Pokemon is one of those games that needs little to no introduction. Nintendo's reliable classic has graced every handheld since the original Game Boy, and, save the new critters added with each instalment, the formula has always remained more or less the same. Kid gets Pokemon, kid goes on a globe-trotting adventure to collect more Pokemon, battle other trainers and become the best trainer in the land, but ends up discovering a nefarious plot to harness the power of an elite 'legendary' Pokemon along the way, and essentially averts the end of the world. But Pokemon is a game that isn't so much about the destination, as the journey you take to get there - and the real fun in Pokemon comes from what happens on the road, as you collect, raise and battle with your team of Pocket Monsters, from Absol to Zubat and everything in between.
Pokemon Sun (and Moon; the versions are essentially the same save a few different Pokemon) sees you set foot in the island paradise of the Alola region, a Hawaiian-esque escape from the games' usual towns and cities. Made up of four separate islands, life in Alola - and the Pokemon you'll find - are a little different to what we've grown used to in Kanto, Johto and the rest, with Sun and Moon mixing up the traditional formula just enough to keep things interesting.
For example, alongside the customary new batch of Pokemon to find, collect and train, there's plenty of familiar, and familiar-yet-slightly-different faces to discover too, with some, such as Meowth, Rattata and Vulpix to name but a few, having emigrated and developed whole new formes to cope with the different environments on Alola. Even though we personally prefer most of the original versions of the Pokemon, it's a nice change to see some different takes on our old favourites too.
Fans will be pleased to hear that the core of the experience is still very much untouched - right from the moment you pick your first Pokemon, choosing between the rotund grass type owl, Rowlett, the cutesy fire kitten, Litten, or Popplio, the cheerful water-type seal (for more on the starters, click here), it's all very familiar. Travelling from town to town, through forests, caves and snow-covered routes, the bulk of your time will be spent pitting your team of lovingly-raised Pokemon against other Pokemon, in traditional turn-based battles. Each Pokemon can still learn a maximum of four different attacks, with battles playing out in the usual rock-paper-scissors affair, as you take it in turns to choose moves, use items or switch Pokemon, in an effort to come out on top.
Really, there's very little that's new about the battles and how they work - but we're certainly not complaining. With a formula as refined as Pokemon, you'd be mad to change it - and as Final Fantasy XV has proven, fiddling around with battle systems isn't entirely without its risk. In fact, one of the only real differences is a handy new elemental-effectiveness prompt, designed to help newcomers find their footing as they venture out into the world of Pokemon. As before, most of the strategy in a Pokemon battle comes from trying to get the elemental advantage over your opponent. With Pokemon coming in various different elemental types, both the moves they can learn as they grow, and the damage they take from the different elementally-charged attacks thrown at them, are determined by their element. For example, a grass type will find themselves burnt to a crisp by a fire attack, taking double damage; however, a water type would take only half damage by comparison. Learning how the types match up used to be a necessity for hardcore Pokemon battling, but Pokemon Sun/Moon now gives you a heads-up of the effectiveness of various moves against your opponents, providing you've battled that specific sort of Pokemon before.
However, while the basics of the battles are much the same, your journey to becoming the best Pokemon trainer in the Alola region is a little bit different. While past games saw you travelling from town to town, challenging each city's Pokemon Gym to prove your worth on your quest to reach the Pokemon League, things in Alola have been tweaked quite a bit, with each island having a number of different 'captains' you'll need to challenge first, before you can take on the area's powerful Totem Pokemon - a range of special, uber powerful Pokemon that are much larger, and much stronger than their ordinary brethren.
Rather than challenging the captain directly, you'll instead have to complete a quest for them, whether it's finding and defeating three wild Pokemon in a cave, or swimming across lakes to investigate the strange ripples in the water. Complete all of the captain challenges on an island, and you'll be able to battle the island's 'Kahuna', essentially a powerful Pokemon trainer/tribe leader, who'll grant you permission to move on to the next island once you beat them.
Beating either the captains or Kahunas will reward you with a little trinket known as a Z-Crystal, which, when held by a particular Pokemon, will let you harness a seriously powerful Z-Move in battle. Each crystal comes in a different elemental form - Normalium Z, Waterium Z, Fightinium Z - and will give you access to a Z-Move of the corresponding type, which can be used at any point in battle. However, the power of said move is 'so great' that you can only unleash one Z-Move per battle, regardless of how many Pokemon you have holding Z-Crystals; it may be just the thing you need to turn the tide in battle, but make sure you use it wisely!
During your journey, you'll come across all kind of obstacles in your way - giant boulders, lakes and other such annoyances, which, in any other Pokemon game, would require a special 'HM' move to pass. However, in Alola, they do things differently, and a useful little item known as a Ride Pager lets you call in a specific Pokemon for the job, no matter where you are, letting you charge through rocks on the back of a Taurus, swim across a lake on the back of a Lapras, or fly from one end of the region to the other atop a Charizard. Gone are the days of the 'HM Slave', a Pokemon on whom you lumped all the useless-in-battle-but-needed-for-your-adventure moves - Alola's Ride Pokemon are the way forward, and something that's long been needed for the series.
We were also pleased to see character customisation returning, after a brief hiatus for Pokemon Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby. In each of Alola's major towns, you'll find clothes stores, where you can buy a range of outfits and accessories for your character. Pokemon Amie, now called Pokemon Refresh, returns too, letting you stroke your Pokemon and feed it 'Poke Beans' to increase it's affection for you, with more affectionate 'mons performing better in battle, as well as bringing you closer to evolving those few Pokemon that only evolve once you reach a certain friendship milestone, such as Pichu, Eevee and Munchlax. One interesting new feature is that Pokemon Refresh can be triggered at the end of a battle, and lets you heal various status conditions, such as poisoning or paralysis by rubbing medicine over your Pokemon - saving you a fortune in status-removing items in the process.
However, it's not all plain sailing for Pokemon Sun and Moon. Unfortunately, Nintendo have succumbed to exactly what we were worried about when we first got wind of the New Nintendo 3DS console. As Nintendo's latest iteration of the 3DS, the New Nintendo 3DS has a slightly heftier processor, which in turn means it's ended up with a few exclusive games - games which can only be run thanks to the console's buffed up power. Thankfully, Pokemon isn't one of them - but it seems the good old fashioned original 3DS consoles aren't quite up to snuff when it comes to running Pokemon Sun and Moon. In fact, there's some visible slow down and juddery-ness in some of the more demanding scenes, most notably in double battles, face-offs against Totem Pokemon or in sizeable towns. Apparently, it's all a lot less noticeable on the newer consoles, thanks to their faster processor, but as none of the current Everybody Plays team owns a New 3DS, we couldn't really test it.
In all, though, both Pokemon Sun and Moon are great new additions to the Pokemon series, adding enough new tweaks to the formula to keep things interesting, whilst retaining the magic that made the Pokemon games so addictive in the first place. The captain's trials add a bit more variety to the usual progression from Pokemon Gym to Pokemon Gym; the fact you no longer have to sacrifice a number of Pokemon/attack slots to HM moves is a great addition too; while the ability to heal your 'mons status troubles via the virtual pet-alike Pokemon Refresh is a real money saver. We just wish Nintendo had kept things a bit less demanding for the older 'classic' Nintendo 3DS consoles.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS