A new entry to an established video games series is expected to make advances, striving towards seamlessly melding smooth gameplay with the creators’ visions. Two major forms of this advancement are innovation and refinement. Whereas the former introduces radical new elements to a game that may or may not prove successful, the latter polishes and makes even greater the elements of a game series that made it so beloved in the first place.
Game Freak’s ‘Pokemon X’ and ‘Pokemon Y’ fall into the latter category; though it does bring along a fair share of minor innovation, too.
X and Y mark the 6th generation of Pokemon games. The most obvious innovation it makes to the series is the push into the third dimension; the game is fully in 3D. The environments are 3D, the characters are 3D, and most importantly, every single Pokemon is 3D for the first time in a handheld Pokemon game.
The 3D models are spot-on and look fantastic. Pokemon that tend to have erratic natural movements, such as flapping wings or rapidly flowing tongues (ahem, Lickitung), look absolutely superb in their fully animated glory. Fans have clamored for customizable player models, and X and Y have brought them. Everything from skin color to hair to clothes can be customized, though clothes need to be bought first using the money one gains from beating people in Pokemon battles and presumably swiping their wallets after the fact.
While the 3D graphics and models are excellent, the 3D mode enabled via the 3DS is quite the opposite. In many cases, perhaps too many cases, the game will lag and drop frames while 3D mode is turned on. The game will look as though it’s stuttering and suffocating under the pressure of duplicating a screen of already gorgeous-looking models for the sake of the 3D illusion. The problem manifests most notably in wild “Horde” encounters, where 5 random Pokemon attack the player at once. Even with 3D unavailable in this case, the game still lags. These frame rate nuisances are solved for the most part by turning off 3D mode. Nothing of value is lost with 3D mode turned off, anyway – which is probably why Nintendo decided to release the 2DS (a device incapable of using the 3D mode) on the same day that ‘Pokemon X’ and ‘Pokemon Y’ released. It’s also worth mentioning that 3D mode can only be enabled during specific cutscenes and during one-on-one battles; turning up the 3D slider does absolutely zilch in the overworld and in any battles with more than 2 Pokemon onscreen at once.
The most major innovation from X and Y is also the one most heavily marketed: Mega Evolution. Certain fully evolved Pokemon can temporarily ascend to a new, stronger state for the duration of a battle. They gain increased stats and altered abilities, but the limitations are that only one Mega Evolution can be activated per battle (so the player can’t have 2 Megas on their team at once), and that a Mega Stone must be equipped to permit the transformation. This ability isn’t granted from the get-go either; it’s learned later on in the story.
This innovation mostly affects the meta-game and competitive battling against other players, since most of the stones required to Mega Evolve are found in the post-game (after the story is completed). Even so, they are a nice touch and make the Pokemon that Mega Evolve look radically different from their older selves – sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, depending on whose eye the beauty is being beheld by.
Graphics and Mega Evolution aside, X and Y refine the series more than ever before. Some notable quality of life changes have been added to the series. For one, catching a wild Pokemon will now grant experience to the player’s Pokemon. This adds a further incentive to expanding one’s collection instead of killing everything in sight, since capturing no longer comes at the expense of experience. Speaking of experience, the experience share item has been re-conceptualized. It no longer needs to be held by one Pokemon – it can now be activated to benefit the entire team (it can be turned on and off at will). That’s right, when the player’s active Pokemon gains experience, the entire rest of the team will earn half of that instead of the typical zero.
Despite being an amazing refinement, the new experience share is both a blessing and a curse. First, the curse: The experience share is gained very early and leaving it on for the rest of the game while maintaining a fairly consistent team almost guarantees that one’s Pokemon will be much higher than the levels of their opponents. This may feel a little cheesy and sap away some of the challenge and enjoyment of the game. The solution is to turn the experience share off, but disabling such a valuable and convenient tool may feel strangely like an intentional handicap.
Not to mention the discipline it would take to resist the temptation of free, effortless experience.
The blessing can be summarized in two words: NO GRINDING! Keeping it enabled nearly ensures that the player never needs to grind (a rarity in RPGs); simply progressing through the plot and partaking in the battles that come naturally along the way will be enough to keep the team’s level more or less equal to the opposition. Even better is that the experience share allows one to constantly cycle in newly captured but lower leveled Pokemon into the party without being overly penalized – the new member can sit in the back row for a bit and gain power before being thrown into the fray.
Being the 6th generation, X and Y also refine the series in an obvious way: by adding new Pokemon. The 5th generation made the mistake of adding too many new Pokemon (about 150). As a result, the game ended up with what appeared to be the result of a tired-out team that ran out of ideas: living trash bags and smiling ice cream cones. Generation 6 adds about 70 instead, but their designs are, for the most part, well done (compared to Gen 5) and make for compelling additions to the ever-growing Pokedex (now at around 700 in total). The new starters, in particular, refine the classic rock-paper-scissor element of the classic Fire-Grass-Water trio. The new batch of starters adds the secondary elements of Psychic-Fighting-Dark, respectively, to the mix (at last, the Fighting element isn’t attached to the Fire starter).
The formula for the core gameplay – the Pokemon battles - is still the same as ever, though they now come with fancy 3D graphics and neat animations by the Pokemon as they perform moves and take damage. Each Pokemon has 4 moves, and a player’s team can consist of up to 6 Pokemon in total. All Pokemon are associated with 1 or 2 typings like Fire and Ice, as are the moves they perform. The main strategy, once again, consists of exploiting each type’s weaknesses with attacks of a type that are “super effective” against it, thus dealing double damage. For example, an Electric-type move like Thunderbolt will deal double damage to a Pokemon of the Water type, since Electric has the type advantage over Water.
For the first time since Generation 2, a new type has been added to the previously established 17. It’s called the Fairy type, and despite the unintimidating name, it was specifically added to shake up the type hierarchy. Prior to Generation 6, Dragon and Fighting types were deemed dominant overall. Fairy has been added to take them down a notch, since Fairy defeats both Dragon and Fighting (it’s even immune to Dragon attacks), and it also acts as a balancer by being vulnerable to types that were previously considered offensively weak, those being Steel and Poison. When one comes to realize that the Fairy type adds impressive attacks like Moonblast and has been retroactively added to existing Pokemon to grant them newfound value (like Gardevoir to now make it Psychic/Fairy), the Fairy type is a welcome addition that refines the balance of the series’ gameplay.
With over 700 Pokemon at the game’s disposal, it’s only natural that they have been spread out quite well among the game’s sprawling world. In every new route, every new location, the player is guaranteed to find a plethora of new Pokemon they had not seen in the location just before. Pokemon from every generation can be found in the wild, and even early on, a wildly vibrant, powerful and generation-diverse team can be formed with ease. The choices for an effective team composition are infinite, and with the new experience share, the constant addition of new Pokemon is encouraged. Newcomers to the series will be impressed with the massive variety, while veterans will happily acknowledge the appearance of some of their old favorites making a glorious return with a 3D model.
The story is nothing to clamor about, as usual of a Pokemon game. The player character starts out from humble beginnings, gains friends and rivals, fights a team of dastardly evil people seeking to use the Legendary Pokemon featured on the box for dastardly evil purposes, and learns the meaning of friendship, which is apparently how the player is so canonically strong and what people in the game use as an excuse to justify their loss to the player.
The usual fare.
It’s the same old, same old in X and Y – which is understandable, given the broad audience the game wants to reach, which limits the type of material one can expect from it. Although, at some points, the game’s story does take relatively dark turns.
The plethora of social features embedded into the game are worth mentioning – as well as worth using. Battles and trades can be found almost instantly with the PSS, or Player Search System. The O-Power system is the most unique addition, allowing players to give themselves and other players, even random passersby, temporary power-ups like increased stats for their Pokemon or higher money turnouts after victories. The incentive to shower someone else with buffs is that O-Powers are used at the cost of a time-regenerative resource, but this cost is lessened greatly when used on others. The more they are used, the stronger they grow.
The new Wonder Trade feature allows people to trade any Pokemon with another player chosen at random. As the concept implies, it’s a huge gamble. It’s inevitable that most people will simply trade away useless and absurdly common Pokemon in the vain hope of receiving something rare or valuable in return; though the fact that perhaps too many people adopt this mindset makes the Wonder Trade a mess. A mess of Pokemon under level 10 being constantly cycled around, to be more exact.
A major flaw of ‘Pokemon X’ and ‘Pokemon Y’ would have to be the lack of post-game content. After the story is cleared, there isn’t all that much left to do. In some previous games of the series, entirely new regions would be unlocked to explore. That’s not the case here; a few locations containing Legendary Pokemon do open up, and a loose thread in the story can be closed, but beyond that, the post-game consists mostly of one thing: competitive battles with either the AI or with other human players. New Mega Stones can also be found, but again, the very fact that they can only be found post-game indicates that they’re intended to be used in competitive battles.
At the very least, Game Freak has made the transition from casual play into competitive battling slightly less daunting. The invisible variables known as “Effort Values” are finally made visible, and there’s even a mini-game called Super Training that allows one to manipulate the “EVs” of their Pokemon to whatever they desire. Effort Values determine the maximum potential of a Pokemon’s stats, making them a fundamental, but previously hidden, element of the meta-game. The decision to expose them facilitates the path into competitive-minded battling.
In the end, ‘Pokemon X’ and ‘Pokemon Y’ do nothing to entice players that were not interested in Pokemon to begin with. But for its horde of loyal fans, it is nearly everything one could hope for in a current generation Pokemon game. Back in 1998 when the first Pokemon games hit North America, I could never imagine my Blastoise being anything but a pixelated, yet lovable blob. Now, 15 years later, the time has come, and he is a fully-fledged 3D model in the palm of my hand.
A truly modern handheld Pokemon experience has arrived at last, and from here on out, Game Freak will only continue to innovate, refine and expand upon a historic gaming franchise.