We want to be loved, and – in the deepest part of our hearts – share the memories of our path in this world with someone dear to us. Through or with Pokemon themselves, all that matters is there was, however briefly, someone who cared. To whom our existence mattered.
The former is not a line from the game, but Pokemon Sun (and its sibling, Moon) as the newest installation of a game series can (and does) allow itself excursions like these. Not just by being philosophical about its concepts, but to also question them and even be self-referential on a scale that only long established franchises can. In fact, the whole game is littered with little bits of sometimes heart-warming, sometimes disturbing, sometimes bitter, but always profound expressions of feelings towards a world that has become increasingly complex and multifaceted. A world that keeps expanding, uncontrollably, it seems.
With Sun you can feel it every stop of the way as the story unfolds. Gone are the days of you, the trainer, going on a simple adventure. The ever more spectacular and complex world with legendary Pokemon, beasts, and realms brings with it yet more Pokemon, regional differences to known species, and even challenging what you know as it reveals previous and later evolutions of existing Pokemon that “we haven’t known about”. It’s as if each time we are allowed into this world it’s made clear to us that we really know nothing. And it’s right: we don’t. In fact, it’s difficult to even say what Pokemon is, at this point.
Much of this is expressed in the very first minutes of the game where distinctive anime-style direction clearly underlines the evolution that has taken place since the first Game Boy outing. As you are being shown the various modes of play and the vast possibilities of what to do, think about, or collect are revealed, it simply must dawn on you: this is more of an “experience” than anything else. You were invited to the world of Pokemon, and there is something for everyone here.
Your player’s heart may even cringe as you are introduced to time-wasting activities and pointless customizations that despite being present in the more recent installments of the series only now show their full, compound effect as ways to entice the casual player. You will even see mechanics that are dangerously reminiscent of exploitative mobile games. Once the shockingly hideous Pokemon version of Clippy kind of takes over your lower screen forever, you will likely die inside because by now you know this is not a game made just for you: it’s a game made for everyone. The beginners, the kids, the adults, the hardcore, the casual, the compulsive, and the caregivers.
It’s a Utopian vision of all things to all people that is as wonderful as it is bleak. Not that Pokemon ever actively denied its worlds were, in effect, tyrannies of friendship, but their manifestation in Sun is just impossible to ignore.
Just look around you. Look at them. All of them. Their whole lives revolving about nothing else, Pokemon logos everywhere from apparel to architecture. People being led to worship them, building schools and entire administration branches purely to accommodate this pervasive element and implant the ideologies of sharing one’s life with Pokemon in everyone. You must form a bond: you must make them a part of you. This omnipresent idea is repeated again and again, brainwashing every denizen of this benign totalitarian regime, and you need only to go around and talk to them to hear them share with you their lives distilled down to short mantras representing the purpose of their existence. A purpose that is always somehow related to Pokemon.
And yes, there were always rebels and aspiring agents of change as the game series grew and expanded, but what did they ever achieve but to be swallowed by the machine, to be shown the “true paths”? The inevitable triumph of good magnifies the feeling of oppression as you are (year after year, from Blue to Sapphire, from Diamond to Moon) reincarnated again and again as the underage pawn of a sanctimonious creator who predestines you to crush their opposition. Even people who have in the past claimed to want to “free” Pokemon were in fact playing into the hand of the system, as they focused on the alleged battle of good and evil, all the while unbeknownst to them Pokemon themselves ascended to godlike status.
As the fledgling trainer, of course, you should know none of this. Your rather attractive mother sends you off on your adventure, and after the usual spiel, you get to explore the island of Alola on your own. It’s obviously very much the tropical paradise, and I have to say, this is the most beautiful Pokemon game of them all. Everything is pretty, alive, and vibrant: all the while radiating a sense of calm and peace. Between that, the music, and the atmosphere I really couldn’t put the game down for three hours straight after I first started it. I was lost in this paradise where people were happy and enjoyed life. Heck, even the rigid “gym” approach wasn’t a thing here; replaced with a more contemporary, informal way of earning badges as a means of progressing. Kahunas instead of Gym Leaders, Trials instead of battling the Leader’s underlings. To my delight, the idiotic need to separately withdraw and deposit Pokemon was finally replaced with a drag and drop functionality. Finally.
Well, I say that, but it cannot be understated how fundamentally the next change hit me. You see, I soon realized that in Sun it won’t be necessary to teach my Pokemon any “hidden machine” moves that were, up until now, mandatory for progressing in any of the previous games: moves like Fly, Surf, or Cut. These used to make me mad, because not only did it mean I had to catch Pokemon who were able to learn them, but I had to keep them pretty much for the entirety of the game. Which in itself was the materialization of my biggest philosophical gripe with the entire concept of the Pokemon utopia throughout all of its existence, and the single reason that kept me from being able to love Pokemon X unconditionally.
The fact is that unlike almost everyone else in that world, you were not actually allowed to forge a deeper relationship with your Pokemon.
Just think of all the times you have talked to the people of Hoenn, Kalos, Johto, or any other region. People or trainers with a maximum of two or three Pokemon, where you felt like they were their constant companions. And while you may have been on the more exciting journey, beating them all up in a row like the common trainer fodder they were, personally I was always left with an overwhelming feeling of envy. Here I was, the chosen one, on an adventure so epic in scale…and yet all I could think of was how it would be if I could go through life like they do. To not “catch them all”, but to befriend but a few. Two, three, at most six. But I was never allowed to.
Until now, that is. Until Sun.
And no, it’s not like the game is not designed to favor a “well balanced team”. But while previously it was more or less impossible to have just six Pokemon, let alone ones that you could chose purely on sympathy, Pokemon Sun actually allows you to do this. So the minute I accepted that pager and realized that I could indeed keep my party of predominantly bug Pokemon with only a relatively small increase of grinding needed to clear the stages where I’d be at a significant type disadvantage, I could not but pause and thank the game. I lived to see the day I was finally able to have an adventure that would be my own.
Oh, yes, the pager. Well, you see instead of traveling using your own Pokemon, you just use a pager to summon the appropriate creature that will help you out by taking you there or provide some other help, like pushing away rocks and such. And never you mind where they appear from, because it doesn’t matter. This is a friendly place and Pokemon help you. Or each other, actually, which is a bit more annoying in random battles. For example, with wild Pokemon the Pokemon themselves might call for help against you. Even the trial bosses, called Totem Pokemon, can do this. But hey, friendship works in both ways, nothing wrong with that. For that, you get useful tweaks in the battle system like indicators of move effectiveness, and even special Z-power crystals that you can equip instead of held items and that allow you to perform a single super-move if you feel like it will benefit your battle tactic.
For all these new conveniences and additions though, the roots of the old game remain as strong as ever, becoming more pronounced as you progress. Your main objective is still to catch and battle with Pokemon as you work your way up the ranks, clearing bosses and stages, leaving you with very little doubt that in classic Pokemon fashion at the game’s end you will be left with a challenge exponentially more difficult than all previous ones, and your only recourse will be to grind. The barriers that hinder your progress are the most overlooked indicators of this “Pokemon of old” core, arrogantly displayed in your face, with explanations ranging from the nudge-winky to the downright insulting. And while you can lounge and engage in various collection or enjoyment side activities, to finish the game you will have to battle. Then, battle some more. Battle a lot. Battle, battle, battle.
And in doing that, sooner than later, you’ll come across them. The game’s antagonist group, Team Skull.
Sounds scary – but it isn’t. In fact their overly gangsta mannerisms instantly make them into a parody of themselves. Always good for a vaguely anti-establishment line or two, but never with a real agenda. This team looks quite menacing, but very soon becomes a sad reminder of the helplessness and loss of agency that every Pokemon villain will inevitably face; now more than ever. In fact, Team Skull grunts are more like uneducated, lost children than dangerous criminals. Their leader is a confused juvenile wreck: a puppet whose only difference to others is that he realized the existence of his strings.
But, as the great Pokemon machine with its dogmas of friendship and co-existence grinds its gears to inevitably crush them with you as their executioner, the last true delight of the game appears. It’s the game master villainess and as much as the scattered Skull anarchists feel soft and weak, she, at a stroke, transforms the entire game, bringing back with her the ambition on par with the leaders of the most visionary Pokemon villain teams of old. It’s obvious that she, too, will fall in battle against you, and that much like all others before her, she will never go beyond what is destined for her in this one game. And yet, the way she carries herself, with disdain for your destiny, the way her cruelty is genuine, and the way she delivers the reasonings of all those before her is – as is the hallmark of a true villain – beautiful to watch.
And it was Lusamine’s entering the story that made me realize that it was my destiny to love this game. Indeed, her motivations are nothing new, but the way she centers them around herself is filled with such honesty that no amount of explaining after she is beaten will take away the fact that it was in her villainous convictions that she was truly herself. Looking to create a world of her own, at all costs, at any cost; with no one else in it.
A world just like the one I had been experiencing, in fact. Because in all honesty, I never once stopped being happy whenever I played the game: something I attribute to a large extent to how I played it. My total information blackout that continued even as I played the game meant I actually bought it without knowing any single piece of information about it except the cover art, and was spared any speculations, opinions or first impressions. This game was going to be all mine, and frankly, there is nothing quite like going in fresh, without the weight of expectations and explore the world, the game system and the idiosyncrasies of this version without the voices of other people.
In a way, I created this pure world and played my game in isolation: not sharing its beauty with anyone. And now, whatever happens, I will always have that memory. A memory that is every bit as perfect for me as the world that Lusamine created for herself in the game.
But perfection is but a set of imperfections that fulfill your unique personality – which also means that if I wanted, I could go on in listing the annoyances that, no doubt any responsible reviewer would see for what they are.
I did find it strange that the stereoscopic 3D didn’t seem to work. Up to the point where I thought my 3DS got broken – except when I went back to the icon and tried other games, I realized it must simply have been removed. Which seems like a step back, because I quite enjoy 3D effects in games. The very annoying (if brief) stuttering whenever a battle with more opponents takes place is also something that one would think could be solved – if not in the software then surely with the presumably faster “new 3DS XL” console that I have? But no.
Then, there is the matter of still not knowing what Pokemon the opponent will start with (although since ever we always know what Pokemon they will send out once the first one has been withdrawn or defeated), which also means that it may well happen you lose the entire battle because you didn’t know the starting Pokemon – and win it the next time around, because you now do. And really, who came up with the idea of disintegrating and reassembling Pokemon? That’s just disturbing. Also, that grisly story of an awful accident that ended in death, resentment, and pain? Out of nowhere, that one.
On the other hand, the people who wrote those questionable bits were probably the same writers who made the trainer quips into what they are today. Those short messages from all the people you meet, infused with portions of sarcasm, wit, double entendres, or plain ridiculousness are one of the silent defining features of the whole series. So much so that any text that is longer than three or four lines feels uncomfortably lengthy, even if it’s actually part of the main story line. And though you may cringe at some of them, there is a very good chance you’ll also find ones you’ll simply love too. Indeed, as already established, this is a game for everyone and it feels like it really wants you to find your own place in it. That’s also amazingly well illustrated by the abundance of secluded places that seem to exist (save for a little bonus pickup) almost exclusively to be found and enjoyed.
Honestly, it was all of these little things and diversions that I seem to be merely mentioning in passing here now, that made me let go, that made me change my mindset from that of primarily a player to just a person who enjoys himself in the world of Pokemon. Even things I initially thought were nonsensical, I actually did. I bought new clothes and found me a nice look, I regularly played with my Pokemon and cleaned them up after battles (called Pokemon Refresh), and occasionally I bought a drink for no real reason. And enjoyed shooting pictures, too. Truth be told, I didn’t visit the daycare-ish Poke Pelago much, because I let all of my “surplus” Pokemon go (save for one that was a gift, but enough said), but I did like the idea. There is the Battle Royal and then the berries, the latter of which I finally warmed up to.. There was so much to do with your Pokemon.
Because – for better or worse – Pokemon (Sun) is only really about Pokemon. Berries are for them, restaurants are for them, photos are taken of them, and I could swear some Pokemon commented on my sense of fashion. Even “Pokemon Refresh” which at first seemed like a thing to pass the time or take a breather actually helps you in battle as your team members may endure a one-hit K.O. move, or resist what would normally be paralysis in battle… just because they love you. And when this happens in your last and toughest battles, with Pokemon who have traveled with you so far, and they call on their reserves like that, and genuinely make you feel proud of them – that is when I felt I could not but give up the last shreds of cynicism. This is a wonderful, wonderful game, and it made me admit that when all’s said and done I just want to be loved and – in the deepest part of my heart – share the memories of my path in this world with someone dear to me. Through or with Pokemon themselves, all that matters is there was, however briefly, someone who cared. To whom my existence mattered.
Ribombee, Araquanid, Ledian, Carbink, Lumineon, and Skarmory. It took this long, from Yellow to Sun, but I finally know what it feels like. Not to be your trainer. But to be your friend.