Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Pokémon X & Y

Post-Launch Review
Pokémon X & Y
Developer: Game Freak
Released: October 12 2013
Played: two playthroughs (one X, one Y), over 80 hours so far


The latest installments in the Pokémon series, X and Y set the player on a quest to discover the secrets of Mega Evolution, a new form of Pokémon evolution. The player must capture, train, collect, battle, and befriend the varied creatures known as Pokémon in order to explore the Kalos region and stop the villainous Team Flare.

At Launch

Pokémon X and Y earned average review scores of 88%. Some critics felt that X and Y don't do enough to innovate on the formula, though all agree that this is the formula at its best. The visuals, environment diversity, world design, and music were highly praised, as were the controls and accessibility. Some reviews pointed out that the frame rate drops noticeably with the 3D feature turned on.

Post Launch

Like previous Pokémon games, certain special Pokémon will be available via wi-fi download (or other events) for a limited period of time. The first of these is Torchic, the fire-type starter Pokémon from Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald, holding a special item and with its hidden ability. Torchic is available until January 15th via wi-fi.
A patch has been released to fix a game-breaking bug with saving in the outer ring of Lumiose City, as well as a minor GTS issue. Log into the 3DS Eshop with the Pokémon cartridge in the system to download the patch.

X and Y versions make some big changes to the accessibility of Pokémon: it's easier than ever to get into the game and learn how it works. You're handed your first Pokémon and turned loose much more quickly than in previous games, letting you get right into the action and learn as you go. Many long-time features that were previously somewhat obscure are brought to the forefront and expanded on - most notably effort value (EV) training, which increases the stats of your Pokémon based on how you train them, which was previously something that only the hardcore even knew existed. Even the potential grinding requirement has been entirely eliminated by the reworked Exp. Share, an item that gives your entire party experience from battling.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. I'll slow down and talk about the different features individually. Since one of the first things you'll notice is how the game looks, let's start with that!
XY are the first main-series Pokémon games that are fully 3D rendered, and they look great. The game's environments are colourful and varied with all kinds of different types of terrain, including neat stuff like gemstone caverns and a route that snakes around the top of a cliff down to the beach at the bottom. Battles look even better with cartoony but highly detailed and well rendered monsters, and often the Pokémon have excellent animation and move really well. For the most part, anyway - some monsters just kind of stand there not doing anything, though they do still have good attack animations. There are a couple of flaws, the most notable being that the 3D feature only works in battles and specific locations in the world. Presumably this was done to keep a playable frame rate - there is a noticeable slowdown in battles with 3D turned on, and it looks like you can't enable it at all in battles involving 4 or more Pokémon (double or triple battles, for example). I also don't like how big characters' heads are in the world, but that's personal taste and it could be worse.

I really like almost all of the new Pokémon designs, too. There are fewer new Pokémon - mega evolutions of older ones ate up a lot of design space, I guess - but the new guys are excellent overall. There are only a handful that I don't like. Some standouts for me are the water-type starter (especially its final form, Greninja), the fossil Pokémon inspired by the dinosaurs Amargasaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, the pistol-shrimp Clauncher/Clawitzer, the psychic/dark squid Malamar (with a particularly fun ability/moveset combo in Contrary, Topsy Turvy, and Superpower), and the version mascot of Y, the legendary Yveltal. XY even feature a ton of older Pokémon. Every route feels like it has five or ten or even more Pokémon, from all versions, so each area feels diverse and there's always something new to find - especially if you're a new player (or haven't played in a while), you'll be shocked at how many of these creatures there are. Between the wild creatures and the post-story Friend Safari, you can catch pretty much any Pokémon (barring some older legendaries).

The core of the game - Pokémon battles - is the best it's ever been. Status indicators are small and out of the way, but still easy to read. The enhanced graphics and animation make the creatures look more lifelike than ever, despite the cartoony style. The system is complex but pretty easy to learn - forgiving enough to let you learn the many type interactions, attack effects, abilities, and strengths/weaknesses of the many Pokémon. The turn-based system does have its limitations, of course - it's not as active or fast as an action-based system - but I can't imagine where you'd find better turn-based combat than in Pokémon.

Mega Evolution adds an interesting twist to online play, but it doesn't have that much of an impact playing solo. Mega Pokémon are incredibly powerful, and since only a handful of opponents in the story actually use megas, your megas will wipe the floor with almost anything. Online is a different story - since you can only mega evolve one Pokémon per battle, the choice of which to use and when to activate adds another layer of depth and strategy against other humans.

The story is solid, if not particularly deep. Most Pokémon games simply tell you "fill the Pokédex and become the best", but the story in XY is a little more involved: you're recruited by Professor Sycamore to investigate Mega Evolution, a powerful and mysterious new kind of Pokémon evolution. Along the way you encounter the villainous (yet stylish) Team Flare, determined to create a beautiful world only for themselves. Of course you also collect badges and fill the Pokédex, but these objectives are pushed out of the forefront a little bit, which actually does a pretty good job of making the game feel more diverse. All that said, if you're comparing the writing to other RPGs, it is a little simplistic and flat.

Speaking of diversity, there are all kinds of new features, as well as enhancements to old features. The big two are Pokémon Amie and Super Training. Amie lets you interact with your creatures one-on-one by petting, feeding, making faces, and playing three minigames. By increasing your Pokémon's affection, you also earn benefits: a Pokémon with high affection gains increased experience, accuracy, evasion, and crit chance, as well as a chance to shrug off harmful status effects or withstand a knockout. This might sound like a silly gimmick, but it actually did manage to make me appreciate my Pokémon more. A Pokémon with high affection will look at you over its shoulder in battle when waiting for directions, and it's impossible to ignore the feels when your Pokémon withstands a powerful attack with 1 hit point because it loves you.

Anyway. Super Training, the other new bottom-screen feature, is an easy-to-understand guide and tool to EV (effort value) training. You can track the stats that your Pokémon gain from battling, to which attributes they're being assigned, and know when your effort reaches maximum. You can also play minigames to boost effort for stats of your choice instead of battling for effort. This is one of those accessibility features I mentioned above - previously, EV training was something the games only hinted at, and only the hardcore players learned its intricacies, creating quite a gulf in strength between competitive battlers and more casual players. But now anyone can do it with just a little bit of in-game investigation, which is nice.

XY's online features have been massively improved compared to previous games, and they make it amazingly easy to interact with other players. When you're in range of a wi-fi network you can connect and see hundreds of "passersby" - other online players - and can initiate a trade, battle, or share O-Powers (temporary bonuses). Players that you trade or battle with are added to your "acquaintances" list, and friends registered on your 3DS system appear on your "friend" list. Previous games required you to connect to the internet each time you wanted to do anything, but now you can simply connect when you start up the game and easily interact with whoever you like. You can also use the GTS (global trade system) to seek out specific Pokémon for trade.

If I had one complaint about XY it's that they might be a little too easy. With the updated Exp. Share item, grinding is completely unnecessary - as long as you fight in every battle you come across, you'll always be at the right level... or even significantly higher. By the time I reached the Elite Four my team was 15 levels higher than my opponents. The obvious solution here is to turn off the Exp. Share, but it's hard to ignore the convenience. Mega Pokémon also decrease the difficulty - the AI is already merely okay, not doing much more than accounting for weakness and resistance, but since very few trainers actually use megas, the sheer numbers of their massive stats are very difficult for the AI to overcome. Even gaining the benefits of Pokémon Amie is unnecessary, and monsters with maximum affection are strictly better than those without. It's a little disappointing that there are no built-in difficulty settings, and that the only way to increase the difficulty is to impose restrictions on yourself.

To swing back the other way, my favourite features, as a longtime Pokémon trainer, are the convenience boosts. Players with a certain level of dedication are limited only by time in what they can accomplish, so it's great to see a lot of the grind cut back for the hardcore: O-Powers, Super Training, the Friend Safari... even the stats of the legendaries have been boosted (XY legendaries are guaranteed to have at least 3 perfect stats), which is great for both casual and competitive players: casual players are guaranteed a good legendary without having to exploit the system, and competitive players get their perfect Pokémon in much less time.

So how did X and Y do overall?

Recommendation: play it.

I love Pokémon, so it's very easy to say I'm biased, but I can't see very many flaws in X and Y. They're the pinnacle of the Pokémon experience (so far) with excellent visuals and art direction, a honed, refined, very deep combat and training system, a ton of convenience and accessibility upgrades, and fantastic variety. If you only play through once and then forget it, you'll still get a good twenty or thirty hours of play, though if you really get into it you can find hundreds of hours of entertainment with breeding, training, battling, trading, searching for super-rare shiny Pokémon... there's tons to do.

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