Pokémon Moon (and Sun) – First Impressions

“First impressions” might be a tiny bit misleading since I’ve put over 20 hours into the game thus far, but here we are.

Pokémon Moon is awesome and I can’t stress that enough. I love the new pokémon, the updates to how the game plays, feels, and so on, but there are some issues I do have with it and some observations I feel a need to make.

I could write about how pathetic the trainer battles seem to be, or the exciting new Totem Pokémon mechanic (and how it was totally my idea first, Game Freak!), or the bullshit new “call for help” mechanic, but that’s all for another day.

What I want to talk about is breaking through the 2D ceiling and the effect its had on the game, because it’s remarkable.

“But X and Y, and Generation VI in general, were 3D!” you might say. “But the spin-off games for the GameCube were 3D!” you might also say.

Well… yes and no.

Gen VI was 3D visually but still had a grid-based system of movement, and the areas were designed around this same grid. It was a weird almost 2.5D sort of experience in execution. But the point to recognise is that it was grid-based and S/M isn’t, which is a key difference.

The GameCube games (or at least the first Pokémon Colosseum – I’m actually less familiar with Gale of Darkness) weren’t grid-based, admittedly, but they also had significantly less world to actually explore. Areas you could walk through were less areas to explore for their own sake and more set pieces that bridged the gaps between trainer battles. If you also played Custom Robo for the GameCube you’re already familiar with this concept.

So what makes S/M’s shift to “true 3D” so significant? It’s the first time a full-fledged main series Pokémon game has done it, and it shows.

I get the feeling that Game Freak was a bit paranoid about how their players would handle the shift, because the conventions for designing a good 2D environment and a good 3D environment are very different. This manifests itself in a few ways. Namely:

  1. The bottom screen has a map displayed at all times, which is a huge change even from X/Y/OR/AS. Those games had a pretty familiar and linear “route” system still in place, where one block of land connects to another and you can visualise the rectangles that make up the areas fairly well. S/M doesn’t have this – paths curve, aren’t locked into rectangular shapes, and even have height (which, while not a first for the series, is much more remarkable in a true 3D environment).
  2. The map displays a flag which indicates where you need to be going (and the Rotom Dex “helpfully” reiterates where you have to go every five minutes when the flag is updated). I feel like this actually demonstrates a weakness in the game’s visual design. The camera is still locked, so you can’t pan it to orient yourself to any significant landmarks – and without those landmarks it’s not hard to get lost. The map and its flag is designed to keep you oriented in an unfamiliar 3D space.
  3. Further pounding in the points of 1 and 2, the game holds your hand to an almost relentless degree by walking you through frequent cutscenes. To be fair, it is trying to establish a narrative as well – but I feel like the guidance is unnecessary to a large degree and not entirely story-motivated. The game is essentially stopping your forward momentum so it can give you some exposition which peculiarly always seems to end with “oh by the way you need to go here next.” Seriously, it’s not subtle.

The three above points compound into an experience that isn’t inherently bad, but seems to show a lack of faith the development team had – both in themselves and their players. Essentially, it plays out like this:

You walk into a new world, and the game stops you – mistaking you for a confused and helpless child – and points you in the direction you need to go. It makes sure to do this frequently, following you around like a concerned parent, to make sure that you never stray from the intended path.

This creates a feeling of awkward claustrophobia as the game railroads you from one set piece to the next, even though S/M truthfully isn’t much more linear than other games in the series. In fact, once it finally lets go of your hand after taking you on a guided tour of every single area, it leaves you with a great sense of freedom now that you can explore the areas it told you not to go into until you’re ready. I feel like that was intentional.

The game is essentially laying out a path for you to follow in order to get you familiar with an area that you can’t intuitively explore due to a locked camera perspective and more free-form 3D environment. Once you’ve been everywhere you have a sense for what paths go where, what connects to where, and how to get from point A to point B without the game telling you explicitly.

In fact, you get the equivalent of the “Fly” HM very early in this game compared to previous games in the series, and I feel like this is partly to further aid the player navigate the environment since it’s essentially “auto-pilot to previously-visited area.” And you know what, kudos to that decision – flying around aids backtracking and there’s really no need to keep fast travel locked away from the player for over half the game.

As an aside, I know that a lot of the issues that come with exploring an unfamiliar environment in a video game also apply to 2D games – but it applies significantly more so in a 3D game for the reasons I’ve already covered. In a side-scroller or top-down 2D game, environments are more limited (and typically created using grids, and rectangular by nature). This makes it easier to intuitively sense where you are and where you’re going.

Not knowing where you’re going due to the environment you’re in not having those sorts of rules would be an issue, and because of that I can’t fault Game Freak for the hand-holding too much. But it does have a negative impact on the game, and that should be considered for future titles.

As I said, it gives a more blatant sense of linearity even though the game really isn’t (on average, at least) more linear than any of the other games in the series. Most games do confine the player to a pre-determined path, but it can be done in subtle and not-so subtle ways. This is one example of the latter.

If the various characters let you know that you had to go somewhere to progress during scenes, but the Rotom Dex didn’t reiterate what they said just in case you want the cliff notes version and instead just updated your map silently, that would work. They could set a precedent for this by telling the player early on (no more than two or three times to make sure they understand the pattern) that Rotom will update your map with your destination as you progress to make sure you don’t get lost.

Scenes could also be used to establish direction in a much more organic way. Usage of camera angles you normally wouldn’t see during regular gameplay to point out a road to take, or a mountain in the distance, or something along those lines, would help point the player in the way they should go. Even just panning the camera to show NPCs moving in a direction is one way to hint that the player should follow them to make progress (and in fact is used in the game several times and then reiterated by Rotom anyway).

I’m sorry. Can I take a moment to talk about how much I hate Rotom?

The Rotom Dex is by far one of the best and one of the worst ideas to come from S/M that I’ve seen so far. Rotom is an awesome pokémon, and having a companion Rotom to chat with and liven up your normally lifeless Pokédex is a great idea. But he falls into the very bad category of companion characters who remind you what to do and where to go. Constantly. I swear, he’s worse than Navi.

Almost every scene ends with some sort of direction or reminder that you need to go somewhere to make progress. But then Rotom will chime in on the bottom screen after the scene is over, with some quip in a “boy, Route 10 sounds like a neat place, can’t wait to see it!” structure.

It’s as if the scene writing and direction, Rotom’s nagging reminders, and the map itself with its flags are all designed for a player who isn’t paying attention to the game they’re playing. And you know what, this is a game for kids, and kids today are spoiled brats with half a dozen luxuries (adult rant!), so fair enough. But only one of those things was needed to be established, and that’s the map pointing you where you need to go.

Game Freak, I implore you – you’re appealing to a wide demographic, and many of your most diehard fans – including myself – are now adults. Have some faith in our intelligence and consider how to streamline this system of hand-holding in the future. Reminding us where to go is fine, having a map tell us where to go is fine, having NPCs drop direction and hints in their dialogue is fine, but don’t shove that in our faces every five minutes.

If you think I’m exaggerating when I say “every five minutes,” by the way, really pay attention to the game whenever you reach an objective. It really pounds into you every single time where you’re supposed to go. And it’s usually not far from where you’ve just been, from my experience so far.

If the game eases off progressively on all of this, that’s good, but as I said up top: I’m over 20 hours deep into the game and have seen no sign of this letting off any time soon. I feel like one shouldn’t have to wait even this long to be given more freedom, let alone longer.

Ultimately, S/M does feel much like any experience I’ve had with a pokémon game besides these points I’ve raised – in fact, I’d say it’s bigger and deeper and more interesting than it’s ever been. But it’s frustrating to feel like I’m on a guided tour because I can’t be trusted to find my own way in an unfamiliar environment. I have the equivalent of a GPS on-hand at all times, and I’m struggling to understand why Game Freak thought I needed more.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the confinement coming off in the post-game and hoping that the transition to the next game will be smoother.

Pokémon Sun & Moon are, I will reiterate, awesome games worthy of love and praise. I feel hopeful, because I think this will be a good sign for the future of the series. It’s an awkward first step into unfamiliar territory, but it handles itself well despite that.

Now that the 2D ceiling has been broken, just… please, grow up better than Sonic did.

Please?

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