Third installments into a Pokémon generation are always a struggle for any moment of originality, and certainly Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are quiet in their pursuit of differentiating from its predecessors. Whilst Pokémon Sun and Moon were brilliant at shaking up a previously rigid formula, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon haven’t alleviated much from the story already told.
The issue isn’t a deviation in the quality of Pokémon games, but rather one of spending money on a game you’ve already played. Up until the battle with Totem Kommo-o, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are barely distinguishable from Pokémon Sun and Moon. The only noticeable difference is the occasional meeting with a duo from the Ultra Recon Squad, Dulse and Zossie in Ultra Sun and Soliera and Phyco in Ultra Moon. After Totem Kommo-o, the game begins to show some personality, giving Trial Captain Mina a new lease of life with her petal challenge. Astonishingly, it’s almost as if this was planned all along as Mina was musing about her potential trial in Pokémon Sun and Moon. Nonetheless, much of your Pokémon journey will be a repeat of the adventure you had taken last year, which is quite the tedious feat to take to merely experience a few additional pokémon added to the franchise.
Luckily, to reach the end of the Island Challenge isn’t too difficult. Lazily, most of the NPC trainers have only one pokémon, sometimes two for an extra surprise. Melemele Island offers a surprising abundance of pokémon that will serve you well until your encounter with Ultra Necrozma near the end. Inkay is found not far from the Professor’s cabin whose move topsy-turvy will help to alleviate much of what makes Ultra Necrozma so powerful. Also, there’s a hapless trainer on the island that will trade a Hawlucha for your Spearow before you’ve even begun Ilima’s trial. Plus, as it’s a traded pokémon, Hawlucha will level up much quicker. This means before you’ve even begun your Island Challenge, along with your starter and the mystery gift Rockruff which evolves into Dusk-Form Lycanroc, you’ve already got four pokémon that are more than capable of defeating the Elite Four.
There’s still the issue of Pokémon forcing a tutorial on the player, with every game, including Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, showing the player how to catch pokémon and other aspects of the game that haven’t changed since Red and Blue. It remains that there is always a Pokémon School in each game, and therefore, a tutorial should be optional so the experienced players can get involved with the Pokémon Universe much sooner. Pokémon Sun and Moon were too slow in beginning the player’s journey, and as Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is basically the same game, it too is too slow, perhaps even more so as it’s a repeat of before.
All these annoyances shouldn’t be too discouraging as the post-game is highly enjoyable, almost explosive. Indeed, battling Team Rainbow Rocket, an organization set up by Giovanni with all the villains from other Pokémon games, has been enthralling, if not surprisingly challenging. There are plenty of grunts around using very typical Team Rocket pokémon, only each grunt has a unique set of pokémon battling style.; a particular grunt had quite the irritating Fearow that would continuously use Double Team and Roost. Needless to say, the grunts are easily dispatched, but that’s not the entirety of the challenge. Each boss has the legendary pokémon associated with their generation, so Lysandre has Yveltal and Maxie has Groudon. These battles will be more bothersome than Whitney’s Miltank in Pokémon Gold and Silver, and quite frankly, a challenging aspect of the storyline is what Pokémon has needed for a long time.
There are few additions that are noticeable but not entirely important. Pikachu Valley is a valley full of Pikachu where you can obtain a rather obnoxious Pikachu outfit. There’s a ‘gym’ on Ula’ula Island that calls itself a Kantonian gym that you can visit for the typical gym battle seen in the previous generations. The gym is a clever inclusion as it highlights Professor Kukui’s ambition to create a Pokémon League in Alola. Each island has a beach dedicated to Mantine surfing where you can score points by performing a few tricks, and on one of those beaches, you can find Samson Oak who will give you Totem Pokémon for collecting Totem stickers found across Alola.
Ultimately, much of the focus of the games were supposed to be about Ultra Beasts and the Ultra Wormhole, with much emphasis on Ultra Megalopolis, a city in Ultra Space. Ultra Beast Poipole and its evolution are fantastic designs, and as it’s the first Ultra Beast that is known to evolve, (Cosmog and its evolutions aren’t proven Ultra Beasts) it adds a surprising new dimension to their background. Unfortunately, the other additions Stakataka and Blacephalon aren’t quite breaking the mold. It’s their dimension that was supposed to take focus but never quite becomes something more than a gimmick. Ultra Megalopolis, for example, was more of an altar for Ultra Necrozma than it was a city from another world. The best thing to come out of the Ultra Wormhole was the Ultra Recon Squad previously mentioned. They had all the personality of awkward tourists abroad, right down to their stiff attempt at the Alola greeting; they even give you the best gift in the game!
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are a complete conflict of the mind. They are brilliant games because Pokémon Sun and Moon were brilliant games, but that’s also their biggest problem. It’s the same problem with every third installment of a Pokémon generation with Pokémon Yellow the only one that felt original; that was because of the animé series. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are still charming with beautiful animation and the usual brilliant Pokémon soundtracks that bring each unique moment to life. On an old Nintendo 3DS there will be the occasional lag, but nothing that damages the gameplay. And this is the fundamental problem, they are excellent games tarnished by association with the games before it.
To sum up as simply as possible, if you’re new to the Pokémon franchise then Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are fantastic games that you should definitely consider. If you played Sun and Moon, then truthfully, you’re almost buying a new game for a few additional pokémon to keep your Pokédex complete. A harsh reality, but one that also ponders whether these third installments in the generations are ever worthwhile. Pokémon X and Y didn’t have the supposed Pokémon Z, rather they did a remake of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire which proved a much better decision.
As a strategy game, the Pokémon franchise continues to become more complex, with a diverse set of strategies notable in competitive play. The next core Pokémon games are going to be on the Nintendo Switch which has the opportunity to really give more freedom to the player and the story as a whole. This is where Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon become more exciting. They’ve pushed the concept of different worlds with different pokémon which would land the franchise in a completely new era. The hope in the future is for a Pokémon game that allows the player to make real decisions. Notably, when Giovanni asks if I want to join Team Rainbow Rocket and I accept his invitation, I don’t want him to think I’m joking just to continue the linear storyline, I actually want to join Team Rocket.