Wednesday, October 23, 2013

3DS review: Pokémon X and Y

The first core titles in the long running series to be rendered in full 3D, Pokémon X and Y had high expectations riding on them. The story starts off very typical, with your protagonist meeting his four neighborhood friends, being instructed to seek out Professor Sycamore, and saying your goodbyes to your mom as you all set off on an adventure across the Kalos region. The main focus of Pokémon X and Y (plot-wise) is split between two storylines – helping Professor Sycamore’s research by learning about Mega Evolutions, a temporary fourth stage of evolution that certain Pokémon are capable of, and Team Flare, the resident villain team. Pokémon X and Y are something of a return to the themes of the original Pokémon games, as Team Flare’s shenanigans are relatively simple at first. Their story does not develop as consistently or as well as previous Pokémon villain teams, though the ultimate payoff does make for a surprising, intense twist.

Taking a note from Black and White, X and Y set you up against two rivals, though you will face off against one many more times than the other, denoting your neighbor Selena or Calem (depending on which gender you select for your protagonist) as the main rival. In fact, you’ll have almost as many battles with your main rival as you will have scripted encounters with your other hometown companions. New boutiques allow players to buy clothing items including hats, jackets, pants, skirts, shoes, socks, and bags, the availability of which changes each day.

As for the Mega Evolutions, they don’t really alter the routine typing matchups of Pokémon battles in any significant way. Players can only use a single Mega Evolution per battle, regardless of how many Pokémon in their party are capable of Mega Evolving, so as to account for balancing issues, but there isn’t any ‘give-and-take’ mechanic at play. Mega Evolutions will make your Pokémon more powerful, but they still retain the same weaknesses to super-effective attacks. As far as the aesthetics for these Mega Evolutions are concerned, about half of them - including Mega Lucario, Mega Charizard, Mega Garchomp, and Mega Mawile – are subtle updates to the standard final stage evolutions. The other half – including Mega Heracross, Mega Manectric, and Mega Aggron – are bloated, obtuse, or otherwise generally unappealing.

Pokémon X and Y do not introduce nearly as many new Pokémon as Black and White did. There are still version-exclusives and three new legendaries, and some of the evolution methods for these new Pokémon incorporate the 3DS hardware in clever ways. Plenty of older Pokémon make a return and can be caught in the wild, though the Pokémon new to generation six incorporate fun and interesting dual-typings, stats, and movesets. Combined with their aesthetic appearances, these lead the generation six newcomers to feel very much like an extension of the generation five Pokémon.

X and Y actually perform a lot of throwbacks to past entries in the series. While you are granted one of three new starters, Professor Sycamore also provides you with your choice of a Kanto starter. Berry planting, the dowsing machine, and a postgame Safari Zone all make returns, with the latter increasing the different types of Pokémon you can catch based on the number of friends registered on your 3DS. The Battle Subway has been dropped in favor of a more fast-paced variant set within Lumiose City’s restaurants, while the postgame Battle Maison is the closest players will get to a Battle Frontier or the Pokémon World Tournament. Aside from these more competitive extras, there isn’t much to the postgame in X and Y – in fact, it feels almost nonexistent in contrast to the expansive amount of bonus content in Black 2 and White 2.

And when it all boils down, the adventures you have in X and Y will be over sooner than you might hope. It will take a little over twenty hours to complete the main game. Though the new experience share item, which shares experience points with every Pokémon in your party, will cut out the need for grinding entirely, you will likely find your party members are at levels much higher than necessary by the time you face off against the Elite Four. The gym battles are plenty of fun, and the gym layouts both are highly creative and wonderfully realized.

A few select areas will have you riding on the back of Rhydon and Mamoswine in order to reach plot-sensitive locations, though the controls for these sections are grid-based, and the alternating ‘cinematic’ camera angles lead these portions to feel a tad clunky in their execution, however short-lived they might be. Compared to Johto, Unova, and basically every other country that players visited in previous games, Kalos feels notably smaller. The caves are by far the most expansive and unique areas, though the various routes do incorporate some nice weather elements and landmark structures that pop visually, allowing them to stand out and thus making everything much more easily navigable.

The graphical presentation is really one of the greatest strengths of these 3DS Pokémon titles. The slight cel-shading to the Pokémon models is almost as great as the dynamic and expressive stances they take in battle. The 3D functionality is only really used in battle or when you are exploring caves. Seeing your Pokémon battle in full 3D with the added depth perception is nice touch, and though the overworld being restricted to exclusively 2D is a little disappointing, there’s often so much going on with the character models and cityscapes that it seems like Game Freak and Nintendo may have designed things this way so as to avoid giving players a visual overload. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is largely upbeat and exciting, incorporating plenty of rock vibes into its various battle themes.

Pokémon Amie is a component that seeks to help ‘deepen the connection between you and your Pokémon’, as Nintendo puts it. However, this influences a new ‘affection’ meter, separate from the ‘friendship’ rating introduced way back in generation II. Whereas friendship is still utilized in order to evolve certain Pokémon like Eevee into Umbreon and Espeon, affection is primarily used to improve your Pokémons’ performance in battle. Feeding your Pokémon little treats called Poké Puffs, playing games with them, and simply petting them will raise their affection rating, which in turn can improve their chances of landing critical hits, and withstanding or even outright dodging powerful attacks. It’s a nifty little inclusion that provides some real long-term rewards. EV training, a process of boosting the individual stats of a Pokémon, previously required players to turn to spreadsheets and do a hefty amount of decoding of the games’ inner workings. Nintendo has since transformed this process into a simple and fun minigame known as Super Training, wherein individual Pokémon fire soccer balls at inflatable targets, and are rewarded with both points and punching bags to further boost their own points or to share with another Pokémon.

Online components have been greatly expanded, with the ability to engage in trades and battles at any time via the touch screen. Wonder Trade is an option that will set up a random trade with anyone in the world, while the passerby list will gradually scroll through a list of many people currently playing Pokémon X or Y. You can propose trades and battles with both people on your friends list and those on the passerby list. Every element of online play boots up quickly, and performs just as well as offline play.

Double battles, triple battles, and rotation battles all make their returns from past games, while sky battles are added into the mix, limiting your options to Pokémon capable of flight. In the event that you have few capable airborne Pokémon in your party, you are allowed the choice to turn down any sky battles. Occasionally, walking around in the tall grass will land you a horde encounter, where five lower level Pokémon will attack your single Pokémon at once. The new Fairy type Pokémon feel right at home with the previously established typings, and do more than act as a simple counter to Dragon, Dark, and Fighting type Pokémon – they provide greater incentive for players to experiment with Poison and Steel type Pokémon, both of which are super effective against Fairy types.

There’s a lot of new content at play in X and Y, but when you get past the shiny new visuals, you’ll find it’s very much the same Pokémon you’ve known for years – and that’s a good thing. Jumping into Pokémon battles and figuring out typing matchups is highly intuitive, and overall the games do their best to blend the beautiful exterior with a core that relies largely on playing to the nostalgia of Pokémon fans who may have followed the series all the way through, or those may not have played a single entry since Red and Blue were released. Either way, X and Y are a lot of fun, even without much in the way of postgame adventures.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

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