I have been a Pokemon fan since the original Red/Blue days, playing through every generation along with the recent mobile sensation.  What’s not to love between collecting, battling, growing as a team, and attempting to become the champion of the land?  The newest pair of mainline games, Sun and Moon, promised to put a new spin on the 20 year old franchise and they certainly did.  A wonderful, fresh spin.

Three new starters for a new Pokemon adventure.
Three new starters for a new Pokemon adventure.  Pro tip: Rowlet is the best.

  • TL;DR: New monsters, a darker than expected story, and smart gameplay decisions make Pokemon Sun and Moon another giant leap forward for Nintendo
  • Platforms: 3DS (reviewed)
  • Time Played: 30:45
  • What I Played: Completed the Island Challenge and became Pokemon League champion

Pokemon Sun and Moon start off like every other main Pokemon game.  You, a child, are about to start your journey through the tropical land of Alola.  There are new Pokemon to catch, a new team of kids up to no good, a new professor, and everything else you’ve come to expect from a Pokemon game.  The changes in Sun and Moon are what set them apart from previous entries.

First off, let’s talk about the stars of the show — the Pokemon themselves.  In all of my Pokemon adventures, this is the first time I’ve chosen the grass starter, Rowlet  Look at him up there.  He’s adorable!  Alola has 80 completely new Pokemon, bringing the total Pokedex count up to a staggering 801.  I always use a team of brand new Pokemon in my runs, so it was tough to get decent type coverage with a pool of only 80 Pokemon to pick from when that 80 includes the other starters and legendaries.  Aside from the super cool grass/ghost combination of Rowlet’s final form, Decidueye, my two favorites have to be Crabominable and Wishiwashi.  Crabominable is a fighting/ice crab with an ability to increase the power of all punch moves and a fighting move to increase attack one stage after a hit.  Cue up the team sweeps.  Wishiwashi is an interesting Pokemon, a fish that essentially mega evolves into a school of fish with insanely high stats while its HP is over 25%.

Those 80 new Pokemon aren’t the only new creatures you’ll find in Alola, though.  Some older monsters have new forms, called Alola Forms, which update their look, type, stats, and moveset.  You can check out the complete list on Serebii.  Alola Exeggutor is especially silly looking, as is Alola Dugtrio with its flowing blonde hair.  This is, I assume, the first step towards new forms of other Pokemon which should keep us from getting too many more truly absurd Pokemon *cough Klefki cough*.

The squad that helped me become Pokemon League Champion.
The squad that helped me become Pokemon League Champion.

The biggest change in Pokemon Sun and Moon has to be the removal of the traditional gym system.  Instead of going to eight cities and fighting three or four trainers in a building before taking on the gym leader, Sun and Moon task you with going out and completing the Island Challenge, a series of tasks spread across Alola’s four islands.  Each island has at least one trial that amounts to a small quest.  The first one, Verdant Cave, is cleared by defeating the Pokemon in three nests before facing the Totem Pokemon, a strong Pokemon that acts as the boss of the trial.  Trials are all themed after a certain type and clearing a trial nets you the Z-Crystal for that type.  Clearing a small puzzle/dungeon themed after a type makes more sense then simply defeating a handful of trainers who happen to have a few Pokemon of that type, so I’m a big fan of the trial system.  It feels more like you are truly mastering a type and becoming stronger.  Each of the four islands also has a Kahuna that acts as a traditional trainer boss.

Z-Crystals do more than prove you have cleared a trial.  They can be held by Pokemon to unleash Z-Moves, attacks that can be activated once per battle across your whole team.  Think of them like ultimate moves from Overwatch or Titan powers in Titanfall 2.  If a Pokemon is holding a Z-Crystal that shares a type with a move they have, you can activate the Z-Crystal to replace that move with a powerful attack for one turn.  Each type has its own move: Breakneck Blitz for Normal, Gigavolt Havoc for Electric, etc.  Some Pokemon even have their own Z-Crystals and accompaying Z-Moves, like the final form of the starters, Eevee, Snorlax, and more.  Z-Moves come with a cutscene to demonstrate their immense power.  Other trainers, mainly Kahunas, can use Z-Moves, too.  They can really turn the tide even at normal effectiveness.

Yes, that trainer is riding a Sharpedo. No, it's not in his party.
Speaking of tides, you can jetski on a Sharpedo!

Possibly the best quality of life change in Pokemon Sun and Moon is the removal of HMs.  Gone are the days of keeping a water Pokemon in your team just so you can use surf or wasting a move on cut.  In comes the Ride Pager, an item that lets you call in a Pokemon that can use the special move you require like Sharpedo to surf, Tauros to smash rocks, and Charizard to fly.  Some other excellent changes that deserve recognition:

  • Enemy Pokemon can call on allies for help, creating 2v1 situations.  I once had an Eevee fight chain into me fighting seven Eevees before finally catching one.
  • Your most recently used Pokeball is mapped to Y for quick access.
  • Battling a Pokemon you’ve already seen will show you which moves are super/neutral/not effective against it.  It makes sense that your Pokedex would help you like this and, even after 20 years of playing, I still forget type matchups.  Seriously, why is psychic super effective against poison?
  • The camera will zoom in slightly when you approach another trainer so you can heal if necessary.
  • The PC has been streamlined.  There are no longer options to withdraw/deposit/move and the mess with items.  You press A once and the PC immediately (thankfully) boots into Pokemon transfer mode.
  • Your current objective is shown on the map with a waypoint.  The map itself, which shows on the bottom screen, is much more detailed with paths, buildings, patches of tall grass, etc.
  • Cries and footsteps of other Pokemon can be heard out in the wild, making Alola feel more alive than other regions.

The story in Pokemon Sun and Moon is surprisingly dark.  You don’t have to look past my boy Cubone for a creepy Pokedex entry, but Sun and Moon really ramp up the intensity.  Throughout your ~30 hour adventure, you’ll witness betrayal, hatred, fear, and character growth.  But Team Skull, Alola’s local group of troublemakers, isn’t nearly as scary as their name implies.  They dress in all black and chains, but like to say things like “yo”, “homie”, and “check it.”  They are silly and annoying at first, but really grew on me.

I wasn't kidding when I said it got dark.
Someone give this a guy a hug, sheesh.

After clearing the Island Challenge and defeating the Elite Four, Alola keeps the challenges coming.  The Elite Four trainers become stronger, leveling up from the mid 50s to the low 60s.  Facing off with the Pokemon League champion makes no sense since that person is you, so you will instead battle a random challenger from a set of familiar in-game faces.  There’s the hunt for legendary Pokemon, including the guardian deity of each island, and the ultra beasts, strange creatures from another dimension that are the chief concern of the Aether Foundation.  The first time I saw a Type: Null, I couldn’t help but say, “oh what the hell is THAT thing?!”

Pokemon Sun and Moon also includes a handful of deeper role playing options for the more in-depth player.  I personally couldn’t care less about brushing and feeding my Pokemon after each battle, but if that’s your thing then Poke Refresh is for you.  Since Pokemon is a 3DS game, it includes a social space complete with building and leveling up called the Festival Plaza.  This, again, is not my thing but I understand the appeal.  If you want to get into the more competitive side of things, Poke Pelago is the place for you.  It’s a group of tiny islands that help you in your journey to becoming a multiplayer kingpin including a way to hatch eggs faster and a new method of passive EV training.

Four way battles are pretty neat, too.
Four way battles are pretty neat, too.  My dude Mudbray handled himself well.

Between the more adult story, the focus on conquering challenges instead of gyms, and the more Pokemon-centric world, Pokemon Sun and Moon can feel more like a Pokemon-themed RPG than a traditional Pokemon game.  That’s not a bad thing, though.  Sun and Moon are also a hell of a lot harder than your typical Pokemon game.  In previous entries I complained that the Exp Share was too strong and led to your team being overly strong.  In this run, I left it on through the entire game and faced every trainer I could find but still had a hell of a time with the Elite Four.  Even some regular trainers made me use revives.  I definitely used more items and strategy than I’m used to.  Sun and Moon is a welcome challenge to a typically easy franchise.

My chief complaint with the game is that it can get pretty choppy at times on my 3DS XL.  This might be true for other recent 3DS games, as I haven’t played many not named Pokemon, but this was a bit of a surprise.  The framerate drops only seemed to happen when there was a lot of moving parts, like a 2v1 wild battle or in a crowded city, but I was surprised to see lag on a handheld game.

The championship sigil and my trusty Decidueye.  We did it buddy!

Becoming the champion in Pokemon Sun and Moon was the first time I’ve felt accomplished in a Pokemon game since the days of Red.  It’s a real challenge, even with the Exp Share and seeking out every trainer battle.  Sun and Moon have a darker, more adult story than you would expect and has plenty of ways to keep you playing after you are crowned champion.  Intelligent choices like removing HMs and replacing traditional gyms with a more active, story-based system of challenges elevate Sun and Moon near the top of the franchise.  If you’ve ever trained Pokemon and conquered the Elite Four, you should do it again in Alola.

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