Pokémon Y review
Pokémon is Evolving!
For a lot of people, there's really no point in me trying to say whether the new Pokémon games are worth buying. The series is already insanely popular and many, myself included, had long since decided to invest in them regardless. So it is fortunate that my opinion of the latest entries in the series are positive and mark one of the biggest evolutions in Pokémon to date. Game Freak finally bring the beloved handheld games into the 3D realm.
For a long time fans have had to make do with 2D sprites, which have improved with each generations including the addition of some animation but generally lacked the depth of other similar games. The basic structure of the battle visuals are still the same now, with each pokémon taking a spot on each side of the field and going through their pre-determined animations in response to player commands for moves. By transitioning into 3D this now looks a lot more involved than before. Pokémon idle animations feel a lot more natural this time and their interactions in terms of attacks seem to have a lot more substance to them as they really seem to react to situations.
Taking advantage of the 3D models, we finally have something that has been requested for a long time - customisable trainers. This isn't Elder Scrolls level options of course, but it's still a wonderful feature to have. You can choose between three styles at the beginning and then have further options as you progress. It says a lot when I spent just as much time choosing outfits and hair styles as I did managing my team and exploring the region.
The environments during battle are far more interesting than before too. Combat takes place in properly fleshed out areas based on the style of the current area you are in. So if you run into a wild pokémon in tall grass then you can expect a similarly grassy battlefield to appear, but entering combat in a cave presents a distinctly more rocky appearance as the field setting. The circles pokémon stand or float on which have been with us since Hoenn are still here and are probably the one element that feels out of place. They're decorated in a similar fashion to the rest of the battlefield but it is very strange that these appear and disappear with the pokémon. If we needed the circles, why are they not just there all the time? Disappointingly the team seem to have cut corners when it comes to trainers in battle. The player character, along with a handful of other plot central NPCs, have 3D models that are shown to throw their pokeballs into battle. On the other hand, most trainers only have a static 2D sprite onscreen, which includes all the gym leaders, Elite 4 and the champion.
When simply travelling around the world of Kalos is also modelled in 3D. You have a variety of towns to visit including such staples as a village in a snow covered region, a beach side town, a variety of caverns and routes across water. There are some obvious cultural influences to help give the region its own identity separate from past regions like the various cafés you can visit, the Stone Henge style location that you pass through during the game and the iconic tower in the central city. Much like previous games the camera angles are preset but at times will shift direction just to show off the environment. Cycling along a route next to a river will move the camera lower so you can see the bank on the other side. In some places there are benches in front of spectacles like waterfalls and their only purpose is literally just for you to sit there and look at the sights.
The OST injected into the game has the freshness that comes from a new set of games while still having a feeling of familiarity to long time veterans of the series. The music that plays in cities and routes in itself is nice, creating the perfect partner to the wonderful visuals that make up the region. The standout tracks are, as they always are, the battle music. Whether you're running into your next wild encounter, find yourself defending against the latest criminal team or challenging the upper ranks of trainers at the gyms scattered across Kalos, you're certain to find the music both very appealing and especially suited to the thrill of combat. The Champion's theme, like always, manages to become a personal favourite of mine as it embodies everything I love about the music.
While advancements are made elsewhere, they isn't really any voice acting in the game other than the cries of the monsters as they enter and exit battle. A lot of these have been worked on and they do sound great on the 3DS. Sound effects, such as the crashing of lightning bolts or the raging inferno of fire attacks, compliment the onscreen animations brilliantly.
While the rest of the non-gameplay elements excel over the past games, the story is one area that I feel has weakened. Unova created an amazing story that challenged perception of morality with its special team, even if the outfits in the first set of games were very odd looking. X and Y attempt a similar kind of story, with the new Team Flare appearing to have noble ambitions but with twisted morals, but it's really hard to take the whole thing seriously. Team Flare just aren't particularly effective antagonists and more often than not present themselves as complete jokes. The backstory is more interesting, as it speaks of a war that costs the lives of many. While this ties into Team Flares goals, the impact just isn't there.
The rest of the game's story is the same kind of stuff we've seen before. This time you have four friends with whom you cross paths with throughout the game. Only one of these serves as an actual rival true to the series, with each of the other characters filling other specific character types. One is more interested in filling the pokédex, another is just wanting to have lots of fun experiences and the last is oddly obsessed with finding pokémon to join in with his dance routines.
Much has changed in the series over the years, but fortunately the core mechanics are the same at their heart. Players pick between a male or female trainer and then set off into the world of Pokémon to train a team and challenge the various trainers as you make your way up to the champion.
The battle system has always held the honour of being accessible while also holding a very deep system for players more inclined to approach it more competitively. Each trainer can have a team of up to six pokémon and can field one, two or three at a time depending on the type of battle. Each pokémon then takes it in turns to perform an action attempting to KO the opposing team until one trainer runs out of pokémon and a winner is declared.
Move selection is vitally important in these games, giving you choices like striking with a powerful attack, causing temporary stat changes or inflicting status such as sleep or paralysis. There are many moves on offer and pokémon can learn them through a variety of ways such as levelling up or using technical machines that can be found during your journey. However, each pokémon is limited to only possessing four moves at any given time. This already creates a lot of tactical thinking in players, who have to decide whether they want to keep that stat boosting move or take on another attack for more coverage. There are also some interesting new moves to play with in this game, like a variety of new field effects such as boosting electric attacks or an ice attack that also delivers extra damage to water types.
Typing is another important element in combat and determines the amount of damage attacks do. A pokémon can be either a single or a dual type and every attack is also assigned a specific type. All this is used to create a very elaborate rock-paper-scissors system. The starter pokémon players choose from at the beginning of the game showcase this system perfectly. Fire is effective against grass but not so great dealing with water. Balance is still a little off, where you have the likes of ice completely lacking defensively while steel is extra powerful, but there have been steps to address this with the new fairy type aiming to counter dragons and steel losing a couple of resistances. Despite the imbalance though this system helps to make battles a very interesting system.
There are a number of other aspects that play their roles in combat, with some more obvious than others. Pokémon possess abilities that automatically activate and can sway the course of battle, like summoning a sandstorm or avoiding certain types of attacks. Some items can be held to bestow effects like health restoration or increased power, which works in addition to directly using items in the main game and is the only source of them in special battle conditions like the multiplayer.
More experienced players wanting to look even deeper will find more behind the veil. The stats of each creature is not only affected by the species base stats but other factors including nature, EVs and IVs. EVs are the most interesting as they allow you to distribute extra stat points to wherever you want. This isn't quite as simple as pointing and clicking where you want them, but you can use things like battling against certain species or vitamins. The new Super Training minigame can also be used for this and is probably a lot more obvious to use. Here you can play a game that involves firing footballs (or soccer balls) at goal targets on oversized balloons while avoiding those coming at you. While the game is fun on its own merits in short bursts, it also rewards players with EVs and handily shows a rough idea of progression.
Natures and IVs are more tricky. A nature is determined at the point you receive a pokémon and offers an increase to one stat while decreasing another. Certain factors like leading a party with a synchronise pokémon or breeding with an everstone can offer some control here but once set there's no way to change it unlike EVs. IVs are much more vague, working in a similar fashion to EVs but with much less control over them. Out of all the elements involved in raising a pokémon, I feel that the IV system is still rather broken. There have been a few changes, like the Destiny Knot item passing down 5 IVs from the parents in breeding and pokémon in Friend Safari always having at least some perfect IVs, but it still seems like a really awkward way of going about it all that can easily lead to endless hours breeding just to get the perfect combination of IVs, nature, ability or possibly moves, using techniques that the game never tells you about. Depending on how particular you are about the team you want to build, this can turn into a rather lengthy grinding process rather easily.
The four battle styles of the past games have returned, although singles once again are overwhelmingly dominate compares to the others that are doubles, triples and rotation. There are a couple of extra battle styles in here heavily publicised that have mixed results. Hoard battles feel somewhat unbalanced at first as it's tricky for one pokémon at that point to take on five at once, but this becomes more interesting later on as you work on tactics to deal with the higher number of threats. Sky battles, on the other hand, are rather terrible. Their only gimmick is that as combat takes place in the air then non-flying pokémon are excluded. This already means most pokémon can't participate and can very easily leave you with no more than a single member team, but then the game is also very strict with what it does allow. Flying types? Nope, Hawlucha is excluded. Pokémon with Levitate? Sorry Gengar, you can't take part even though the pre-evolutions can. All this nonsense for zero benefit in return.
Building a team has always been an interesting central element as well. At the beginning of the game you get to choose between three starter pokémon and then you can use that pokémon to battle others. To expand your team you weaken a wild pokemon without KOing it and then use pokéballs. Status and different kinds of pokéballs can also help. Trying to catch some of the legendaries will no doubt be hair pulling stuff as their low catch rates result in them breaking out a lot even if 1 HP asleep but it's generally a fun concept to play around with and forms one of the main goals of the game. Many pokémon can also evolve into stronger forms through many ways such as levelling up or trading. Mega Evolution is a new approach on this. Instead of transforming permanently into a new form, a number of older pokémon can hold a special item and mega evolve in the middle of battle. These forms are only accessible during battle and have some amazing potential. Sadly some of them seem a bit wasted as they only seem to serve to take already powerful pokémon and just make them stronger, but a number of them allow for some interesting tactics. Mawile can make the most of its intimidate ability and then mega evolve to gain the stats and ability necessary for battle. Ampharos gains a secondary dragon typing which grants it some extra resistances at the cost of some weaknesses.
A massive improvement in the series comes with the series connectivity. The games have always been built around the concept of linking with players with other versions and the DS games brought online in as well. While previously you had to go to Pokémon Centers for this kind of thing, XY introduces the PSS. This sits on the touch screen and is with you all the time when not in battle, which means that whenever you want to link with another player for trading or battling you can do it without having to completely drop whatever you're doing currently. Trading itself has also received a few boosts through the GTS and the new Wonder Trade. The GTS now displays a lot more results and lets you search for pokémon even if you haven't seen them ingame yet as long as you know the name. You can also filter out special pokémon and filter out pokémon you possess. It's not perfect, as I can't avoid all the trades trying to exchange their Lv5 Fletchling for a Yveltal. Wonder Trade at first felt like it would be a silly attempt much like GTS Negotiations was, but I've found it to be a very interesting way to drop off the results of mass breeding and have since obtained some excellent random pokémon in exchange. Oh sure, some will drop vendor trash into it too, but I think that's an acceptable risk to take.
Players can battle each others teams either over local wireless or the internet. By challenging players directly you can select from a few battle rule styles such as teams battle as they are or teams are autolevelled to Lv50 for the battle. There is also the option of random matchups through the PSS, which throws players into battle against each other with the set rules of Lv50 autolevel and team sizes limited based on the style of battle. I didn't have any trouble finding battle partners here. You can also save a video of these battles that can be viewed ingame and others can also access it if you choose to upload it using special codes (you can view my first online battle in this game using code SACG-WWWW-WWW3-HVDY). One massive improvement to this is that if a player disconnects then it will still count as a loss against them, which is a nice move against those that would ragequit in the past.
There are a few other neat things in here as well. O Powers can be accessed from the PSS, which act as a more accessible version of pass powers and can be used on the player or other players for a lower cost and bestow various effects like boosting prize money, experience gains or a stat boost at the start of a battle. It's a handy way for players to get some help if they need it. The energy for the powers recharge over time and I think it's cool that it refills more quickly by building up steps on the 3DS pedometer. Players can also produce a special trainer video at a facility in Lumiose and then make that available for others to view. Shout outs like you announce what you are feeling, although you only have a little room to put text in.
Aside from the PSS and Super Training, there is one more thing on the lower screen in the form of Pokémon Amie. This curiously little feature lets you essentially play with your pokémon just like pets, without all the messy cleaning up after them. You can pet them, feed them poképuffs and play one of three minigames with them. As well as providing a general distraction from the main game this also builds up affection, which can manifest as bonuses for battle like an increased experience gain. This is a col aspect of the game but entirely optional aside from acquiring a specific pokémon whose evolution is linked to affection.
Usually my favourite part of this series is exploring the latest regions to discover all of its secrets and this is no different. For the most part, a lot of what Kalos offers features many themes from previous games like various towns dotted around the landscape, a number of water routes, lush forests, desolate wastelands and a few dark caverns to check out. The transition to 3D definitely puts a bit of a spin on things though, making familiar thing feel that little bit more fresh. The ability to walk diagonally instead of being locked to the four compass directions is also a welcomed addition as are the roller skates that forms an extra mode of transportation and both aspects find themselves worked into the overall design. Progression to the story's end goal is largely linear as the game guides you from one point to the next and puzzle solving is light in the form of ledge jumping or sliding across ice. Where players are given more freedom to branch out are the various offshoots of the routes and the numerous optional areas that can be reached. These can be interesting and offer rewards like items of pokémon.
HM moves, which are moves taught to pokemon using special machines, are used to deal with certain obstacles like cutting down trees or crossing bodies of water. This can be fun when exploring new areas to figure out how to reach the next area, but have always carried the problem that they take up valuable move slots and many HM moves aren't useful. For XY, only a couple are truly necessary for the main story but the system is still dragged down by the inability to delete the moves in the field. This made sense in the early generations where it was possible to store HMs in the PC and thus created the potential for players to trap themselves, but this no longer applies so it's bizarre that this unnecessary mechanic still exists. I'm also a little disappointed that there are no new field moves in play.
While most of the areas are a joy to explore, there was one place that disappointed me, which is Lumiose City. Like Unova's Castelia City, it's a large sprawling location featuring many special attractions not found elsewhere, but the camera is much closer to the player in here and rotates. Combined with the layout, the place can be a daunting place to navigate and takes some memorisation to not get lost. The fact they put taxis in the city purely to take you to specific locations seems to indicate the developers had some awareness of this. A more accurate minimap would have been handy here.
When it comes to endgame content once you've conquered the Elite 4 there are a few options available to you. The two main attractions are the Battle Maison and the Friend Safari. Battle Maison is essentially the same thing as Battle Tower or Battle Subway from past games under a new name. Pokémon are set to Lv50 with set team sizes and no items can be used by the player. The goal is to defeat as many trainers in a row as possible until you face defeat. This is essentially the toughest challenge players can face in the game and will certainly make you think of tactics since you can no longer resort to brute force. Sadly I do miss the variety of the Battle Frontier or the huge nostalgia power of the World Tournament but this is still good for testing the limits of your team. Friend Safari is another location to catch pokémon but with an interesting twist. The species available depend on the people you have registered as friends, meaning the more friends you have the more friend safaris you have available.
While I still feel that Pokémon Y falls into some of what seem to be easily avoided pitfalls that have plagued the series for a long time, I have no doubt that this is the best game in the series to date. Significant improvements have been made without compromising the core of what the games are all about. Unless you have a general dislike of turn based RPGs then this should really be at the top of any wish list, if not in the games collection already.
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