Here we go again.
Pick your starter, catch new allies, fight eight gym leaders, save the world, defeat the Elite Four, and become a Pokémon master. This is the frame for every main entry in publisher Nintendo’s incredibly popular Pokémon series, starting with the original Red and Blue versions for the first Game Boy.
Now the monster-collecting/fighting franchise makes it way to Nintendo’s newest portable console, the 3DS. And while some things on the presentation side have noticeably changed, Oct. 12’s new X and Y versions don’t stray more than a Pokéinch away from that iconic formula, to their benefit as much as to their detriment.
What You’ll Like
Once more unto the Pokébreach
X and Y represent the sixth generation of Pokémon games, so a lot of what you do in X and Y will feel familiar to series veterans. You start out as a young kid with a single Pokémon and then start a journey across a vast land, collecting new monsters, increasing the strength of the ones you already have, and defeating any other trainer who stands in your way.
The addictive nature of Pokémon’s gameplay is what turned the franchise into a phenomenon in the first place, and it’s still as engaging as it was in 1998. You’re constantly finding new creatures you want to capture, working towards a new evolution, or obsessing over the finer details of making the perfect party. You always have something exciting to discover just a few minutes away, even if you’re not progressing the main quest or collecting badges. No other role-playing series does a better job appealing to obsessive collectors.
The jump to 3D
I’m not talking about the 3DS’ glasses-free 3D effect, but rather the game’s jump from 2D visuals to a fully 3D world. For the first time, Nintendo has rendered every town, character, and Pokémon with polygons instead of pixels. The result is the biggest graphical leap the series has ever seen. Battles no longer consist of two pictures of Pokémon awkwardly staring each other down with limited movement. Each critter now feels alive and emotive, triumphantly roaring as they make their entrances or wincing in pain when attacked.
The setting, the Kalos region, has a distinctive French influence. Cafés litter the world, everyone seems a bit more obsessed with fashion than usual, and you even have an Eiffel Tower knock-off standing in the center of the largest city. It’s a beautiful country to explore, especially with X and Y’s colorful, cartoon-like visuals.
Things that are new
For the first time since 2000’s Gold and Silver versions added Dark and Steel-types, Nintendo has created a new affinity for Pokémon. The Fairy-type is strong against Dragon, Fighting, and Dark Pokémon, which goes a long way toward helping the series’ balance. You’ll find plenty of new Fairy pocket monsters early in your quest, so you’ll get to add them to your party pretty quickly. Nintendo has also retconned a lot of older Pokémon to fit into the new category, like Clefairy, who was previously Normal-type.
Besides being useful, the new Fairy-type critters are cuuuute. I mean … you know, if you care about that sort of thing.
You also get access to a pair of roller blades pretty early on. While you can still get a bike, the skates are a great way to quickly get around the various routes and towns.
Other new features are a little less practical. For example, the Pokémon-Amie let’s you pet your party members in a way that’s similar to Nintendogs. You can also play some minigames in the new Super Training mode that can increase your pocket monster’s stats. These features are kind of fluff, but they’re fun distractions from the constant grind of battling.
What You Won’t Like
I said before that this is the sixth main entry in the Pokémon series, and even with all those years and sequels, X and Y still follows the same framework set by the original. Now, I admit that it’s a good frame, but I really wish Nintendo would take a few more risks. The three starting Pokémon you can choose from in the beginning are either a Water, Fire, or Grass-type … again. You have to fight eight gym leaders and the Elite Four to prove you’re a true master … again. You have to stop the evil Team (insert second word here) from doing something generically evil … again.
It’s all incredibly familiar to anyone who’s stuck with the series since the beginning, and sometimes you do feel like you’re just kind of going through the motions. Thankfully, Pokémon’s mechanics and base gameplay are so strong and timeless that the whole thing still manages to entertain, but I wish X and Y could have surprised me a bit more.
Even the last entries, the Black and White versions, seemed like they were making some interesting progress by offering a plot that actually asked some hard questions about the Pokémon universe (is it really ok to capture wild animals and make them fight each other?). Unfortunately, X and Y’s story reverts to the fluff we usually get from the franchise.
The 3D implementation
OK, now I am talking about the glasses-free 3D, which is very underwhelming. In fact, most of the time, notably when you’re walking around most of the game’s towns, the 3D isn’t even available. It also causes a noticeable hit to the frame rate during battles when it is switched on. I know a lot of people aren’t really fans of 3D, but I usually enjoy the effect. Still, this was one of the few times I mostly just kept the feature off.
Nintendo’s marketing efforts for X and Y have really focused on the Mega Evolutions, which is a new stage of evolution available for a small amount of Pokémon. While the Mega Pokémon do look neat and are certainly powerful, the feature doesn’t really live up to the hype.
For one thing, the implementation is a little weird. A Pokémon can only temporarily access its Mega Evolution during battles, even though doing so costs nothing. So you can turn your Blastoise into a Mega Blastoise at the start of a fight, cause some mayhem, and then revert back to a normal Blastoise at the end. Since there’s no real disadvantage to Mega Evolving, the only reason you wouldn’t want to do it is if you’re tired of watching the short Digimon-style animation that shows the flashy transformation. Why not just make it a permanent change?
The ability to access Mega Evolutions also causes something of a divide in the Pokémon populous. A pocket monster that doesn’t have a mega form suddenly feels a little less special. Of course, you’ll have a hard time filling up your party with Pokémon that actually can Mega Evolve, since the games only tell you about a handful of critters who can use the feature. You also need to find and equip specific stones for the whole thing work.
The Mega Evolutions themselves look great and offer some noticeable power, but I just wish they were a bit more practical.
Pokémon X and Y might mark a big visual jump for the series, but the structure remains steadfast in its dedication to tradition. These are still fun games that offer the potential for hundreds of hours of entertainment, and some of the new additions, like the Fairy-type, are certainly welcome. But X and Y don’t really stand out from their predecessors, and I really am starting to wonder how much longer Nintendo can repackage what is essentially the same game.
Still, Nintendo will get away with it at least one more time. X and Y may not surprise you, but Pokéfans will still revel in another chance to catch them all.
Pokémon X and Y come out for the Nintendo 3DS on Oct. 12. The publisher provided GamesBeat with copies of each for the purpose of this review.
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