By this point I shouldn’t have to explain what this long-running RPG series is about. The coming of age story of an adventurous kid and their menagerie of bizarre monsters has been constantly repeated over the last fifteen years with a very gradual evolution in the gameplay. While I enjoyed Pokémon Black, White and their sequels, the lack of meaningful mechanical changes that came with staying on one console for too long started to set in and I was hopeful that X & Y would breath new life into some of the staler aspects of the series. Now that the series finally makes the jump to the 3DS, does it manage to revitalize the franchise with new features while still capturing the same je ne sais quoi as the other titles? Well I think it does, at least.
The most immediately striking (and completely superficial) feature of Pokémon X/Y is the massive graphical update. The old sprites are gone and replaced with 3D models, but it doesn’t seem like the best tradeoff. While it’s neat to see every Pokémon rendered in 3D, the game suffers from performance issues. The framerate dips occasionally while exploring and gets even worse during battles. The console’s 3D effect is disabled outside of battles, dungeons and certain cutscenes, and I assume this is because turning it on results in a noticeable amount of slowdown. Performance aside, the game is quite aesthetically pleasing. If the theme of Pokémon X & Y is “beauty”, then the picturesque landscapes of the Kalos region fit perfectly. Though geographically varied, the locations suit the French feel of the game far better than Black & White’s disjointed depiction of the US. Sure, the constant accordion soundtrack and plentiful cafes are a bit stereotypical, but it’s a consistent style with plenty of fun nods to things like “Paris Syndrome.”
Despite being often accused of derivative game design, every new Pokémon game brings something new to the table, and this time “Pokémon-amie”, mega-evolutions and Super Training are touted as being the big new additions to the series. As well as being the greatest pun mankind has ever conceived, Pokémon-amie is used to increase your Pokémons’ friendship with you (which is totally separate to the existing “happiness” value, mind you). The friendlier your Pokémon are, the more likely they are to score critical hits, gain boosted EXP and shrug off status effects, so maxing it this stat is helpful, if a little tedious. Petting and making faces at your Pokémon is definitely cute, but the primary way to increase their affection is to feed them Poke-puffs, which can only be obtained through several mediocre minigames. That said, Pokémon-amie isn’t required except for evolving one specific Pokémon, so it’s safe to ignore it if your eyes glaze over at the thought of bouncing yet enough ball of yarn. It is worth checking out, though, since it’s very cute and there’s an impressive attention to detail (don’t pet the Slugma!). Even the slightly altered battle text when you fight with a Pokémon you’ve spent time force-feeding macaroons is adorable. Although I didn’t always enjoy using it, Pokémon-amie definitely makes your Pokémon feel like an actual companion rather than just a sprite and a series of statistics.
On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the new mega-evolutions. Some of the mega-evolutions do an admiral job of making older Pokémon like Mawile and Kangaskhan more viable in battles, but other Pokémon like Garchomp and Blaziken already have a heavy presence in the competitive scene and giving them mega evolutions feels like a waste especially when the benefits of evolving them are negligible. Most Pokémon already have a cohesive progression of design across their evolutions and the mega-evolutions just look really tacked on. Some, like Mega Venasaur, look barely any different to the original designs. That said, mega-evolutions don’t feel too overpowered since they’re limited to one per team and use up a valuable item slot. Despite my inner eight-year-old squealing with glee when my Charizard evolved, I didn’t think mega-evolutions added much, but it remains to be seen if they shake up the whole competitive battling aspect of the meta game in the same way that the new Fairy typing does.
As a whole, I think the competitive side of the game has become a lot more accessible this generation. While previously the domain of Pokémaniacs and Super Nerds, X & Y make the usual mix of IVs and EVs that underpin Pokémon’s’ stats more transparent and easier to figure out. If all that sounds like nonsense to you, then it doesn’t really matter. The new Super Training mode shows a graph displaying a broad overview of each Pokémon’s “effort values”, which can be boosted by playing a bunch of minigames, making it easy for new players to boost their Pokémon’s stats without even getting into the really dorky stuff. It’s just a shame that the actual Super Training isn’t all that fun, consisting of tapping punching bags or taking part in bunch of trials in the style of Kid Icarus Uprising (though at least Kid Icarus had some kind of option for left-handed players). Like Pokémon-amie, maxing out each Pokémon’s stats is rewarding but tedious. It’s an improvement on the old methods, but I think that says more about the dedication of those who bred and trained up perfect Pokémon than this new game’s actual quality.
It’s the small additions that really changed the way I played through the game. Firstly, a lot has been said about the return of the Exp. All item, which now gives experience points to Pokémon that weren’t even used in battles. While it’s true that this optional item does result in your Pokémon becoming incredibly over-leveled, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In most Pokémon games I find a nice group of six monsters to take along with me and avoid swapping them out because of the grind required to get everyone to an appropriate level. In X/Y I was constantly switching my team around, mixing old favorites and Kalos exclusives and even Pokémon that I’d recently caught never really fell behind. And I sure was catching a lot of them thanks to the new mechanic that gives out experience points even if you capture a Pokémon instead of making it faint. As a result, I caught just about every wild Pokémon I ran into and those I didn’t need I put up for trade with the new Wonder Trade feature. Pokémon X/Y might not have a Game Corner with the usual slot machines, but the Wonder Trade is a far more rewarding and addictive experience than any of the usual gambling. The gist of it is that you select something to put up for trade and as soon as you find a trade partner it’s exchanged for an unknown, probably unwanted Pokémon. You might end up with that rare version-exclusive Pokémon you were after, or it might be a Bidoof. Whatever it is, your trade partner is added to your “Acquaintances” list, where you can interact with them further.
The term “social game” is thrown around a lot lately, usually in reference to the latest classic IP turned into a iPhone card game or some god-awful Zynga title that fills your friends’ Facebook feed, but the addition of the new “Player Search System” turns Pokémon X/Y into a truly social experience. The requirement to connect and interact with other players has always been a major part of the series, but here that philosophy is integrated in the most seamless fashion yet. With the PSS there’s no need to plug in a link cable or backtrack to the nearest Pokémon Center; all of your friends are displayed on the lower screen as well as the aforementioned “acquaintances”, people playing nearby and the hundreds of people online at the same time. From here it’s easy to trade with, battle and view the insane PR videos of complete strangers. The PSS also allows you to use “O-Powers”, an expanded, more easily accessible take on Black and White’s “Pass Powers”. These powers allow you to temporarily increase your catch rate, experience gained and other helpful buffs, but more importantly they allow you to gift others with these benefits with a much lower cost – all the powers cost a portion of energy that never quite seems to regenerate quick enough. Spreading random acts of kindness really encourages players to interact with each other, even with people across different continents. In fact, X & Y seem to leverage the global appeal of the series to encourage communication across different cultures, which I thought was a really interesting, positive approach. Like Black and White, the game can be linked to the Pokémon Global Link website, which brings back the medal (read: achievement) system to track statistics and save photos from your journey. It doesn’t do much to enhance the experience, but it’s a cute addition.
To me the most enjoyable part of a Pokémon game is playing it alongside friends and the narrative in X & Y follows this idea. Even if you don’t have any real friends to trade and battle with, your trainer is accompanied by large cast of characters who fit the usual “rival” role. These friends travel alongside you throughout the story and this, combined with Pokémon-amie, gives a sense of companionship that previous games lacked. They also put forth the message that it doesn’t really matter how you play the game, so long as you have fun. Sure, you can still follow the old “gotta catch ‘em all” motto, but why not try to be the strongest trainer or even the best dancer? That said, Pokémon X & Y do still follow the usual narrative beats, taking your young trainer from a small town to the Pokémon League while encountering goofy gang members along the way. This time around the token villains are Team Flare, a bunch of latté-sipping idealists who dress like Space Channel 5 characters. Despite their silly attire, the game takes on a bizarrely melancholy tone when discussing their motivations. Like Black & White, this attempt to inject moral ambiguity and depth into the story is laughable, though the plot does resolve itself in an ultimately uplifting fashion.
It might just be because I recently played Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, but I really appreciated the way that Pokémon X & Y doesn’t hold players hands at all. In fact, I initially didn’t notice that Pokémon-amie and Super Training were accessible because I expected they’d only be available following a lengthy tutorial. Despite being aimed at kids, X & Y doesn’t treat players like idiots. Tips are given out by actually talking to people, though there’s enough flavour text and funny dialogue that NPCs don’t just sound like walking instruction manuals. Limiting Pokémon to four moves gives the illusion that the game is very simple, but the game gradually piles on additional elemental types with a massive chart of weaknesses and resistances, different abilities, status effects, weather changes and all kinds of gimmicks.
Pokémon X & Y also benefits from feeling much more streamlined. Saving is nearly instantaneous, getting around is easy when you have roller-skates, and you can switch Pokémon and use items just by dragging them around – no need to dip into four different menus. The Global Trade System that has been utterly broken for the last six years is finally functional, making it easy to find reasonable trades for Pokémon that you’re missing. That said, some parts of the UI are still very clunky, such as selecting berries to blend or turn into mulch. And since we can now trade Pokémon from anywhere would it really be much of a stretch to swap your active party without backtracking to the nearest computer? Another issue with X & Y is that there isn’t as much postgame content as other installments in the series. While the game’s social take on the traditional Safari Zone is incredibly compelling, it’s disappointing that there’s no equivalent to previous game’s Battle Frontier or World Tournament. Still, if you’re aiming to catch every last one of those critters or reach the big leagues with the online battling, Pokémon X & Y will consume your life.