Well, it finally happened. We finally got the next big step up in a Pokémon game. Although I’d contend that Gold & Silver were big improvements on Red & Blue, things went downhill in Ruby & Sapphire and then sort of plateau-d into the enjoyable, if predictable Diamond & Peal and Black & White. X & Y are the Pokémon games that we’ve been demanding for years, and probably my favourites since Gold & Silver, although a lot of its improvements are only skin deep.
Since the Unova region of Black & White, which was loosely based on New York, Game Freak are showing themselves willing to base game locations on areas more familiar to non-Japanese players, and this is extremely clear in the French inspired Kalos region. All said, Kalos may be one of my favourite regions from a Pokémon game, although I can never adore it as much as Kanto/Johto (is my nostalgia showing?) It has a lot of character, and the caves and surfing routes which I loathed in previous games (I’m looking at you Hoenn!) are cut down significantly. It also has an intriguingly bloody past, but, this being a Pokémon game, this stuff is buried under a mountain of your standard saccharine nonsense.
This is the second Pokémon generation to flirt with interesting story ideas before deciding to simply go for the standard, dull route. Where Black & White looked at the fundamentally questionable nature of the Pokémon universe (e.g. enslaving creatures and making them fight), X & Y look at the idea of the potential for Pokémon in warfare, although this is only in tales related from 3000 years in the game’s past, with the present day simply being an evil group who want to destroy the world for boring and cliché reasons. I want a game set 3000 years ago! Just as Black & White had N, X & Y have AZ, an enigmatic, mysterious and intriguing figure who naturally gets very little screen time, giving it instead to the ridiculous figure of Lysandre, the uninteresting head of Team Flare.
The biggest upgrade in X & Y is cosmetic; I don’t mean that to sound sneering, cosmetics are important and the massive graphical overhaul is a long time coming and pulled off well. Although still disappointingly built on a grid, the world is now 3D and beautiful, and best of all we can finally move diagonally! Some may miss the classic sprite style, but we’ve had five generations of games for that and it’s about time that things finally got a bit shaken up. Every Pokémon, all 700 + of them, has been modelled in 3D and uniquely animated. These animations are simple, but absolutely bursting with character; Pikachu is immediately adorable, and Mr. Mime is quickly unsettling. The essential natures of these Pokémon, even the worst ones, are well drawn out. There will be no need for a big 3D Pokémon Stadium-esque battling game this generation, the 3D battles we have are already great. The transition to 3D isn’t without it’s hitches; frame-rate drops are common (especially if you have the 3D slider turned up, which I very rarely did) and some of the camera angles in the overworld are confusing, but nonetheless we have finally got the big visual update that this series has sorely needed for a long time. The only major gripe is that Luminose City, the biggest city in Pokémon history, is unbelievably awkward to get around due to an awful camera angle to show off the new 3D. This should have been an exciting and fun place to explore, but in the end I spent the least amount of time possible there to avoid the hassle of trying to navigate it.
The fundamental Pokémon mechanics and structure are unchanged. You’re still going to be collecting a team of six creatures, fighting a deceptively deep rock/paper/scissors based battle system and beating eight gym leaders and then the Elite Four. Most of the changes are little things, but several long time Pokémon irritations are done away with. The encounter rate is significantly lowered in dungeons, which means you can walk five steps before coming across another bloody Zubat. The movement speed is raised significantly, with running shoes off the bat and roller skates only about an hour into the game. The general pace is significantly raised too; within an hour you should have yourself a nice little team going. The new Pokémon are about the same quality as usual; you have your usual embarrassments (the low point is Klefki, the key chain Pokémon) but there are enough good ones that you could easily fill out a team just of new Pokémon. You’ll find yourself spoilt for choice though; unlike Black & White which only contained new Pokémon up until you beat the Elite Four, X & Y is almost a Pokémon greatest hits. There’s a damn good chance that your favourite Pokémon will be available at some point in the game; in fact, the nostalgia factor is cranked up to 11. You’re given a second starter Pokémon before the second gym, a choice from the original three, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. Pikachu, unlike every other Pokémon, actually says its name in the style of the anime. Despite being the game which has most shaken up the formula, X & Y is also the instalment with the most reverence for its past, and a good balance is struck between innovation and fan service.
There are two big gameplay changes to the classic battles though; Mega Evolution and the Fairy Type. Mega Evolution is a temporary evolution that can be used for one Pokémon once per battle, offering an extra stage in evolution for many classic Pokémon, such as the Kanto starters, Mewtwo and Ampharos. They’re basically Digivolving. Mega Evolution is interesting, and it’s certainly fun seeing souped up versions of classic Pokémon, but its significance isn’t nearly as vital as the new Fairy Type. Fairy Type seeks to balance the game, offering an advantage over the overpowered Dragon and Dark types. There is a handful of new Fairy Pokemon, with some older Pokemon such as Jigglypuff and Snubbull reclassified with the new type. Dragon Pokémon aren’t the trump card that they once were, and Fairy offers a nice new twist on a long standing formula; there hasn’t been a new Pokémon type since the addition of Dark and Steel in Gold & Silver.
X & Y make a really good job of appealing to a wide range of gamers, without making concessions for any one of them. For example, the Experience Share is incredibly generous this time round, making this game a breeze for casual players, but upon turning it off you have a much harder (but still easily doable) experience for those who fancy a bit more challenge. The ‘Pokémon-Amie’ mode, which is basically a simplified Nintendogs but with Pokémon, is charming and silly and perfect for kids. ‘Super-Training’ makes EV training easier for hardcore players through little minigames; I have no idea what EV training is, but apparently if you play competitively it’s vital, so it’s probably a good thing. The online features a very well integrated; even misanthropic old I was tempted to venture online simply by its extreme ease of use. Nintendo are constantly being accused of dumbing down its games to appeal to a casual audience, but Pokémon X & Y are proof that you can appeal to everyone at once if you really try.
As well as being extremely visually impressive, the soundtrack is pretty solid as well. There are a few rough edges to X & Y, but that’s to be expected in a visual overhaul so drastic. The Pokémon (apart from Pikachu as mentioned before) still generally sound pretty terrible, but they are slightly improved. After the massive visual step up in X & Y, the next step I’d like to see is an improvement in the audio department.
Pokémon X & Y are the breath of fresh air that the series has needed for a long time. It’s a game which is extremely well balanced, between casual and hardcore, between innovation and nostalgia. It understands that many players have an extreme fondness for the past, and embraces that whilst shepherding us gently into the future. If you’ve given up on Pokémon recently, feeling that they’re all the same, X & Y may just be the games to bring you back into the fold, and maybe, just maybe, make you feel like you did when you played Red & Blue.