For a game that revolves around evolution, it's somewhat surprising that the Pokémon series has stayed so similar since it's inception in 1996. But sometimes a little familiarity is a good thing. With its addictive mix of collecting, battling, and raising the little creatures known as Pokémon, there's always been that intangible something about a Pokémon game that means you just can't bring yourself to put it down. Whether you've been playing since day one, or you're coming completely fresh to the latest game in the series, (for us, our first was Diamond/Pearl, which swallowed nearly 500 hours of our life), Pokémon is a game that knows its hooks well - and the latest in the series, Pokémon X and Y, look like their set to take over our life all over again. Taking everything that made Pokémon great, giving it a fresh lick of paint, and somehow making it even better in the process, Pokémon X and Y are two of the best Pokémon games yet.
If you've ever played a Pokémon game before, the premise will be somewhat similar here, although things do happen in a slightly different order to Poké-tradition. Upon first starting the game, you'll actually be given your first ever starter Pokémon by your helpful next door neighbour, who just happens to have a box full of budding animals waiting to be adopted. It's a difficult choice, but an important one to make, as your starter Pokémon will be your buddy for the rest of the game, (unless you decide to unceremoniously send him/her to the Pokémon box for storage) defending you from attack by wild Pokémon, and staying by your side as you make your way to the top. We went with Chespin - but it was a tough choice.
As soon as you get to the first city, the game starts to take a somewhat familiar approach, as you go to meet the Pokémon Professor, this time known as Sycamore, who enlists your help in cataloguing the critters in the Kalos region. Sending you out into the wild with nothing but a Pokédex (a kind of electronic encyclopedia that records data on the Pokémon you encounter) and a few Pokémon to keep you company, it's up to you to scour the region's grassy knolls and dank caves, as you catch more creatures and build yourself a team of battle-hardened 'mon to take on a myriad of other Pokémon trainers, become the top trainer in the region and save the world from potential destruction at the hands of Team Flare - all while filling up that all important Pokédex. It's an OCD collect-a-hollic's dream game, that's both easy to get into and hard to master, threatening to swallow all your spare time if you're not careful.
As you explore the lands of Kalos, from the snow-topped mountains of Dendemille town to the flower filled, fairytale-like Anistar City far to the east, to the Paris-inspired central Lumiose City (complete with replica Eiffel Tower), you'll battle a huge number of Pokémon along the way. Whether they're under the orders of a trainer, or they've jumped on you in the long grass, the battles that take place follow pretty much the same formula - you send out one of the six Pokémon on your team, and choose which of their four moves to use as you and your opponent take it in turns to battle it out. For every Pokémon you defeat, your Pokémon earn experience points, gaining a level and getting stronger once they accumulate enough - perhaps learning a new move to replace an old one or evolving into a more powerful creature.
With a bit of strategy, it's possibly to tip the battle in your favour by making clever use of the different Pokémon types. Every critter found across the region falls into one of the eighteen elemental types, which all have their own strengths and weaknesses - for example, a fire 'mon doesn't do very well against a water type, whilst electric Pokémon deal double damage to any flying critters, and the new fairy types are super effective against dragons. Some are more obvious match ups than others, but you'll find you quickly start to pick up how each one compares to the others, building yourself a team of Pokémon with a range of types to cover all eventualities.
And with a whopping 718 different Pokémon to choose from, and only room for six on your squad, you've got a heck of a decision on your hands when it comes to building a balanced team. For Pokémon veterans, the old favourites like Pikachu, Eevee and Snorlax are all present and correct, while X and Y also sees the debut of 69 new Pokémon - including Tumblr's favourite Espurr, a little pinky-purple psychic kitty with a slightly psychotic expression, whose ears fold over to prevent it's phenomenal cosmic power from obliterating everyone in sight, hence why he gets a bit growly when you try to touch them. Other new 'mons include a cutesy grass-covered goat (called Gogoat) that lets you hop on its back for a ride, a cotton-candy-esque blob of awesomeness with a seriously goofy expression (called Swirlix) and of course, Eevee's new fairy-type evolution, Sylveon, a pretty pink cat/fox covered in bows. And with the battles now taking place using 3D Pokémon rather than the 2D sprites we've known up until now, the whole game feels a heck of a lot more lively. With improved animations and characteristics in battle, whether it's Pikachu's cheeks lighting up as he wiggles his backside at the enemy with his Tail Whip move or Snorlax making the ground shake with everything he does, they all make the creatures seem more "real" than the static pictures of the previous Pokémon games, and make a big difference to the game.
And while we're on the subject of cute things... The new Pokémon Amie mode has already become something of a time sink for us, and if you've ever fancied a Pokémon virtual pet game, the chances are it'll do the same for you, too. Here you can stroke your companions to befriend them, and feed them cake-like 'Poké Puffs' to make them feel closer to you - which is especially useful for those Pokémon that evolve through affection, or have attacks that grow more powerful when a Pokémon feels affection toward you. There's also a few simple yet surprisingly addictive mini-games you can play, such as tile-swapping jigsaw puzzles, a berry matching game and one where you play keepy-uppy with a ball of yarn, all of which help increase your critter's affection levels. In fact, when you and your 'mon start to develop a particularly strong bond, their chances of inflicting critical hits in battle increases and for Pokémon that are capable of it, your attacks when mega evolved become even more powerful than they would already be. On the downside, your added bond with your Pokémon will also make you privy to some seriously heart-wrenching comments, when the game tells you your beloved Azumarill looks like he's about to cry when he's been beaten to within 5HP of fainting...
While the Pokémon games don't tend to use the 'Gotta Catch 'Em All' slogan any more, the philosophy behind the saying is still alive and well in Pokémon X and Y, and if you're on a mission to complete your Pokédex, you'll need to enlist the help of a friend. As has always been the case, both the Pokémon X and Pokémon Y games have a few Pokemon that can only be found on that version, making trading between the games pretty much a necessity. With the improved social features of the 3DS games though, what used to involve a complex tangle of link cables and trips to the Pokémon Centre is now as easy as pie - all you do is tap your friend's face icon on the touch screen, poke the trade option and choose the 'mon from your collection you want to swap with one of theirs, no matter where you are in the game's world. If you don't have any Pokéfans living nearby, you can even trade with random people from all over the globe, either swapping for a specific 'mon over the GTS or receiving a randomly picked critter from a Wonder Trade. Other funky new features include the ability to make a 10 second Trainer PR Video of yourself and your Pokémon, and the ability to give and receive new 'O-Powers' from your friends, which grant you a temporarily boost, whether it's restoring your team's health, boosting their attack power or upping the chance of encountering a rare wild Pokémon.
Somewhere out there, there's a group of rather devoted Pokemon fans who see raising their creatures as more of a competitive sport, creating finely-tuned Pocket Monsters for specific purposes in battle. Known as 'EV Training', it involved repeatedly defeating the same kinds of wild Pokemon over and over to accrue 'effort values' that corresponded to your Pokemon's HP, Attack, Defence or other stats to make them more powerful in their chosen area - for example, you could create a lightning-quick Pikachu by repeatedly defeating Zubats or a solid tank of a Snorlax with some serious health by continually beating up Bidoofs, but by and large, it was the hidden realm of the incredibly hardcore. For those of you who think it all sounds a bit daunting (who really wants to keep a tally of all the Geodudes they've beaten?), Pokemon X and Y has a much more fun way of tweaking your Pokemon's stats, in the form of Super Training. Essentially a series of mini-games, you control your chosen 'mon as you kick footballs at big balloon versions of other Pokemon, boosting your stats as you play. You can also unlock different types of punching bag, which your Pokemon can use to train outside of the mini-games - either by you tapping it with the stylus or automatically hitting the bag with every step your character takes in the game. The more you train them, the more their stats will be boosted - and all without having to hunt down every last Geodude.
While it was never going to be a massive deviation from the prior games in the series, Pokemon X and Y has nevertheless breathed life into a series for a whole new generation of players. Packed full of nice little touches, great little ideas, and so many tweaks that make what was already a great game better than it's ever been, we could sit here all day telling you how great Pokemon X and Y is, and we'd still never do it justice. Not so much a revolution as an evolution, somehow, X and Y has managed to make Pokemon feel fresh, relevant, and exciting all over again, without harming the formula that makes it so addictive. Whether you want to simply sit back with your team of cute Pokemon and enjoy the adventure, create the ultimate battling team of Pokemon with perfect stats or want to see every single critter in the county, there's something for everyone, die-hard fans and new-comers alike. It's a humongous game filled with hundreds of charming creatures to catch, collect and raise - and that's what makes the Pokemon series so magical.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS