Change is good they tell us; so they should, no one wants to end up the cynical old man ignorantly lecturing kids about how the Pokemans were better in their day. With the buzz about how Pokémon X & Y the latest and sixth generation entries in the monolithic Nintendo franchise deviates from series traditions it’s surprising to learn the truth – it’s not remarkably different. From a gameplay perspective especially Pokémon has remained incredibly faithful to it’s first generation Gameboy Pocket roots and this version is no exception. That being said X and Y definately stray the farthest from convention out of the main series implementing a host of innovations that for the most part impact the game positively, just not over dramatically.
Most of the obvious improvements are entirely superficial. Noticeably after years of fans dreaming developer Gamefreak has finally, using a new graphical engine, produced a mainline Pokemon adventure that incorporates 3D environments for the first time and they really invoke a sense of wonder. Traversing Lumiose City, the capital of X and Y’s starring France inspired Kalos region for the first time feels truly impressive as imposing buildings dwarf the player who sees the city from a ground level third person perspective. Outside of these visually-inspiring short sequences however, the camera returns comfortably to it’s typical over head view displaying the world in series traditional manner.
Even whilst drawn back into the top down position the new 3D models of buildings and people alike look fantastic; traditional trainer archetypes such as the humble youngster and pro Ace trainers return retaining their charming individuality in transition. Building architecture both inside and out is the most beautiful visual enhancement the package offers though. Pokémon regions have always done well to diversify each towns appearance but, none succeed to the degree that X and Y does. Every settlement looks and feels distinctly different adding a wonderful globe-trotting feel to the lengthy adventure – from walled medieval town to the customary ice laden village there’s a greater sense of journey here than the series has ever achieved.
Player characters benefit from the graphical upgrade too, as they need no longer undertake their adventure looking like every other teenage schmuck that leaves their strangely uniformly single mothers house to pursue a career in battling cute creatures, until they collapse from exhaustion. Yes, those fancy 3D models are customisable meaning players can alter their respective Pokémon trainers appearance. Starting with a choice of skin colour at the games opening, before long players are able to adorn new clothes from specialist stores whose stock rotates on a daily basis thanks to the real time 24 hour clock. Once you reach Lumiose city after just a short few hours the hairdressers opens the possibility to sport a fresh hairstyle. It might only be a basic level of customisation but, it’s a welcome addition to a series that has been long overdue the option – besides you need to stand out online, right?
Pokémon has benefited immensely from Nintendo finally getting to grips with online systems, maybe more than any of their other first party properties. Even something as simple as being able to see when friends are online via the police line up like menu on the 3DS touch screen makes the world feel persistent instead of lonely. Tapping a friends avatar allows for setting up trading or battling at incredibly convenient speeds – there’s no mucking about waiting for unstable connections. On top of that players can set up trades with strangers the world over using the global trade network or even partake in the ironically named wonder trades. These “wonder” trades randomly trade a selected monster with no knowledge of what you’ll get back – normally something rubbish. The no thrills stuff is the best here, contacting friends to trade whenever, wherever is a natural progression that feels intuitive and rewarding
Weirdly one of the aspects of Pokémon that X and Y changes quite dramatically is the narrative structure, sure there’s a villainous team to compete against but, a lack of a distinctive rival is fairly unique to the series. No longer does another infuriatingly super powered jerk walk a step ahead of you everywhere you go, instead the journey is shared amongst a group of friends with varying personalities. Despite the fact none of the group are fleshed beyond their one dimensional existence it’s a refreshing pace changer, besides it’s not like anything is lost – Pokémon is hardly renowned for immersive storytelling.
This new approach is evident even in the first five minutes, a trainers starter Pokémon isn’t even collected from the professors lab in the starting town – strange, right? Gamefreak has taken monumental steps to streamlining the games introductory period, there’s no waiting for running shoes, budding trainers intelligently wear the appropriate footwear right off the bat; thankfully there’s no ruthlessly tedious “get my package from the next town over” task either. Within the first ten minutes the initial chatter is over, players have their starter and are let loose, half an hour in they’ll be making their way through the customary forest zone and at about just one hour in they’ll have their first gym badge. The intimidating pace isn’t representative of a short game either as it easily reaches the run times of previous entries. Whilst returning players (i.e. the vast majority) will be pleased by the changes new starters might feel like they’ve been thrown in at the deep end.
The core gameplay concepts of what makes Pokemon feel as it should has thankfully been left mostly untouched by the myriad of presentational adjustments. Battling still follows the same advanced rock paper scissors approach with the introduction of one new group to spice things up: the Fairy type. In the past Dragon types have been unruly and overly powerful leading to a large disparity in strength between it and other types, Fairy assumes the role of Dragon slayer as dragon moves won’t even affect it. The introduction of the type has meant making adjustments to current strengths and weakness but, overall it has very little effect on core gameplay.
Outside of new type introductions the largest change in dynamic are the much publicised Mega Evolutions. Their contribution to the overarching way Pokémon is played however is mostly negligible and merely introduces an easy way for Gamefreak to introduce extra evolutions for popular Pokémon like Charizard or Mewtwo. Keyword: mostly. Some of the mega evolutions are actually incredibly influential when X and Y is played in an competitive arena, Pokémon changing types can quickly turn around a dire situation however, the fact remains in single player their addition is hardly more than a temporary visual upgrade for a monster. It’s great to see Pokémon try something new but mega evolution feels a little safe – annoying even as you’re forced to activate it every battle instead of it being persistent.
Outside of those larger scale experiments with the established formula there’s very little in the way significant changes. Older fans will enjoy that the Kalos region is home to an impressively varied array of monsters encompassing creatures from across every generation. The incredible scale of this roster means that every route of the journey is home to a totally unique range of Pokémon to catch – there’s no constant encounters with infamous Zubats, Pidgeys or Zigazagoons. It’s this generous assortment of monster that means it’s doubtful any two players will make the adventure with the same set of creatures and that adds a lovely layer of personalisation to the experience.
Undoubtedly the largest new implementation is new version of the exp. share tool. In previous games the exp share has allowed one Pokémon in an active team to earn experience even when it hasn’t partook in a battle. The new incarnation is buffed up significantly, now rewarding every monster that hasn’t fought in an active team with 50% experience from a battle. This idea has a dramatic effect on the way players approach the game and, after 40 hours I still don’t know if it was a good idea or not. On the surface it makes the game a lot easier as teams appropriately level without any form of grinding, unfortunately for returning players it saps away all of the challenge, I literally never lost a battle – not one sequence of blacking out. Yep, not one.
On the flip side the improved tool makes inducting new monsters into an already well progressed team much easier, where as it was incredibly difficult to add a new member to a well established group in previous games without painful grinding here it’s really easy. For the first time ever mixing up a crew is really simple. Sadly though the tool makes it possibly to not use a Pokémon for multiple levels as you focus on others and, it really impacts the connection you have to them – at certain points I even debated dropping my starter from the team simply because I had no emotional connection to him. Worse still is that the game is tuned to the exp share being on so turning it off just makes playing impractical.
For all it’s advancements Pokémon X and Y are much less radically different to series forbearer’s than you may have lead to believe. In most instances new ideas have improved many aspects of the game, the world looks beautiful and diverse environments make it feel more of adventure than ever before. Character customisation has finally made its way into the long running series with great results and impressive online features make the community aspect feel incredibly strong. Core gameplay remains faithful to it’s roots whilst mega-evolutions add a mostly superficial twist to single player proceedings but have a larger impact in competitive environments. Despite it’s distractingly forgiving difficulty Pokémon X and Y is a wonderful adventure whose improvements result in the finest Pokémon games since Silver and Gold, it’s a must have for any fan.