‘Pokémon Moon’ (3DS) review: Aloha to Alola

With changes big and small, ‘Pokémon Moon’ shines for both fans and newcomers alike

The first game I remember owning all my own was “Pokémon Blue.” I spent countless hours making my way through that game; and remember, this is back when there weren’t easily accessible guides to help my young self make his way through the sometimes confusing world of Kanto. (Giving the Fresh Water to the guard to get into Saffron City? Finding the Pokémon Flute to wake Snorlax?)

Still, even as I first thought that losing to the Elite Four would restart my entire game (not just force me to re-fight the members), I completed that game, even going as far as completing the Pokédex by collecting every Pokémon in that game. (I’ll be excited when the game don’t require in-person trading to evolve certain Pokémon, which is even worse than having to buy the pairing game to get the Pokémon your version doesn’t have, but I digress.) It was my first big win in the world of video games, and it left a lasting impression. Since then, I’ve played every major Pokémon release, both on handheld devices and consoles (all owned by Nintendo, of course).

All of this leads to the current video game iteration of the global phenomenon: “Pokémon Sun and Moon.” (This review covers “Pokémon Moon.”) Released during the franchise’s 20th anniversary, the seventh generation of Pokémon games doesn’t shy away from what makes the games so enjoyable — an accessible story, great gameplay (read: battling) mechanics, new Pokémon to catch and a new region to explore.

But what’s more noticeable this time around is how you progress through the Alola region. Long known for having eight gym battles where you pit your Pokémon against a powerful trainer in order to obtain a badge so you can take on the Elite Four (generally the main game’s strongest characters), these versions instead present trainers with the Island Challenge. No longer do you just have to battle and hope you prevail; now there are quests and non-combat challenges scattered throughout your journey. You’ll need to solve quizzes, puzzles and fetch quests (not to mention battle powerful trainers and individual Pokémon themselves) in order to prove your mettle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Pokémon Moon” offers something for longtime fans and newcomers alike. The basic premise of the game remains the same: A young trainer sets off on a grand adventure to be the very best like no one ever was, meeting fantastic creatures called Pokémon along the way. The main overarching goal is simple: to beat all the challenges the region has for you so you can take on the strongest trainers in the region and eventually become the Pokémon Champion. How you go about doing so is up to you: Everyone has his preference for what team of Pokémon works for him, whether you want diversity, a certain type, Legendaries only or only previously known Pokémon, et cetera. Along the way, you make new friends, rivals and enemies. You also tend to find yourself embroiled in some type of mystery or world-domination plot you have to address. Because if you don’t save the world, who will?

“Pokémon Moon” sticks to this winning formula while adding its own flourishes; the biggest of which is the aforementioned Island Challenge. In previous generations, you traveled from one town to the next, battling Pokémon, trainers and that game’s particular villains (Team Rocket always will have a special place in my heart), becoming stronger and honing your team so you can take on the next gym leader. Once you got all eight gym badges, you went to challenge the Elite Four and, if you bested them, take on late-game challenges.

That basic structure is present in “Moon,” but it’s more open-world than it used to be. Instead of gyms being the focal points, the whole island you’re on is in part of the fun. It was pleasantly difficult to anticipate when anything was going to happen, not least because this was a whole new region with no connection to previous games. This time around, you have to be on point the entire time, lest you find yourself taking on rivals or challenges unexpectedly.

The gym leaders of old have become captains, powerful trainers who both battle and teach you about the islands of the Alola region. You’ll become immersed with new lore and traditions, especially regarding certain “guardian” Pokémon. To say more would ruin the story, but I will say this: While the overarching story can be a bit simplistic at times, it still manages to engage you; you’re going to find yourself pulled to find out what’s going on with certain factions and how it could possibly affect the whole Alola region.

As you beat challenges (and sometimes just by exploring), you’ll earn a new item in the series: a Z-Crystal. These nifty little items are this generation’s take on Mega Evolution, an ability to add some variety to the battle sequences. Basically, each crystal powers up a certain type of move (think electric or ghost) and allows the Pokémon holding that crystal to unleash a devastating move once per battle. More often than not, they weren’t needed in the main game, but it was awesome to find a new crystal and see what the powerful attack would do. (Each crystal comes with its own beautiful animation, which I found to be the best part of using them, power aside.)

As I mentioned, “Moon” takes place in the Alola region, a set of islands based on Hawaii. Unexplored in previous “Pokémon” games, you’ll find new areas and attractions to keep you busy while you travel between verdant jungle-like regions and snow-capped mountains. Each island comes with its own tropical identity, and the challenges and Pokémon reflect as much. For example, the Alola region takes advantage of Darwinian principles, and fans of previous generations will get a kick out of seeing familiar Pokémon in a new light (and types). Seeing that first Aloan Raichu floating in the air with its new dual Electric/Psychic typing was incredible.

But seeing Pokémon of old didn’t quite compare to seeing the region’s exclusive Pokémon. As a longtime fan, discovering new Pokémon is always one of the best elements of these games. Figuring out types, moves and usability can take time, but it’s worth the effort. Alola boasts dozens of new Pokémon just waiting to be discovered.

And speaking of discovering new Pokémon, “Moon” does away with the long-hated HM system for the Poké Ride system. In previous games, you obtained certain Hidden Machines that taught your Pokémon certain moves that were needed in order to progress in the story. Now, in “Moon,” you’re given a device that can summon certain Pokémon to your side that can use that ability without having to burden your own Pokémon with it. Need to fly to a previous city? Call Charizard to take you there. See some massive blocks that you can’t move? Summon Machamp to do the heavy lifting. It’s a welcome change to how trainers interact with the world.

An unwelcome change, however, is the new “bad guy group” of Alola. I’ve been a fan of how much darker and more complex the villains have been in recent generations, so to go back to a bunch of bumbling idiots such as Team Skull seems a step backward to me. They had their charm at times, not afraid to poke fun at themselves, but they came across as more of nuisance rather than an actual threat.

A few other additions to note:

  • Pokémon Refresh: Similar to Pokémon Amie, this actually useful system allows you to cure status ailments on your Pokémon. (Think of it as a free Full Heal after every battle). It also helps in boosting your Friendship status.
  • Poké Pelago: This feature allows you to upgrade a series of small islands that serve a variety of purposes, such as harvesting new Poké Beans, helping hatch eggs and luring new Pokémon for collection.

In the end, “Pokémon Moon” is the culmination of a slow, meticulous evolution; one that doesn’t change often, but when it does, it does magnificently. With a new region to explore, new Pokémon to discover and a new way to progress via the Island Challenge, “Pokémon Moon” creates a fantastic adventure that isn’t afraid to revel in nostalgia while charting its own course. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta catch ’em all.

Four “Why don’t I have any Pokéballs?!” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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