[Note: This review refers to Pokemon X since that’s the version I purchased, but the content applies to both.]
When Pokemon Red & Blue came out for the Game Boy in late 1998 here in the US, I paid very little attention. I was in full-blown “It better be like Final Fantasy VII or I don’t care!” mode, which in hindsight is pretty sad to think about, but that’s the honest truth about my mentality back then. Shiny objects and everything. OK, maybe “shiny” isn’t the best way to put it in the context of Pokemon, but you know what I’m saying.
Anyway, the Pokemon craze was absolutely insane in the years to follow, with not just the games, but the anime and trading card game acting as the other two major franchise tiers. South Park, which was extremely popular at the time as well, did the hilarious and all-too-true episode Chinpokomon as their own commentary on Pokemon and fads in general. Only this fad never went away. Years later, Pokemon‘s popularity remains high, and you can even “catch ’em all” in Ubisoft and Obsidian’s South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014), underscoring Pokemon‘s continued demand and pervasiveness.
Pokemon Yellow — a significant overhaul of Red/Blue, featuring Pikachu and a visual makeover to reflect the look of the wildly popular anime — came out in 1999, and even though my younger sister was the furthest thing from an RPG player, she purchased it. She didn’t play it much, preferring Pokemon Pinball instead, so I inherited it shortly thereafter. I loaded it up, played it for about 30 minutes, and shelved it. I remember thinking, “You gotta be kidding me with this garbage.”
The years passed… history became legend, legend became myth… being older and more open-minded, I decided to give the series another shot in 2009 with the release of the HeartGold/SoulSilver (HGSS) remakes. I had just earlier that year fallen in love with the Dragon Quest series, after having finished the fifth installment’s remake on the DS. I figured the same thing might happen to me with Pokemon.
It didn’t. Much like Yellow, I played it a little bit, but I didn’t like the slow pace, the battles seemed so simplistic, and yeah, I guess I just didn’t “get it”. Onto the shelf it went, and I ended up selling it a few years later in 2013, complete with its Ho-Oh figurine. I made quite a profit, but I would soon realize what a mistake that was.
There was always something about Pokemon that compelled me, though. I would occasionally wonder what the franchise’s “secret sauce” was, and why it was lost on me. I would go on to buy both Black and White in 2011, since I thought it would be fun to play, battle, and trade with my wife, but that didn’t happen either. I actually don’t think we even opened them, and I once again sold them to the highest bidder.
But then along came Pokemon X/Y in 2013. It was touted as being the first mainline Pokemon game to have fully 3D graphics, which in the context of games in general, sounded rather silly to me. I was like, “So what?” Being the ever-curious person that I am, though, I ended up buying X rather early on in its release cycle, but it too sat around for nearly a year before I started playing it this past December.
95 hours and counting later, all I can say is, “Why in the world did I wait so long?!”
Pokemon X is a wonderful game, and it’s one of the best games I played in 2014 and continue to play in 2015. Although it took me some time to get used to the French-inspired region of Kalos’ inhabitants being super-friendly and helpful all the time (honestly, how often does this happen in games?), it won me over with its charm and beauty shortly thereafter.
The world itself is vibrantly rendered, with the human characters modeled in a slightly super-deformed style with big, expressive eyes and colorful outfits. They are outlined in a distinct, cartoon style, making the game feel like a living, breathing anime. Subtle, but effective touches like seeing the wind gently blow through blades of grass, the shadows of clouds slowly crawling by overhead, or reflections in crystal-clear bodies of water, all give the game an almost Hayao Miyazaki-like sense of observation and being one with nature. Game Freak did a fantastic job in making Kalos feel like a part of the world you not only want to spend time in, but also go out of your way to treat well.
Character animation is also very nice. The player will kneel down to talk with small children, which I thought was the coolest touch that is rarely seen in other games. An animation of you picking up items and putting them in your bag also plays, which is a good detail, but it could be argued that animations like this tend to slow things down, which I have noticed in other games like Dragon Quest VIII.
It didn’t bother me here, though. Pokemon is at its best — at least while playing through the main story — when you take your time in each area, exploring and learning them thoroughly, and just losing yourself in the world and its culture. Because the scenarios tend to be very positive, I rarely felt stressed out or angry playing it. The more I dug in and explored, the more I was rewarded by helpful people giving me new items, finding hidden ones, and learning about how the various game mechanics function.
You aren’t hit over the head with lengthy tutorials, either. Gameplay and control hints come in the form of entertaining “shows” on TV, NPCs, signs that are peppered around each area, and the player’s own exploration and experimentation. It’s a great way to educate the player without forcing them through a boring opening tutorial.
The story in Pokemon X is understandably light compared to many other RPGs, but I really enjoyed that aspect of it. There are scenes that will bring a big smile to your face (if you play as the male protagonist, how can you not love Shauna?), interspersed with interesting and thought-provoking passages about war and humankind’s relationship with and the destruction of nature. Again, the Miyazaki influence here feels quite strong.
The numerous Pokemon themselves are at the heart of the franchise, and as each encounter with a wild Pokemon occurred, the more I was drawn to certain ones over time. I didn’t think I would care all that much for them, since the over-exposed Pikachu is the poster “mon” for the entire series and seems to get all of the attention, but boy have I become opinionated about my favorites!
The Pokemon designs themselves are seemingly simplistic, but upon closer inspection are so aesthetically pleasing that they can’t help but be instantly likable. I chose Fennekin as my starter, but as she evolved into her other forms, I found myself feeling disappointed with her, so I switched her out with some of the others, taking a liking to Froakie and later Amaura. I think it’s great that the series allows for so many different styles and favorites. For every person who thinks Bulbasaur is worthless, there is someone who simply adores it. I’m sure my opinions on each Pokemon will develop further as I start watching the anime. I love their designs, so I think it will be terrific to know more about their individual stories.
I realized several hours in that Pokemon X‘s monster designs are really what I enjoyed the most. Again, I’m reminded of the aforementioned Dragon Quest series, with its fantastically original monster designs, fast-paced battles, whimsical storylines, and deep job systems. Although I will be reviewing Pokemon Yellow in a future update, what I will say now is that much like Dragon Quest, it’s interesting seeing how little has changed about the series’ core gameplay, giving players an immediate feeling of comfort and familiarity. I like that.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t significant changes, and a major addition to the formula are Mega Evolutions, which allows certain fully evolved Pokemon like Blastoise to become Mega Blastoise, with boosted stats, different abilities, and a bold new look. They’re pretty impressive to look at, and they can be part of a good Trainer’s strategy since certain Mega Evolutions can change that Pokemon’s type as well. They’re an interesting addition that I’m sure helps freshen up traditional matches, since you can only have one of them in your party at a time, and their use comes at the expense of not being able to hold what could arguably be a more useful item.
General combat in Pokemon X is easy to learn, but difficult to master, and is especially satisfying when levels between combatants are equally matched. Unfortunately, if you take your time playing through Pokemon X, that will rarely be the case, and you’ll likely find yourself extremely overpowered rather quickly, meaning you can simply use brute force to one or two-hit KO most Pokemon, without having to rely on super-effective moves or complex planning. I think this does a slight disservice to the player, since strategy often takes a backseat to pure power.
It’s still a robust rock-scissors-paper system, though, where certain types are effective/weak against others, special moves can boost/drop stats, items can create major advantages, and status effects have real consequence. When’s the last time you played an RPG where status effects like being poisoned or paralyzed linger after battle? It’s not too common anymore in modern games.
The combat graphics are done extremely well, with colorful environments and smooth animation. Each Pokemon has unique fighting animations and sounds, and now I understand why the shift to 3D was such a big deal for fans. They really do look fantastic, and faithfully bring the classic 2D sprites to life. I was tempted to turn off the battle animations, but they look so good that I left them on throughout the whole campaign to see them all in motion. Pokemon have cries that are almost as instantly recognizable as the way they look, which I think is pretty unique. I don’t know why, but that floppy Magikarp’s cry gives me the heebie-jeebies.
While combat is one thing, catching Pokemon is another. I like the battles in Pokemon X, but the real thrill for me was running into a new, rare Pokemon that I hadn’t seen before, and figuring out how best to catch it without knocking it out. There are moves that make this a lot easier, but it’s also fun and interesting to swap in different Pokemon that will do just enough damage to allow the player to catch them successfully. There are also a myriad of different Poke Balls that can further increase your odds of capture, and combining different techniques can create scenarios where catching them is as easy as 1… 2… 3… click!
Music is another area of Pokemon X that surprised me. I was expecting something light that would fade into the background, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was so memorable and varied. Tracks like the inspired Gate Theme, which most players will only hear for a few seconds going from route to route, is one of the better songs I’ve heard in some time, certainly in recent memory on the 3DS. The theme for Route 19 is also terrific, exuding a real sense of adventure and discovery. There’s something about it that has a little bit of that Disney magic.
The touchscreen interface works great, with the bottom screen used for things such as menus, inventory/Pokemon management, training, battle commands, online interactions, and minigames. It’s nice to be able to directly access features with the touchscreen instead of having to press a button to open up a menu every time. It’s something I’ve come to really appreciate on the 3DS and Wii U.
Speaking of online functionality, it’s absolutely great for trading. Wonder Trade, which allows you to deposit any Pokemon into the online space and get a random one back from another player, is both frustrating and amazing at once. Frustrating because you’ll shake your head after receiving your umpteenth Bunnelby and Zigzagoon, but amazing when you get a rare Pokemon, a starter with great stats, or even an incredibly rare shiny for no other reason than to make your day awesome.
There is also the Global Trade Station (GTS), where you can seek out specific Pokemon with some custom conditions if you wish (like gender, level range, etc.) by putting up your own offers and vice versa. This is a great way to help fill up your collection, especially if you are trying to complete your entire Pokedex (an index of all the Pokemon you have seen and captured/held), or if you are more ambitious, a Living Pokedex. I have yet to 100% my Kalos Pokedex, so I’m nowhere near those levels of commitment. Yet.
You will run into lots of people if you decide to go online. You’ll see your friends, make acquaintances through trading, or see a steady stream of passer-bys. Interactions are not intrusive, and you can decline offers to battle or trade if you prefer. If you get a particularly nice Pokemon during a trade or have a fun battle, you can give them a “Nice!”, which is like a Reddit Upvote or Facebook Like, or you can bestow upon them various O-Powers, which will do things like increase their odds of capturing Pokemon, make items in stores cheaper, gain more experience in battle, and other nice boosts. The O-Powers consume less if you use them on other people, and they also level up the more you use them, so the game does a really good job of encouraging the player to share them with other Trainers.
Pokemon X‘s metagame — or using resources outside of the game itself for greater benefits within — is an area that is so vast and detailed that you could teach a course just in Pokemon mechanics and strategies. There is just so much you can do. Not even including the battle strategies and tactics themselves, Pokemon Trainers can choose to breed for hidden abilities, passing on special moves, getting specific natures, maximum individual values (IVs), baby Pokemon, or using what is known as the Masuda method to obtain shiny versions of specific Pokemon. The time, effort, and attention that effective breeding requires is surprisingly rewarding, although simply breeding for shiny Pokemon is a surefire cure for insomnia. It just isn’t fun, but yet I still keep trying.
I do wish that the entire breeding process was more streamlined. As it stands, Trainers start off by riding their bike back in forth in front of the Pokemon Day Care (where you drop off 1-2 Pokemon to level up and/or breed), collect the eggs, fly to and ride around in a circle in the game’s large hub city, wait for the eggs to hatch, check their moves/abilities/natures/items, fly to another city to have their IVs checked, mark those with the in-game PC, fly back to the Day Care, replace breeding Pokemon if necessary, swap items around, and repeat. Since you can only carry 6 eggs at a time, this process becomes very time-consuming. It would have been great to have a round area to ride right in front of the Day Care, as well as having an IV assessor there as well. I haven’t gotten that far into Alpha Sapphire, so I’m curious to see if any of this has been addressed.
Other annoyances include the somewhat lengthy battle intros, and if you’re power-leveling a party of low-level Pokemon, be prepared to sit through a slow, seemingly endless stream of individual “level up” notification jingles, while managing newly learned moves, which after a short while always have to either be dropped or replace an existing move. It’s the Pokemon way, though, and it’s fascinating that Game Freak has, for the most part, stuck to their guns: You get 4 moves per Pokemon, and that’s it.
The 4 moves thing seems terribly limiting at first, but it’s also what makes Pokemon incredibly deep and strategic, despite its surface simplicity. You have to consider the move types, how they play to that Pokemon’s strengths/weaknesses/stats, their accuracy, possible status effects, recovery rounds, and other factors. Not carefully taking these into account can put you at a huge disadvantage, especially when battling experienced human Trainers. You don’t have to worry too much about the in-game ones, though. They’re not very smart.
While not without a few flaws, I had — and continue to have — a fantastic time playing Pokemon X. The main storyline is full of simple charms and some memorable characters, battles are fun, discovering and catching new Pokemon is exciting, and there is a lot to do after the credits, some of which are outlined here.
If you’re into breeding and training a top-tier team, the game hasn’t truly begun until its postgame starts anyway. Pokemon X is not just an incredibly well-made game, but it represents a deep and pure RPG experience that can be played as casually or as hardcore as you want, making it one of the most accessible and rewarding experiences for players of all ages. Highly recommended.