I have been an avid Pokemon player since the first generation but saw my tolerance for the formulaic nature of the Pokemon games taper off around the Diamond and Pearl era. The series has maintained its popularity steadily but not without vociferous criticism on the developer's seeming inability to modernize the experience. Pokémon X and Y represent the biggest step forward in Nintendo and Game Freak's long-running series. But it also has a fair few growing pains that need to be refined. While this is not quite the all encompassing 3D Pokémon game fans have been clamoring for, it certainly takes a huge evolutionary step towards that ideal.
One immediately noticeable change is that the game allows you to customize your character to a greater degree than ever before. The options are by no means exhaustive and pale in comparison to those offered by just about every other RPG out there but it’s nice to finally be able to interact with other players without having matching avatars. You start by choosing your gender and a basic skin tone. Throughout your adventure you can visit various clothing shops to buy more clothes and accessories. In addition to your name you can also have a nickname that the most familiar characters in the story will call you by.
You get an EXP Share item early on in the game, allowing you to share experience points with your entire team of Pokémon at once. This has a huge impact on the game and leads to a team of Pokémon of equivalent strength rather than just one or two really strong Pokémon. The downside is that the latter half of the game becomes far too easy thanks to your newly overpowered Pokemon. When it came time for me to catch the Legendary Pokémon Xerneas (in Pokemon X), I quickly relegated it to my Box because I had already cultivated a super team that did not need its help (EXP Share can be turned off if you so choose).
You can also take part in Super Training and Core Training mini-games to boost your Pokémon’s Effort Values, allowing for more effective EV training. These training sessions include hitting punching bags and shooting soccer balls at targets. They take time and are not particularly fun to play in my opinion, but the option is always there for those who have the dedication and patience.
One of the biggest additions is the new Fairy type Pokémon. These Pokémon have an advantage over the previously over-powered Dragon types and include both new Pokémon and older ones re-classified as fairies. Pokémon X and Y feature less new Pokémon than any other previous generational offering. Some of the new Pokémon are great new additions, like the three starters Fennekin, Chespin, and Froakie. At times, though, it seems like the designers just added eyes to things that did not have them before and called it a day. A mix of Pokémon from all past games are available in X and Y but currently there is no way to import your collection from the DS entries. The Pokémon Bank will be available in December in most regions.
The Gym Challenge is much the same as it always is, with many repeating types of gyms including Grass, Ice, and Electric in addition to a new Fairy-based gym. The design and layouts of the Gyms is spectacular and goes a long way in helping separate the game from its predecessors. The game breaks up the time between gym battles with the standard retinue of traversing caves, completing fetch quests and foiling the insidious plans of Team Flare (more on them later). Thankfully the pace is not as hindered by obstacles requiring Pokémon knowing particular HMs like Strength or Cut as it was in previous games. The cities and towns you pass along the way are all interesting and have a part to play in the larger narrative even if they do not have a Gym.
The much-touted new Mega Evolution feature is not as big a step forward as the name implies. Only select Pokémon such as Blastoise, Charizard, Mewtwo, and Lucario have the ability to mega-evolve, which requires they hold a special item as a pre-requisite. The Mega Evolutions only last during battle but can change the Pokémon's types, thus removing certain weaknesses (i.e. Mega Charizard in Pokémon X swaps the Flying type for Dragon, and thus is no longer weak against water attacks) and certainly looks cool. It is a bit of a letdown considering how much the story mode hypes up the discovery but it at least adds more flare to the classic formula. Mega Evolution has a greater impact on competitive multiplayer battles, forcing you to enact more strategy in figuring out which held items to sacrifice and when Mega Evolving a certain Pokémon will give you an edge over your opponent's team.
X and Y are at their best when they find subtle ways to deviate and experiment with the long-established Pokémon formula. One such deviation comes early on when you are given the choice of a second starter Pokémon from the original trio of Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur. Others are more hidden, such as Inversion Battles where Super Effective Attacks become Not Very Effective and vice versa. This forces you to rethink your entire battle strategy, which is good because the rest of the time you are basically exploiting the weakness of your foe's Pokémon types. For series veterans it is satisfying to see how the game has built on innovations brought about in past games and integrates them into a coherent package that stands on its own merits.
An entire history and mythos is built around the people and Pokémon of the Kalos region. This time around the professor gifts Pokedexes to five young adventurers. There is no built in antagonism with these 5 NPCs, just pure friendship. The relationships come off a tad saccharine at times but it is a welcome shakeup of the traditional formula even if they are all one dimensional as characters. The antagonistic evil force this time around is Team Flare and their shenanigans are wacky, trite, and repetitive. It does not help that members of Team Flare all use the same rotation of Pokémon, making the large number of battles with grunts feel repetitive. The stakes reach a highpoint later on in the game, however, with a plot twist and touching post-game epilogue. The story has never been the main draw of Pokemon games but what is here worked for me, though some may consider it a step down from the Black and White games.
In terms of playtime, Pokémon games always come with a great value proposition. Completing the gyms and Pokémon League can be done in around 20 hours or so for the determined amongst you, but there are many things along the way to potentially sidetrack you. After the main quest is arguably when the real game begins as you are unhindered in your ability to explore, breed and capture Pokémon. Nintendo is rewarding early adopters by offering a special Torchic that can Mega Evolve once it becomes a Blaziken. Only time will tell what effect more possible DLC will have on the game's continued life further down the road.
Pokémon has always been a very social game and X and Y use the 3DS’s improved networking capabilities to good effect. Nearby trainers in real life will appear on your menu screen without any additional effort on your part and you can simply tap an icon to initiate communication with them locally. Online interactions have been improved as well, with the Player Search System working better than ever at allowing you to find trainers to trade and battle with all around the world. At any point in the game you can access the online features which now feel like a more natural extension of the singleplayer. Wonder Trades allow you to trade any Pokemon you want randomly with another trainer around the world without knowing what you will receive in return. Battles are easier to orchestrate and generally fun and I experienced hardly any connection issues while playing. The ability to increase your Pokémon’s individual stats has a huge strategic effect on online battles that previously felt too rigid and straightforward. Other improvements include the ability to use and exchange O-powers, which increase things like your Attack Power or Capturing Power, which makes it easier to capture Pokemon for a limited amount of time.
Pokémon has experimented with quasi-3D visuals in its Nintendo DS iterations but finally takes the full on plunge in X and Y. The change has been long overdue and the results are remarkable. Close-ups reveal some noticeable and unseemly pixelation, but it is thrilling to finally see new Pokémon and old favorites fully realized in three dimensions in the mainline series. The stereoscopic 3D presentation is inconsistent. One-on-one battles and certain cutscenes are available in 3D, but most of the time spent in the over-world is not. This is probably for the best though, as the 3D can be a strain on the battery life and Pokémon play sessions can be notoriously long. When the 3D is available it usually has a negative effect on the game’s already lackluster framerate. If you are playing on a new Nintendo 2DS take comfort in knowing that you are not missing out on much at all.
The camera work is wildly inconsistent. It is nice that the game finally moves away from the top down view we have become accustomed to but it switches camera angles from place to place without any logic at times, obscuring areas that you could explore and giving the player no control whatsoever. Sometimes the camera is used to highlight expansive vistas and ornately detailed structures in the background, which is nice but only as long as it does not hinder navigation. Unfortunately this is not the case in Lumiose City, the main Parisian-themed city in the game, which is an absolute chore to navigate.
The audio presentation has not seen a great overhaul. Pikachu, the most recognizable Pokémon, is the only one that says its name, which is a real delight to hear but makes it seem strange that all of the other creatures in the game have to make do with the same old garbled growls and squeals. The music in the game is great, with the most memorable series staples returning alongside some soothingly beautiful and excitingly grandiose tracks.
Altogether I can say that Pokémon X and Y is an enjoyable but uneven experience. The shortcomings leave room for improvement in the inevitable third version (unless Game Freak pulls another fast one and goes the direct sequel route again). There is so much cool stuff to find and explore in Pokémon X and Y, from riding on Rhyhorns to Sky Battles, that it is impossible for me to go into adequate detail in this review. The best place to learn about them is to play the game for yourself. It is hard to say how newcomers will react to X and Y; it is certainly streamlined for mass appeal but if you weren’t a fan of Pokémon before these versions won’t change your mind. Other gamers may have lost interest a few generations ago, and to them I say that X and Y are certainly progressive enough to warrant your time. For the legion of Pokemaniacs out there that have been keeping this series going strong for 15 years the only decision is which version to buy... or buy first at any rate.
This review is based on a retail copy of Pokémon X for the 3DS