Game Review: Pokemon X

Over the last couple of weeks, every time I thought I was ready to write and complete this review someone online would discover some other new thing within Pokemon X. But now I can finally say I’m ready to post the review having experienced enough of the whole game to make a good fist of everything. This will be a long one. Enjoy.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-
Platform:
3DS
Developer:
Game Freak
Rating: PG
-◊-◊-◊-◊-

Not "X Version", for some reason. Just "X".

Not “X Version”, for some reason. Just “X”.

.
Simply X-cellent.
.

Pokemon X and its near-identical counterpart Pokemon Y represent several ambitious steps forward for one of Nintendo’s flagship videogame series. The first three-dimensional Pokemon adventure is a stunning audio-visual achievement that makes the 3DS sing and draws smartly from the nostalgia wells of an entire generation. But perhaps most excitingly, the game is the first in the series to admit that Pokemon has transformed beyond its creators’ wildest dreams into an endlessly deep competitive juggernaut over the last decade. The game works very clearly with this in mind, resulting in a wonderful social experience that is also more balanced than the series ever has been. It’s a must-have for most any 3DS owner.

THE SET-UP

Pokemon X aims to bring the much-loved series to Nintendo’s latest top selling handheld, treading familiar story ground (starter Pokemon choice, eight badges, Elite Four etc) to honour series tradition while moving into the 3D space to bring back people who haven’t played since the original Pokemon games. Plenty of new things are thrown into the mix as well, such as the concept of Mega Evolution, a good amount of new Pokemon, abilities, moves, types of battles (such as Final Fantasy-style 5-on-1 horde encounters), a Nintendogs-style Pokemon interaction suite called Pokemon-Amie and a brand new type for the first time since Pokemon Gold and Silver.

The game even teaches you Japanese.

The game even teaches you Japanese.

WHAT YOU DO

Pokemon X sees you follow a familiar path through picking out of three starter Pokemon and aiming to become the very best, like no-one ever was. A couple of noticeable changes make the pacing of the story feel a little fresher, however. Chief among these is the record time it takes to obtain your first Gym badge – no longer than a couple of hours at the absolute most. The subsequent run to the second badge, on the other hand, is itself longer than most Call of Duty campaigns, an offbeat design choice that feels unique and places the focus squarely on the amazingly realised world of Kalos. Then there is the new version of the EXP Share item, which now gives half your lead Pokemon’s EXP yield to every other critter in your party. While there’s something to be said for softening the game’s difficulty this way, it does mean your HM slave doesn’t have to be useless and less tedious grinding is required to beat the game. I mean, I had a Beedrill through the main story that reached level 48 before I dropped it. That’s nearly unheard of in a Pokemon game.

My early team. Needless to say there were some naming mistakes.

My early team. Needless to say there were some naming mistakes.

Fans returning after a decade or more away from the series will appreciate all the fondness for Pokemon‘s first generation present in X and Y. Early on in the story you receive one of the original three starters, with the ability to Mega Evolve them into new forms following soon after. A Snorlax blocks an early route, at least two of the Gyms are direct references to ones from Red, Blue and Yellow, and the obligatory early game forest has a very familiar layout to say the least. You also have the ability to capture an unprecedented number of monsters both old and new in the early routes, lending diversity to your crucial early options and all but ensuring your team will be different from that of your friends.

The story itself isn’t the series’ best, although whether the story matters all that much in a Pokemon game is certainly up for debate. Though the choice to go with multiple friendly “rivals” this time, each filling the role of a different kind of Pokemon player (collectors, battlers, admirers of cuteness, speed-runners) is a smart move that works in the game’s favour, the narrative falls flat towards the end when things are usually supposed to get “epic” around legendary-catching time. Due mostly to a lack of build-up, these late moments only succeed in feeling forced. What’s more, players who are only interested in the story may find that the competitive focus of the post-game content leaves much to be desired. There is only one extra town, for example, and very few extra legendary Pokemon to catch.

Yes, I did pick a female character for the first time since Pokemon Crystal. It happened.

Yes, I did pick a female for the first time since Pokemon Crystal. It happened.

One of the best things about playing through any part of Pokemon X is that, if you want it to be, it’s an always-connected social experience. The unintrusive Player Search System (or PSS) keeps you in contact with your friends as long as you are connected online, helping you meet new ones through a simple but effective tiering system. The improved PC-based Battle Box means you can go from exploring a route/breeding for strong Pokemon/trying to maximise your style points (oh yeah, that’s a thing now) to an intense battle with someone in Japan within seconds. What’s more, the PSS serves as the hub of three of the biggest social masterstrokes Game Freak has come up with in over a decade: Wonder Trades, O-Powers and Friend Safaris.

All the people.

All the people.

Wonder Trade, basically a game of Pokemon roulette, has you sending one of your Pokemon into the great beyond, not knowing what you will get back or from whom. If you’re lucky this can be an excellent realisation of the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, but even if all you get is the proverbial trash, just participating builds up a special currency called PokeMiles which can be traded for hard-to-obtain items like Rare Candies and PP Ups. O-Powers are the much improved evolution of last generation’s Pass Powers, allowing you to use chunks of a slowly recharging meter to boost things like EXP gain, money received and, mercifully, egg hatching speed. Using these powers repeatedly will eventually level them up, granting stronger effects, and using them on others uses less meter than using them on yourself. Finally there’s the Friend Safari, which will grant you access to a range of rare, genetically strong Pokemon that grows wider the more 3DS Friend Codes you have registered. Each of these innovations ingeniously encourages helping others in order to help yourself, which fosters a strong social community, and in the case of Friend Safaris, a strong 3DS community in general. Bravo.

WHAT YOU SEE

Pokemon X has a case for being the best looking game the 3DS has yet produced. It’s certainly in the top five if you ask me. There is an immense attention to detail evident in nearly every corner of the world of Kalos, which truly feels unlike any other Pokemon region ever created. It may seem easy to say this given the game’s venture into the third dimension in full for the first time ever, but there really is something special about this French-flavoured region. The towns and cities, particularly early in the game, feel incredibly novel in their layout, resembling real-world European living spaces rather than a bunch of square houses sitting on pretty tiles.

Rather pretty, no?

Rather nice, no?

Lumiose City, the game’s appropriation of Paris, is mind-bogglingly gigantic, smashing Pokemon Black and White‘s New York impression Castelia City into the ground. The place is so big that travelling by taxi is almost necessary to get where you need to be and after some 100 hours of gameplay, I have yet to enter all its buildings. Most routes now carry their own unique subtitles, which complement their vastly divergent looks. Other locales resemble temperate holiday destinations, picture book fairytale forest villages and North Pole settlements. The camera is never afraid to stray from the traditional Pokemon series perspective, perhaps most memorably in a gem-rich, labyrinthine cave that just might take your breath away.

This is maybe 10% of Lumiose City's overall size.

This is maybe 10% of Lumiose City’s overall size.

The locales of Pokemon X aren’t its only visual improvements. Never before in a Pokemon game has your player avatar felt more alive. Your character will now bend down to speak to small children, glance at signs and interactable objects as you pass them and stick a leg out to support your bike when it stops. There is even now an actual item pick up animation, proving that the series’ first entry onto the 3DS comes with an unprecedented amount of attention to detail. And then there are the customisable hairstyles, hair and eye colours, and crazy range of purchaseable clothes to suit your style. Do not even get me started on those.

Even the move selection background is customisable. Eevee!

Even the move selection background is customisable. Eevee!

Much has been made of the game’s minimal use of stereoscopic 3D, which at times makes sense and at other times seems baffling. Most of the game’s non-battle gameplay is in 2D only, even with your slider all the way up. Weirdly, most caves and the interior areas featuring the game’s obligatory villainous organisation, Team Flare, are an exception to this (except, oddly, for one pretty important place near the end of the game, which is all 2D again). Most of the battles can be played in full 3D, including online ones, and they just look incredible. A noticeable framerate drop does accompany the effect, though, and whenever the game has to render more than two animated monsters onscreen at once the extra processing power required reverts everything back to 2D. I understand a lot of these issues won’t affect everyone, but they’re worth mentioning nonetheless because they raise some worrying implications for next year’s Super Smash Bros on 3DS.

Camera angles move dynamically, making it hard to get a decent screenshot.

Camera angles move dynamically, making it hard to get a decent screenshot.

Speaking of battles, it’s worth mentioning that even if you never use the 3D effect, you are likely going to be very impressed with the look of them this time around. According to the game’s creators, each monster took several months to design, render and animate, and it isn’t hard to see why the effort was worthwhile. Every new Pokemon you encounter positively oozes personality and life, packing native animations, idle animations and in some cases, up to four different attacking animations (not to mention a separate set just for Pokemon-Amie interactions). Relative size is even taken into account, within reason of course, and some of the new attack animations have to be seen to be believed. It truly boggles the mind how much work this would have required and Game Freak deserves a standing ovation for making it all work.

WHAT YOU HEAR

The main-series Pokemon games have always had an incredible, criminally underrated tradition of audio excellence and Pokemon X certainly keeps this going. Happily, the increase in audio fidelity that comes along with the jump to the 3DS has not resulted in lazy sound design, as can often happen, but rather a set of music tracks and sound effects that can stand proudly with the best the series has ever produced.

The standard trainer battle theme is crucially one of the best tracks in the game, drawing from older Pokemon motifs while adding new verve and variety long before the loop starts. The wild Pokemon theme isn’t far behind. The Gym battle, Elite Four, Champion and especially the legendary battle music are all excellent and fit their respective tones extraordinarily well, and in a welcome change, all these tracks can be chosen as background music for any WiFi battle! When it comes to locales, several route themes stand out, the normally forgettable connecting-house music is just amazing, and it would be easier for me to list what towns/cities do not have memorable music.

Our old friend Beedrill sounds a bit... buzzier than he used to.

Our old friend Beedrill sounds a bit… buzzier than he used to.

Older Pokemon cries have, for the first time ever, been edited to fit the 3DS speakers and to better reflect their real-life inspirations (and while we’re talking about that, some of their owners have also been given actual stat boosts, which is very cool). Psyduck stands out as an early-game example, as his cry now has a slightly warped echo effect that makes him sound a little more like an actual duck. Charizard also sounds much more menacing now. This approach is mostly hit and miss though, as while, for example, it makes sense for Heracross to sound more screechy and annoying based off his beetle-like features, some Pokemon like Exeggutor and Jynx have had most of what made their old cries so unusual and cool eroded away. It’s a bit of a shame. Most of the new Pokemon’s cries sound fantastic though, as expected.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

Depending on your tastes, you may just find Pokemon X may to be the year’s longest-lasting game, which is saying something given that the likes of GTA V came out this year.

When the typically lengthy main story is over, the game doesn’t have to be. Seasoned Pokemon players know this, of course, but Pokemon X makes sure that people without the faintest idea of what an IV is have the smoothest path ever to the extensive world of competitive battling. Game Freak finally seem to have admitted that the growing world of competitive Pokemon battling is something worth supporting and so they have torn down some of the most intimidating barriers to newcomers. Most noticeable of these is the ability to, at last, actually see a Pokemon’s previously invisible Effort Values, or EVs, which shape its stats in very meaningful ways and determine what role it can play in battle. Boosting a Pokemon’s particular stats with EVs is now faster than ever thanks to Super Training, an addictive new skill-based minigame involving shooting giant soccer balls at a Pokemon-shaped balloon (don’t ask me why), and also due to the aforementioned addition of horde battles.

No more hiding, hidden stats!

No more hiding, hidden stats!

All of which brings us to the competitive metagame, which sees quite possibly its biggest shake-up since Ruby and Sapphire and mostly for the better. The new Fairy type is by all accounts a wonderful check to the rampant Dragons of the last several generations, with the neat side-effects of stopping quite a few Fighting types in their tracks and giving Poison Pokemon a rare reason to come to the fore. Mega Evolutions aside, the recent “power creep” that was starting to make older ‘mons redundant has been addressed, making more strategies viable, while some previously useless abilities have been buffed and previously dominant moves such as Substitute have been weakened. The advent of Mega Evolutions does not seem to have destroyed or centralised the metagame, as many thought it might, as their usage is heavily restricted, mostly predictable and, in some cases, outclassed by a Pokemon in its regular form anyway. Instead, Mega Evolution is pretty much just a fun new layer to add to team strategies. It’s all enough to make a long-time competitive battler all warm and fuzzy inside. It’s almost like Game Freak actually cares, you know?

Oh, THAT's where all that time went...

Oh, THAT’s where all that time went…

All of which is to say absolutely nothing about the classic “catch ’em all” challenge, which at this point (we’re at 718 Pokemon now) is closer to impossible than it ever has been. The forthcoming introduction of the Pokemon Bank application in the last week of the year, which will allow for transfers from the last regular DS Pokemon games, should help both collectors and battlers immensely.

Oh yeah, Medals are back too via the browser-based Pokemon Global Link.

Oh yeah, Medals are back too via the browser-based Pokemon Global Link.

.

THE VERDICT

-◊-◊-◊-◊-
Good:
Gorgeous world, tons of legitimate improvements, fantastic audio and visuals, more accessible than ever, real metagame balances
Bad:
Limited 3D, relative lack of story content
-◊-◊-◊-◊-

4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: