PokeMagnifique: Returning to Kalos Six Years On

So the Pokemon series is set to resume regular programming in a matter of days with Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield. At long last, we will be treated to a region based on the United Kingdom, with all the rich historical and cultural inspirations that implies. This has poured petrol on the never-quite-dead embers of the theory that someday Game Freak will let us return to the Kalos region, based largely on the south of France and made famous by 2013’s Pokemon X and Y. After all, England and France have a long and, ahem, storied history together, and to this day Kalos is the only region to star in just a single main series Pokemon game release…

Now I don’t actually believe for a second that Sword and Shield will be the first games in a almost two decades to give us a full prior region to explore on top of the fresh one. But I do believe there might be some significant Kalos references in there. Of more importance, lately it seems that something inside me will break if I don’t play a Pokemon game every half-dozen months or so. In fact, since the dreaded 2015 – the only year without a new main series Pokemon game in the last decade – I have done at least two full Pokemon playthroughs per year (Yellow and Sun in 2016, then Red, Silver and Ultra Sun in 2017, followed by Crystal and Let’s Go Eevee last year). And I still don’t feel like I’m ready to say goodbye to my 3DS, even if Nintendo definitely is.

mmmm, 240p

Long story short, I decided to pick up Pokemon Y all the way back in April of this year and give Kalos the second go-around that I’ve given every other Pokemon region by default thanks to customary re-releases over the years. It’s been long enough and my Pokemon-playing habits have changed a great deal since October 12th, 2013, when I picked up Pokemon X for the first time. This could be a bit of fun, I thought. Cue a few months of on-and-off playing, a few more months of on-and-off writing, and a whole lot of fresh perspective. Here are my unsolicited thoughts.
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AN OPULENT OPENING

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It’s easy to forget just how impressive it was back in 2013 to play the opening section of a Pokemon game in full, glorious 3D – especially since the likes of Pokemon Omega Ruby, Alpha Sapphire, Sun, Moon, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are now in our collective rear-view mirrors. And yet starting up Pokemon Y again after playing its successors still comes as something of a shock, because it sure is an overload of extravagant artistic direction. One of the defining features of Pokemon Y (and X – I’m just going to assume you don’t need me to keep saying that though) is how quickly it gets the tutorial stages over and done with compared to most other main series games, and that opening 45 minutes to an hour of ground is covered so swiftly that it’s easy to forget just how different it is from the remainder of the game.

Did you remember this game put a Rhyhorn in your front garden?

Your character is woken by a humble Fletchling in a cutscene with a sweeping cinematic camera on its tail, your house is adorned with rich greenery and an intimate pathway without dead ground surrounding it (breaking series tradition in that regard) and there’s an extravagant beyond-ultrawide monitor wall-mounted inside. This region is based on France, after all, and French people are indulgent. Or at least that’s the impression Game Freak’s artists wanted to make in 2013.

What is this?

Just one of the many feelings drawing me back to a Kalos revisitation in a post-Sun/Moon world was actually quite similar to the one that made me spend another 30-odd hours in Final Fantasy XIII on PC last year long after polishing off XV – a nagging question of whether a less ambitious earlier title in a series actually achieved a better overall look thanks to a more restrained art direction, or whether such a notion was all in my head. And while the race is closely-run, much like with XIII I found that Game Freak’s main series debut on the Nintendo 3DS can ultimately claim a few points in the win column over its younger, more tropical siblings.

Leveraging that sense of French extravagance, a chibi-styled universal character design abandoned in later generations and a few camera tricks no doubt learned while developing the sprite-scaling Black and White DS games, Y plants the player in a world of impressive architecture, vibrant colours and mild lighting wizardry to push past the low resolution of the 3DS screen and deliver a sense of – and there is no better word I can conjure here – wonder.

It’s easy to forget how early Pokemon Y starts showing off.

The sixth generation Pokemon games were the last to operate expressly off a four-way movement grid and a predominantly top-down camera, a fact which helps make Y‘s surprisingly frequent perspective detours feel like underscored “moments”; highlighted milestones on a fantastical journey. It’s difficult to avoid the comparison here to the restless swinging of the Alolan camera in Sun and Moon, which assists a believable (and far superior) cinematic story but arguably dampens the memorability of individual landmarks on the way – well, that and the artistic choice to unify the island aesthetic of said landmarks.

This Y playthrough refreshed my bewilderment at the gargantuan handheld scale achievement that is Lumiose City – I’m pretty sure I found some buildings I never did in X nearly six years ago – but the Glittering Cave also managed to stun me yet again, even though I only own a 2DS XL these days and thus cannot enjoy the stereoscopic pizazz that moment provided back in the day. It’s such a simple maze mechanically, but the limited visibility, hand-picked coloured lighting pockets and the never-repeated tight zoom elevate the segment to one of my favourites in the Pokemon series.

Still packs a punch.

But while the brief perspective shifts come at regular and appreciated intervals – assisted by a cleverly-implemented “photo spot” system – Kalos’ gyms do not often have such praise attached to them. Y remains one of the Pokemon series’ most baffling pacing low points, especially after the admirably speedy tutorial is over and the player has his or her first badge. I remember timing the gap between the first and second badge at around six hours back in 2013, but despite my theoretical familiarity with the issue I was not able to cut that time down by anything more than twenty-odd minutes this time around.

But the frustration at going without a notch on my proverbial adventuring belt for so long does not end there, as I couldn’t help but notice this time around that the drought also extends to more meaningful in-game rewards as well. Until you reach Cyllage City, home of that second gym leader, Y seems perfectly content to withhold meaningful TMs, or decent items of any kind really. Which I suppose is fine in the end, because Kalos is not only confident enough in its dynamic presentation to let the scenery speak for itself; it’s also really, really easy.

Could do this in my sleep, mate.

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GG EZ

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Yes, one of the classic complaints levelled at this game is its major shake-up of the EXP Share. In a move yet to be reversed in subsequent games, Y changed the staple experience-divider from a held item to one that just sits in the player’s main inventory, much like it was in the first generation games. It’s activated by default, meaning every Pokemon in your party gets half the amount of EXP that your active Pokemon does. To people who were used to putting some good old-fashioned grinding work into their Pokemon parties, this came as somewhat of an affront to the senses. We are not a bunch that likes too much change at once, that’s for sure.

Here’s the thing though: I’ve played a lot of Pokemon. The more I’ve played the many games within the many generations, the more I’ve got used to the formulaic flow of the game, and the more I’ve wanted to find ways to challenge myself a bit. Combined with my easily-distracted curiosity, this is what has gradually turned me from a pretty standard Pokemon player into a smarmy hipster who regularly benches his starter before it’s fully evolved and deliberately power-levels a Patrat to annoy his friends in early battles.

But one of my most negative story experiences in Pokemon came during White back in 2011, when I was so cocky about the series’ ongoing lack of difficulty that I thought I’d try a grass/bug-type-only team (I happened to like a fair few of the new grass and bug types that generation). It was sufficiently spicy and a lot of fun, right up until around the third gym, when the sheer volume of enemies resisting that type combo started to weigh down on me. As with every generation post-Hoenn, I was trying to keep within touching distance of the pace of my friends, so trudging through the molasses of Not Very Effective messages and potion spamming helped me discover an entirely fresh form of anxiety.

You see, I knew I had to make some changes to my team, but any new Pokemon I picked up would be severely under-levelled compared to the rest of my carefully picked catches. I would have to halt my already slow progress almost completely to do some targeted grinding and make up for the trainer-bestowed EXP I had “wasted”. I know this is a situation pretty unique to me, but it actually came at a good time for me anyway. While I have been known to enjoy a good JRPG grind from time to time, Pokemon is just different for me nowadays.

The games are always longer than you think, and if you have friends playing videogames on Nintendo systems, chances are at least a few of them pick up the new Pokemon game at the start of a generation. In my case, hype scrums still don’t get more populous than that first weekend of a brand-new fire/water/grass starter choice, even if only about half the people involved actually beat the final boss. There is a sense of momentum that I treasure being swept up in, and there just ain’t time for unnecessary slogs. So even though I was initially disappointed with the change to the EXP Share back when I played on launch in 2013, I have never turned it off since.

No that this superstar needed it.

Long story short: There is a difference between an enjoyable challenge and unneeded tedium on top of an existing 15-20 hour critical path, and Game Freak knows this. The games in the 3D era now make sure any new Pokemon you decide to pick up on your journey will slow your progress down as little as possible.

Yet even taking all that into account, is still ridiculously easy.

This playthrough was the first time I went all the way through a Pokemon story with the battle system on SET (i.e. you don’t get a free switch-out when a trainer sends out another Pokemon). The roster of each trainer you encounter is disappointingly light, a lot of them are missing moves, opposing levels are on the low side, and with some weird exceptions (like the cave with all the mirrors) the AI is atrocious. Even with the modern EXP Share situation, Sun and Moon were able to spring some surprising and welcome challenges. Going back a generation provides a stark contrast indeed. I was pretty much able to pick whatever team I felt like and breeze through.

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THE TEAM

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On reflection, burning my Hamilton naming scheme before Gen 8 was not ideal.

I didn’t really go into this playthrough with any specific team-related goals other than to try some Pokemon I haven’t used on an in-game squad before, but I gained some newfound respect for a few ‘mons. I thought it might be fun to throw in two dragons in one team for the hell of it (I’ve never before had the patience to train a Flygon) but the other four were all Gen 6 Pokemon I had previously ignored, and I’m now a fan of all four.

Gen 6 was never exactly revered for its fantastic starter families – Greninja aside of course – but there’s been so little talk about the Fennekin family in the last half decade that I thought I’d pick it this time. Kalos is absolutely stacked with psychic types already, but Delphox’s monstrous special attack stat, rather cool animations and crucial fire-type coverage ensured I was fine with keeping him in my team. This despite my choice to run with an Espurr (later Meowstic), who reminded me just how much fun a pure psychic type can be. Learning gimmicky moves at a rapid pace meant I had a blast using a combination of Leftovers, Fake Out, Extrasensory flinch-fishing and a healthy dose of repeated Charge Beams against the shoddy AI to stay alive and reach absolute monster status.

I have no idea why I’ve slept on Gogoat for so long. As a vocal fan of the grass type, which generally sucks at dealing out physical damage or staying around for long, the eye-shadowed battering ram should have caught my attention years ago. But alas, not until this year did I properly make its acquaintance. Gogoat is slow, but learns Bulldoze early-ish, allowing it to hit opponents with the excellent ground type and lower their speed at the same time. Decent attack and defense stats alongside healing moves like Milk Drink and Horn Leech made Gogoat the runner-up for MVP status of the team.

I was playing Final Fantasy IX for the first time when I started this run. Obvious, I know.

Which brings me to Vivillon. Despite dismissing this early-game bug as too obvious a choice back in 2013, I always adored the idea behind its real-life region-based wing pattern, and I felt like a return to that old-school Butterfree feeling was in order. So I picked one up within the first hour, and to my surprise, its usefulness never really dropped after that. It turns out that the usually weak Struggle Bug is a rather handy move to have on a Pokemon that gets Same Type Attack Bonus on it, especially as early as Vivillon gets access – when its offensive strength is still outpacing just about anything else in the game. Throw in the odd crippling status move on the way to the eventual deadly combination of Quiver Dance and Draining Kiss, and you have a barrel of colourful fun that carried me through countless battles.

That Elite Four never stood a chance.

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THE HOLD-UP

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In my “Best and Worst of Pokemon” post about X and Y way back when, I may have betrayed my fondness for the sixth generation as one of my favourites in the series, and indeed that’s how I’ve been lecturing anyone who dares ask me such a deceptively simple question as “What’s your favourite Pokemon generation?”

That was, however, as a distinct product of its time. The absolute best thing I remember about playing and initially was the generous suite of clever multiplayer features that kept me constantly connected to friends and strangers alike, improving my experience in at least three tangible ways for every new person I added to my friends list. That particularly sweet moment in time will always define Gen 6 for me.

But so will that incredible experience of seeing a main series Pokemon adventure delivered in three dimensions, with dynamic-yet-sensible perspective shifts, a stunningly beautiful region to explore, memorable music and tons of ‘wow’ moments that made the 3DS strain itself. Given those aforementioned compromises undertaken throughout Gen 7, the splendour of Kalos’ presentation holds up better than I could have possibly imagined it could six years ago.

The story, on the other hand, remains a low point.

Insert meme.

The cutscenes are still visually impressive, but they’re rare, and that famously emotional moment involving enigmatic giant AZ and his undead Floette arrives too late, lacking enough setup to pay it off. Team Flare remains painfully unmemorable compared to other evil organisations in the series, even if I have warmed up to their snaky theme tune. Y’s plot already felt lame in the wake of Black and White, but we now live in a world post-Delta Episode, and post-Alolan family drama. Game Freak has delivered much better stories. That absence of a potential Pokemon Z, which may have balanced things out narrative-wise, is now more evident than ever.

Also, I played as a girl the first time around so I had no idea how few visual customisation options the guy trainer got in Kalos. Almost nullifies one of the coolest new features of the sixth generation. I know which way I’m going in Shield.

I do still like the multi-rival setup, though. Captures the series’ wide real-life appeal.

All up, I can tell you that my opinion on Pokemon’s sixth generation games has not changed all that much. I still have my nostalgia for the unique multiplayer strengths and Y had all those years ago, even if they’re moot points now because no one is really playing anymore. At the very least most of Gen 6’s weaknesses haven’t gotten worse with age (The story is maybe the exception there, though I’m sure some people might prefer it to the more overbearing Sun/Moon). The region, music and most surprisingly the art style are still as wonderful as ever.

Lovely.

But I am happy I finally brought Kalos in line with every other Pokemon region, which I have visited at least twice. I’m glad I spent some time with Pokemon I never would have otherwise, picking up one or two new favourites along the way. Thanks to that tragic lack of a third version or sequel, most Pokemon players will have a murkier memory of this French-flavoured escapade than any other on their Pokemon passports. Sure, there is a newer, more exciting destination just around the corner, but allow me to recommend that you book a return trip to Kalos someday.

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