Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

It's impossible to escape the influence of Charles Darwin: even if you've never paid attention in class, his theory of evolution has influenced everything from science to pop culture—including, yes, the highly popular Pokemon games.

You could say evolution is the backbone of the series: from its inception back in 1998, the idea behind the Red and Blue games was that of a world full of beasts that can morph into new creatures. This virtual version of humanity manages to tame some of these beasts and incorporate them into society by making friends with them, using them for labor, or even using them for cockfights. But most Pokemon seem to remain a mystery, if not the stuff of legend.

And that's where you come in. You, young explorer, modern Darwin of sorts, despite being nothing but a preteen, are expected to dive into the wilderness to survey all the creatures you come across. You know, for the good of science. Initially, this seems like a bizarre coming-of-age ritual that requires kids to catch all the monsters they can for battling. If your Pokemon become strong enough in this journey, you can use them to take on bosses of sorts at 'gyms' and, eventually, a special league of master trainers called the Elite Four.

Regardless of plausibility, it's proven to be a seductive premise—and it makes a return of sorts in Pokemon X & Y. Unlike previous games, you're only encouraged to see and catch 'em all if you'd like to. Your real goal is to figure out the mystery behind "Mega Evolution," a newly-discovered transformation that some Pokemon can undergo, provided the right conditions are met. Sounds important! So of course your mother doesn't object to the idea of you exploring a rather tourist-y version of France, duking it out with strangers in turn-based battles featuring monsters you caught in the wild. In fact, she happily packs your bags with a set of clothes. Off you go!

You're not alone: the game gives you a set of friends/rivals who embark on the same journey with you, though they all have their own special reasons for doing it. One friend, for example, just wants to be a good dancer. Maybe it's not as noble as your mission, but hey! It's the following of your passion that counts, right?

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Usually, when it comes to the battles, the franchise hasn't provided much of a challenge in single-player—which doesn't help with the perception that the games are for kids. While at its most basic, Pokemon still works the way it always has (you can hold up to six monsters at a time, each monster has an affinity type, certain weaknesses, and a set of four moves that can be used a limited number of times in turn-based battles), but the degree to which Pokemon's monster compendium and ruleset have expanded has significantly complicated things.

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Back when there were only a couple hundred monsters in the game, keeping all their strengths, weaknesses and moves in mind wasn't particularly difficult. Now there are over 700 monsters, all of which could be leveled up a dozen different ways between different moves, affinities, and even special abilities. And even if you've done a good job of keeping up with all the Pokemon the franchise has included thus far, there are enough tweaks that even veterans will have to rearrange what they remember about battles at least a little. I say this as someone who stopped playing the franchise for only one generation.

Now there's a new, deceptively adorable Pokemon type: fairies. The introduction of this species throws out the basic balance of some of the elements. In standard Pokemon tradition, each creature has weaknesses and abilities based on their elemental type. With a new species thrown into the permutation in X and Y, you'll meet monsters with even more bizarre combinations of these strengths and weaknesses. Complicating things a bit more is the introduction of moves that can have dual elemental affinities, as well as Mega Evolutions change the elemental type of its Pokemon mid-battle. While much of the game still felt like putting on an old glove, and while I still found myself selecting moves to exploit the weaknesses of opponents—like always—I was also constantly looking up match-ups for Pokemon whose weaknesses weren't immediately obvious based on their design. Once I figured that out and committed it to memory, battles felt like smooth sailing...but I still found myself researching my opponents and their abilities up until the very end of the game.

I suspect that, while the game does explain how battles work, anyone who is new to the franchise might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of Pokemon. I don't have a problem with the number of Pokemon that exist right now, but god damn, I've gotta admit there are a lot of them. That's a good thing, though: the world feels alive, diverse, and genuinely full of mysterious creatures. A world I'd genuinely want to explore.

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Well, it's not just newbies who might feel overwhelmed by it all. I constantly felt paralyzed by choice thanks to the new Pokemon models, which are so gorgeously rendered that even the ugliest Pokemon seems like it belongs in your party. Just 'cause. And yes, this includes the new Pokemon, too. It was exciting to see new designs like a lucha libre hawk, and I'm sure that some of you have heard about that one keychain Pokemon. The new designs are fantastic, sometimes bizarre, but definitely memorable. Thing is, even Pokemon I knew were useless seemed desirable at times: that's just how great they look in this game. Plus, it's enjoyable to see the Pokemon in motion for once: the game has a ton of new little flourishes in battle animations. You can't help but notice when your favorite Pokemon has a neat little detail, like casting spells with makeshift wands. And even the, uh, questionable animations are fantastic:

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

....yeah. Some battle animations are cool, and some are just plain hilarious or silly.

Thankfully, it's not just the Pokemon who get to look better this game. You do, too. Starting out, the game prompts you to create an avatar with your choice of hair and skin-tone—a first in a Pokemon game. As you travel across different cities, you'll get access to a variety of fancy boutiques and shops that sell clothes and accessories, giving you a chance to customize your character even further. Here's what my character looked like by the end of the game:

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Those are ripped jeans, I'll have you know. So fashionable. Anyway, while I loved that the option to customize was there, compared to other games—like Animal Crossing—it felt kind of bare. Still, it's better than nothing!

The world itself is gorgeous, and full of small details, too. A few of the things I noticed:

  • Piles of crunchy autumn leaves, waiting for you to step on them.
  • Splashing through shallow marshes.
  • Moving around in the snow means watching puffs of hot air leave you.
  • When it rains, water "falls" on the HUD.
  • When you speak to kids, your character crouches down. You know, so that they're at eye level.
  • Idle animations! You stretch, you yawn.
  • Trainers aren't just glued to the specific line of sight in front of them. If you get close enough, they'll tilt their heads and look at you even if they're not challenging you to a battle.
  • You can skate two different ways, depending on how much you tilt.
  • You can tip people, if you want.
  • The game's version of France comes complete with back alleys to get around.

So many details come together to make a pretty-lookin' game, I gotta say. One of the key themes in this game is 'beauty,' and its version of France has plenty of it. To be sure: this is France as an outsider would imagine it. Everyone seems to wear berets or hang out at coffee shops, and the big, central attraction is this game's version of the Eiffel Tower (which is a gym!). I didn't mind, but it might come off as cheesy. Then again, the game on the whole is rather cheesy: there's lots of talk about friendships, bonds, and believing in yourself. The villains talk about destroying the world, but it's somehow not particularly menacing. Must be the suits?

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

It's cute. Don't think too much about it; the story is just kind of there to take you along for the ride. Big plot twists, if you could call them that, are often no more than a couple of lines long. This is a game that does not waste your time, and thank god for that. You're always moving from one well-condensed area to the next, you're always doing new things at a fast pace. The game even wants you to level faster, which is why it gives you an item that distributes experience from battle to even Pokemon who weren't in the skirmish. Actually, it now even gives you experience for catching Pokemon.

The game feels breezy, and I mean that as a compliment—it wants you to keep going, to keep moving, even in areas that would normally be a drawn-out drag in previous games. Are you in a long cave? No worries, there'll be someone that can heal you midway through. There's no slog in this game, only more cool things to check out. And compared to previous games, your character can get around much faster on either foot, bike or skates. (I liked the skates best of all—seemed more natural, somehow, and plus, you can learn tricks!) It's damned refreshing to play a game that has no fat in it, a quality that's particularly rare in RPGs. I literally can't remember the last time I've played a game that felt like this. For a franchise that supposedly barely ever changes, most games could learn a thing or two about pacing and fat from X & Y.

Heck...the only time this Pokemon felt like a drag was when I accidentally wandered into a cave that was meant to be accessed after you beat the game. Whoops, my bad. (Side-note: I didn't get to try them out, but there are at least a handful of different areas that are closed-off to you until you beat the game.)

It's not just exciting because it feels like it's a game that respects your time, but also because it's a game that tries its hardest to please you. The amount of fan service in this game is unbelievable. Normally, that might be cause to roll your eyes, but not here. To quote my earlier impressions piece:

In the world of Pokemon, people happily gift you all sorts of things, from rare Pokemon to cool moves and items, simply because you talked to them. I swear to god, Pokemon might as well take place in Canada. Thinking about it now, I can't help but wonder if one of the common criticisms ofPokemon—that it's a kids game—is less about its target demographic and more about how bafflingly sincere and friendly its society is.

Of course, that's always been the case with the franchise...but it feels multiplied by an absurd degree in Pokemon X & Y.Everywhere you go, either people give you awesome stuff: from skates to bikes to gifting you Pokemon like the original starters. At first, I thought it was just a bit of fan service (not that newer fans won't be able to enjoy being given some of the most memorable creatures in the franchise). But then it keeps happening. And it keeps happening. It's almost over-indulgent, if it wasn't that it's incredibly exciting. Can you complain about being given the chance to soup up your Charizard via Mega Evolution? Or about riding around on a Rhydon? Or about how you can customize your trainer to look fashionable? At over twenty hours in so far, I'm consistently amazed that the game keeps finding new ways to make me feel giddy—and that's not something I've felt in a long while.

It's impressive, really—most of the time, when a game gives you rewards or prizes too easily, you lose interest. Here, you just get pumped to keep going and see how the game will one-up itself.

These trends lasts all the way through to the end of the game, and I'm pretty sure Game Freak realizes how ridiculous it can get...there's one NPC you'll find in a town later on in the game that angrily informed me she had nothing to give me. As if I'm demanding all the free crap that her neighbors want to give me! Geeze, it's not my fault everyone wants to give me their most prized possessions, lady.

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Let's touch on the Megas a bit. At the start of the game, I didn't really see a mechanical reason to power-up into Mega form, to be honest. Normal moves and strategies were enough to get the job done. That changes later in the game, when the difficulty ramps up. Then you'll do the transformation less because it looks cool, and more because you want to survive. I can dig that, though I wish it happened earlier in the game. Still, since you can only have one Mega at a time in your team, I like that Megas further the idea of forming a team around a specific Pokemon. That's how I usually think about team-building.

What's unfortunate is that it seems as if most of the Megas are for already popular or powerful Pokemon that didn't need the Mega treatment. I would have liked to see more unexpected or under-appreciated Pokemon get a Mega evolution, but even so, I can't deny how awesome it is to see personal favorites like Gengar or Gyarados get a new form. I'll take it. It's also unfortunate that we never really learn much about Mega Evolution. Sure, I'm not really playing Pokemon for the story or anything, but still. the place where Megas will make the most difference and be the most interesting is in multiplayer.

Pokémon X & Y: The Kotaku Review

Speaking of...while I didn't get a chance too try much of it out before launch, O Powers seem superbly cool. Basically, connecting with other players rewards you with special effects, like being healed mid-battle. It's not something that gives us the Pokemon MMO we all clamor for, but it's still nice to feel like there are other trainers out there, you know? That's what the fiction says, but it's never really felt that way until now.

Not all new additions to the game hit the mark, though. While I appreciate being given the ability to beef up my stats outside of battle, shooting soccer balls in Super Training often proved to be boring and repetitive. Granted, the old method of hulking your Pokemon up—namely, defeating specific Pokemon over and over again—wasn't particularly exciting either, but still. Pokemon-Amie, a special mode you can access on the 3DS' touchscreen, meanwhile, gives you the ability pet with your Pokemon ala Nintendogs, as well as allow you to play mini games with your team. It's stuff that sounds good on paper—I want to be able to treat and think of my Pokemon as pets. And maybe one day, that'll be a possibility. For now, Amie seems like it'll primarily get used by folks who want to raise their Pokemon's friendliness level to a specific degree, since that allows for special evolutions. Beyond that, it's just a cool-sounding distraction as far as I can tell. Still, some misses are to be expected.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: between all the improvements and fan service, this is the Pokemon game many of us dreamed of when we were kids. And for those who are new to the franchise, this is the Pokemon you deserve to play. My hope is that the various nods to the original games are just an attempt to reward older fans for their loyalty, and not that Game Freak doesn't have confidence in the modern Pokemon games it's created—because after playing X & Y, I don't think of the earlier games as the best Pokemon has to offer. Yet—and this is pure conjecture—I don't see X and Y (or any other recent Pokemon games) commanding the same nostalgia that earlier games have over the years, despite being superior in nearly every way. I don't know that we'll see as many references or call backs to the modern Pokemon games in future generations, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.