Probably the biggest surprise for me in Pokémon X and Y was it reminding me just how much I still really like Pokémon. I kind of fell off with the series over the last few years as I only played a little bit of Black and White and completely skipped out on Black and White 2 as well as Diamond and Pearl. From the outside the games seemed fun but not really any different from past entries and more importantly they seemed to cater more and more to the crazy Pokéfans who live a frightening life of EV training and berry grinding. This new gen though, with its extra graphical dimension in tow, seemed like it was trying to genuinely shake things up and help make the game more accessible to new and old fans alike; it succeeds in that to a point but it’s also still a very traditional Pokémon game with all that implies.
So I’m not going to explain the gameplay here because I don’t need to, this is fucking Pokémon; if you don’t know the basics then I hope the rock you spent the last couple decades under was at least cozy. What I am going to talk about though are the new things they introduce here that genuinely do help to shake up the formula a bit. The most advertised feature of course has been the new idea of “Mega Evolutions” which act as temporary super forms certain Pokémon can employ in battle. You don’t unlock this feature until a good ways in and there is a lot of lead up to it with the whole concept being an important story focus. The idea is that if you and your Pokémon hold special stones then in battle you can evolve them into a special super form that unlocks untold power; in practice it’s substantially less epic. Yes, the Mega-Evolved versions of Pokémon are certainly stronger but they don’t really do anything different beyond just looking cooler and dealing some extra damage. You don’t get any new moves and there is no real limiter as to how much you can use Mega Evolution beyond only once per battle, though the transformation seems to last the whole battle anyways as far as I can tell. It’s basically just another way to buff your Pokémon and it’s in no way the game changer that it was purported to be.
The more important changes here are the ones that make the game more accessible to the regular player and help cut out some of the bullshit that has plagued this series from the start. The best example of this is the new EXP Share item which gives all your held Pokémon a cut of the exp for every battle you fight. This means you no longer have to do the old “start with your shittiest guy and then immediately switch them out” trick to level up your weaker Pokémon. The item thankfully can also be turned off for if you want to focus on a specific Pokémon or if you just want it the old-fashioned way. They also made the more fan obsessive activities more accessible by putting all that stuff just right on the bottom screen. You can battle and trade with random people at any time and things like EV training have been made less tedious and awkward by simply letting players easily choose what they would have spent hours grinding at before and then unlocking it with a little soccer mini game thing; for those who don’t care it’s totally optional and for those who do it’s now a million times less obtuse than it was before. Overall this still plays pretty much exactly like all the other Pokémon games but there are enough little tweaks here and there to make things feel different and they all seem to be for the better.
Similar to the gameplay, I’m not going to explain the story because it is once again that same Pokémon story we’ve been hearing for years; you move to a new town and immediately get swept into a Pokémon journey that has you beating all the gym leaders and the Elite Four as well as stopping a terrorist organization with incredibly vague intentions. I have no problem with that core story, it’s still as good as it ever was but it is missing something that has honestly not been there since the very first game, motivation. Yes, collecting Pokémon is fun and you will want to beat all the gym leaders if only for the sake of completion but there isn’t that driving force of antagonism to really keep you pressing forward. All of the “rivals” in this game are just your friends and they all constantly wish you luck and tell you how awesome you are; basically what I’m saying is that the story needed a Gary Oak. You need that style of insufferable yet highly skilled asshole to compete against; the kind of guy who taunts you even when he loses, the kind of guy who’s always waiting around the bend with Pokémon just a little bit stronger than yours, the kind of guy who sits at the end of dungeons instead of moving forward just so he can fuck with you, the kind of guy you can feel true unabashed hatred for and genuinely enjoy beating. Becoming the best so you can be better than him, that’s what drove people to finish Red and Blue back in the day and this game just doesn’t have that. On that same note their terrorist organization, Team Flare, has easily the most vague and annoying goal of all time, “to make the world a better and more stylish place”. That would almost be admirable if it wasn’t so hopelessly ill-defined and you see so little of them throughout the first half of the game that it almost feels like they’re non-existent. Remember what Team Rocket’s goal was? It was to earn cash, make money, stack mad grips. It was a goal that made sense and they used Pokémon because how else are you supposed to do anything in that universe. They had reasonable motivations that the player could immediately understand and feel good about thwarting whereas I have absolutely no clue what to think of Team Flare.
I think the greatest strength of this game though aside from it just being a Pokémon game is it’s fantastic presentation; while the gameplay and story here may not be an evolution for the series the presentation definitely is. Obviously the biggest change here is that the game is in 3D and it translates quite well. The on foot stuff is all done in a similar fashion to Fire Emblem: Awakening’s dialog scenes and looks okay but the battles are where things really pop with some nicely cell shaded models. All of the Pokémon just look fantastic represented in full 3D and all the moves have been properly mapped to make sense when coming out of each different Pokémon. It really does make the battles feel more natural and real than the classic 2D trainer brawls. It’s interesting to note that the Pokémon who look best in 3D are generally the ones from the original 151 thanks to their comparatively simple designs. The newer Pokémon tend to have a lot more embellishments which despite making for good trading cards causes their 3D models to look a bit busy. Regardless though they all look great and it’s a good visual step forward for the series. There is one downside here though and that is the absolutely ungainly frame rate drops that happen during battle, especially with the 3D pumped up; it’s not unplayable or anything but it is a shame to see it chug in the middle of an intense fight.
Pokémon X and Y may be just another set of Pokémon games but they are a very well made set of Pokémon games and if you’ve ever enjoyed the series in the past then you will find something to like in these new entries. That said a lot of the original spark does seem to be gone from the series and for all the improvements present here, X and Y is still very much just going through the standard Pokémon motions. While I definitely enjoyed myself and can certainly recommend this game in either incarnation, it just didn’t blow me away like those first games did way back when. This being the case I’m giving Pokémon X and Y a 4 out of 5 stars. The improvements that are made here are generally quite good and I’m not going to say I was expecting anything more than what I got but the game’s strict adherence to the standard Pokémon formula does make it a little less interesting.