Pokemon X & Y Review: An American Pokemon in Paris
Pokemon X/Y are the first 3D main-line handheld Pokemon games and they’ve got a lot to live up to. Nintendo’s handheld technology takes an unusually long time to make giant graphical leaps so these two new games feel like a breath of fresh air for the franchise in more ways than one. We’re use to Nintendo portables being comparable in terms of hardware power to the home console that preceded it but with the DS the Pokemon games didn’t evolve that much visually.
Sure environments were in 3D and the art style was still superb but the lack of 3D Pokemon battles was a bit of a downer. The thought of a fully 3D Pokemon RPG has been an unattainable pipe dream for fans since the first N64 Pokemon spin-off showed us what our favorite Pocket Monsters would look like in three dimensions. The day is finally here where we have 3D Pokemon battling and it is glorious. But does the rest of the game live up or will X/Y be remembered as a nothing more than a graphical upgrade?
The short answer is no, Pokemon X/Y will be remembered as fondly bringing the series into a new era. An era of online play that isn’t clunky and of less grinding and more exploring. Their are numerous changes to the core Pokemon formula and all of them make the series better than they ever were without them.
First let me talk about the 3D Pokemon models. They’re all amazing though some stand out. My biggest fear would be that battles would feel like they were taking forever since each pocket monster had a 3D animation to perform but that isn’t the case. Each has a few animations that bring life to them in a way that the old 2D sprites could never replicate. Battles actually feel faster than they did in 2D though I’m not sure if that is technically correct.
Each Pokemon has a new lease on life with the visual upgrade, each possessing a unique personality through their animations. It truly livens up the game and I’d probably have been fine with X/Y if this was the only major change. Thankfully it isn’t.
The Player Search System, or PSS, displays on the bottom screen while you’re off playing the single player campaign. This app shows all of your friends from your friends list and passerbys from other countries. You can select these passerbys and challenge them, trade with them, send them O-powers and check out their profiles. You can even chat with your friends, a feature too many Nintendo games lack even today. It makes the Pokemon experience infinitely more sociable in all the right ways.
It never becomes too intrusive even when the PSS is activated and can be can be turned off at the press of an on-screen button. No more running to a particular building to go into a particular room just to talk to an NPC to get into an online battle! Just a few taps and you’ll be in the heat of battle with a stranger or friend right away.
So we’ve got a massively overhauled online component and a gigantic leap in visuals. What else could Game Freak have possibly added? Well other than adding 69 new Pokemon and mega evolutions for existing fan favorites they balanced out the grinding that the series is known so well for. When using the Exp Share item that players get after the first gym all your Pokemon in your party gain half of the experience points that the one in battle receives.
This means your entire Poke-team levels up much more evenly and stops you from having one or two high level creatures and 3 or 4 low levels that rarely get played with. This also allows you to experiment with battle strategies more since you aren’t throwing out low level Pokemon just to be decimated because of the level gap between them and trainers you battle later in the game.
This is by far the biggest change for me, even with the graphical upgrade. When people say every Pokemon game is the same I don’t know what they want from the series. Do they want it to become a real-time court room simulator or something? The core gameplay mechanics will always stay the same and they are improved tremendously by the Exp Share change. It takes away so much unnecessary grinding that would push less serious players away.
Another good change is the ability to choose two starters. You get to choose one of three new starters at the very beginning of the game and after the first gym you get to choose a second starter from the original games. This provides fans with a great source of nostalgia for the older starters while also pushing these new Pokemon on us so that we don’t ignore them.
The music is as good as ever as Game Freak nails yet another awesome Pokemon soundtrack. Some of these tunes will stay with you for years, especially those near the end of the game.
Mega evolutions weren’t as big a deal in my time playing the game as I would have hoped. They are nice but I would have personally preferred more new Pokemon. Don’t get me wrong, Mega-Blastoise and Mega-Lucario kick some serious ass along with some other Mega evolutions. Its just that it doesn’t feel like a huge change and you can’t help but feel like this feature came at the expense of a higher amount of new Pokemon. I could have played the entire single player game without it, save for a few situations. That isn’t what you want to hear about something that is suppose to be a major feature.
Without spoiling exactly who the new 69 Pokemon are I will tell you there are some great additions to the series. You’ll love discovering each one as there are some new twists on old types as well as the addition of Fairy Pokemon.
As good as Pokemon X/Y are they do have their faults. The lack of 3D in the game’s overworld is disappointing to say the least. It is an understandable omission but what really bugged me was the frame rate drops during battles. If you enable 3D you will see a significant drop in frames per second, something that is unheard of in first party Nintendo software. Battles look great in 3D but I left the 3D slider off most of the time due to the frame rate issues. Even in 2D mode you will see a good amount of frame drops which isn’t something I expected from Game Freak.
Another issue is the skates. They do make traveling around a lot faster but sometimes you just want to soak in this world Game Freak created so well. You can’t directly disable the skates. You can walk slowly with the D-pad but this isn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be able to actually turn off the skates and continue to use the Circle Pad for navigation. The over the shoulder third person camera is a nice touch in some areas but also hinders exploration in others because of a smaller field of view too.
Story wise Pokemon X/Y are a little darker with an odd twist that can be seen 3,000 years away. I can’t help but think there could have been more done with a particular character from the past that you see throughout the game. You battle him and that story gets resolved rather abruptly after defeating the Pokemon Champion. Would a few hours of playing as that particular character to explain their past be so bad?
In addition to that Team Flare has an interesting lead bad guy named Lysandre. Overall Team Flare and Lysandre don’t come off threatening at all and lack charm. They aren’t very memorable villains. Something about stylish enemies doesn’t seem to stay with me personally. The reasons Lysandre uses to justify his plot to wipe out all Pokemon is surprisingly dark for the series but isn’t really all that fleshed out. It’s obvious that this Conan O’Brien/WWE Superstar Sheamus look a like is going to be the main villain from the get-go so why not give him more time in the spot light? It feels like the Team Flare story is rushed a bit to its conclusion. As it is, Pokemon X/Y continue the trend of under-developed evil doers.
Lumionse City, the Kalo’s regions version of Paris, could be better. While there is a lot of things to do within this large city it doesn’t feel nearly as large as the cities in the DS games. Perhaps this is due to the DS games using smaller sprites that were dwarfed by the 3D building models on the DS’s weaker hardware or maybe its due to the over the shoulder camera angles in X & Y but the city never felt all that fleshed out to me. It felt too small and too empty. There are cafes, a train transport system and two areas that host plot related battles but overall the city doesn’t feel used enough. It wasn’t as visually impressive as it could have been and felt tiny compared to the cities in the DS versions of Pokemon. The DS games had cities that felt like unique metropolises whereas X & Y’s Paris feels like a strip mall.
Pokemon X/Y seems to have taken a note from Sega’s blue blur as the biggest change to the series appears to be speed. The gameplay feels faster despite having more complex 3D animations during battles, the down time between gyms is now shorter and you even maneuver quicker with the always equipped skates. It sometimes feels like the game has ADHD because its constantly pulling you in different directions but that is a testament to how much there is to do within this small 3DS cartridge. It does seem a bit shorter than the DS Pokemon games. Whereas I’d clock in 30-40 hours during those game’s campaigns I managed to beat the Pokemon Champion in just under 26 hours.
I also think Pokemon X/Y are the most accessible games in the series for an American audience. There is less grinding, leveling up is significantly easier and quicker, and online play is far more expanded upon than ever before. While I’m sure that if Pokemon X/Y was somehow a Japan only game that they’d still include online play you’ve got to think it wouldn’t be as big a focus for Game Freak if the American market didn’t want it so bad. These all seem like things that American fans of Pokemon were asking for the most though I know everyone wanted and benefits from these changes. Even the stereotype of everything being bigger in Texas sort of fits with the game’s emphasis on Mega evolutions. I don’t think this is a bad thing by any means. The game is much more accessible to those who don’t normally play Pokemon or any games designed by the Japanese while still retaining its patented quirk and charm.
Despite some nagging issues Pokemon X/Y lives up to the hype. Frame rate and lack of 3D in some sections aside it truly does change the foundation of the Pokemon RPG series. Hopefully since Game Freak has got the overwhelming task of developing the assets for the first 3D handheld Pokemon RPG out of the way they can focus on improving performance in future games. Pokemon X/Y doesn’t go back to the drawing board with the core formula of what makes the series great. Instead if gives players new tools to write with on that drawing board, making their experience using that canvas more entertaining than ever.
Pokemon X & Y lives up to expectations and usher the series into a new era of 3D visuals. Changes to how the core game play works with the EXP Share and massive improvements with online play make this one of the best games of 2013.