I played Pokemon Sun at release and my memory of it was that it was a game where GameFreak were clearly trying to deliver on some ambitious ideas but were constrained by the tight deadline of the 20th Anniversary of Pokemon and so had to kill many of their darlings. I was curious to see whether I still felt this was the case upon replaying it. Or, more accurately, playing Pokemon Moon which I got around the same time. It was very easy to restart my Moon save because it only had 30 minutes of playtime and a single Pokemon on it, because when I tried playing it last time the constant tutorials and dialogue drove me nuts and I just gave up. These were definitely the biggest flaws with Sun and Moon, and while the excitement of playing a new game drew some of my focus from them the first time around they were especially apparent the second time around. I felt enough time had passed now to give Moon another try, and so I decided to start my replay journey here since there were no Pokemon I had to take the time to transfer and preserve. I’ve just cleared the second island of the game which places me somewhere around the half-way mark if I remember correctly, so I figured I’d check in with my thoughts so far.
The thing that was apparent right away was that, yep, this game is railroaded as hell. The first few hours consist of just walking in straight lines, constantly being interrupted to be told how great the Kanto region is or be reminded of the objective you were given ten seconds earlier. It’s such a mood-killer, and when you’ve already played the game the excitement of what surprises lie in wait isn’t there to shield you from it. And the worst part is that it has only gotten marginally better. You’re barely given any room to breathe, with linear paths and contrived obstacles ensuring that you have little choice but to head towards the objective marker (that is sometimes literally just around the corner from where you currently are) to go see another cutscene where nothing of note happens. You’re forced into so many minigames as well. Not just told of their existence, but instead having the story held hostage until you participate. I got stuck having to learn how a Battle Royale works despite the fact that I can’t participate in them yet due to the opponents being twice my level at that point in the game.. Any chances you actually do get to go off the beaten track don’t feel fruitful, often just leading to a new linear path with a few trainers and an item at the end. The world and dungeons have a wonderful aesthetic because of the strong Hawaiian stylings, but their design is definitely a step down compared to some of the earlier games.
It’s a really easy game as well. I’ve barely ever needed to heal mid-battle, let alone come close to being knocked out. This time around I’m actually playing in Set Mode which means that when you knock out an opponent’s Pokemon you don’t get to see what they’re sending out next and change your own Pokemon. It adds a bit of challenge but the game is just generally unchallenging. That’s not always a bad thing, but in a game like this it means you start feeling unengaged because you rarely need to use much strategy beyond using moves super effective against your opponent. And that could be their only Pokemon, too, because for some reason trainers have tiny parties. Even the climactic battles against your rival and island kahunas (this game’s equivalent of Gym Leaders) see you up against three Pokemon at most. Then there’s the fact that the Exp Share is way too generous in giving experience points to Pokemon who weren’t involved in the battle, meaning your Pokemon end up overlevelled quickly if you don’t turn it off. And just about every route has an NPC who’ll heal your Pokemon for you with no drawbacks, meaning that you’re never really in any danger out in the wild.
The highlights of the game so far are definitely the Totem Pokemon battles. These pit you against a giant, boosted Pokemon who can summon teammates to join in the fight and make it two on one. While you can mitigate a few of them with your powerful Z Moves, I actually really struggled with the Totem Lurantis who was able to use the weather to heal itself and instantly charge its powerful moves. I still beat it first try, but I felt like I could have blown it at any moment. I’d like to see more of that and I'm really hoping the raids in Sword and Shield feel like these battles, but with your friends strategising together in order to take the powerful Pokemon down.
On top of the other flaws there’s just a general feeling of Moon being unfinished. The most egregious thing that stands out is Wela Volcano. This is an imposing landmark which you need to ascend in order to take on the Fire type trial. In any other Pokemon game this would be a dungeon you would have to navigate your way through with trainers, wild Pokemon and puzzles inside. But not in Moon. In Moon you just walk into the entrance and are immediately teleported to the top where the trial is, with no challenges in between. It’s such a jarring moment. There’s also a lack of polish and refinement, evident in things like Alolan Pokemon having oddly low appearance rates or convoluted methods of encountering them. Some Pokemon you encounter early on can’t be evolved until right near the end of the game, meaning you have to drag around a dead weight in your team until then. It reminds me a lot of the weird distribution of Pokemon in the second generation of games.
So it sure sounds like I hate this game, huh? It’s weird because it’s so frustrating and yet there’s so many glimpses at the amazing game that could be. It really felt like GameFreak wanted to try something new here, even moreso than when they tried to reinvent the series with Black and White, but for whatever reason they just weren’t able to deliver on their plans. There’s a real distinct and unique feeling to the world design now that it’s completely removed from the rigid grids of past games, and while the Island Trials don’t stray too far from the series’ Gym Battles they’re an interesting step in the right direction and make progressing through the story feel more fresh. And some of the Alolan Pokemon are so fun to use; I’m loving Araquanid’s stupidly powerful Water attacks thanks to the hidden function of its ability.
I’m reaching the part of the game where things start to pick up, so I’m interested to see how I’m feeling about this game by the end.