Platforms: Nintendo 3DS (Reviewed)

I usually start my Pokémon reviews by saying you already know what you are in for. Battle through gym leaders, face the Elite Four, gotta catch em’ all, etc. Pokémon has been copy/pasting its own formula ever since Gold and Silver. The most you have to look forward to in new installments are slightly different Pokémon, a new evil Team to defeat, and a few side-features that will mostly go ignored as you build your perfect Pokémon team.

I’m ecstatic to say the same isn’t true for Pokémon Sun and Moon. Everything you know about Pokémon is wrong, and it’s awesome!

Tropical Paradise Vacation With A Side of Pokémon

This latest installment in the Pokémon franchise is remarkably different from its predecessors. It takes more risks with the Pokémon formula, and all of them pay off.

Whatever it doesn’t change, it improves. It streamlines gameplay by introducing welcome new systems and ditching antiquated ones. This, coupled with an increased focus on narrative and accessibility, makes Pokémon Sun and Moon one of the most compelling and immersive titles in the Pokémon franchise yet.

Sun and Moon take place on the Alola Islands, an environment loosely based on Hawaii. Alola is smaller than previous Pokémon settings and is better off for it. Each island can be fully traversed on foot in a manner of minutes, yet the narrative has so many sub-plots and pit-stops you still manage to spend hours on each one.

The unique island structure of Alola gives a fresh new feel to the tradition of Pokémon catching. Unlike the routes and side-dungeons of prior games, which were loosely based around a type or theme, Alola’s islands are all like micro-environments. You’ll find different birds, fish, small animals, large predators, and sentient inanimate objects on every island. This increases Pokémon variety in a profound way. A few minutes in, you’ll find yourself with a team covering 8 types or more. Each new environment gives you plenty of viable candidates for team inclusion, which keeps your lineup changing frequently. Catching every Pokémon you see feels like it serves a purpose beyond attempting to fill out your Pokédex.

New Culture, New Mechanics

Alolan culture saturates every environment, giving the game a strangely compelling narrative for a series about catching magical creatures in balls. Each island has multiple cities and traditions. You’ll find yourself participating in diverse rites and festivals as you hop from island to island. Seeing the differences between, say, the tourist driven culture of the main islands and the indigenous semi-religious cultures of smaller islands is surprisingly fun. A lot of anthropological thought was put into the development of the Alolan islands, and it shows.

Each island’s unique culture is also expressed through its unique selection of shops and facilities. While you’ll find a Pokémon center and basic item shops in every town, other facilities are spread far and wide across the islands. You’ll encounter the nursery, move tutors, cafés, and ludicrously addictive apparel shops, each themed with an island’s unique culture. It’s interesting how utilizing even basic facilities forces you to interact with the island’s culture in some way. I, personally, have likely spent 200,000 zenny customizing my character’s appearance and only 10,000 on actual battle items.

Alolan culture is so detached from mainland culture that its Pokémon traditions are completely different as well. There are no gyms in Pokémon Sun and Moon. The grind of catching Pokémon, getting to a new town, leveling up, and facing the local gym leader has been totally overhauled. In its place are the “island trials.” Unlike gyms, island trials can take place anywhere, even in the wild. Many of them overlap with your travels, taking place in between your journeys from town to town. Many island trials aren’t even battle challenges. Some will test your observation of problem solving ability instead.

There is only one mandatory battle at the end of each island trial, but it’s not against a trainer. Instead, it’s against a wild “totem Pokémon” – basically a giant powered up version of one of the island’s indigenous Pokémon. This Pokémon can call allies into battle and slowly steamroll your team.  Knowledge of type match-ups, stat match-ups, and a well-rounded team with AOE attacks will aid you well. But don’t think you can tune your entire team toward taking out these totem Pokémon. There are still plenty of traditional trainer battles to encounter on every route, forcing your team to have a wide variety of AOE and single-target abilities.

Passing these trials give you “Z-Crystals”, with each one being themed around a different element. This is what takes place of mega-evolutions in Pokémon Sun and Moon. Instead of making your Pokémon take on a different form, Z-Crystals allow them to use a powered-up special move once per battle. Your Pokémon don’t have to be the same type as the Z-Crystals you equip them with, they just have to have a move of the appropriate type, and each move transforms into a different Z-move. It’s a nifty piece of strategy and variety, and it makes passing a trial feel like an actual reward.

More Narrative, Fewer Side-Quests

Defeating gyms in the past gave you the ability to use HMs, but Sun and Moon does away with HMs completely. Now you don’t have to dedicate a Pokémon explicitly to underpowered HM moves just to get around the map. They are replaced with a new Pokémon Ride system, which allows you to summon a Pokémon explicitly for, say, breaking blocks or swimming on water. These specific Ride Pokémon never enter your party. They really aren’t Pokémon at all. They are essentially just new map actions that your trainer can take, which is perfectly fine. It doesn’t interfere with your battle line-up, and that’s good enough for me. They also make your trainer move faster than their base running speed, so if you are interested in speedrunning you’ll be using Ride Pokémon quite a bit.

Removing HMs is just one way that Pokémon Sun and Moon attempts to make the Pokémon formula more accessible. There is now a shortcut for using Pokéballs in battle. After facing a Pokémon once in battle, the bottom screen will tell you which moves are effective, super effective, and not effective. You get the ability to fly early in the game, allowing you quick access to areas you have been to before. There’s a marker on your mini-map telling you exactly where to go to next. Every tiny change was designed so that the process of finding and catching Pokémon was streamlined and wiped clean of tedium.

These alterations were necessary to make the format of Sun and Moon work. Previous Pokémon installments gave you plenty of side-quests to keep you busy, but Sun and Moon have none. The only thing to do on the Alola islands is follow the beaten path from marker to marker, trial to trial. While this might seem boring, it’s really not that bad. Sun and Moon have a heavy focus on narrative, far more so than previous Pokémon titles. Each railroaded step in your journey feels like a natural extension of the meta-plot. You want to head to the next island so that you can meet new island gods, prevent the evil-doings of Team Skull, figure out the mystery of your friend’s strange cosmic Pokémon, and encounter the mysterious new race of Ultra Beasts.

If you are aching for side-quests, Pokémon Sun and Moon intelligently tucks them away in a menu. At any point you can choose to push your quest aside and head to the festival plaza where you can speak with other trainers you street passed with, participate in quiz shows, play the lottery, or trade Pokémon via the internet.

If augmented reality games are more your style, you can participate in Pokémon Sun and Moon’s QR code hunt, which asks you, the player, to photograph as many QR codes as you can. These codes will add Pokémon information into your Pokédex before even seeing the Pokémon in the wild. Scan ten QR codes and you’ll be notified of a rare Pokémon sighting somewhere on the island you are currently on. These rare Pokémon appear to be randomly generated from the list of Pokémon that don’t normally appear in Pokémon Sun and Moon, so using this system you could, theoretically, catch all 800+ Pokémon in one game.

Minor Flaws Don’t Interfere With The Strong Forward Progression

While the Pokémon formula has been vastly improved, there are still a few flaws that can pull you out of the otherwise engrossing catching and training experience. The “call for help” system is probably the biggest such flaw. Wild Pokémon can call for help randomly, which is a lot of fun if you are just looking to defeat them, since it makes your AOE attacks have meaning in random battles. You can’t catch Pokémon when there is more than one on the field, however, and calling for help doesn’t count as using a move. So you’ll routinely find yourself weakening a Pokémon you want only to have it call for help at the end of every turn, needlessly prolonging a battle that you basically already won.

Many side-quests are largely forgettable. The Pokémon Snap-style picture side-quest is hard to even notice, since you can only activate it when you see a small icon change on your lower screen, and you are rarely looking there. NPCs that ask you to catch a certain amount of Pokémon or show them a particular Pokédex entry always show up way before you are able to complete their request, and by the time you have done it you’ll have completely forgotten about them and continued on your journey. Many of the diversions that your friends say you absolutely need to check out break the flow of your laser-focused journey to the island trials.

But the good part about these side-quests is that they are all easy to ignore. Pokémon Sun and Moon is designed to keep you playing in some form or another. There is always something new to do, always a new Pokémon to catch, always a new move to learn, and always a new enemy to defeat. Most importantly, it never feels like a grind. Through my journeys in Pokémon Sun and Moon I never once stopped to level up. I never once stopped to try and catch that one rare Pokémon I needed. I just kept moving forward and found that I had all the resources I needed to do so. This relentless forward pacing meshes with the new narrative focus perfectly, as you feel like you are always on the path to the next epic step in your Pokémon story.

That’s what makes Pokémon Sun and Moon so magical. It’s not just another Pokémon game asking you to catch em’ all and be the very best. It’s a deep and engrossing Pokémon story taking place in a vibrant and living world casting you as the protagonist. This isn’t just any Pokémon journey. This is YOUR Pokémon journey. Enjoy it.