Alola Pokémon trainers! It seems that after the nuclear ending of the six generations of Pokemon games—set in some caricature of France—the Pokemon franchise has washed up on the shores of Hawaii.
Wait, no, I meant the “Alola region.” And no, that’s not a typo of “Aloha”—the translators at Game Freak are really just that lazy.
Known as the Sun and Moon versions, the seventh generation of the Pokémon games takes players to a four-island world inhabited by new Pokémon—and new forms of old ones—that resemble toucans, coconut palm trees, poi dancers and koalas and many other things that are not actually inherently Hawaiian. To the game designer’s credit, one new Pokémon species does appear to resemble the small asian mongoose, an island native.
Barring these discrepancies, Sun and Moon breaks from the old conventions of previous Pokémon games in some pretty refreshing ways. Instead of traveling city to city and battling gym leaders—essentially the video-game bosses of the Pokémon world—players travel between islands and complete “island challenges.”
In essence, island challenges still involve completing tasks, working through puzzles and battling Pokémon, and most involve a battle with a “trial leader.” Each island holds several challenges, but before moving onto a new island, players must battle an island “kahuna”—a Hawaiian word for a wise man or priest.
In the first generation of Pokémon, the antagonists were an organised crime syndicate called Team Rocket, which felt like a caricature of an Italian mob—right up to the name of their leader, Giovanni.
Sun and Moon gives us a new bad-guy squad, updated to reflect the hideously stereotypical current trends in American crime: Team Skull. Grunts of this new gang wear two bandanas—one over the scalp, one over the mouth and nose—wifebeaters and long-chained necklaces, and attempt to rob and extort the player from the start.
Countering the chaotic-evil of Team Skull is the Aether Foundation, a team of scientists and conservationists who oddly appear in an antagonistic light in an opening cutscene of the game. If you smell the start of a plot here, I won’t spoil it for you.
One of the more annoying characteristics of the new game is a trend toward a more concrete story, told through constant cutscenes and in-game dialogues. Sun and Moon are by far the worst new offenders. Players won’t get to a full sandbox-style feel for at least the first thirty minutes of actual gameplay—more of the introduction seems to be spent watching rather than playing.
Once the game takes off, though, it really takes off. Players will find the world rife with a healthy mix of old and new Pokémon—and many of the new ones take on new forms endemic to that region.
This is the feature I’m personally excited about—intentionally or not—Game Freak has created a micro-lesson in evolution through island-endemism. Take, for example, the old icon Rattata In 1996, this Pokémon was just a half-purple rat. In Sun and Moon, Rattatas get imported to the Alolan Islands, and adapt to their new landscape, taking on a black color.
Other new features include a Pokedex that is now haunted by the ghost-electric Pokémon Rotom, and it speaks to you throughout the game, giving you hints and reminding you of where you need to go. The game makes an effort to direct you through the plot, which can take away from the old-school sandbox vibe, but the world is no less restricting than Kanto was twenty years ago.
And here’s the coolest bit about the new games: some of us have really been doing this for twenty years, and we needed a break from the land-locked city-to-city playing style. Fortunately, the Alolan Islands really are unlike any other world that Game Freak has designed.
Some points of dismay are that the graphics have not changed since Pokémon X and Y, the sixth generation of games, which were released circa Oct. 2013. Water-based attacks still do not quite look like water, fire-based attacks still do not quite look like fire, electric-based attacks look like show lights for a Deadmau5 concert and psychic attacks still do not look like anything because no one knows what a psychic attack actually is.
New Pokémon include a freakishly animated rocking-horse, a bird that changes type and shape when you feed it nectar, a bug shaped like a battery, a juiced-up fire-powered Tony the Tiger and a ghost that poorly disguises itself as a Pikachu.
So ignore the blatant appropriation and the fact that a Japanese-based company designed a game for an audience probably half American set in the Hawaiian islands, ignore the fact that a 3DS and one copy of Sun or Moon puts you $240 in debt, and get to it.
But just between you and me: I spent more time playing Kirby: Planet Robobot while writing this review than I did Pokémon Sun.