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Pokemon X & Y Review

The path to the release of Pokémon X and Y was a strange time for me, checking sites like Serebii and Bulbapedia in order to savour every new update and scrap of information.

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I didn’t even own a 3DS, but my resolution to play the new Pokémon game was so strong that by the time it was released I ensured I had one. I wouldn’t say Pokémon was the sole reason for my buying Nintendo’s handheld but it was these games that provided the major catalyst for spending £250 on a new console. So was my spending justified?

I have not yet finished the game, and I have no designs on rushing it at all to complete, so consider this more of a ‘review in progress’. Spoilers may be ahead however, so be warned Poke-fans. Also, I bought the Y version, so if you play X your experience will likely differ in some aspects.

Game Freak have followed an almost uniform approach to starting their games since Generation I. Your character has just moved into the Kalos region with your Mother (again, a curiously absent father) and you are soon invited by your neighbour Serena to join them in the next town. For the first time you are greeted to a group of four new friends. All of which have their own personality, likes and dislikes, and preferences in approaching the world of Pokémon.

The kid called Trevor (who reminds me heavily of Brief from Panty & Stocking) ‘battles’ you to see who has caught the most Pokémon. Tierno is always searching for Pokémon that dance, Serena (or the male equivalent) prefers battling and becoming the strongest trainer she can be. Shauna, who prefers collecting cute Pokémon for friendship, also seems to be an attempt at a one-sided romance (the protagonist doesn’t talk as always) which is a nice change. It’s interesting to  develop relationships with your entire friend group, and it helps that they all seem very real. Thankfully this group dynamic isn’t a one time throwaway away thing, you’ll find the group in different strands turning up on the routes and in cities with each one reacting differently to you in their own personality.

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Your first encounter with them presents you with your choice of three starting Pokémon the fire type fox Fennekin, the water type frog Froakie and the grass type chestnut Chespin. The same grass, fire, water dynamic remains unchanged and within minutes you’re treated to a battle. For the first time in Pokémon history I found myself with the type advantage. They then you’re off to see Professor Sycamore. This short introduction takes place within the first twenty minutes of starting up the game and before long you’re released into the wild. No hour long tutorials or cumbersome trips between villages before you’re plunged straight in, given poke balls and allowed to do with your time whatever you please.

Your character is a full sized 3D model for the first time, and it’s strange how much the experience is enriched for it. You’re also able to customize your character by dressing them in whatever you can afford and changing their hair and eye colour, making the character feel like yours, not just a carbon copy of everyone else’s.

The world you walk around is truly beautiful.The cities, often based on French architecture, are beautifully crafted. Daytime is accompanied with shining rays of light and the night is lit by glowing street lamps. Sometimes the camera angle is are unfortunately too high up to fully appreciate the settings though but it will often orient itself in order for the player to fully enjoy the amazingly detailed backgrounds.The player is also gifted various ways to travel, walking, running (straight away this time), via roller blades, bicycle, and eventually flying. You can even ride on the back of certain Pokémon. Being able to travel in 8 directions rather than the standard four is great too and makes full use of the 3DS’s analogue pad. (OMG, I can walk DIAGONALLY!)

Photo opportunities are present at the more scenic of places, giving you a chance to take pictures of yourself in front of these landmarks, you can control zoom and focus levels, and moving the 3DS actually moves the camera, it’s a nice touch, considering how beautiful the world has become. The Pokémon Gyms are nothing short of glorious, each one lovingly crafted. From the Eiffel Tower Quiz Show Lighting Gym to the Doll House Fairy Gym you’re treated to a rich experience each time, every gym leader is also extremely individual and extraordinary; they also really fit in well with their specific gym.

The Pokémon battles retain the same core system; turn-based exchanges where you pit your Pokémon against other trainers or wild Pokémon in order to faint or catch them respectively. Touch screen use has been perfected over three different generations of Pokémon games hosted on the DS, with all of your battle options made accessible by touch screen.

The most obvious change to Pokémon battles are the Pokémon themselves. Each and every Pokémon of the now incredible roster of over 600 has been lovingly rendered as a full 3D model. It’s nothing short of a tribute to the series that has been going on almost as long as I’ve been playing games. Each Pokémon is given its own unique attitude and attack animations, Meowstic’s glowing eyes and pulsing ears are cool to watch as she attacks. Actual attack animations are shared, but moves such as Brave Bird have been given really cool animations that you won’t mind watching again and again.

Battles are much faster now, and can also be enhanced by other bonus features like the Pokémon-Amie petting system. All of the Pokémon’s cries have been updated to fill the void between the scratchy ear penetrating screech of the first three generations so they fit in better, and new Pokémon cries are as good as ever. Certain Pokémon like Electrode still offend the ears unfortunately. Pikachu even has its own cry from the anime. Triple Battles are present in game now, available at certain places and restaurants, pitting three of your Pokémon against three of theirs. Admittedly the best part of this is the joy of seeing three of your Pokémon at once fighting alongside each other. Sky Battles also join the mix, pitting your flying type against hard to find sky trainers, usually over cliffs or across seas, these are new and interesting but don’t offer much variation on the usual battles except for that you’re usually outnumbered. It’s also a little odd to see an enemy use a Carnivine in a flying battle.

Pokémon catching itself now feels oddly optional, with so many Pokémon out there it feels redundant to ‘catch ‘em all’ as the old slogan would suggest. But if, like me, you still have a compulsive need to fill your boxes with caged Pokémon then catching hasn’t much changed, though two features have served to enrich the experience. Firstly I was told by one of the many hundreds of helpful NPC’s about an opportunity that once you’ve caught a certain number of Pokémon catching them become easier. If your catching level is high enough then it barely wobbles before sealing, this is great because it makes you feel more like an expert trainer and shows that catching Pokémon does go towards something.

Secondly is the inclusion of gaining experience for catching as well as fainting Pokémon. This is a long awaited feature (at least for myself) and awards you for catching Pokémon which, aside from being a Pokedex and box filler, is a large money sink. Especially in a world where you’ve never had so many options and different ways to spend your money. Random minstrels and restaurant waiters ask for tips, odd items are available at each Pokémon Centre, TMs are now very expensive (though they do last forever) and customization is expensive; a new outfit from Lumiose City cost almost 250,000 poke dollars but it’s worth it to look unique

Ease of use has been greatly improved over previous generations. Pokémon and items are now displayed side by side with their health and items, which can be removed, added or switched using the touchscreen, streamlining any item changes. It also displays their health so that any restorations can be done quickly without switching back from screens.

When it comes to teaching your Pokémon new moves your HM’s and TM’s are also displayed alongside your Pokémon, each one displaying if either they already know the move, that they can’t actually learn the move, or they can. Saving you time again switching back and forth between ‘booting up’ TM’s. Lastly on this ease of use is the radial menu. Made accessible with the X button, the radial menu presents up to 4 items you can freely register from the item menu, most useful here is your bike, fishing rod and dowsing machine. The dowsing machine has also been improved, going from a radar like item to a seeking machine where different coloured beams point you towards hidden items. It also stays on until you deactivate it, providing you with the option of running around with it constantly. In short, every effort has been made to make X and Y as streamlined and convenient an experience as possible.

The music score is also beautiful, with nice melodies and calm tunes accompanying village and town walks, and cool heavy music accompanying Team Flare’s (this generation’s Team Rocket) strut, battle music is also heavily improved, and the score becomes extremely tense when your Pokémon are low on HP, which truly makes it feel dangerous.

Small but powerful additions are based on the bottom touch screen at all times whilst roaming the world. The first of these is the Pokémon-Amie System. Half mini-game, half fan service, you select a Pokémon from your team and take them into the Pokémon-Amie field area. With this you can use your touch screen to pet them, it’s a cute experience with the smaller Pokémon, extorting cooish awws from even a grown man. Rubbing the stylus next to them will sometimes make them try and high-five you, and certain Pokémon have areas where they preferred to be petted. Some of these even fall in line with the Pokémon’s description which enhances the immersion. For example Honedge, a new sword based Pokémon, is told to trap people’s souls if it touches its scarf, and whilst touching the scarf in Amie doesn’t trap your soul, it’s not appreciated. Amie is even funnier with larger Pokémon, the large and intimidating panda Pokémon Pangoro looks hilarious as he begrudgingly accepts your affection, likely resisting the urge to seismic toss you.

You can also feed your Pokémon Poke Puffs, little cupcake like food stuffs that you earn from playing in the three mini games, which to Game Freak’s credit, are a lot of fun. If this is where X and Y would have left it we would have parted as friends, but Amie does so much more than that. Your Pokémon have various levels that can be raised through Amie: affection, hunger and enjoyment. Once a Pokémon is getting close to maxing affection it has an effect in battles. The first time I started noticing that my Greninja had started dodging attacks because it ‘was so in sync with my wishes’ or clearing itself of paralysis or sleep ‘to stop Daniel from worrying’ I realised that the love I had given them returned to me when I needed it in battles. I think the best part about this was that I had no idea that was the outcome, I wasn’t told by the game, so all decisions to pet my Pokémon were made with no gain in mind except for my Pokémon’s happiness, (and my partners affection for cute Pokémon) being rewarded for something that would have been fine as a standalone feature is nothing short of an incredible reward for the player. Not only that, but a certain loved Pokémon can evolve if given enough attention via the Amie system too.

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The second of these bottom screen activities is the Super Training System. This is also a great feature, giving players much more control over the growth of their Pokémon. If you’re a serious player, or a Pokémon aficionado then the odds are you already know about EVs, or Effort Values, and how they affect your Pokémon’s stat growth, These were previously hidden from the player but with Super Training, not only are EVs out in the open in a handy circle chart, but you’re able to influence them as you want with the fun mini game and punching bags you receive from them. The game itself is fairly interesting, as you float around an arena shooting footballs at balloon representations of Pokémon, and didn’t drag for me at all even when fully training 3 or 4 Pokémon in one afternoon to their fullest. It’s nice to have so much control this time around, and makes you feel like you’re really training your Pokémon. A little variety on the training could have been improved this, because every stat was trained in the same way. Attack and Defense were both trained by throwing balls at a balloon; couldn’t Defense have been trained by resisting being hit or dodging balls?

Fortunately though this mode doesn’t end when you have maxed out a Pokémon’s stats, a further two levels that offer cooler rewards like elemental stones and advanced punching bags for your other Pokémon are revealed, showing that Game Freak goes above and beyond when it comes down to even their mini-games, always thinking about their players even after completion.

The last feature are the O-Powers.These are powers you can access that temporarily increase aspects of your game, for example Prize Money, Experience, Attack Power and even Capture power. You are given a certain amount of charge, and these charge orbs are used up by the powers. Powers last 3 minutes and consume varying amounts of charge orbs. Your charge orbs are then charged up over time. This feature is reminiscent various RPG’s offering outside buffs (Blue Dragon comes to mind), and is a welcome addition to the already budding list of features. Pokémon however sets itself apart from the rest in that it’s possible to give these ‘buffs’ to other players for cheaper charge orb costs. Nintendo is known for promoting friendliness and teamwork amongst their players, a breath of fresh air in the FPS dominated scene of unfriendly gaming.

Another feature which I found delightful was the ability to make something called a PR video, it’s essentially a 10 second video to advertise yourself as a trainer. You can fully customize this from effects to music to the way your character looks and even feature a chosen Pokémon from your party in it. This sort of system is similar to making your intro sequence from various wrestling games, and is just as, if not more, fun. It’s one of those ‘get out what you put in’ minigames; where time and effort is often rewarded with something truly worthwhile.

This is unfortunately where the endless praise subsides for a little while, and the chinks in an otherwise flawless suit of armour begin to show. There are small niggling problems that aren’t terrible but do mark the game, for example being able to tip certain people is different, but only serves to give the player a two dimensional choice that has no effect rather than presenting the player as either a tight bastard or a big shot spender.

Swarms are a feature that wasn’t mentioned earlier because I find them so tedious. At first it was different and interesting, but it soon became annoying when the one Zangoose in a herd of Seviper became uncatchable due to the Seviper systematically ganging up on the poor thing before I could get rid of them. It’s great that they stick to the Seviper/Zangoose rivalry, but not being able to catch one because I can only send out one Pokémon against five was annoying after a while. Plus these horde encounters become a waste of time, especially when you’re vying for higher levels and they offer tiny levels of experience, even for fainting them all. What would have been interesting would have been a swarm of five different Pokémon, not 5 of the same that all do slow attacks, eating up your play time. For a game so seemingly focused on a streamlined experience this is the only time I feel bored playing.

One of the little things that also irked me was the breaking of the fourth wall ; I had one trainer assure me that my Pokémon’s power levels were ‘over 9000’. I appreciate memes as much as the last guy, but it feels out of place with the Pokémon World. Another was not so bad because it wasn’t just an out of the blue reference and involved the world. An NPC mentioned the story of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ in which a human is turned into a Pokémon, but the girl loved him even so’ the reason this wasn’t so bad was because it integrated our world with theirs which is always interesting. It wasn’t a random blurt that looked like unnecessary pandering from a company that should have enough self-respect to be the reference not the referencer.

One more little annoying thing, and sort of understandable, is the censorship. At my most immature of times I like to give certain Pokémon funny names, some of which certain people might find offensive. But never have I been censored when naming Pokémon. Now my free speech is gone and not even being able to name a Pokémon Poo, is a shame .

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I’ve done the good, and I’ve done the bad, now for the somewhat ugly.

The game is extremely easy and for some this might be good. But I think the problem lies in the overpowered EXP Share. Now being literally an ON/OFF option rather than a hold item it affects all of your Pokémon. You’ll find that you can pretty much get away with using one Pokémon and your team will follow in levels without the need to train them individually. You could potentially use one Pokémon and have a team of six all at the same level. While this is part of the streamlining of the game I’m in two minds about it. On one hand I think back to Gold and Silver, which were brutal for Experience, you could spend hours grinding to get your team levelled up which frankly wasn’t fun. But then having all of your Pokémon at such a high level so quickly feels like the game is rushing you along. The story isn’t that long so it shouldn’t really be rushing the best parts. I wish there were a better balance, so that EXP Share could be used on a chosen number of Pokémon but you sacrificed the amount of EXP that is allocated between them. Again it’s the old Skyrim ‘fast travel argument’, if you don’t like it you don’t have to use it, but if something is there to make your life easier you will invariably end up using it, wouldn’t you?

The story is not Pokémon Y’s strong point. The story of the Titan’s past is rather interesting, and it’s beautifully animated, albeit with washed out stills. Reaching the legendary Pokémon Yveltal (who seems to quite like poke puffs and being stroked under his neck) was a matter of defeating a few cloned Team Flare trainers, who you would think would have a more unique Pokémon collection, and throwing one Ultra Ball. Whether it was that the game had been made too easy by the EXP share and O-Powers or I’m just an awesome Pokémon Master is up for discussion. The point is the story was very intriguing, but the meat of it wasn’t revealed until a very short sequence in-between the 7th and 8th Gym and odd messages and small skirmishes with the (though interestingly attired) fairly boring Team Flare. When it was good, it was great, but it just didn’t last long enough and had a fairly big anti-climax, with everyone just returned to what they had been doing before as though nothing had happened. Except that I now had a Pokémon in my party that apparently could wipe out the lives of thousands of creatures yet was almost fainted in two attacks.

The game also can’t seem to decide whether this is the main focus of the game, or if it’s about Mega Evolution, which apparently is at least the second most important thing about Pokémon Y. Call me old-fashioned here, but Mega Evolution has never appealed to me. I’m not going to say Pokémon shouldn’t have it at all, or that it shouldn’t be in the next game. I’m just saying that, pre and post release; it held zero interest for me at all. This ties into my major grumble with the game in that there are only 69 new Pokémon, where each new generation added at least 100 if not a full 150.

A personal wonder of mine (not based at all in any fact) is whether Game Freak simply couldn’t think of new Pokémon and then used Mega Evolution as a cheap copout, ever so slightly changing some already existing Pokémon to distract us. These evolutions are for temporary use in battle and require a hold item specific to the few available Pokémon able to use it. You are given a test ride with Mega Evolution, where you are given the chance of using Mega Evolution with a Lucario you are lumbered with, and I’ll be honest I didn’t feel my interest was piqued enough to pursue it with other Pokémon. This however is a personal opinion; I would have much preferred a seemingly taboo permanent fourth evolution instead. These temporary evolutions feel more tentative than anything, a shy toe in the water rather than a bold and confident leap forward.

My issue with the lack of new Pokémon also extends to the prevalence of the older ones. I always assumed that the point of a new Pokémon game was to showcase its new world and its new creations. So coming up to release I was cynically saying ‘If I see another damn Pidgey, Rattata, Machop, Zubat or Geodude I’ll stop playing the game!’ and I was only half-joking, nothing was going to stop me from fully experiencing the most important step forward in Pokémon gaming history. But my first random encounter was with; yes you guessed it, a damn Pidgey. At the time this was hilarious, I smugly sat back and said ‘What did I say?’ but looking back it was a sign of things to come.

Meeting Professor Sycamore for the first time yields you a choice of one of three Pokémon; Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander; the starters from the very first Pokémon games. This felt like an insult to the player, personally when playing new generations I like every member of my team to be of the new generation, and filling up 1 of your 6 possible spaces with a Pokémon that I’ve already spent tons of time with just feels needless. Now this might be an effort to display Mega Evolution via friendly faces, but why not give the new Pokémon Mega Evolution? As far as I’m aware (at time of writing) none of the new Pokémon even have Mega Evolutions and you’re forced to use old ones to enable this.

Now this probably wouldn’t bother those that are newcomers (or the less irritable crowd) and in retrospect is good for those who might like familiar faces. Unfortunately for me it felt like another excuse for a lousy number of new Pokémon. The Pokedex, your catalogue for registering data about new Pokémon now feels like a given and doesn’t even feel important. The new Pokémon are collected together with the old in different region sections (admittedly cool) in an effort I wonder to hide how little of them there are.

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Summary

Honestly though the lack of new Pokémon doesn’t completely take away from the experience, seeing even old Pokémon in their shiny new 3D forms makes a big difference and almost makes up for it. It’s a negative that is easily ignored amongst all the good. Pokémon Y is an amazing experience, it’s colourful and enjoyable, and really draws you in. New Pokémon and old are a joy to see in 3D in a game that has been slowly improving over the years. Pokémon’s X and Y are a massive step forward for the franchise and will stand for years to come as arguably the best Pokémon game yet, if not the best RPG on the market, and definitely a reason to own a 3DS on its own. Even the shoehorned story is vaguely interesting. Pokémon games have gone through a lot of changes through the years but thankfully this one stuck to its core strengths and came out on top, with only a few niggling remarks (that don’t take away from the experience) to make my resounding last statement is that this latest generation is damn near perfect.

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Daniel Bowes resides in Lincoln, when he's not playing or making games, he's writing or thinking about them.