The promise has been made.
Pokémon just refuses to change, as Nintendo franchises are wont to do these days. Major improvements will never be made, but changes will be made around the periphery to cause just enough discussion amongst fans, press, and the gaming public. When criticizing a modern Nintendo game, take it on faith that unless a major switchup has occurred, the game is perfectly acceptable. It’s the small changes that matter: is this solid core supported correctly? Pokemon Y is certainly a good example of a quality present-day Nintendo title, but that only makes the bad decisions truly baffling.
The story in Pokemon Y is a welcome improvement, albeit one most people won’t notice right away. You’ve still got your professor, your starter, your rival, an evil team alternatively run by an anime Bond villain and utter morons, gyms, and a legendary Pokémon. Here, it’s the little additions that make things different. The MacGuffin the anime Bond villain wants this time around has barely anything to do with Pokémon, and you’ve actually got a circle of pals outside of your rival. (By the way, pick a nickname you like when they ask you to choose one, because you’ll be hearing it a lot) The protagonist is still a blank slate, but the recurring side characters have a decent amount of personality. Sadly, there isn’t much in terms of post-game story content (at least not that I found, anyway) besides the usual battle challenge area. For most of you, the story may be a non-issue, but take solace in the fact that it only directs the player. Pokémon stories are at their best when they move you in the right direction, not when they pump the brakes on the action to go into another diatribe about how great Pokémon are and why it’s okay to make them fight each other.
Thankfully, aforementioned fighting remains just as fun as ever. Pokémon has always had some of the cleanest turn-based combat I’ve ever seen. When a battle goes your way, when you sweep a whole team using just one Pokémon…it’s a great feeling, unmatched by anything else in the genre. The addition of a Fairy type does help rebalance the combat a little, but there aren’t enough Fairy moves to make that much of a difference. It’s also an odd mix of too easy and too difficult, especially around the midpoint of the 15-hour storyline. Captures now give experience – which also encourages players to fill out their Pokédex – and the EXP share is now a Key Item that gives all the creatures in your party half the experience. Needless to say, Pokémon level up fast now. Plus, the game has a tendency to just hand you things. 5/6ths of my party were given to me. As a result, I found the early Trainer and Gym battles a little toothless. However, there’s a point around Gym 6 where it feels like the designers suddenly understood how easy their game was and ratcheted up the challenge.
You’ve got the brand new Mega Evolution sub-system on your side, though. After a certain point in the story, you can activate a Mega Evolution during battle if you’ve got the right Pokémon holding the right item. A Mega Evolved Pokémon has increased stats, a new ability, and just looks straight up cool. You can use it once per battle, but other than that, I can’t think of any reason to not use Mega Evolution and wipe the floor with whatever poor fool challenges you. Discouraging players from using the system would have been much worse, but some kind of balance would have been nice.
Design-wise, the new monsters represent some of the best new designs in the history of the franchise. When the kids who grew up with X and Y cite this crop as their favorite, they’ll have plenty of great designs to back up that argument. Yes, even the keyring one. There’s also a pleasantly surprising number of old favorites available for capture as well. At times, it feels like a “greatest hits” Pokémon game; you can even get a Pikachu right out the gate if you’re patient enough.
Plus, they all look spectacular in 3D. Although the 3DS’ titular feature can only be accessed during battles/cutscenes and in certain areas, you don’t really need it to appreciate just how good this game looks. The handheld Pokémon series has finally committed to polygon-based graphics, after a long period of courtship on the DS. You can now move in all eight directions (which really speeds up the usual ice sliding puzzle, let me tell you) and Pokémon battles are now in full 3D with individually rendered moves. It’s not anything like Coliseum or Battle Revolution, where the attacks looked all weak and stringy. These moves look fantastic. If this is the future of the Pokémon franchise is polygons, then I’m more than ready to kiss pixels good-bye.
The other changes introduced in X and Y may seem miniscule on their own, but together add up to create a baffling mix of genius changes that should’ve been implemented years ago, and frustrating steps back. TMs are still multi-use, but now you can see which Pokémon can learn which move from the TM menu. Medicine can be used in the Pokémon sub-menu, which can be easily accessed by tapping an icon on the touchscreen. Also, you can change your clothes, which is nuts. All that? Great stuff. Should’ve been put in the games last time around, but it’s good that we’ve got them now.
But this wouldn’t be a Nintendo sequel without a couple steps backward, so we’ve also got connectivity notices about going into a crowded space or trading with friends popping up on the lower screen every minute (please do not put this in the next game, or at least let us turn it off), the healing process has been slowed to a crawl, and out of battle moves are now hidden beneath another sub-menu. All that? Unnecessary. Not a single human being on the planet finished Black and White and thought: “You know what this game needs? Pop-ups!”
Awful decisions aside, Pokémon Y is oodles of fun. Battling is still a blast, capturing new monsters tickles a very specific part of my brain that I’m reasonably sure has some relation to gambling, and it looks utterly fantastic. The core mechanics will never really change, and if you’re okay with that, great! I hope you like Pokémon games, because this sure is a really good one of those.