As Pokemon moved inexorably on into its sixth generation of core releases, the question of what new developments could it possibly bring to the table had to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s something we’ve discussed on this blog as our journey (our slow, slow journey, given it’s been over a year at time of writing since I last reviewed a Pokemon game!) through this franchise, but it would be wrong to entirely characterize the games as never evolving. Over the generations we’ve seen Gold/Silver/Crystal introduced a vast shakeup with new types and breeding, Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald brought in passive abilities and multi-battles, and Diamond/Pearl/Platinum rocked the competitive metagame with the physical/special split. It’s telling that the 5th generation, Black/White, saw very little in the way of monumental alterations to the mechanics of a Pokemon game, so perhaps we’d reached the end of the innovation, or did the developers find a way of shuffling up Pokemon once again?
Pokemon X / Y (3DS)
Released Oct 2013 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 32 hours
If nothing else, Pokemon X / Y certainly brought the franchise into a new handheld generation with no small amount of beauty and style. Before now the series had used a strictly sprite-based presentation (and some rather fine spritework, as we’ve seen before) but it only dabbled in 3D polygons and camera work sporadically. With X / Y however, the game leans fully into it and the end result is one of the most stunning handheld Pokemon releases yet.
Our scintillating setting is Kalos, a land of radiant flowers, relaxing towns, and some fascinating monuments, including a gorgeous royal palace surrounded by lush patterned gardens and a towering A-frame tower in the centre of its bustling capital city. If you’re looking at the screenshots and thinking that it looks a tiny bit familiar, well, I can’t blame you. Pokemon has drawn inspiration from all over the place with its world design, but it’s never been quite so blatant as here; Kalos, or at least its central city of Lumiose, are about as close as you can get to a straight recreation of France in anime form. It works though! Kalos winds up as a really lovely place to explore; if it reminds me of a previous game, it’s Hoenn, as like that region Kalos features an almost unbelievable variance in biomes, but that just means we get to see more interesting places and find a greater range of Pokemon.
I mentioned way back in my Black / White review that one of my great joys when playing new Pokemon games for the first time is in discovering the new species of monsters to catch and battle, and when I feel like games aren’t delivering on that it can definitely hurt my opinion of the experience. X / Y add what feels like a paltry 70-odd new Pokemon, but despite the low number of additions, I think many of them are strong designs, and I do love a lot of them. Things like Fletchling replacing the series staple early-route Bird Pokemon with one with an elemental typing adds a pleasant twist, but I feel like I’m mostly a sucker for the slightly weirder designs; creatures like the blobby somehow-a-dragon Goomy and the literally-just-a-sword Honedge are fantastically simple designs that are thankfully paired with utility in the form of their types and movepools, and of course the standout from the entire generation is the new Eeveelution, Sylveon.
Of course, a small pool of new Pokemon means you can expect plenty of repetition in the list of creatures available for you to capture in Kalos, and there certainly are plenty of returning monsters. Many of them are nostalgic includes, such as Pikachu and the original starter Pokemon from Red / Blue, and that’s part of a wider air of nostalgia bait which runs through X / Y very clearly; there’s even an early game forest in which one can catch many of the same Pokemon as you could in Viridian Forest in the original Pokemon titles, not to mention that it’s literally laid out identically. While I grumbled about the stale supply of Pokemon in other entries, chiefly in Black 2 / White 2, I confess I don’t mind it quite as much here; I think the combination of the new world and fancy new presentation kept me chugging along, as well as the fact that there were at least some opportunities each route to find something new.
What isn’t new, naturally, are the core mechanics, which remain only mildly updated since the first games. If you’re (incredibly) unfamiliar with the series, the general idea is that your character, a young Trainer, sets off on a journey to capture as many Pokemon as possible, training six of them into a crack fighting force and using them to defeat each of the 8 Gym Leaders located around the world before taking on the ultimate challenge of the strongest Trainers in the land and becoming the local league Champion. Battles are strictly turn-based, as each combatant sends in a Pokemon and picks a move for them to perform with the aim of knocking out every monster on the opposing team. Pokemon has always featured a very robust elemental system, with a largely simple to understand rock-paper-scissors setup, with each element being strong against a set of others, and in turn weak to some; the knack comes in constructing a team of monsters which has a balanced spread of strengths and advantages so you can more easily slap down your opponent’s team while taking as little damage as possible yourself.
After Black / White and its sequels offered little in terms of significant mechanical advancement for the series, X / Y instead added in the first new elemental type since Gold / Silver in 2000 – Fairy-Type. That might sound a bit silly, but don’t be fooled; this is actually a huge change for the franchise. Now, I’m a strictly casual Pokemon player – I’m entirely content to play through each game’s story until I become Champion and maybe doss around a bit in the postgame, collecting whatever Pokemon I think are the most fun – but I gather from some of my more competitive friends that this change had incredible ramifications for the competitive Pokemon metagame in that the ever-present and ever-powerful Dragon type ‘mons gained a hard counter in Fairies, which are immune to Dragon attacks. Regardless of the effects on competitive play, the new typing is also a grand addition to casual play, with many older Pokemon getting a retroactive update to include the Fairy type, including old favourites like Jigglypuff, Clefairy and Ralts, as well as giving a new lease of life to slightly niche or obscure choices like Mawile and Mr. Mime. More than anything, the new typing taps into that feeling of discovery that I crave from new Pokemon games as suddenly I had to contend with learning a whole new set of strengths and weaknesses as I used the types in my playthrough.
Interestingly, the new Fairy type isn’t the only useful addition for competitive play. The bottom screen of the 3DS is used to host a series of touchscreen-based minigames, a key one of which is Super Training. This opens up a mode which lets you see the EVs of a specific Pokemon – essentially letting you look at their individual stat values, such as Attack or Defense – and then play some little microgames in order to train those specific stats. From a competitive standpoint this lets players more accurately manage these stats, especially because the EVs previously had been hidden values. Obviously this is also available to use for casual players, and using it probably helps buff up your team, but it’s a feature I rarely, if ever, touched; I’m all for this in-depth and optional stat-enhancing mode, but I don’t need it for the way I engage with the game.
What I do like using though is Pokemon Amie. This is another touchscreen microgame which helps you to more cleanly manipulate a value which previously had been hidden in other Pokemon games: friendship. Friendship has been a part of the games for a long time (since Pokemon Yellow in fact, although it only became a fully-formed mechanic in Gold / Silver) and many ‘mons only evolve with a high enough Friendship value. It’s still raised in all the same ways here – winning battles, carrying them in your team – but Pokemon Amie offers a new, more tactile way to engage with it by letting you use the stylus to pet and play with your Pokemon. I can’t think of anything more appropriate to the message of these games than letting you literally pet your critters; it’s achingly adorable.
A little way into the game you also get access to a mechanic called Mega Evolution. This is something very new for the franchise; a kind of short-term power up mode, Mega Evolution kind of taps into a Dragon Ball Z vibe as your Pokemon go Super Saiyan and transform mid-battle into a super-powered new form. It comes with some limitations to stop players abusing it too much, namely that only a very select group of Pokemon can actually access Mega Evolution and to do so you need to have them hold a unique item. The benefits of it are huge though as Mega Pokemon take on a new appearance and get a massive stat boost until they revert at the end of the battle. It’s a big flashy mechanic that, frankly, wildly unbalances the battles you use it in during the story mode, and I bloody love it – nothing else feels quite as powerful as watching the transformation sequence and knowing you’re about to wreck shop.
You know what else I really like in this game? Character customization. It’s such a tiny thing, but I honestly adore that this was added in. Other Pokemon games give you a boy and a girl option to pick from and leave it at that, but in Kalos you’re actually allowed to do some shopping and give your character a unique look that suits you. While there’s still only 2 base characters, you get to customize a fair amount, starting with skin colour and extending out to hair style, hair colour, and letting you accrue a range of clothes to mix and match with. It feels like it ought to be an inconsequential change, but I genuinely think it’s one of the best features in this game.
You might be getting so far the sense that X / Y is a very mechanically satisfying entry in the Pokemon franchise, and that even though the core is still your standard Pokemon experience, there are enough shiny new bells and whistles attached to it that playing it can feel immensely fun. You’d be right about that, but Pokemon games are more than just the fighting; there’s also the story to think about. It’s the area for which the franchise gets perhaps the most consistent criticism; some people want the games to get darker and deal with more difficult topics, while others think the games should stay carefree and relatively narrative-light since they’re for successive new generations of children first and foremost. I’m broadly of the latter opinion – I think the demands for more edgier plot content in Pokemon games is an attitude of gross entitlement which would only serve to force the target demographic (i.e. kids) away – but I do accept that plenty of material aimed at younger audiences can deal with tough topics, if they’re written well.
X / Y is… well, it’s not quite there, in all honesty. Local baddies Team Flare show up around the second Gym and they don’t exactly inspire fear or danger with their bright red suits and goofy hairdos, and nor do their motives feel terribly clear. In fact, the lack of clarity regarding their goals is a consistent problem; they occasionally rattle on about making the world beautiful but that means nothing. In another nostalgic nod to Red / Blue and Gold / Silver, Team Flare show up at locations which are analogous to Rocket’s actions in those games – their first appearance is at a cave filled with fossils, for example, and they try and obtain a Master Ball later in the story just like Giovanni at Silph Co. – but there’s little reason for it to happen. When their plot finally comes to a climax it feels abrupt; it also goes to some spectacularly dark places, but it fumbles the execution and winds up feeling like bad fanfic.
Still, there is something I really like in the writing and that’s the interactions you see between our little band of protagonists. Instead of the usual rival character, this time round our player character gets a whole team of friends who all set off on their journey together, and each one has a distinct personality and goal. Tierno, for example, is a dancer, and his interests lie squarely in the varying moves and movements Pokemon make, while the wilting Trevor prefers not to battle you traditionally but to compare Pokedex completion. The other gender player character that you didn’t pick shows up as a more traditional rival, and then finally the chirpy Shauna tends to show up in more moralistic and dramatic moments as she’s mostly just interested in the journey. I can sympathize with anyone who finds these rivals a bit grating or simplistic, but I rather like them; they’re very kid-friendly, sure, but they’re also a gang of like-minded kids who are just in it for the joy of Pokemon, and that feels about as on-brand as you can get.
After the dreary time I’d spent with Black 2 / White 2, I had a moment of uncertainty with X / Y. I’d had it before, after not enjoying Platinum and before booting up Black / White for the first time. It was a little nagging question of whether I was done with Pokemon; did I not enjoy the previous game because maybe I’d finally just gotten a bit too old for the series, a bit too jaded towards the battles and monster collecting malarkey, and a bit too tired of the same dorky villains failing to offer anything like a sense of threat or danger? As I had when I played Black / White, so too I had with X / Y, and that was an emphatic “no”. No, I was not done with Pokemon. I might not enjoy every single entry, but when they’re good I really bloody get into them, and make no mistake, I think X / Y are excellent games. I think there are some very fair grumbles one could have about it, whether that’s a sense of disinterest in the nostalgia bait, or a lack of engagement with the plot, but for me X / Y are a fantastic return to form. I have replayed these games several times now over the years and every single time I fall in love with them all over again.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. G
ames with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.