Pokémon FireRed review
A Game I Wouldn't Catch Again
Simple battle interface
Much less reliance on HM moves
Overworld looks nice
Good music collection
Too much backtracking to pokecenters
Features stripped out or butchered
Battle scenes still look poor
No actual forward progress since S/R
Ah Pokemon, Nintendo's number one money-maker. These critters first appeared back on the old Gameboy, where they captured the heart of many gamers with their monochromatic charm and somehow kicked off a craze where any creature that looked remotely abnormal was highly sought after.
As the years passed by in the life of the Gameboy Advance, a descendant to that old Gameboy, the craze that was Pokemon has mostly died down. But not in video game land. It is here that the craze is still going strong, and pokemon still continues to appeal to the mass market. In light of this Nintendo and Game Freak decide to revisit where it all began. FireRed (and by association, LeafGreen) is a remake of the original games that started it all. Sounds great, but in practice it soon becomes apparent what this is. This is not a pleasant stroll down memory lane. It's a simple cash-in that possibly marks a new low-point for the series and works as a slap in the face for the loyal fans that have followed the series to this point.
After playing through the game I was pondering how to approach this review, because it became very apparent that FireRed is essentially the Sapphire engine with the Kanto region crammed in and various features removed. Theoretically I could just copy and paste my Sapphire review here and delete the bits that were removed and finish up with a moan, but that's just lazy so I'll actually put some effort in here.
OK, so it's essentially the Sapphire/Ruby engine. Predictably, the extra work put into the graphics amounts to almost zero. That's right, it looks exactly like the last set of games. Oh, there might be a few new sprites and animations, but aside from the main trainer sprites you're not going to notice them. Speaking of which, it looks like all the sprites in this game are identical to those used in the last game. Come on Game Freak, it's your own fault that you have over 300 sprites to create, so put some effort in to include variation. I did spend hours staring at the things all the way through Sapphire.
For those that didn't play the last set of games I'll take this opportunity to lament on the overall lameness of the battle graphics, which is the crux of the problem when it comes to the visuals. When a battle starts you have the two opponents slide onto the screen. For the trainers that are present they then throw their pokeballs out to release their pokemon. Well, scratch that, your trainer throws a pokeball out; the other trainer just appears to drop theirs behind them as they slide offscreen.
The animation only really applies to the attacks, and not very impressive at that. See, while unleashing attacks can cause all sorts of lightning balls, shimmering waves, funky symbols and goodness knows what else to fly about the screen the one constant is that the pokemon themselves aren't actually animated. Oh, the sprites might shake or flash, but a trainee programmer could do that. What I want is for these pokemon to actually show signs of life instead of giving me the feeling of firing attacks at cardboard cutouts.
The overall lack of battlefield detail is also off-putting. You get some scenery, such as grass or sand, slide past (they sure do like sliding things about) and some coloured circles beneath each pokemon'¦ and that's it. The rest of the field is white with some faint coloured lines, which of course does not resemble pretty much anything that would constitute a battlefield in the world of pokemon.
But let's look at a positive here, which is the overworld graphics. To the game's credit this part does at least look pretty nice. There's an overall colourful charm to the imagery, even when traipsing through the dark tunnels of Kanto, that just seems so pretty to look at. Elements are nicely animated too, like the grass and waves. Character sprites are pretty detailed and while in some respects there is a lot of repetition (why does every team rocket grunt look the same?) in other areas there is enough variation for it to work.
Kanto at least looks prety.
As an extra touch FireRed also throws up some CG artwork of certain areas when you enter them, such as Diglett Cave and Rock Tunnel. These do look nice, although the effect is quite minimal.
I've no major complaints when it comes to the game's audio other than having it recycled from the last set of games. There's nothing wrong with the quality and a lot of the tracks are quite good. Battle music is suitably upbeat and with a high tempo. Surfing offers a more serene tone to things. There's a solid number in the collection too.
The general set of sound effects also works quite too. Crashing of thunder, blazing infernos, engulfing floods. Yeah, everything sounds right and fits in nicely. Oddly, the overworld doesn't really seem to use sound effects all that much. The focus then seems to be much more on the music, although I can't really say the experience was negatively affected by this. It was just something I never really noticed.
The monster battle cries that get hurled out when they enter battle or are KOed are pretty much the same kind we've been hearing for years. Oh, the quality has been jacked up for the GBA's speaker, but otherwise little has changed here. Perhaps having a cartoon where most of them can say their own name and following that up with the Yellow version of the games that seems to partly back that up was a bad idea as now I can't help but wish this was reflected in the games.
I do wonder if going on about the plot is really necessary for this game. All the handheld RPGs in the series have possessed more-or-less the same story anyway, with minor tweaks here and there, and then given that this is a remake then it should be no surprise that the story is old and predictable at this point.
Oh well. The gist is that you're a wannabe pokemon trainer who just so happens to receive a pokemon from the local professor, Oak. With this you start on your journey to become a pokemon master, catching new pokemon and challenging the eight gyms in Kanto in order to fight the Elite Four, the most powerful trainers in the land (supposedly). Along the way you'll get to foil the plans of the evil Team Rocket several times (apparently the concept of law enforcement agencies doesn't exist in here) and be the general good guy/girl.
Eh, it's not going to win any awards but I suppose for the purposes of giving a reason to all this it isn't too bad. Well, aside from the whole Team Rocket thing that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Alright, all that is out of the way now. Time to start looking at how the game plays, which is really what video games are generally about. Prepare yourself for the worse, though.
FireRed brings us a turn-based battle system that really hasn't changed drastically from the original games it is based on, aside from some tweaks here and there. If you're cynical this could be construed as old and tired. If you've just come off another Pokemon game then that may very well be the feeling you get too, but it's not actually a bad system. Just not a particularly good one either, considering it is basically a reused flawed one.
Typically each side can have between one to six pokemon in their team but only send one out at a time. Pokemon can be switched out during battle using the appropriate command or after every enemy pokemon knocked out (switching during battle gives the opponent a free turn whereas switching after a KO does not).
A pokemon can learn a wide variety of moves as they grow. Some moves are learned simply by reaching new levels, while others can be learned using certain items known as TMs or HMs. There are also some other methods I will cover later. However, the catch to learning these moves is that each pokemon can only possess four moves at any one time, therefore making it necessary to delete older moves when a new move comes along. Yet, even this isn't that simple, as HM moves cannot easily be deleted, as unlike normal moves there is only one place in the whole region where this is possible.
Sounds good in theory, attempting to induce strategy, and to that degree it works. The problem is that is makes travelling around very awkward. The thing above moves is that they all have individual PP counters that decrease everytime a move is used. Stronger moves have less maximum PP amounts too. With a total lack of common PP restorative items anywhere and the lack of a generic "attack" command present in pretty much any other RPG then you have one of the biggest contributors to otherwise unnecessary trips back to the nearest pokecenter, which seriously gets in the way of exploring.
But back to the actual battles for a moment. In addition to limited moves you also have the type system in place. Every pokemon in the game is of a specific type or dual type. These determine a pokemon's strength and weaknesses, as every attack in the game also has a type attributed to it (no dual type moves though). In addition to normal damage you can use type advantage to hit with attacks that are super effective (2x damage) or not very effective (half damage). So a water attack would have the advantage over fire but be poor against grass. There are even some types that are invulnerable to certain types of attacks, like electric attacks are useless against ground types.
The damage difference between the different levels of effectiveness is actually pretty huge, especially when the more powerful techniques come into play. In essence you're forced into paying attention lest your team be slaughtered. Of course, there's a flipside to this. When you enter battle the pokemon at the left side of the list goes out first. However, short of saving before every single fight and reloading the save file once each time then it is virtually impossible to know who to put in that left slot. As a result you can easily be put at a disadvantage when means either running the risk of massive damage or wasting a turn switching out. Either way, it sounds like yet another trip to the pokecenter or using some potions.
However, that's not the main problem here. The problem is how imbalanced the type system is, which we haven't seen since the games this is meant to be a remake of. Long story short: psychic pokemon rule all. Dark and steel pokemon don't exist until you've beaten the Elite Four, which is far too late. Why must we wait to catch any of the Johto pokemon? Congrats Game Freak on reintroducing a game flaw we were supposed to have gotten rid of ages ago.
You know, I'll never figure out what the fascination is with critical hits for RPG developers. OK, it's not so bad when you can influence it somewhat (like in Fire Emblem games). However, in games like Pokemon it becomes rather silly because the whole thing is entirely random. During fights there might be a sudden spike of damage out of nowhere, and it tends to screw up battle flow. I also question the distribution of them. Now, I don't know if this is purposely programmed in or if I was just extremely unlucky, but it seems that the computer trainers and pokemon tend to get more of these criticals than I did, which wasn't all that fun.
Damaging hits are not the only types of moves either. Status altering moves can induce effects like paralysis or sleep on the target. Paralysis drastically lowers speed and may prevent attacking at times. Sleep prevents a pokemon from acting. Burn lowers attack and damages each turn. Poison damages each turn and may intensify each turn. Frozen prevents a pokemon from acting. Confusion may cause an attack to fail and deliver damage to the confused pokemon. So, yeah, some of these are actually pretty similar. In the big battles like gym battles or catching pokemon these are pretty good for helping to cripple the opponent's effectiveness.
Stats can also be temporarily altered during battle. Moves such as harden or calm mind raise the user's stats while moves like leer or screech lower the target's stats. These changes are only in effect while in battle and disappear either when the battle ends or when that pokemon switches out. Unfortunately, the differences made tend to be so minor that I really don't see the point in them unless you're destroying the accuracy of wild pokemon for capture.
Every pokemon also possesses a special ability that works by itself. Some abilities raise the effectiveness of certain moves, others prevent stat losses in certain areas and yet others may offer some added level of protection. Typically most species of pokemon can have one of two abilities, and these add a strong element to proceedings as these then need to be factored in too.
Items can also play their role in these battles, and this is done in two ways. First is that each pokemon can hold onto an item. Many items don't have any practical use being held onto like this but some have effects. Some items, like berries, will be automatically used by the pokemon when needed, like healing when their health drops low or curing status ailments. Other items can help boost pokemon effectiveness, like black glasses raising the power of dark type moves.
There is also the item command that allows the player to actively use items during battles, although this option in not available for link battling. Items such as potions or stat boosters can be used here, although doing so uses up a turn. It does help the player to work through the single player.
OK, so that's about it. The concept is simple so that most people can grasp it while offering some level of complexity thanks to the type system and status effects. For RPG gamers though the system is a bit too basic. There's no team element and the inability to know what the other trainers are going to use as their first pokemon is problematic. An even bigger issue is that the battle system is not only the exact same as Sapphire and Ruby but really hasn't moved on all that much from Gold, Silver and Crystal either. Oh, we have pokemon abilities and some new moves, but that's not really a whole lot and having gone through two generations of games already with this system it is really starting to show age.
The battle system in action,
although if you've been following the series you'll already know what to expect.
Oh, wait, FireRed does have the dual battles system that S/R introduced. Well, it's supposed to, anyway. The idea is that each side sends out two pokemon each. This allows you to target which pokemon gets hits, although some moves affect both enemy pokemon and some moves affect all but the user.
Sounds good and when in practice it is good. The problem is that I could probably count the number of dual battles that occur throughout the single player on one hand. Yeah, why bother having the dual battle system if it's going to be so drastically underused? For all intents and purposes it doesn't actually exist, which is another demonstration of Game Freak casually tossing aside something that could really bring the battle system up to the standard fans are looking for.
But fighting is all well and good, but exactly how does one go about building a team? You catch them. Wild pokemon will attack you as you pass through caves, grass, water etc. If you come across one you want to catch then you need to weaken it without KOing it. Drop its health as low as possible and possibly inflict a status ailment, then try throwing a pokeball. Naturally, the rare and stronger the pokemon the harder it is to catch. Sometimes you may have several balls broken before a successful capture.
This is actually probably the most interesting aspect of the system, as it involves carefully weakening without killing. It is something a player can't simply power through on.
Moving on we now take a look at exploration, and to be fair FireRed does seem to fair slightly better than the previous GBA Pokemon titles. While earlygame doesn't have this, later exploration is reliant on HM moves. A HM can teach a move to certain pokemon that can also be used outside of battle. Use cut to slice down trees, surf to cross bodies of water or strength to shift heavy boulders. The good thing is that the crap HM moves are either limited in when they are needed or aren't necessarily needed to reach the Elite Four.
Exploring the various routes and caves in itself isn't such a bad thing either. You tend to find a lot of alternate paths and alcoves. With items and pokemon scattered in every corner there is some merit to all this. Exploring caves does become a little tiresome though when you have wild pokemon jumping out at you a bit too often. Repel helps to work against this, but repel earlier on doesn't really last that long.
I suppose the biggest hindrance to travelling between locations then is the sheer number of trainers that litter every route. If a trainer sees you a battle will start. Any battle can leave your team exhausted enough to necessitate a trip back to the nearest pokecenter, so having such huge numbers can be somewhat painful.
Apparently it is possible to dodge past trainers as long as you don't cross their line of sight. OK, but 85% of the trainers in the game are looking across the path you have to walk along to get past them, and the rest seem to be suffering from some sort of sugar-induced hyperactive mode where they are turning around in all directions.
In other words, expect to be fighting 95%+ of the trainers, and expect to become tired of it.
Ever since G/S Game Freak have tried numerous ways to allow players to have rematches against trainers. I must say that it has never been done better than FireRed. At some point you get the VS Seeker. This item gets charged up by moving around, and when used allows you to battle trainers in the area interested in rematches. It works better than phone calls or constantly checking some menu.
Item management is as streamlined as before. The player's bag is split into three parts. Consumables, such as potions and sprays, are in one part. The second part holds key items, like actual keys or scopes. The last part is where all your different pokeballs are kept for use. What's nice is that it limit on holding items seems to be set very high. I never once deposited an item into the PC storage and never got told I couldn't hold something.
This time it seems berries and TMs/HMs don't have their own sections in the bag as such. Instead you receive a berry pouch and a TM case, which goes into your key items part. Berries and TMs/HMs can be accessed through those.
Each generation has brought us a more user-friendly bag.
OK, now let's touch upon all those clever elements introduced in S/R that were so good. Oh wait, they aren't here, for reasons man may never know of.
Remember contests and secret bases? Yeah, those were awesome. Contests offered a tremendous amount of strategic play and differed greatly from the main gameplay. I did enjoy earning my ribbons. Secret bases had no practical use, but there was always something about building one that seemed fun. I could customize my own little place. I'm sure Animal Crossing gamers can relate.
In FireRed neither of these things exist, which is a massive disappointment to me. I mean, this is basically the S/R engine. Why would Game Freak actually work to take something out when it worked so well? Doesn't make the slightest bit of sense.
Other elements from the past two generations exist but not until very late. Breeding is an excellent way of creating the perfect team. Essentially, you could leave two pokemon at a care centre and if they had an interest in each other could mate and produce an egg, which would eventually hatch into a level 5 version of the mother's lowest evolutionary form.
The best thing about this is that the child can inherit things from the father, such as moves, that they wouldn't gain otherwise.
The problem here is that you don't even get to use this feature until after you've beaten the Elite Four, which seems far too late to be introducing such a valuable feature. Dammit, I want it early on.
In terms of the actual world, most of it is identical to the worlds of the original titles, except prettier. There have been some tweaks and changes here and then, but nothing drastic. The biggest difference is the introduction of the islands, which offers some new ground to explore. There are nine islands in all'¦ no, wait, seven. Technically there are nine but most players won't ever get to the last two as they require either a download from an official Nintendo event or a cheat device. Jeez, what is it with Nintendo making some of their content inaccessible to most of their target audience?
Linking options have some options identical to the last set. You can trade and battle. Battles are essentially the same as single player minus the ability to use items. Trading allows you to exchange pokemon between cartridges. Traded pokemon grow faster and some only evolve by being traded, for some reason.
The Union Room is new to the games. Using the wireless adaptar people can mingle in this room and do basically the other link related stuff. It's like an online game's lobby, in other words, which is a nice touch.
OK, time to wrap this up. So, where do I stand on the subject? Based upon its own merits the game is probably average. While there is no doubt the game is better than the originals it is based on the improvement isn't that massive, but the standards since then have moved on a great deal and so compared to the competition FireRed comes up short.
As a fan of the series it's actually worse than that. The formula is tired now. I mean, it's hardly any different from the G/S/C set of games, except they did it better, and so having gone through essentially the same thing in two previous games (Gold and Sapphire, in case anyone is curious) I really don't want to do it a third time, especially when it is flawed. Exploration is nice when you're not being driven to the point of insanity by the trainers.
The fact that they took out or butchered elements from the last set that worked so well is perplexing beyond belief and very disappointing. As a result only a few things really work out as intended. A trip down memory lane is not worth putting up with this. Excuse me, I think I'll go fire Sapphire up again.
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