Pokémon Sun and Moon are Much-Needed Balms for Unsteady Times

Games Reviews Pokémon
Pokémon Sun and Moon are Much-Needed Balms for Unsteady Times

Some disclosure up front: I’ve never been a Pokémon player. My experience with Pokémon is as follows: I played thirty minutes of Pokémon Blue at the age of eleven, watched two episodes of the Pokémon anime that same year, infuriated my friends by playing Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros. Melee in college, and spent a week in July hanging around the local dog park picking up Pidgeys in Pokémon Go. Once, at a party in high school, I declined to intervene on behalf of a stuffed Pikachu which had been crammed full of fireworks and was summarily executed.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I volunteered to review Pokémon Sun and Moon. I knew that Pokémon was a whole thing, and from my vantage point at the edge of the dance floor I wasn’t certain that it was worth getting involved with. Was I going to be exhorted to “catch ‘em all?” ALL? That seemed like a lot.

When I loaded up Pokémon Moon and first encountered the Alola Islands, a fantasy Hawaii stand-in replete with white, sandy beaches and sight-seers in floral-print shirts, it was easy to convince myself to give the game a chance. It’s been a real bummer of an autumn, after all, and a visit to the virtual tropics seemed like an appropriate salve to soothe an anxious spirit.

I went through the rigamarole that I gather is common to the Pokémon games: I was taught how to capture and battle Pokémon by a shirtless professor with washboard abs, I was given a Pokédex and instructed to fill it out with as many wee beasties as I could gather, and I got to choose my own “starter” Pokémon from a trio of cuties. I watched as my trainer, a blond preteen girl I named Arcana, hoisted a fire-breathing kitten into the air and tried to forge a spiritual bond. I supposed, in that moment, that I could see the appeal—a girl and her cat off on an adventure.

It wasn’t until I met Akala Island’s “captain” that everything really clicked into place for me. His name was Ilima, and he had pink hair, an argyle sweater vest, and gentle eyes. He informed me that, if I was going to complete my tour of the archipelago and finish the “island challenge,” I would need to undertake his trial.

Reader, I did not want to merely pass this trial. I wanted to destroy it. I realized, in that moment, that I wanted more than anything else to steamroll through every captain and kahuna on those islands with my murderous fire-tiger and make them all sorry they had ever condescended to Arcana, Pokémon Master. I wanted to be the very best, like no one ever was.

Clearly, there was something to this Pokémon business after all.

A blaze of violent ambition in my heart, I fell into the pleasant rhythm of Pokémon-hunting with gusto, tracing a mostly-linear path across the islands, battling rival trainers on the road, lollygagging in the tall grass in case I encountered heretofore-unknown species of beasts. I found myself both driven onward and paradoxically inclined to linger: the game always tells you where you need to be next, and none of the other characters seem to be bothered if you take your time getting there.

Alola really does sell itself as a bit of a vacation, and I found myself taking time to do things that had little utilitarian function in the game. I tarried in clothing shops trying on various outfits (you will, no doubt, be distressed to learn that it will be more than a dozen hours before you can purchase any sort of decent headgear for your character). I stopped at every Pokémon Center to have a drink of Komala Coffee or Pinap Juice, even though I’m not sure I actually gained anything besides a few kind words from the barista and a moment of quiet contemplation.

There is great pleasure to be taken in cataloguing, and though I expect that trying to thoroughly complete the Pokédex would be anxiety-inducing, I was satisfied merely to catch ‘em most, rather than all. The thrill of excitement when a new species appears never really diminishes throughout the game, and as the Pokémon get tougher and tougher, it only becomes more satisfying trapping them in your tiny, spherical prisons.

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Combat in Pokémon Sun and Moon is relatively streamlined, and the menus are intuitive and easy to navigate. You’ve got your team of six creatures versus another trainer’s squad or a single wild Pokémon, although the wild monsters have an annoying habit of repeatedly calling in reinforcements, which can make capturing them an aggravating affair (evidently it’s impossible to aim a Pokéball if there’s more than one creature in the immediate vicinity). The battle system keeps tabs on which of your elemental attacks are effective and which aren’t, something I understand is new to the series—and something which I can’t believe people lived without before this entry. Did you folks really memorize that intricate matrix of strengths and weaknesses? Holy moly. This time around, all it takes is a flick of the touch screen to check which of your Pokémon is best suited to decimate your enemies.

Although, to be perfectly honest, you’ll be pretty deep in the game before anybody puts up any kind of fight. My trainer and her Litten were able to mop the floor with just about every opponent they encountered until more than halfway through the story. Some of this is just the nature of the game—Preschooler Joshua isn’t much of a threat with his single level 5 Ratatta, and how he even has the gumption to set his island rat against my preteen girl and her murder-cat boggles the mind—but many of the early boss fights were over in just a few snaps of the fire-beast’s jaws. “Wow, that was a great battle!” some of the trainers you humiliate will inevitably say, giving themselves entirely too much credit.

The plot of Pokémon Sun and Moon is, I gather, more intricate than that in any of the previous entries, but it’s still nothing to write home about. There’s a girl in distress and a Pokémon of mysterious origins, a shadowy organization out to cause havoc and some secrets to be revealed. It suffices. It is, mostly, an excuse to lead you through a charming island getaway, interacting with some charming characters. The writing is about Saturday-morning-cartoon level, which is not a surprise, but there are moments when it embraces that goofiness and really elicits a chuckle. In particular, the exclamations of every amateur trainer you defeat on the road are ridiculous and wonderful, from the preschoolers to the backpackers to the bikini-clad sunbathers.

Some of the Pokédex entries, too, are deliciously morbid. There’s talk of simmering Slowpoke tails for soup, small children trapped inside a Pelipper’s bulbous beak, and Psyduck’s endless, incurable migraines. “If for some reason its body bursts,” the Pokédex says of Drifloon, “its soul spills out with a screaming sound.” Dark!

There’s quite a bit of ephemera to engage with in Pokémon Sun and Moon, from the Battle Royal arena to the “Poké Palago,” where your unused Pokémon can run free, eating beans and encountering wild critters, to the Festival Plaza, where you can battle and trade over the internet and where you can… direct visitors to your fortune-telling booths? That one’s a little confusing. You can safely ignore most of it, if you choose, but it also means that if you’d like to linger in Alola beyond battling your way through the story, there’s more to do.

Pokémon, like any cultural institution, is many things to many people: an enrapturing adventure for children, a font of nostalgia for twenty- and thirty-somethings, and an intricate, numbers-driven competitive enterprise for a certain subset of trainers, among other things. I’m no longer a child, and I have no nostalgia for the franchise beyond a lingering specter of guilt at the thought of a Pikachu blown to smithereens. Alola has been a restorative psychic retreat for someone in need of such a virtual vacation, though. A part of me has donned a lei and swim trunks, sipped a Pinap Juice on the beach, and stroked the soft fur of a tiny, purring machine of violence as I flipped through my Pokédex and thought with some satisfaction at its relative completeness. Even for someone who didn’t know a Snorlax from a Smeargle, it has been a much-needed balm.

Pokémon Sun and Moon was developed by Game Freak, published by The Pokemon Company and Nintendo. It is available for the 3DS.

Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.

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