Developer: Game Freak
There's a surprisingly profound moment in Pokemon X and Y. Five children meet in a rain-swept playground; its slides, swings and roundabout ignored and empty. Just a few days previous, they'd have come here to play, but they're not children any more. Far from home, they're on their journey of self-discovery and independence, and the once-cheerful park soon plays host to a all-out battle between friends. Pokemon is very much about those first steps away from home, the coming of age, and it's perfectly encapsulated by this lovely (perhaps even accidental) scene.
We've been on that journey countless times ourselves, of course. Pokemon X and Y are just the latest in a long line of similar experiences, the glorious conveyor belt of starters, long grass, catches, battles, gyms and badges, and it's very much business as usual in that regard. However, they're also by far the most important Pokemon games since Red and Blue.
Pokemon X and Y make the classic formula more vital and vibrant than it has been in Generations, and more beautiful than ever. Despite a couple of missteps, some amazing new features and a gorgeous 3D visual hook make this a huge leap forward for the franchise, and a perfect foundation for the series to flourish on the 3DS. Plus, Snorlax is back. I loooooove Snorlax. Please excuse any other embarrassing childhood regressions over the next few hundred words.
We have to start with the transition from sprites to polygons, which thrilled and concerned us in equal measure when we first heard about it. We needn't have worried. Each of the hundreds of critters has been painstakingly brought to 3D life, using Ken Sugimori's legendary concept art as a guide. As such, humdrum realism has been overlooked in favour of eyecatching and expressive cel-shading, with thick black lines containing bright splashes of colour. Smooth animations and hundreds of different attacks make this not just a huge visual upgrade, but genuinely the best that Pokemon has ever looked. Battles are real, so thoroughly packed with life that that we could reach out and touch them, especially when we switch on the 3D. We can never go back. We don't want to go back.
The France-inspired world of Kalos is visually less impressive than the Pokemon battles, partly due to stereoscopic 3D being disabled during normal traversal in an effort to stabilise the frame rate and -- more importantly -- pre-emptively squash accusations of destroying the eye muscles of an entire generation. It's colourful and attractive in the main (in fact, a Gym designed to look like an oversized doll house is probably one of the prettiest things on 3DS), but clearly would look far better if we could ramp up the slider. What's more, the Parisian central city of Lumiose is a serious disappointment; a glum mediocrity of identical featureless cafés with blank signage, grainy grey walls and awkward load zones aplenty. Far too much like the real Paris for its own good, frankly.
However, I'm also delighted to report that Kalos is easily Pokemon at its most playful, nuanced and downright mischievous, especially once you delve into Lumiose City's array of boutiques, shops and cafés. You'll discover all manner of diversions, hidden secrets, fun asides and little details to find throughout your travels, not limited to cheeky references to Dragon Ball and Arrested Development (no, not the banana shack), the game director chilling in a hotel, repeatable daily events and even a real creepypasta designed to whip fans into a frenzy. It's genuinely a joy to explore, whether in town or trawling the long grass out in the sticks.
Exploration has rarely been more convenient, too, thanks to a set of roller skates and 8-way movement mapped to the circle pad, giving us newfound freedom to manoeuvre. The beaten track may seem obvious, but there's a surprising amount to uncover when you tarry and dally.
Player customisation proves to be another welcome addition to the formula, and it's long overdue. Creating and clothing our own character may be fairly basic by RPG standards, but it helps to root us in the experience. I couldn't find a skin tone to match my jaundiced yellow-grey pallor, nor a buzz cut and scraggly chin fluff, but I still felt like I had a real stake in my avatar.
Of course, this is all window dressing. The core Pokemon formula is very much intact, so once again we leave home in an effort to catch 'em all and become the ultimate Pokemon master. The storyline is predictable and simultaneously inexplicable fluff, starring a womanising professor who appears to have designs on your mother and an evil team with downright silly motivations, but it's told much better than previous iterations through cutscenes, a group of close friends and climactic moments. It's a shame that X and Y don't channel Black & White's more anarchic storyline, though, or attempted to provide some more relateable characters such as Giovanni and Hugh.
Never mind though, because we're not really here for the story, we're here for our story. The captures. The battles. The badges, Victory Road and our eventual triumph. It's still a superbly compelling experience, with a small selection of new Pokemon (whose designs vary from superb to hilariously poor, as always) to capture alongside hundreds of old-school friends from previous generations. It feels like a reunion tour rather than a lazy recycle job, especially thanks to the smart new additions of full experience for Pokeball captures, a new Fairy Type that give Dragons a run for their money, two somewhat forgettable new battle types and Mega Evolutions, all of which fit perfectly into the experience.
Ah yes, Mega Evolutions. Though temporarily transforming some of the most powerful Pokemon in the game into even more powerful new forms is bound to lead to some competitive exploits down the line, it's a fantastic new feature that gives the likes of Blastoise, Absol, Gengar and Mewtwo a new lease of life. Plus, watching them transform never gets old. KNEEL BEFORE MY MEGA BLASTOISE AND HIS ALL-POWERFUL WRIST CANNONS [That's quite enough of that, Jon. Besides, my Chesnaut will kick its cloaca. - Ed]
The net result is that Pokemon X & Y boast an exquisitely smooth challenge curve that encourages clever use of your roster over raw grinding. You're constantly propelled forward towards loftier goals and more new Pokemon to catch, yet every once in a while you'll encounter some satisfying friction, perhaps from a Gym Leader using unexpected moves or a bizarre new type match-up that you don't quite know how to deal with (Flying/Fighting? What?!). It's perfectly weighted, at least, it would be were it not for an interesting wrinkle.
A revamped EXP Share is bound to prove fairly controversial. This new tool distributes experience fairly evenly throughout your squad regardless of participation, which reduces the amount of time you'll need to grind to make a balanced team, but can make the latter half of the game much easier than it ought to be seeing as you'll almost certainly end up ten levels above the last four gym leaders. In fairness, though, I should point out that you could just turn it off. Think of it as a difficulty setting.
It's moot too, because Pokemon still maintains its unique balance between obscene depth and universal appeal, further enhanced by some smart new features. This is a game so granular that players can spend hours modifying hidden EV stats that make a tiny difference to the way they level up... but so accessible that you'll do it by playing an addictive football minigame. Your relationship with your squad boils down to reams of numbers working behind the scenes, but you'll engage with them by enjoying some fun (if occasionally slightly creepy) Nintendogs-style touchscreen distractions courtesy of Pokemon Amie.
The new Fairy Type, Mega Evolutions, retooled Safari Zone based on your online friends list and numerous other nifty features ensure that you can approach X and Y on your terms; whether you're into beating the campaign, breeding, competition battling, obsessing over stat values or just fancy dipping into something on the bus ride home. No matter how old you are, what gender, what ability or what taste you have in games, chances are you'll find something to love here.
And then the new Player Service System changes everything. In marked contrast to Black & White 2's confusing and cumbersome online functionality, X and Y puts the entire player community within a fingertip of each other. Your friends list and other players are just a tap away, allowing you to effortlessly battle, trade, chat and even buff each other with temporary boons from afar.
It is, in fact, the most important step forward for the franchise in years, and a preferable alternative to conventional cooperative multiplayer. Pokemon is your personal adventure after all, but now you can share it with me without having to compromise your position as the prodigal Pokemon master.
My major criticism, save that there's scope for delivering stronger characters with more believable motivations (see also: Hugh from Pokemon Black & White 2 - they've done it before), is that Game Freak are still falling back on the lazy convention of giving us things rather than letting us earn them. Though we'll occasionally have to divert through a palatial mansion or cave in order to progress, we're still delivered the traditional bike, HMs, the EXP Share, a Lapras and even a berry farm by NPCs who conveniently show up at their pre-ordained times. It's a crying shame, because we could have received that berry farm as a reward for clearing out a swarm of gluttonous Gulpin or a ravenous Snorlax, instead of a farmer deciding to spontaneously donate his entire livelihood to a random child he only met ten seconds ago. It's undeniably lazy design that forces us to suspend even more disbelief than we already have to. Even the tiniest tots will find it utterly bizarre.
Plus, it's always more rewarding to earn our upgrades rather than taking them for granted. That used to be the cornerstone of Red and Blue, but future games need to work on this aggravating oversight going forward. A little more context would actually help to flesh out the world too.
I also have to point out a curious double standard when it comes to the evaluating the Pokemon series. We frequently say that "we can't review games in a vacuum," yet Pokemon does exist in a vacuum, the centre of its own universe, impervious to criticism about its ancient structure and simplistic storytelling because "it's a Pokemon game." Both pundits and players compare Pokemon games to each other, not the bountiful wealth of other RPGs that have released over the years, largely down to the unique target audience of absolutely everyone in the world. I wonder when we'll start to cast a more critical eye over some of the less graceful and downright archaic aspects of its design and delivery.
Soon, perhaps, but not today. Pokemon X & Y is everything it needs to be and more, a bold new foundation for the series to build on over the coming years, and another astonishingly addictive use of dozens of hours. Indeed, it's handily the finest Pokemon game since Red and Blue (ignoring FireRed and LeafGreen, for you pedants out there), and will hopefully bring another generation of loyal players into the fold, introducing them to the joy of catching them all for the first time. Whether a grizzled veteran or wide-eyed newcomer, there's something for you here, and only one real decision to make.
X or Y?
- Utterly sensational 3D transition, Pokemon has never looked better
- Still fresh, fun, charming and astonishingly compelling
- Smart new features like Fairy Type, Mega Evolutions and the PSS fit snugly into the experience
- Massive amounts of content, world packed with secrets and references
- Infinitely deep and granular, yet universally accessible: a perfect sweet spot
- Far too eager to give rather than reward; characters and story could be stronger
- Turn off the EXP Share if you want a more satisfying challenge
- Inconsistent frame rate, 3D restricted to battles
- Lumiose City is visually bland and awkward to navigate, though full of content
The Short Version: Pokemon X and Y set a brave new standard for the series on its new platform, delivering a host of new features, expressive 3D visuals and sensational online functionality for future games to build on.
Regardless of age, ability, gender or tastes, there is something here for you, another charming adventure that's both nostalgic and newly revitalised. Or in other words: it's Pokemon. Choose it.