Josh Plays Pokemon #3 - Skullomania
I’ve reached the end of Pokemon Moon (excluding the rather anemic post-game content) and it never really grows out of the issues I mentioned in my last post. In fact, in some areas it’s actually worse. This is best illustrated in the game’s climax, which sees you exploring the canyons of the final island of Alola to find the altar of the Legendary Pokemon and get its help to save your companion’s mum. The canyon is visually stunning but when you break it down you realise that you’re just walking in a tight, linear spiral around the environment with barely any room to breathe. There’s a couple of branching paths but they’re just short lines that lead to dead ends rather than providing an exciting dungeon layout for you to explore. The trainer battles scattered along this route still only pit you against one or two Pokemon at a time despite being right at the end of the game, so there’s no sense of threat either. It’s made worse by the fact that you can usually wipe out one Pokemon in a single hit using a powerful Z Move and in a lot of cases that’s the trainer dealt with.
But by far the biggest failings of the climax are the two Island Trials you take on as part of it. The Island Challenge questline kind of takes a backseat to the plot involving Lillie’s mother and the shady organisation she runs, and so the last few parts of it get rushed through including these two trials. The first trial isn’t even a trial. You meet the captain who says she hasn’t actually thought of a trial yet and lets you just go on your way without doing anything. There’s that whole unfinished feeling of the game poking through again, especially considering that this captain actually got given a trial in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon the next year. Then almost immediately afterwards you take on the final trial which should be the epic conclusion of the Island Challenge, but instead all you do is walk in a straight line and fight three Pokemon. They have a double weakness to Fairy type, which just so happens to be the type of Z Move I unlocked a few minutes earlier, and so I could take all of them out with a single move. It was such a major anticlimax to the central quest of the game, and I don't get why they've made the whole game this easy. I get they don't want kids to be frustrated but this is the complete opposite extreme from frustrating overdifficulty.
But most of my other thoughts I had while finishing Moon are just retreading the same ground as my previous post (too much railroading, too easy, lacking level design etc etc) so instead of going over EVERYTHING that happens in the game between finishing the second island of the game and the ending I’m going to focus on a few parts that I mostly liked.
Every Pokemon game has an evil team who you butt heads with during the story, and in Pokemon Sun and Moon that team is Team Skull. What makes them more interesting than other evil teams in the series though, is that they’re not exactly evil. They’re the people who weren’t good enough trainers to clear their own Island Challenges and got sick of being made fun of or made to feel inferior to everyone else. They’re a bunch of misfits who got mad about not fitting in anywhere and started to lash out. Instead of aiming to take over the world or anything on a large scale they just want to make some noise and get the satisfaction of sticking it to the society that they feel wronged them. They never pose much of a threat and the game’s script paints them as endearingly hopeless losers who don’t really know what they want. There’s so many hilarious encounters with them throughout the story; I love the recurring grunts you bump into a few times who get absolutely hurt and devastated when your character ignores them or tells them they have no idea who they are.
The evil teams in Pokemon have normally been generic and unmemorable, just your typical Saturday morning cartoon villains trying to take over the world, and so I loved this new take on the concept. Team Skull are my favourite evil team in the franchise, and I would have loved if they stayed the main villains for the whole game. Their leader, Guzma, is a really interesting and sympathetic character. By piecing together what you’re told in the story and smaller details you can find while exploring the world, you discover that he comes from an abusive home and never learned how to process his emotions properly. So when he failed the Island Challenge he felt worthless and didn’t know how to react other than getting mad. In the end it turns out the only reason he’s really working for the actual big bads of the game is because they showed him respect and acknowledged his talents. That’s all he wanted; respect, and for people to show they care. If he got a proper redemption arc as he realised he’s going about things the wrong way, and decided to train up to take on the Island Challenge again, it would have made for a nicer climax to the story.
The actual big bad of the story turns out to be Lusamine, the president of a Pokemon preservation organisation and the mother of your companion, Lille. She becomes corrupted by interdimensional Pokemon called Ultra Beasts and obsessively aims to travel to their world no matter what damage is done to her Pokemon or the world along the way, and you have to travel to that world to save her from their influence. There’s an interesting story about parental abuse here, because of the way Lusamine treats her children and Pokemon, but it doesn’t get the development it needs because the game’s focus is split between Team Skull’s plot and Lusamine’s plot which are so wildly different and separate from each other despite the writers’ attempts to merge them together. It would have been better if they’d picked one plot and stuck with it so that they could have made one strong one instead of settling for two that don’t quite hit the mark. It feels like there were a lot of rewrites as well, because the pre-release marketing for Ultra Beasts painted them as something more. It kept going “What’s up with these Ultra Beasts? Why aren’t they referred to as Pokemon? Why do they look like some of the human characters we’ve seen?” and it felt like there was going to some crazy, twisted plot going on. But it turns out the answers to everyone’s questions were “They’re just Pokemon”. That was really disappointing to me.
With these plots resolved you move into the grand finale of the game - the Pokemon League. The Alola region’s Pokemon Professor, Kukui, has been aiming to build and Elite Four and Pokemon League on par with that of other regions for the whole game and in the end he finally succeeds. The road to the Pokemon League is really anticlimactic - there’s an easy fight against one of your rival characters (Gladion) and a trek through a tiny, linear dungeon without a single trainer inside. It makes Gold and Silver’s Victory Road look epic. But the League itself is a fantastic climax to the game because of the different approach it takes to previous games.
In other Pokemon games you’ll go up against the Elite Four and the region’s Champion. The Elite Four are generally trainers you’ve never seen before while the Champion will have made a few brief appearances where it’s hinted there’s more to them that meets the eye. In Sun and Moon though, most of the League are trainers you’ve encountered a few times throughout the story. They might not have played huge roles, but seeing characters you’ve gotten to know a bit over time come back with a stronger team and being all excited about being part of the Pokemon League is a nice touch. The one exception is Kahili, a Flying type trainer. Her inclusion is interesting because it makes the world feel bigger than what you’ve seen because she’s a strong character who comes out of nowhere with her own backstory, and it adds a sort of mystery factor to the League. However, I feel like this was all unintentional and she was actually meant to be a Trial Captain but had her content cut - Flying is a type that doesn’t get its own trial in the game, and a golfer like her would fit right in with the golf course that takes up a significant part of the map but can’t be accessed in any way.
But the real highlight of the League challenge is when you make it to the end. In every Pokemon game there’s been one final fight after defeating the Elite Four, and it’s usually really obvious who that’s going to be. But this time around the League has only just been established, and so there can’t be a Champion at the head of it to take on. And so you rise to the top of Mt Lanakila and see an empty throne across from you at the summit. You walk over to it and sit down, assuming that that’s it and you’re now the Champion. But there’d have to be more, right? Of course there is. Kukui arrives to congratulate you on becoming the Champion… only to psych you out and say there’s one battle remaining. One against Kukui himself.
The Pokemon professors are a big part of the franchise, but Kukui is the one who’s most involved throughout his respective game. You’ve seen this guy getting hyped up about the League and wanting the world to see what Alolan trainers are made of, and you deliver that dream to him by finally beating him, the expert on Pokemon moves, and showing that you’re the strongest trainer in Alola. You’re fighting in a majestic arena up in the sky with that hype music playing that’s both carefree and grand, and it’s just a brilliant culmination to the game. It helps, too, that Kukui puts up a fight unlike a lot of other trainers in the game. It had me wishing that difficulty arose in other key moments of the story too.
There’s a short postgame questline still to go but it’s just capturing Ultra Beasts in an anticlimactic fashion with some short cutscenes in between so I’ll get around to that sometime later. I feel confident in my assessment that Sun and Moon have the beginnings of something truly special, but deadlines meant that they weren’t about to be fleshed out and polished to the level that they needed to be. GameFreak have had to come to terms with 3D development which they hadn’t quite mastered by this point, and by abandoning the grid layout of the game world that they’d come to rely on they had to learn an entirely new style of level design. On top of this they tried making a more story focused game, and one that distances itself from series conventions like Gym battles and evil teams that want to take over the world. I think that attempted ambition pushes these games ahead of the Gen 6 games for me, but they still fall way short of the wonderful streak of games we got on the DS. I’m interested to see what changes are made in Ultra Sun at a later point, but I’m really not expecting much from it so I’m going to come back to that after revisiting other generations and allow it to feel like a fresher experience.