crowd than the gear and garbage-inspired Pokémon from the Unova region.
Thanks to excellent use of the 3DS’s graphical abilities and unusually strong area design, Kalos is actively fun to explore. In outdoor areas, players glide around on roller skates whenever they move using the circle pad, pulling off tricks and using grind rails to discover secret treasures. Skating is so much fun that I didn’t even bother to use the bike once I received it. Even caves, once the most dreaded, dull places in these games, have been transformed into entertaining and puzzle-filled locations. The Mirror Cave, in which reflections on the walls reveal hidden stairs and cavern entrances, is a particularly strong example of this newly found design prowess. Any players nostalgic for the old days may feel free to visit the (completely optional) cave devoted entirely to the noble Zubat.
Even better than exploring Kalos is experiencing the completely revamped battle-system graphics. Now fully 3D and featuring a dynamic camera, battles star cel-shaded Pokémon models that have been lovingly animated to emphasize each species’ unique personality. Psyduck reaches up to hold its aching head whenever it’s hit; Gulpin reveals a huge open maw when it attacks, and Mr. Mime constantly presses up against an invisible wall like its namesake. All the attack animations have been redone, and some, such as Flame Rush, look fabulous. They’ve even been mapped to specific locations on specific Pokémon, so Charizard actually breathes Flamethrower from its mouth, while Delphox casts it from a magic wand. The team that produced all these new animations is to be lauded, as the level of detail and care they put into every single one of the 700+ Pokémon species shows true dedication.
It should be noted that there are reports of frame-rate issues in the world and in battle from some players. I only experienced a few mild slowdowns during my time with Pokémon X , but I was playing the digital version saved to a high-speed SD card on the original 3DS. I had a similarly good experience testing a digital version of Pokémon Y on a 3DS XL (same high-speed SD card brand). This experience may vary with the cartridge version or with slower SD cards.
Kalos sounds almost as good as it looks. The soundtrack quality has wavered a bit in the last few games, but Pokémon X/Y brings the series back to form with catchy tunes that sound great even over the lousy 3DS speakers. The music and effects make good use of stereo sound, too. What’s most welcome to Pokémon fans, though, is that the ancient sound effects that have been carried forward since 1996 have finally been updated. Older Pokémon finally have unique cries that don’t sound like a 2400 baud modem being strangled, and the new attack sound effects spice up the battles nicely. There are even some nice touches, such as a unique Sing effect for the parrot Pokémon, Chatot.
The world of Kalos is so full of wonder that it’s a real shame Game Freak forgot to tie it all together with a coherent story. It’s not that the game is low on text—there are plenty of characters around with a lot to say. It’s just that the player’s experience is a meandering adventure interrupted by occasional, weakly delivered goals such as “learn about Mega Evolution,” “visit a haunted house,” or “yeah, we should probably stop the bad guys from doing bad things, I guess.” Even the inevitable Pokémon gyms seem like an afterthought, as it’s possible to completely miss some of them, only to have to go back and find them when the story stalls later on.
The full experience of X/Y is such that the weakness in the story hardly matters, but it’s a bit disappointing that all the other elements of the game have been improved, while the story was almost completely neglected. Next time, Game Freak should check in with the folks who write the Pokémon Ranger games, which at least manage logical narratives, crises that push the story forward, and memorable characters.
Another area that hasn’t received major underlying changes is Pokémon battles, but that’s not a bad thing. The series’ battle system has been slowly evolving over the years, and remains the best example of a turn-based, rock-paper-scissors elemental system in gaming. Easy to get into but with many hidden depths, it’s Pokémon ‘s battle system that keeps many adults hooked on the game, especially in multiplayer battles.
There are a few new combat elements in X/Y . Players can encounter hordes of enemy Pokémon that are best tackled with moves that target multiple enemies, although the game doesn’t provide an easy method for players to determine which moves do so. There’s a new Pokémon type, Fairy, which is strong against Dragon and meant to counter the dominance of the Dragon type in the multiplayer community. Fairy is also weak to Poison, a much-needed boost to that neglected Pokémon type. Many combat moves have been altered or balanced, and other minor changes (such as making all Electric Pokémon immune to paralysis) will keep hardcore players busy for some time.
The biggest change to the battle system is Mega Evolution, a system that allows certain fan-favorite Pokémon to temporarily evolve into super-powered forms during battle. This transformation not only temporarily ups statistics, but also it often gives the Pokémon a new elemental typing that has fewer weaknesses than its original. Some of these new forms look quite cool, and some, like Mega-Absol and Mega-Mawile, give players a use for Pokémon that were formerly underwhelming in battle. Others, like Mega-Charizard, Mega-Lucario, and Mega-Mewtwo seem rather unnecessary considering the power of the originals. Players can only have one Mega Evolution per Pokémon party, and no doubt the competitive battling scene is already devising rules for the usage of these monster Pokémon forms.
Finally, the Super Training mini-game, available from the very start, brings a formerly hidden element of Pokémon training into the light. Competitive battlers know that Pokémon earn specific statistic bonuses (Effort Values) based on the foes they encounter while leveling up, and that controlling which bonuses they earn (known as EV training) is an important part of raising the strongest Pokémon possible. Now, all players can see these statistic bonuses and can fully EV-train a Pokemon via mini-games instead of using the old system of grinding them up via battles against specific Pokémon. Super Training is completely unnecessary for the single-player adventurer, although it can help make weaker Pokémon species more useful to players who enjoy their look and want to use them in battle.
It’s unfortunate that most of the battle-system improvements only matter on the competitive scene, since the single-player campaign is extremely easy. That’s been the case for a while now, and in some ways, the game’s difficulty level has been sacrificed at the altar of usability. For instance, the Experience Share item, given to the player after the very first Gym Battle, now gives experience to the player’s entire party regardless of their participation in battle. This is great for avoiding grinding, but it also has the effect of making the player’s party vastly over-leveled for most of the game. Gym leaders are complete pushovers who seem designed more to stroke the player’s ego than to provide a challenge designed to shape the player into a champion. I get that Pokémon is meant to be accessible to kids, but I don’t think Game Freak gives kids enough credit here.
Those looking for a challenge won’t have to look far. Pokémon has finally entered the modern age of interconnected gaming, in which multiplayer interaction is available at the touch of a button on the 3DS touch screen. Once enabled, the touch screen shows a list of registered friends, acquaintances with whom the player has interacted before, and “passersby” from anywhere in the world who happen to be in the same area of the game as the player. That’s right, friend codes are no longer required to instantly battle and trade with others; though, of course, they’re needed when looking to connect with a specific person for the first time. While additional tools such as the ability to create custom friend groups could improve the experience even more, this is a huge step forward for the series. The only issue I had with the way it’s set up is the fact that the game disconnects from the Internet and gives an error message every time the player closes the 3DS lid. I’m hoping that will be fixed in a patch sometime down the road.
A host of other new features and improvements round out this re-invigorated Pokémon experience. Pokémon Amie is an adorable Tamagochi-style set of mini-games that allows players to interact directly with their Pokémon (with dodgy facial recognition and everything) and receive some small single-player battle buffs in return. Several of the gyms have neat new gimmicks, especially the “Quiz Gym,” which actually challenges players to “What’s That Pokémon?” Players can fully customize their character with clothing that can be purchased throughout the game world. The interface finally looks clean and modern, with plenty of thoughtful shortcuts included. Overall, it feels like the game’s developers carefully considered most of the game’s many interlocking elements and put an emphasis on the player experience, both when interacting with Pokémon and with each other.
Having taken huge steps forward in graphical, world, and interface design along with connectivity, Pokémon X/Y is a refreshing game to play. It’s the perfect place for old fans to return to the series and for new fans to discover why Pokémon is so beloved by gamers of all ages. This feels like a new dawn for the Pokémon series, which will hopefully continue to grow and evolve now that it has re-introduced itself as a contender in the modern era of gaming.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
The games make the most of the 3DS, and the battle animations are top-notch. 4.0 Control
It’s actually fun to get around this Pokémon world, and small improvements make most tasks quick and easy. 4.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A snazzy soundtrack that is even nice over the 3DS speakers, plus updated Pokémon cries at long last! 4.8 Play Value
The extensive single player adventure is complemented by accessible multiplayer trading and battle. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|