Pokémon games have become rather formulaic over the past two decades. You begin your adventure with one of three starter types, encounter birds and vermin-type Pokémon at the start, collect 8 badges from gyms, which you use to challenge the Pokémon League, and underneath it all is some weird subplot involving a criminal group. The repetitive and cookie-cutter approach Game Freak has used pushed me away from the series, as there was a lacking amount of depth to the game outside of its combat and monster-raising mechanics. Pokémon Moon is a surprising change of pace in this regard. It shakes up and attempts to change many of the tired formulas the series has had since its start on the Game Boy in 1996.
The Alola region is very different from the settings in previous games. There are no gyms in Alola, at least not in the traditional sense, and there’s also no Elite 4 or Pokémon League. Instead, when kids reach the age of 11 they take on the “Island Challenge,” a series of trials to prove their worth. Each trial comes in two parts: a challenge, and then a battle with a Totem Pokémon. Every challenge is different, and it helps to keep the gameplay varied. A couple of my personal favorites included photographing ghost Pokémon in a haunted supermarket, and foraging for food to lure a trial’s Totem Pokémon out.
Totem battles are also very different from gym battles in previous games. Unlike with gyms, you’re battling against the Pokémon itself rather than the team of a designated leader. Totem Pokémon are pretty strong for this reason, and they can be difficult to overcome if your team isn’t properly prepared. It feels like Game Freak put a lot of effort into these fights, because Totems will even have responses to you trying to exploit their weaknesses, something that feels like a first for the series. Totems can also call on other wild Pokémon to assist them, a mechanic that’s put to good use. Whatever assistant Pokémon the totem calls will typically complement it in some way and not just be another beat stick you have to deal with. In particular, one of the assistant Pokémon for the grass trial uses the move “Sunny Day,” which powers up the Totem’s moves and gives it access to a near-full heal every turn. You have to shift your focus in Totem battles constantly, and it’s a welcome change of pace to the old model of gym battles.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed exploring a world in a Pokémon game as much as I have with Moon. Alola is bursting with personality. In particular is Po Town, an abandoned village that is used as a base of operation for one of the antagonistic forces in the game, Team Skull. The village is run down, barricaded behind cold iron walls. The buildings in Po Town have deteriorated, their windows are smashed and their walls splattered in Skull graffiti. There’s plenty of other memorable locations too, including the starting town of Hau’oli, the Lush Jungle, and Wela Volcano.
The soundtrack compliments the vibrant Hawaii-inspired world, and even the reused jingles from previous games have remixes that fit the setting. The variety in Alola is one of the driving forces behind how the game feels fresh, and it’s tied into all of the game’s aesthetic features. The sights and sounds are what originally sold me on Moon. There is one other strong feature to the game’s presentation, though, and that’s its writing.
Team Skull is one of the game’s better points due to how creative their dialogue is. I have never really sought out to talk to NPCs in a Pokémon game after battling them, but the entertaining things Skull grunts say quickly got me to change my ways. The Skull underlings are brimming with personality. The group pushes itself as hardcore Pokémon thieves, but their dialogue and actions show that they’re really just inept punks. They get into arguments over their uniforms, they lose the Pokémon they try to steal, and they mix up messages that they send to each other, all while still trying to push their “bad to the bone” style. They’re flawed, and for once it is believable how a group of twenty-something gang members could lose to an eleven-year-old kid. I really wish more NPCs in Moon could have the same attention to personality that the Skull grunts have. There are a few major NPCs, like professor Kukui and a couple of the trail leaders, that are pretty defined, but most of the time it feels like a lot of NPCs lack an actual character.
Moon is not without its weakness, though, and its story is one of its weakest points. It’s not really clear what the main plot of the game is; rather, it’s like two or three stories are intertwined, but none of them reach a satisfying conclusion. There’s the Island Challenge that your player character and their rival go through, the Aether Foundation and Team Skull events, and then finally the story of Lillie, a girl that has some connection to Aether, and her character development. The biggest of these plots is that of the Aether Foundation and Team Skull, but neither groups receive an adequate amount of time to explain their motives. For example, despite the Team Skull grunts being great inclusions with clever writing, their bosses are boring and unexplored. Guzma, the leader of Team Skull shares a very similar ineptitude to his subordinates but it’s hinted at that he was/is a serious trainer. He has negative ties to the Island Challenge due to some kind of failure, but the story never chooses to pursue this point. The same can be said for the named members of the Aether Foundation, as most of them have barely any dialogue to define who they are on the most basic level.
Pokémon Moon‘s gameplay also has its own faults, mostly by undoing everything X and Y got right. Super training was a feature added in the last generation to speed up the process of gaining “Effort Values” (EVs), hidden stat numbers that determine your Pokémon’s stat increases. The only way to train EVs prior to X and Y was by grinding against specific Pokémon. The process could take hours, if not days, to do properly. Super training gave a nice alternative to this, even if it’s not that much faster. There were also horde battles, where you could fight multiples of the same Pokémon to maximize your EV gains. Moon gets rid of both of these, replacing hordes with the aforementioned “crying for help” mechanic used by Totems, and replacing super training with an online festival plaza. You have to unlock a shop, and then upgrade it several times to get decent EV buffs from it to the point where it’s not worth doing. The festival plaza feels like a forced way to make Moon a social game, and locks players out of things until they’ve met enough other unique trainers to grind a second currency in order to buy more shops. The festival plaza itself isn’t a bad idea, but its execution is.
By the end, it started to feel like Pokémon Moon was collapsing back in on itself. It has a lot of interesting ideas (and some bad ones), but it doesn’t follow through with them. While the game tried to mix it’s formula up at the start, you’re basically doing gym battles and the Pokémon League by the end. The story, despite being one of the darkest and most interesting narratives in a Pokémon title, falls flat on its face near its conclusion from a lot of lacking characterization. Pokemon Moon isn’t a bad game, though. It’s a solid title for series veterans or for newcomers, and has the same foundation as any other Pokémon game.