Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 11/30/17

Headin' for the islands...

Life on Alola is slow. The islands have only a few cities; the rest of civilization is separated by rainforests and mountain ranges. Most people take it easy. If you're lucky, you can spend your days on the beach, watching the sparkling waves as they crash along the immaculate coasts. You could hike around the incredible trails, like the ash-ridden slopes of Wela Volcano Park, or the flowery, scenic paths of the Lush Jungle. Or study and photograph rare Pokemon species at the nature reserves. Or spend all your hard-earned cash on overpriced souvenirs and clothes at the tourist shops. Never mind the roving gangs of thugs or the mysterious rifts that keep appearing in the sky. Just sip your coffee, take in the sun, and relax. Don't forget, you're in paradise.

But if you're a Pokemon trainer, there's only thing on your mind: The Island Challenge. This rite of passage allows you to get a Pokemon and travel all over Alola, completing a series of trials personally designed by the leaders and kahunas of the respective islands. Rather than forcing you to take on a series of gyms like in the previous Pokemon games, you'll have to do some relatively menial tasks before being deemed worthy to battle. This could involve picking berries, herding fish down a waterfall, watching a dance, taking a picture, etc. These are rarely challenging - they almost always involve a few extra battles regardless - but they're a nice change of pace from the old formula. They're an interesting reflection of Alola's place in the series; the Island Challenge is clearly influenced by the old school ways of the Kanto region, but the locals developed their own style based on limited resources, smaller communities, and a deeper connection with nature. It also ties into game's theme of perseverance. The story isn't so much about the trainers who are prodigies, but the ones who stumble and fall along the way. There are many failures, the most prominent of which is Team Skull. They're deliberately written to be inept and pathetic; they're a group of washed-up trainers who turned to crime. Hau, your best friend and supposed rival, doesn't take the challenge seriously at first and suffers for it. Lillie, your frequent travel companion, is a shrinking violet who constantly needs your help. The point of the story isn't how weak they are, but what they do about it. Not getting into spoilers, but let's just say that our heroes grow a little.

Focusing so much on the story is a double-edged sword, though. Not everyone gets the same kind of treatment; you'll likely forget the trial captains and island kahunas once you've completed their challenges. Even the main villain has been changed from the original Pokemon Sun/Moon, resulting in someone that isn't insanely evil, yet isn't given any time to develop as a character. The game practically spoils a big reveal in its very first scene, so it's not like there's a mystery about who shouldn't be trusted. There's also a lot of pointless railroading early on. Sometimes roads are arbitrarily blocked off by NPCs and their Pokemon, while others automatically force you to participate in activities or visit certain buildings. The previous games had similar roadblocks, but there were far fewer and required you to find specific items or know certain moves. They respected the players' curiosity and their ability to remember objectives. It's understandable that the designers wanted to ease new players into the world they've built, but you'll often be left wondering when you can break free and just explore. This drags the game's pacing down considerably; things don't pick up until the third island, when your Challenge becomes integral to the plot. There should've been an option to skip cutscenes. But once the story hits its stride, you'll be clearing trials in no time. Despite ditching the old gym format, it'll still take around 40-50 hours to become the champion.

Reaching that point is far easier than before, too. There's an impressive variety of Pokemon right from the start; aside from your usual grass, fire, and water starters, there are several types of monsters waiting in the tall grass. With a little effort, you could build up a well-balanced team even before you make it off the first island. Given how cleverly some of the kahunas' teams are designed, you'll probably want to put the work in. The newly-implemented of Z-Moves adds some a little more flavor and spectacle to the battles, but their lengthy animations get old quickly. The most welcome change, however, is the elimination of the HM system. In the older adventures, your team had to include Pokemon that could learn HM techniques to swim across water, get rid of boulders, fly to different areas, etc. It was annoying because you had to sacrifice your Pokemon's already limited move set for the sake of progression. This time, you'll be awarded special Ride Pokemon that handle the obstacles without taking up space on your team. That way, you can focus on strategy. There are a couple of touch screen features that seem gimmicky at first, but pay off in immensely useful ways. Pokemon Refresh lets you pet and feed your team with the stylus. Much like the Pokemon-Amie feature from Pokemon X/Y, it results with boosted experience points, the ability survive otherwise deadly attacks, and shrug off status ailments. That can be a lifesaver in the later parts of the games. Poke Pelago lets you develop a bunch of tiny islands for seemingly no reason. If developed and used properly, however, it gives you a way to automatically harvest berries, stones, and other rare items. Isle Evelup is particularly useful because it allows you to level grind your team, but with the ability to focus on boosting specific stats. That's a godsend if your free time is limited; rather than spending all those hours slogging through thousands of battles, you can just set up the island and let it run.

Not everything is perfect, though. Having a talking Rotom as your menu gets old fast; it's there to remind you to save, take a break, or comment on your progress. It wouldn't be so annoying if it didn't block the map screen every time it speaks. However, it proves its worth by occasionally rewarding you with special powers, like boosted experience, limited encounters, etc. Poke Finder is a cool homage to Pokemon Snap, even if it blatantly imitates Instagram. The problem is how simplistic it is; you can amass thousands of likes by just using some basic principles of photography. Aside from improved zoom functionality, there's nothing technically demanding about it. You can just stand in the same area, spam nearly identical photos onto your feed, and still be rewarded for it. The fact that there's an in-game photography club with several more options just makes it even more boring. Also, the majority of the Festival Plaza feature seems like a waste of time. Oh sure, it houses the Wonder Trade and online battling system, but everything else feels like filler. It all revolves around talking to other players that magically appear in your plaza; if you answer their questions, fulfill their requests, and do side missions, you'll be rewarded with special currency. The more you have, the further you'll be able to develop the plaza with new shops and buildings. Some of these have practical uses, like selling items or leveling your team. Others options are purely cosmetic, like dyeing your clothes. The exact development requirements are poorly explained and needlessly convoluted. It's like the designers were desperately trying to figure out how to make online multiplayer more interesting, and just threw a bunch of ideas together. They could've easily been implemented into Poke Pelago or as part of the main game.

Some of the biggest disappointments, however, come with the post-game. One of the main selling points of Ultra Sun/Moon is the addition of Team Rainbow Rocket. It promises that you'll get to battle all of the villains from the series, including the infamous Giovanni from Red/Blue. And while that's technically true, it leaves much to be desired. You'll have to face all of them in succession, getting a cutscene or two in between. And yes, the battles are tough. Even with a high level team, you'll probably get crushed by Mewtwo the first time. However, it's not some huge, epic quest to save Alola; it's confined to a single building, and it can be done only once. It's mind-boggling how much potential was wasted with this. You could've had to fight your way across the islands again, liberating one at a time. You could've teamed up with one of the villains and staged a rebellion against the others. You could've enlisted the help of the main characters from the other games. But no, it's a simple gauntlet. Speaking of which, the Battle Tree lets you tackle an endless amount of challengers, using single or double Pokemon, or with the help of recruitable trainers. It's serviceable and difficult at higher levels due to restrictions on items and legendaries, but it's a far cry from the Battle Frontier and some of the other complex challenges of yesteryear. At least you get to battle some some fan favorites along the way. You'll probably get more out of the new Mantine Surf mini-game, which is both surprisingly tricky and rewarding; I'm still trying to get high scores on some of the courses. There are several high-level battles all over the islands, too. If you're a dedicated collector, however, you'll spend all your time in the Ultra Wormhole. Not getting into spoilers, but there's a way to go into other dimensions and find several rare and legendary Pokemon. This is a huge improvement over the original Sun/Moon, which gave you little access. Unfortunately, these new area are usually only a room or two. That's unfortunately true for the city of Ultra Megalopolis, which has no function aside from a single story event. It's utterly baffling to see such an awesome idea used in such a limited way.

At least it looks pretty. The game makes great use of the 3DS's graphics, particularly in terms of lighting based on the system clock. Trying surfing around sunset, and you'll discover that the sparkling blue ocean has turned orange and gold. Po Town manages to be creepy with its worn-down buildings and perpetual storms. It's great how some extra NPC dialogue can liven up even the most mundane town. Whoever did the location scouting deserves an award; as someone who's been to Hawaii multiple times, it's so interesting to see familiar places in the Pokemon universe. It's fitting that Poni Island is so tiny and tough; Kauai is small, but it's rugged and remote. Anyone who's been to Waimea Canyon or the Fern Grotto will recognize their stand-ins here. Not to mention how the character's house is near Diamond Head, the similarities between the Grand Wailea and the Hano Grand Resorts, and how the Exeggutor Island replaces the equally remote Ni'ihau. While the Pokemon battles themselves are fun to look at, they tend to suffer when there are more than two monsters on the screen; the frame rate takes a nosedive, and even the text occasionally slows down. These are only minor hiccups in an otherwise great experience.

That can be said for Ultra Sun/Moon as whole. It's a great game, but held back by a few noticeable flaws. The story is a great lesson in perseverance and personal responsibility, but it gets dragged down by its pacing and needless railroading. The Island Challenge is a refreshing change, but its characters and trials are forgettable. The Ride Pokemon and Poke Pelago make the adventure far more accessible; you don't have to worry about HMs or grinding stats. Some of the late and post-game battles are challenging, even if you have carefully crafted teams. Some of the additional features, such as the Festival Plaza, fall flat completely. Others try hard to impress, but come up short. Team Rainbow Rocket and the Battle Tree, could've been developed into greater things. The game introduces the possibility of visiting other dimensions, but fails to capitalize on it aside from capturing rare and legendary Pokemon. There's so much potential, yet you're left wanting more in the end. With the 3DS on the way out, it's bittersweet for its final Pokemon game to be like this. All good things come to an end, but this finale could've been far grander.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Pokemon Ultra Sun (US, 11/17/17)

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