Saturday, December 20, 2014

3DS review: Pokémon: Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

Built upon the same engine used for last year’s revolutionary X and Y, the Pokémon series returns to the Hoenn region for a set of remakes, titled Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. As a young trainer, you start off in Littleroot Town, meet your neighbor/childhood friend/rival, and are given one of three starter Pokémon by the local professor – the grass-type Treecko, water-type Mudkip, or fire-type Torchic. It’s typical fanfare for the series, though not unlike their original GBA releases, these remakes of Ruby and Sapphire do well to get the adventure going faster than other entries in the series – tutorials are covered quickly, and there is a decent variety of Pokémon available to catch in the wild early in the game that will still prove practical team members hours down the road.

Mega Evolutions were among the big new additions in X and Y, and plenty more have been added in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire to better round out the different Pokémon types represented by this new tier of temporary evolution. It’s a decent compromise, given the fact that there are no new Pokémon represented in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and that the vast majority of the Pokémon encountered throughout the Hoenn region are those that are native to it. The Player Search System, Super Training, and Pokémon-Amie all return, providing smooth online components for battle and trade, as well as the ability to easily boost your Pokémon’s skills and affection levels. The Pokenav, meanwhile, provides a new addition for seeking out wild Pokémon that will detail all the types of Pokémon in the area, what level the nearest one is at, and – in some cases – special moves they might not otherwise know. It’s a welcome addition that makes catching them all, or even just a few key Pokémon that you wish to use to round out your team’s typing representation, a much faster and less random process.

The story remains largely unchanged – depending on which version you are playing, the organizations of Team Aqua and Team Magma will seek to revive the legendary Kyogre to expand the seas, or the legendary Groudon to expand the land respectively. It was not the most compelling of plots during its original GBA release, and though some new expanded bits of dialogue have been added to more consistently integrate both these villainous teams and the player into the core story, it stands as one of the weakest narratives in the main Pokémon series. The same can be said for the Hoenn region as a whole – while some of the major cities have been given more of an aesthetic appeal with full-fledged 3D models of notable landmarks, the continent as a whole feels visually underwhelming, and its physical layout archaic. Far too often does the game require you have two or three HM moves to advance down a long stretch of path, which seems counter-intuitive, given that the experience share system from X and Y returns, intended to (more or less) evenly spread experience points between all party members. Unless you intend for your party to retain an HM-specialist Pokémon, this can lead to party member’s levels being skewed quite a bit as you swap them from your party to the PC.

Perhaps uneven party member levels is little more than a minor annoyance to some players, but the experience share will undoubtedly lead to an overly-powerful team past the halfway point of the game, even if you should choose to avoid a large number of trainers on the routes along the way. Late-game gym battles become laughably easy, and the Elite Four – while offering a marginally greater challenge than their counterparts in X and Y, are still easy to sweep with the use of only three or four of your party members. On the other hand, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do cut out some of the fetch-quest distraction points from the original GBA versions, which streamlines the experience, keeping the story on track better than in its original incarnation.

Another new feature present in these 3DS remakes is the post-game Delta Episode, which sees Steven Stone call upon you, the player character, to help collect meteorite shards in order to construct a device that will be used to deviate the path of a meteorite on a collision course with the Hoenn region. While this premise alone is dire enough, things become murky and complicated when a young woman named Zinnia intervenes, claiming that you must find another solution, as Steven’s scientific plan may result in dark repercussions for humans and Pokémon alike. The Delta Episode lasts a little over an hour, but during that brief window, it manages to deliver a story that is significantly more compelling that the approximately fifteen-hour run of the main story, introducing a character who is a fresh, if not incredibly quirky addition to the series. The Delta Episode also provides a rounding out of some of Hoenn’s regional lore, and expansions of the mysteries tying together some of the other Pokémon games.

As for the rest of the post-game content, it is typically of a hit-or-miss nature. As players near the Elite Four in the main story, they will be granted use of the Eon Flute, which can summon the legendary Latias or Latios to fly them above the continent and plop them down in any city, route, or major landmark they desire. It’s a visual treat that offers fast-travel in the same vein as using the Fly HM move, and even grants players access to otherwise-inaccessible locations off the beaten path to catch legendary Pokémon not native to Hoenn. The process of encountering and catching these legendaries ranges from a simple matter of walking up to a mystical portal and prompting a battle, to traveling to a certain location with certain other legendaries in your party, to hoping there is a randomly-appearing island on the map when you boot up your copy of the game. Personal hideouts dubbed 'secret bases' can be decorated with Pokémon dolls and furniture, or even set up as your own personal gym, though the novelty of this becomes quickly forgettable.

Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were seemingly promoted largely with two crowds in mind – those who played the GBA versions of Ruby and Sapphire during their initial release, and those who appreciated the streamlined gameplay and inclusion of many new features presented by X and Y. Yet, for all the great elements of the original GBA titles that these remakes retain, they also seem compelled to hold on just as tightly to the outdated design elements and lackluster plot. It is similarly unfortunate that these titles incorporate even less in the way of updated features than last year’s 3DS debut of the series. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are not exceptionally lazy efforts, but they are confoundingly rooted in outdated ideas, and fail to embrace more of what has pushed Pokémon toward smoother gameplay and more intelligent scripting with the last few major releases.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

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