The first few days of a major game release are always the best.
If you’re lucky enough to pick a game up on day one, there’s really nothing like it. The fandom is abuzz, every social network is on the same page and you suddenly have plenty to talk about with all of your friends. It’s a rush, enough of one to make the most grizzled of critical thinkers gloss over problems in the wake of that irreplaceable joy of discovery. Then, inevitably, a week passes. This is where longer games are put to the test. Plenty of them pass, but not without a few nasty bumps along the way.
The new Pokemon adventure fits that line of thinking like a glove. It is a wonderfully, deceptively exciting game which, throughout its wealth of charm and content, plays host to an odd smattering of hangups that hit this series right where it hurts the most: usability. It is an ambitious leap into a new era that, while heaps and loads of fun, tries to cram too much stuff in your face all at once and comes off as a logistical mess as a result.
Pokemon X & Y is driven by its drastic aesthetic shift from sprites to polygons. This new installment’s world is in full 3D, though the 3DS’s stereoscopic function is ironically tossed aside, showing up only in battle to the tune of a violently dropping frame rate and random instances that are meant to pass as cutscenes but are largely irrelevant. However, even without the visual trickery, the colors explode from the screen, despite a notable lack of environmental personality outside of the titular critters themselves. As long as the frame rate stays consistent, everything you see is bright, cheery and generally pleasing to the eyes. Window dressing as it may be, the new style goes a long way to reinvigorate the franchise on a superficial level and potentially draw in an even larger audience.
To further that goal, Pokemon X & Y also pushes the series back towards a more welcoming difficulty. For starters, Pokemon level up much more quickly. In addition, an adjustment to the old EXP Share device now distributes experience points to the entire party. No Pokemon left behind! It becomes a bit of a pain early on, as a huge gap between the early gyms can have some unprepared veterans struggling to stay under the traded level limits, but those limits quickly balance out and give you more freedom to grind away.
That said, Game Freak doesn’t abandon the hardcore players. EV training has finally been given a place in the spotlight via Super Training, an odd set of minigames that let you grind your EV points all at once without having to look up Pokemon values and tracking down dozens if not hundreds of battles. The minigames, severely lacking variety, quickly grow tedious, but still beat the traditional methods. Super Training seamlessly takes place on the 3DS’ bottom screen, facilitating the deep metagame and kicking the doors wide open.
Speaking of the bottom screen, it also serves many other functions, which is where my gripes with the game start to come into play. The touch screen hosts Super Training, Pokemon-Amie and the Player Search System. The PSS is a major boon, as it houses all of the game’s online functions. You can instantly interact not only with your friends, but a constantly-updating list of random Internet players. Pokemon-Amie is the often-publicized virtual pet-like feature that lets you interact directly with your Pokemon in an earnest effort to make the Pokemon universe feel that much more organic.
The problem lies in the presentation. Each screen is an overwhelmingly-cluttered mess that individually exists with little to no introduction or explanation. The PSS especially is a constant stream of information, with menus, submenus and unhelpful pop-ups, and all you can really do is click through it until you figure it out. The other two screens are similar, with tons of intimidating visual noise that you have no choice but to dive into headfirst if you want to use it.
Super Training, thankfully, offers some instruction, but for some reason stubbornly dances a line between hardcore and casual, giving you some information but not enough to go on if you don’t already know what you’re doing. And if you do, you have some visual representation of your EV totals but nothing reliable enough to remove the need for some way to take notes outside of the game. If you’re new to the metagame and want to effectively use it, you’re still going to have to look up exactly what the heck it is. This clashes with the clear focus on accessibility in the rest of the game, and makes me wonder why Game Freak went to such great lengths to bring EVs out of hiding just to stop short of giving truly-useful information.
These issues would hurt less if moving around and interacting with the world outside of battle weren’t a confusing chore. Game Freak seems to have struggled with figuring out how Pokemon should operate in 3D space. The game opens with the player traveling on foot. Running is immediately available, which is great! However, your movements are still restricted to specific directions, although diagonal movement has been added. It’s a bit awkward, but it works. Then come the roller skates. These items are inexplicably locked onto your character, and replace normal movement when you use the Circle Pad. You know, the primary input device that your thumb naturally rests on. You can use the tiny, isolated D-pad to stay on foot if you wish, but if you prefer comfort over function, you’re going to have to get used to them. It isn’t easy.
The camera doesn’t help. Most of the time, Pokemon X & Y uses the traditional isometric view, but it is much more zoomed-in than usual. Certain areas bring the camera right up behind you, complete with awkward camera rotation. The game’s big city is especially guilty of this, so you can’t really see where you’re going, and the only map you have access to shows up for a few seconds and then disappears. It can make finding your way difficult at times (especially in more open areas), and it doesn’t help when the roller skates send you careening about with no hope for precise movement. The much faster bicycle is somehow easier to manage. Furthermore, every single method of transportation, including certain gimmicky bits in which you can ride on Pokemon in small, confined areas, allows full range of movement. The disdain this game has for normal movement is arbitrary and baffling. It’s all so… frustrating.
Still, Pokemon X & Y manages to make me happy, and the biggest reason for that is character customization. At the beginning of the game, you can choose the color of both your hair and skin (a first for the franchise!) in addition to your gender, and it isn’t long before you can purchase new clothing, hairstyles and more. This is the most personal and inclusive Pokemon game yet, and the series is all the better for it. There aren’t a ton of options, but considering how much stuff is crammed into the game, it feels like more than enough.
Pokemon X & Y has all the familiar trappings: weakness and resistance-based combat, hundreds of colorful and well-designed creatures to collect, heavy emphasis on player interaction and a silly story about going on an adventure. Game Freak totally overhauled the visuals and made more changes to the familiar formula than ever before, yet still managed to cater to players of all skill levels with an unbelievable amount of content that threatens to put Animal Crossing to shame. However, these changes come with some sharp growing pains. No self-proclaimed Pokefreak will turn away, and newcomers will likely feel welcome, but there are definitely times in which Pokemon X & Y’s shiny new coat of paint feels more like a nicely-polished distraction than the revolution it strives to be.
Pros: New aesthetic and animations, tons of new content, comfortable new approach to difficulty
Cons: Super-messy interfaces, horrid movement and camera