Pokemon is one of those franchises that has a consistently affable appeal but a rocky relationship with the industry. They sell very well each time, and no one can deny the core appeal of the exploration, trading and battling found in each game, but fatigue of the franchise has also been a variable in the critical popularity of the franchise. Of all Nintendo franchises that face scrutiny for lack of evolution, this is probably the most prolific example.
I’ve never quite shared that view, although I refused to finish Black. The most universally enjoyable formulas are the most immortal. That said, there is always room for improvement. Thankfully, Pokemon X and Y successfully move the franchise forward, in ways both pronounced and nuanced.
The core gameplay of Pokemon needs no explanation by this point. Although it’s somewhat established this time around that you are a long-term citizen of the starting town, instead of having just moved in, your goal is still to travel the region, make friends with Pokemon, be the best that every one has ever been and satisfy your childlike wanderlust.
The most alluring part of Pokemon as a franchise has been its ability to captivate players in a new world and create emotional ties, through certain characters and the Pokemon themselves. There’s an innate magic to making friends and travelling the world that few can ignore, and X/Y continue to nail this aspect. Even though the region of Kalos is a stand-in for France, which includes its own City of Lights, it’s constructed so as to make it feel original. The layout is unlike any other in the series thus far, with country towns peppering the scenery, and this makes the landmarks stand out a lot more.
While Black had the pretense to try and tackle the moral dilemma that has surrounded the series forever, X/Y assure you that the amount of time you spend with the creatures will make them feel like friends rather than weapons. Sure enough, through showcase of this through other characters, and sheer attrition, this approach works. You’ll get attached to your companions throughout your journey this time around. The personable element of said journey is what makes it so involving.
It helps the narrative itself gets a boost. While the ultimate villain is stupidly signposted, it was nice to see a group of bad guys that didn’t view themselves as above it all. Team Flare’s head honcho has a nihilistic ideology behind his actions, but the cronies are pretty much entirely on board for personal gain and supremacy, and because they don’t have much reason to work on their image, it’s charming to foil their sociopathic tendencies.
You also travel with a group of other trainers, each with own aspirations throughout the journey, and you’re encouraged to join in on each one’s at several points, highlighting the dimensions in the game beyond mere battling, even if your ultimate goal is still the League. They each have their own personalities and you get to see their progression throughout the game alongside your own. This makes them feel genuinely real and sympathetic, particularly your rival, who takes their losses in stride but is still ultimately bitter about it. Once again, it only heightens the personal feel of the journey, and that’s what Pokemon has almost always had going for it.
The only drawback to this approach is the pacing. The haphazard, scattershot approach actually works more often than it doesn’t, adding some credence to the idea that you’re a youth exploring the world for all its worth, but it does lead to some lulls in the action proper. It’s not until you’ve collected the fourth gym badge that you start getting them with any regularity, and some of the ways you get sidetracked or restricted feel arbitrary. The enhanced scope of the game means the restrictions stand out more on the whole. The environmental blockades you’re meant to use HMs on are starting to look really silly.
That enhanced scope also means the journey is a lot longer, but thankfully there are mechanical steps taken to ensure it doesn’t get dull. One key item you can get early on is the revamped Experience Share, which shares experience across the whole party, instead of just Pokemon that were in a particular encounter. This speeds up general growth tremendously and nigh eliminates grinding, allowing you to get the most out of an entire party at once. This also means you’re pretty guaranteed a chance at taking the battle system to its intended limits in the metagame, rather than being forced into using a couple of Pokemon throughout the entire game because levelling others along the road is a tiresome chore. Playing the type match-ups has never been easier, although they have been revamped this time around with a new element: Fairy.
Much like Dark and Steel in the second generation, Fairy has been retconned onto Pokemon of past generations as well as seeing form in this one, and it’s intended to lend a malleable edge against the Dragon type, which was always something that came out of left field during the Elite Four fights. Admittedly, this makes the roundabout between it, Psychic, Dark and Ghost a bit confusing and, in some cases, redundant, but it makes perfect sense within the rules of the franchise and is an excellent way of shaking the core framework up a bit. Also new are Mega Evolutions, which allows temporary huge stat boosts to particular Pokemon. The power these grant you is fulfilling, but not too many Pokemon can use them and you have to work to get each one’s Mega Stone which allows it.
The presentation has seen a revamp as well; the biggest one yet, in fact. Almost everything is rendered in 3D this time, instead of being limited to environmental objects. While aesthetic upgrades are merely improvements in other games, it adds so much more flavour to Pokemon Y. Battles receive a lot more impact due to upgraded special effects, while the game is as colourful as ever, even if the framerate can take a pounding with the 3D effects turned on. This also allows for proper trainer customisation this time, an obvious omission for the longest time, although the range isn’t as big as it could be.
The upgrade in presentation transcends to the sound, especially the music. The focus of utilising a number of melodies in any one track is combined with the production choice of using more realistic sounding instruments, including and especially the electric guitar. Pokemon’s music has always great layout but not always great composition, but the change of instruments and effects used makes all the difference. What you get is a best of both worlds scenario and easily one of the best soundtracks of the year. Not only is each track memorable, but the soundtrack as a whole utilises motifs to create a particular atmosphere, which sells the emotional scenes of the story.
The metagame’s spread of difficulty closer resembles an actual difficulty curve. The opening gyms and encounters with Team Flare are designed to act as preparation for what is to come. From there, they progress to ever bigger fields from town to town and more hardened gym leaders, until it really feels that each victory is a well-earned one. It’s refreshing and justifies the hype behind the journey, but by the end, it can get a little grueling. Victory Road, or what is essentially known as the home stretch, is larger here than in any other game by far.
Of course, there is plenty to do once you’ve beaten the main story, or even before. Pokemon now have access to super training, which allows you to guide them through shooting minigames or passively train them with punching bags. The PokeMon-Amie section allows you to better build your relationship with them by playing with them and feeding them. These both better establish the connections between man and ‘Mon, and while there were hints of this prior, I’m surprised they weren’t included before. You also have extra battle leagues, hidden legendary Pokemon to discover and, most importantly, lots and lots of cafes to visit.
On their own, these would feel extraneous, but because of the range of Pokemon you can train along the way, you’re always multitasking and keeping things varied, so it rarely gets stale. There’s always something new to find in the expanses of Kalos, although Heart Gold and Soul Silver were better in engaging solo players. The multiplayer experience is also always on the cards, with players being able to invite their friends to trades and battles almost on the fly. Due to the 3DS’s set-up, it can be clunky to manage your friends list, but once you work out the kinks, it works a charm. There are also more open forums for trading and battling, but I imagine things won’t get interesting until after the Pokemon Bank is released.
But this is all clerical. It’s the heartfelt, the emotional, the personal that really makes Pokemon as special and long-lasting as it is, and as impressive as all of this looks on a screen, it’s the way these all integrate to create the world and the journey that Pokemon inhabits that makes such a magical experience. Even with the claims made against the franchise that it’s getting long in the tooth, it’s still evident that there is nothing quite like it. X and Y are among the top of the franchise because they feel the least manufactured and the most heartfelt, even though the biggest tipping point for me was the shallow draw of the jump to 3D in a main series game.
It’s the personal element that makes this game. It’s worth making that element your own.
Pokemon X and Y are currently available for the Nintendo 3DS.
A copy of this game was independently acquired by the reviewer.