Review: Pokémon Sun and Moon

20 years after Pokémon was born, Sun and Moon bring fresh new ideas in fantastic style.

By Jack Taylor – 18 December 2016
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS

It's been a heck of a year for Pokémon fans around the world, with the series celebrating its 20th anniversary in some style. There have been no less than 11 special distributions for elusive Mythical Pokémon, at least 15 special Trading Card Game releases and two nostalgic TCG expansions, a host of special anime releases, countless plushies, some weird thing called Pokémon GO, and - at the beginning of it all - the launch of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow for Nintendo 3DS as special Virtual Console games. It's all nearly over, but not before we're graced with the seventh generation of the main series, as Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon usher in a new era for Pokémon.

Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the region of Alola, a tropical location with four natural islands and one man-made island within its archipelago. You take the role of the protagonist, who has just moved to Alola from the Kanto region with their mother and pet Meowth, and who proceeds to travel the islands to collect brand new Pokémon and battle powerful trainers. Along the way, you'll meet plenty of interesting people, including the troublesome Team Skull and the peaceful Aether Foundation, and you'll find out just how different Alola is to any of the regions you've travelled before. It's home to many new Pokémon, including some incredible new designs, and plenty of classic returnees to complement them - and as you progress through the game, you'll come to realise that Alola is the setting for one of the series' best storylines.

The ways in which Sun and Moon differ to previous Pokémon games is likely to be clear to the vast majority of fans, whether you're someone who has played every main series game since Red and Blue or has skipped the last few years' worth of titles. Alola itself is markedly different to any other regions - even to Hoenn, another with a tropical climate - due to it being split over several smaller islands, some of which have varying microclimates themselves. You can travel between islands either by boat or by using a Ride Pokémon - these are Pokémon you can call outside battle and can fly, surf, break boulders, and more besides. They eliminate the need for Hidden Machines (HMs), another former staple of the series - meaning there'll be no more HM moves shoehorned into your main team!

One of the biggest changes to the games is the removal of Pokémon Gyms and the Pokémon League, bringing an end to the task of collecting gym badges. Instead, each island is home to Island Trials - of which there are seven in total - as well as a Grand Trial with the island's kahuna, or leader. Island Trials are often unique, though each will involve at least one battle, against the Totem Pokémon - a larger, more powerful version of a normal Pokémon, such as Gumshoos or Raticate, that you'll need to defeat in order to complete the trial. Once you've completed all the trials on an island, you'll be able to challenge the kahuna in the Grand Trial, which is slightly more reminiscent of a classic gym leader battle.

What's interesting about Sun and Moon is that, because of the way the games are paced, they can initially feel quite linear, and Alola can seem a fairly small place to explore. This is probably going to be more the case if you've been with the series for a long time and have played recent games in the series - particularly Pokémon X and Pokémon Y - but that deception is certainly misplaced, as Alola features a large number of areas to travel and a significant number of trainers and challenges to try your hand at. There are also literal roadblocks dotted around the place pushing you towards the next trial or part of the story, but while they can be a slight annoyance at first, the game really opens up the further into it you get. Your newest buddy, the Rotom Pokédex, also gives you hints along the way and it can sometimes feel like a bit of hand-holding, but this is a very minor gripe.

While the story is clearly an important part of the games, what's really impressive is the wide variety of different Pokémon throughout the region. To say Alola seems quite small, it certainly isn't, with around 300 Pokémon in the regional Pokédex to find and catch. This includes mostly creatures from previous games, but the vast majority of them are well suited to Alola, and you're likely to find some great Pokémon that you've never trained before that you might decide to add to your team. In addition, there are 18 Pokémon from the Kanto region that have received a brand new Alola Form, indicative of how they have adapted to their surroundings. They have new moves, abilities, and type changes, making them well worth looking into and featuring some great designs. More than anything else in Sun and Moon, this is something we absolutely want to see in future games and remakes.

As well as new features, Sun and Moon also bring back some mechanics from other games and improve upon them remarkably. The sixth-generation games featured Pokémon-Amie, which allowed players to interact with their Pokémon by feeding them, playing games with them, and more in order to boost their happiness. This has been stripped back and integrated right into the main game as Pokémon Refresh, allowing you to pet and feed your Pokémon to increase their affection. This has benefits in battle, such as gaining boosted experience, landing easier critical hits, avoiding attacks occasionally, and even surviving attacks that would otherwise knock them out. You can also care for Pokémon after battles, cleaning them up and curing their status conditions.

Pokémon Refresh is just one example of how long-standing mechanics have been improved upon this time around, though. Another is that, after catching a Pokémon in battle, you'll be able to choose whether to send it to your box or add it to your party, which can be a huge help if you catch one you really want to train. This also applies when breeding Pokémon eggs - when you collect one from the daycare centre, you can send it to your box if there's no room in your party. You'll notice plenty of other changes as well, including the ability to see which attacking moves are effective against opponents in battle - very handy for anyone unfamiliar with newer Pokémon's types or the changes brought on by the addition of the Fairy type in the last generation of Pokémon games.

There are some brand-new additions to Sun and Moon as well. Z-Moves have been introduced as a way of performing high-powered moves in battle, and since you can only perform one Z-Move per battle, there's a good amount of strategy involved here as you progress in the game. Each type has its own Z-Crystal - for instance, Water-type moves can be powered up using the Waterium Z crystal - and a Pokémon needs to hold this crystal to use the corresponding Z-Move, meaning it can't hold another item. A small selection of Pokémon also have their own Z-Crystal, meaning fan-favourite Pikachu and newbies like the fully-evolved starter Pokémon can pull off a unique and powerful Z-Move of their own. Mega Evolution also returns, but isn't part of the main narrative - a shame, but understandable to avoid awkward juggling of Z-Crystals and Mega Stones.

Another very useful addition to the game is Poké Pelago, a group of five islands accessible from the main menu which can aid you in various ways. The first - Isle Abeens - lets you gather plenty of Poké Beans, which are used in Pokémon Refresh to make your Pokémon more affectionate, and the island will sometimes have wild Pokémon appear as well. Isle Aplenny allows you to grow berries you've collected in a single place for convenience, Isle Aphun lets your boxed Pokémon go hunting for rare and useful items, Isle Evelup lets you drop off Pokémon for levelling-up and quick EV training, and Isle Avue is used to let Pokémon increase their happiness and to let Pokémon eggs hatch without being in your party. Each island is incredibly useful in its own way, particularly since you can just drop off your team members and leave them while you carry on with your adventures.

Also accessible from the menu is the Festival Plaza, where multiplayer functionality for trading and battling is stored. Festival Plaza also features shops and other useful facilities, such as lottery shops, bouncy castles to boost EV stats, and more besides. It's very reminiscent of Join Avenue, which fans of Pokémon Black Version 2 and Pokémon White Version 2 might remember, since the Festival Plaza can also be levelled-up in a similar fashion to gain rewards and better facilities. You're likely to use it for battling and trading primarily, since it includes features such as Wonder Trade and the GTS, and - in a great addition for competitive battlers - the ability to download tournament rulesets ahead of time. It's already possible to download the official ruleset for the 2017 Pokémon World Championships, for example.

Before you've even started the game and sampled all those new and returning features, however, there's a bigger question to ask: which version of the game will you get? Paired versions of Pokémon games always have some minor differences, right back to Red and Blue and a handful of version-exclusive Pokémon, but things are different this time around. For a start, Moon's in-game clock is off-set by 12 hours, meaning it'll be dark at 12pm and light at 12am, which also affects which Pokémon you'll encounter for those that appear at a certain time of day. In addition, the box mascots - Solgaleo and Lunala - are also version-exclusive encounters, which means you'll need to trade in order to own the other. Other than that, the games are pretty similar, aside from a few Pokémon missing from each version, certain character changes, and other minor things - your main question will be around the legendary you want and the clock change.

In terms of overall presentation, Sun and Moon are superior to previous Nintendo 3DS entries in so many ways. Alola is one of the most impressively designed regions the series has ever introduced, with incredible scenery and fantastic towns and cities, and it's got an excellent soundtrack to perfectly complement it all. It's worth noting that the 3D effect is only seen when using the Poké Finder - a feature which lets you snap photos of wild Pokémon - but given the 3D issues suffered by the sixth-generation games, that's not a huge problem. Playing the games on a New Nintendo 3DS system is preferable, as they'll suffer slow loading and framerate drops on an original system, but not particularly frequently. You'll also be able to transfer your existing Pokémon from compatible games to Sun and Moon via Pokémon Bank and Poké Transporter following updates to both applications in January 2017, although be aware that it's a one-way transfer.

It's difficult to put into a single piece of writing how excellent Sun and Moon really are. They mark only the second time that two generations of main series Pokémon games have graced the same system, and the level of improvement from Pokémon X and Pokémon Y is incredible. It feels as though every aspect of the games - from the Pokémon to the region, the feature set, the story, and the soundtrack - has been reworked and produced to the highest quality. Whether the lack of any core Pokémon games in 2015 has anything to do with the increased quality of Sun and Moon is an interesting question for Game Freak to ask, but as far as fans are concerned, only one thing should matter: in the series' 20th anniversary year, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon are more than an evolution - they're a rejuvenation, and the most refreshing and exciting games in the series since Black and White.


Verdict: Excellent

Pokémon Sun and Moon