Pokémon — shortened from the Japanese name Pocket Monsters (ポケットモンスター) — is a fairly ubiquitous franchise that I’m fairly sure almost everyone with even an inkling of interest in gaming or anime has heard of at least once before. Starting with its humble origins as a pair of role-playing games for the original Game Boy back in 1996, it quickly rose to popularity in Japan and spawned an anime series, a series of follow-up games on various Nintendo consoles, and more merchandise than your body has room for. While not everyone may know the details, I’d be surprised to meet anyone who didn’t at least recognize the series’ mascot Pikachu, the loveable yellow electric rat who is not pictured to the right.
What less people may know is that, despite being designed for children, the Pokémon game series hides many remarkably deep and complex game mechanics beneath its adorable, brightly-coloured veneer, and many players take the complex and highly strategic battle system so seriously that websites like Smogon University analyze every last aspect of the games, setting up unofficial rules and regulations for competitive-level play. Meanwhile, Pokémon breeders will spend hours upon hours on end trying to create the perfect battlers, collectors trawl the virtual land in search of rare and elusive “shiny” Pokémon or trade with others for rare and coveted species of these strange virtual animals, and others simply play the games for the sheer fun of it, for the experience of going on their very own journey with a team of trained battle-beasts at their beck and call.
While the series has been ongoing for many years now, with a number of entries on varying systems in the seemingly eternal franchise, today I’m going to be looking at some of the more recent contenders to the Pokémon throne, the first of their kind on the Nintendo 3DS console, and the first to make the jump from the traditional top-down 2D sprites to a fully-rendered 3D world: Pokémon X and Y. (For those who may not know, every major release of the game comes in two similar-yet-not-identical versions, to promote trading between friends and strangers alike.)
Believe it or not, this was actually the hardest part of the review to settle on a score for — while the storyline in Pokémon X & Y may not measure up to some of the former games in the franchise, it feels unfair to judge it compared to its predecessors, when it should really be judged on its own merits.
The world of Pokémon is a beautiful and diverse fantasy reality where wild animals — known, as you may have gathered, as Pokémon — roam the lands, ranging from humble insects to mighty dragons and everything in between, and the further the franchise continues, the more new species are added to the roster. Humans and Pokémon live side-by-side, some keeping Pokémon as pets, others using them to battle, while others dedicate their lives to researching these creatures and trying to understand what makes them tick. Each game is based in a different region of the world, with X & Y taking place in the Kalos region, which is loosely based on France — as evident from the Eiffel Tower lookalike, over-abundance of coffee shops and focus on style and fashion. It’s a world beautifully realized by the game’s designers and really feels vibrant and alive, helped immensely by the years prior that the series has had to define itself.
The story, unfortunately, brings the score down a notch — while it must be understood that the series is designed with children in mind first and foremost, it’s understandable that the plot may not be terribly deep, but even compared to previous games in the franchise it seems a tad simple and shallow. The protagonist — you can choose to play as either a male or female Pokémon trainer, and name him or her whatever you like — is the child of an experienced Pokémon trainer and just heading out to begin their own journey, with the goal of defeating the Elite Four — some of the best trainers in the region — and becoming a champion. Along the way, there are numerous run-ins with a criminal organization obsessed with style and perfection who go by the name Team Flare, and an involvement with the two legendary Pokémon Xerneas and Yveltal, who represent life and death respectively. This is about as deep as the plot gets, though the delightfully unique nature of the game world is enough to at least score a solid B.
It’s hard to fault any entry in the Pokémon series for its gameplay and these entries are no exception. While X & Y are significantly easier than their predecessors for a number of reasons I won’t deign to bore my poor readers with, this can be seen as both a blessing and a curse — long-time fans of the series may become frustrated by the lack of challenge, but it also provides a perfect entry-point for newcomers to the series who may not be as experienced, and are not necessarily accompanied by a perfect team of carefully-picked battlers. The sheer amount of activities available in addition to the main storyline is also admirable, though no more impressive than any other Pokémon game, but still a plus in its own right. As well as working through the main storyline, you can diverge at any point to capture more Pokémon and expend your collection, play mini-games with your team to increase their affection, trade or battle with friends or random strangers, or even just go clothes-shopping to give yourself a stylish new look.
While not offering too much of a challenge, the gameplay is polished to a mirror shine and it’s difficult to find fault with any aspect, be it battling, exploring or mini-games. The designers may have gone a little overboard with the difficulty level in the game, however, making the experience a little too trivially easy — if not for that, an A+ would surely have been warranted here. Don’t let that put you off, however, as it’s still a fantastic experience.
Aside from some minor niggles with the 3D effect — which can be attributed to the console’s shortcomings as much as the game’s — the visuals in Pokémon X & Y are an absolute treat, the game series having transitioned from 2D to 3D flawlessly. Long-time fans of the series were delighted to see their digital companions now fully-rendered and animated in 3D, and the Kalos region is both fun and beautiful to explore. While it will likely be outshined by future entries in the franchise, X & Y still looks utterly marvellous, and the Pokémon themselves now have newly-recorded battle-cries which are a very welcome improvement from the tinny, electronic grates that have been tradition since the Game Boy era. The new graphical effects in battle are stunning, truly bringing the Pokémon world to life and helping the player get immersed in the experience.
Whether you’re a long-time veteran or new to the series, there’s something for everyone in the utterly charming (and deceptively deep and complex) world of Pokémon. Wherever your journey to become a master will take you, it’s hard not to enjoy almost every step along the way. If you’ve never tried any Pokémon games before, I’d strongly recommend X & Y as a fantastic starting point — the low difficulty-curve makes for an easy introduction to the series, and the gorgeous world will surely draw in anyone but the most stoic and over-serious of gamers.