Here's what I like to imagine. Game Freak shipped Black and White 2, and production then started for a new Pokemon game. They didn't have any specifics yet, but they knew they want to breathe some life into the franchise — make it feel fresh, sure, but still keep the core of what makes Pokemon games so great.
Except, the old methods weren't working. Try as they might, and after many failed brainstorming meetings, someone went: screw it. You know what? Screw it. Let's do something ridiculous. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe nothing will, but let's try it anyway, they must have said.
And that's how Junichi Masuda and Ken Sugimori must've found themselves in a room full of excited little kids drawing up all sorts of ideas for the future of the Pokemon franchise. That must be how it went down, because, after over 20 hours with Pokemon X & Y — after dozens of captured monsters and after acquiring a number of gym badges — I keep feeling like this is the sort of game I would design with my friends during recess back in elementary school. You know, the type of game that we'd fantasise about after conversations where we bullshitted each other about totally true Pokemon glitches.
Now, I know that might sound funny — a game that kids would design? Could that even work? (Or, if you're the insecure, maybe the response is more like, oh no, not a KIDDIE GAME!) First off, Ponycorn should have taught all of us that kids can make wonderful games, games adults could only dream of making. Secondly, when I say that Pokemon X & Y feels like the type of game a kid would design, I'm not implying that the games are immature or lack polish. Rather, there is a certain unfettered liveliness about the latest Pokemon titles that feels like being a kid again — back when our imaginations weren't tamed as easily, back when we seemed to be able to run forever without getting tired. Back when it would be easy to think up an idea of, say, Mega Pokemon, or a Pokemon game that lets you go at top speed right away.
Before I talk about specifics, let me establish some basics. The premise is this: you've just moved into town, and your friends are eager to meet you. They introduce themselves, they happily give you a nickname. Then they give you a Pokemon, because I guess that's a normal house-warming gift in this society. From there, you learn about the mysterious Mega Evolutions, and at the request of the newest Pokemon professor, you set off on an adventure to find out more about said evolutions. Just like that! You can't be older than, like, 12 years old maybe?
But no worries, your mum is totally psyched about the idea of you going across the country by yourself, from town to town, duking it out with strangers in turn-based battles featuring monsters you caught in the wild. In fact, she packed you a change of clothes, honey — be good out there, ok?
Tell me that's not some grade-A kid fantasy right there; the sort of thing that you wished would happen whenever you would ask your parents if you can go play outside for a bit. Except I imagine actually doing something like that in our world would suck — thankfully, Pokemon's world isn't really modelled after ours. In the land of Pokemon, people run up to you on sight to engage with you — not at all like our society, where it's more likely that strangers will try their best to ignore your presence as they dutifully thumb their phone. That's not all. In the world of Pokemon, people happily gift you all sorts of things, from rare Pokemon to cool moves and items, simply because you talked to them. I swear to god, Pokemon might as well take place in Canada. Thinking about it now, I can't help but wonder if one of the common criticisms of Pokemon — that it's a kids game — is less about its target demographic and more about how bafflingly sincere and friendly its society is.
Of course, that's always been the case with the franchise...but it feels multiplied by an absurd degree in Pokemon X & Y. Everywhere you go, either people give you awesome stuff: from skates to bikes to gifting you Pokemon like the original starters. At first, I thought it was just a bit of fan service (not that newer fans won't be able to enjoy being given some of the most memorable creatures in the franchise). But then it keeps happening. And it keeps happening. It's almost over-indulgent, if it wasn't that it's incredibly exciting. Can you complain about being given the chance to soup up your Charizard via Mega Evolution? Or about riding around on a Rhydon? Or about how you can customise your trainer to look fashionable? At over 20 hours in so far, I'm consistently amazed that the game keeps finding new ways to make me feel giddy — and that's not something I've felt in a Pokemon game in a long time.
It's impressive, really — most of the time, when a game gives you rewards or prizes too easily, you lose interest. Here, you just get pumped to keep going and see how the game will one-up itself. I suspect that a large part of that also has to do with the game's breezy pace, too. You're constantly moving forward and going to new places, doing new things — I've barely spent any time at all grinding. Thank god!
To make a comparison, when it comes to how adamant the game is about giving you awesome stuff...if Oprah was a video game designer, this is the Pokemon game she would make. I can imagine it now: YOU GET A MEGA CHARIZARD! YOU GET A MEGA BLASTOISE! YOU GET A MEGA VENUSAUR! EVERYBODY GETS A [insert list of awesome yet spoilery Pokemon here].)
You're in for a treat.
That's especially true when you consider how gorgeous the game is. Screenshots don't do the game justice. The game's version of France is beautiful. Heck, the first time I got into the game's major city, I felt as overwhelmed as I felt the first time I visited New York in real life. It's so big, you might even have to catch a taxi to get around. And all the beret-wearing people! Let's not forget all the places you can visit, because, man. We've got cafes, restaurants, boutiques, even back-alleys (never mind some of the awesome gyms and special locations around the world). Get this: some of these places are too fancy for you to visit at the start of the game. They'll turn you away, you pleb. Maybe you're not fashionable or famous enough yet. It seems a little harsh if not weirdly bougie for a Pokemon game, but it definitely drove home the idea of a city. Granted, I can't really draw a comparison to the real France — I've never been there.
Cities don't get all the love, of course. Caves and other special areas have gotten a visual upgrade, making them feel more unique. My favourite tweak about these locations, however, is that they no longer feel like a giant drag. No more zubat-infested caves that make you carry a thousand repels or escape ropes in an effort to avoid battles or worse, stay alive after a long stretch without healing. Random encounters seem to be sparse, and sometimes, you'll be able to avoid them altogether if you're smart about where you walk. Tip: avoid obvious shadows. They hold enemies! That, and, many of the longer areas seem to throw in characters that can heal you midway through. It means less tension, but I'm not unhappy about the change or anything. Like I said, it's less of a slog.
The Pokemon themselves see improvements, too. Listen, I don't care how awful you think the designs of the new Pokemon are. Even the ugliest Pokemon in this game looks cute thanks to the new art direction, and you're going to have a sincerely difficult time choosing just a few monsters to battle with out of a list of over 700. I found myself constantly debating which Pokemon to take with me — this was true even if I previously considered that Pokemon to be useless in battle or, worse, have a lacklustre design. It helps that many of the Pokemon have little flourishes in battle, from their idling animation to the way they perform moves. I'm a big fan of how the later evolutions of the fire starter, for example, seem to bring out a wand to cast spells. If only all the Pokemon had that sort of attention to detail! Alas.
Still, it helps that many of the new Pokemon are wonderfully designed. I wish I could talk more at-length about my favourites — I'll tell you more come release time, when I'm legally allowed to do so. But I hope that the fact that many Pokemon are meant to be a secret gives you an idea of the hype behind them: they're great and you're gonna want them in your party.
Let's talk a bit about battles, the meat and potatoes of the game. Battles still involve taking turns selecting moves, ideally exploiting the weaknesses of opponents — each move has a particular elemental type, and every Pokemon is strong and weak against specific types. It's much like Persona, if you've played that. Typically, guessing weaknesses shouldn't be a problem: you should be able to guess the affinities of most monsters at a quick glance, and as always, you'll feel smart about guessing correctly. The trick is more about having a move-set that is versatile and is able to adapt to most Pokemon. Overall, while the difficulty ramps up as you go along, the in-game battles are never nearly as complex as those you could have against another human player. As such, you can probably forego using most moves that aren't attacks...not that single-player is boring or anything! I've found myself having to consider the make-up of my team more than in previous Pokemon games, partially because of the balance, and partially because there are a lot of curious new type combinations. Ground-ghost Pokemon? Ground-Fairy Pokemon? Sure! There are many weird combinations to choose from, now, and some Pokemon can not only change type, some of their moves even have double typing. Neat.
Other battle tweaks seem a little harder to comment on at the moment. We've got the Mega Evolutions which, yes, are conceptually amazing — the first time I Mega Evolved my Blastoise? That's now in my personal "favourite Pokemon moments" list. Most of the time, though, it seems as if you won't need to charge up your Pokemon like that in battle unless you're in a pinch, under-levelled, or are going up against other Megas. Rest assured, though, that their existence will change multiplayer battles a ton. I can see entire strategies emerging from having Mega teams, thanks to how powerful it makes some Pokemon. Of course, hopefully I don't discourage you from using Megas all the time in the single-player if you want to!
The new horde battles — skirmishes where you go up against five other wild Pokemon — meanwhile, seem to mostly be a nuisance. The most efficient way of dealing with them is using moves that can hit multiple Pokemon, which you may not have. But assuming you do, many of the hordes are so low-level that they're not worth the time you spend battling them. I run away from these constantly; they don't seem like a very good innovation.
What else is new? We've got the Nintendogs-like Pokemon-Amie, which let you pet your Pokemon and play mini-games with them. Doing so can increase friendliness, which is good for powering up the strength of certain moves or being able to perform certain evolutions. Otherwise, they're a neat distraction from the main game, but nothing I've spent too much time with yet.
Then we have stuff like Super Training, which helps you beef up specific stats on your Pokemon outside of battle. It's another thing that feels like an interesting distraction, and I'm sure new players will welcome an easy way to train Pokemon in specific ways. Before, figuring out what you had to do to up a certain stat and doing the maths for how you had to go about it all could be a drag...but I suspect that some hardcore folk might stick with the old system. It's more straightforward and has less frills than doing a soccer mini game, not that either approach is 'better' than the other. I don't really know that you'll have an incentive to mess around with this feature unless you're thinking about jumping into competitive battling, though.
Some more random observations, in bullet-point form:
- There is a place where you can make some super-weird motivational videos of yourself. It's really goofy...but in the "I want to show everyone" sort of way.
- Interacting with other players online gives you the ability to use "O-Powers," which let you gain or give special effects — like, say, raising your attack stat or making Pokemon friendlier.
- DARKER SKIN COLOURS! It's really heartening to see a variety of people in the games.
- Some cafes/restaurants do special types of battles, like having to beat an opponent in X turns...because that's how much time it would take for your meal to cool down and be able to eat, apparently.
- You can tip all sorts of people for performing services at said cafes/restaurants/other locations. If there's a benefit to doing so, I haven't found it yet.
- You can climb this game's version of the Eiffel Tower. Actually, it's a gym. Cool, huh?
- Speaking of gyms: my favourite one so far is a skate park. So awesome.
- Speaking of skating: you can do a neat little swirling trick while on your skates.
- Few things compare to the joy of riding on a Pokemon's back. And let me tell you, being able to jump over ledges in the grass? Now that's freedom.
- Sky battles, or, battles that only Pokemon who can fly can participate in. Kind of novel, I guess.
- Team Flare, this game's version of an antagonist, might be stylish but, man, they're so silly, too. I find it hard to take them seriously, but I guess that can change later in the game.
- Despite all the new stuff, being able to pick my clothes, haircut/hair colour and eye colour is by far my favourite feature.
Although I haven't finished the game yet, so far all of this has come together to form a Pokemon game that seems devoted to pleasing its players — no matter how over-the-top it might be in indulging us. If you're a new player, you won't be able to see all the fan-service or call-backs, but you will be playing what feels like the definitive version of Pokemon thus far — what many of us would have made, if we had our way back in the elementary school days. Back when we'd fantasise about garish versions of our favourite Pokemon that come complete with Fabio hair and extra cannons, if not having the ability to actually treat said Pokemon like pets.
There's a lot to be said about the more nitty-gritty details of Pokemon — and come release date, we'll publish a more extensive review along with more in-depth stuff about other aspects of the game. For now, feel free to ask me about anything else you'd like to know more about — we'll try to make sure to cover it later.