Game Freak’s latest addition to the world of Pokémon begins the same way as every previous one; with the fanfare of the Pokémon theme, reorchestrated, rescored and rearranged by the latest technology. And that’s Pokémon X and Y in a nutshell – the same game we’ve known for the last eighteen years, updated for the times.
The plot goes exactly as you’d expect: a Professor gives you a Pokémon and a Pokedex, and sends you out on a quest to catch ‘em all. You’ll battle friends and rivals, defeat a criminal gang, and meet all kinds of Pokémon, from the humblest Pidgey to the legendary Pokémon Xerneas and Yvetal, on your way to becoming Champion. In other words, the same old grind of training, defeating gym leaders and travelling from town to town as you make your way through a rather weak storyline.
But once you meet the villain of the piece, things get interesting. Generation 6’s criminal mastermind is a philosophy-spouting hairstyle by the name of Lysandre, and he scared the bejesus out of me. Although his acts are monstrous, he justifies them with chillingly implacable logic that is hard to argue against. This dark presence for a time overwhelms the usual Pokémon message of love, kindness and friendship. It’s only in the game’s final scenes that Lysandre’s dark shadow is finally overcome. There’s always been a dark edge to Pokémon (Team Rocket did some pretty heinous things in Pokémon Red and Blue), but Lysandre and his master plan – part fairy tale, part war story and part apocalypse – seems a little grim for the bright and cheerful world of Pokémon.
So much for what’s the same. Now for the changes.
The first thing you’ll notice is how the new world looks. Quite simply, it’s gorgeous. The chaps at Game Freak have stepped things up for the 3DS. The faux French region of Kalos looks very pretty indeed, although it does go a little heavy on food, fashion and other Gallic clichés. The detail is finer, the battle animations new and vibrant, and the landscapes breathtaking in their scope, scale and spectacle. The only problem is the limited use of the 3D. It only comes up in cut-scenes, single battles and a handful of locations. Not always the most suitable locations, either: some of the 3D areas are quite dull, while spectacular scenery languishes in two dimensions, just crying out for some depth.
As you travel through Kalos, you’ll notice a whole new batch of tweaks and changes. Two in particular stand out: Mega Evolution, and the new Fairy type. On the whole, Fairy is a good idea. It’s not unprecedented – new types have been added before. Besides, many of the older, newly fairyfied Pokémon seem more at home as fairies. Tactically, too, it’s a useful addition, weakening the robust Dragon-type’s previous dominance. It’s a welcome addition to Pokémon, and brings new interest to battling.
Mega Evolution, though, is not so a well-executed. The idea is good: ultra powerful forms of Pokémon are useful in a tough battle, and are challenging to defeat. They’re also a great drawcard for past Pokémanics, bringing new interest to Pokémon we’ve known for years. But there aren’t enough of them – there are now 718 Pokémon in existence, but only 26 of them can mega evolve. It seems inadequate, somehow. Given time to expand to more Pokémon, though, and mega evolution will be fantastic.
As for all the other little tweaks and changes, we shall, at the risk of sounding overly negative, focus on the few that don’t work as well as they should. Most of the new things work – kudos in particular for the Super Training feature, through which I can buff up my Pokémon very easily. But then there are the few that don’t seem to have been fully thought through. Like riding Pokémon. It’s nice to be able to do it, but why can’t you ride your own, anywhere you please? Then there are sky battles – a gimmick through and through, a right pain in the proverbial to fight your way through. And also the game’s controls can be cantankerous at times. But these are mere quibbles in comparison to the rest of the game.
So, what are we to make of Pokémon X and Y?
It’s very much the same adventure we’ve known since 1995, just updated a bit. Therefore, it does feel a bit… samey. A bit of a shake-up to the staid old formula we’ve come to expect would be welcome to the veteran players who’ve been trainers since Red and Blue. On the other hand, though, it’s a formula that’s worked for the last eighteen years, and still works. With this latest addition, a whole new generation of Pokémon trainers, and grizzled old veterans too, can experience a world of dreams and adventures with Pokémon, just a screen’s depth away.