Opening Turn: Pokemon X/Y

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Okay, time to come clean with you guys. I’ve never gotten into Pokemon before. I don’t exactly know why, either. Maybe it was because when it first came out, I was slightly older than the target audience they were intending it to be for. I’m not really sure. I even gave it a try once, when, at the insistence of a friend in college, I gave Pokemon Diamond a shot. And sure, it seemed like the kind of game that should have grabbed me immediately, because I really do enjoy games that have monster collection mechanics. Perhaps it was that during college, I didn’t have the time that those sorts of games would require of me, or maybe it was just because that game in particular just didn’t click with me.

Now, years later, that same friend insisted to me that it was because Pokemon Diamond was really one of the worse entries in the series, and that I should give it another shot with Pokemon Y. After hearing that quite a few things were getting updated in this entry, I grudgingly agreed that maybe it would be a good point in the series for me to jump in, and I gave it a shot.

I should also admit that I’m really probably not qualified to review this game. From what I have gathered, Pokemon is the sort of thing that has a very close following, and, as with the fighting game, MOBA, MMO, or strategy game communities, there is certain language and certain common knowledge and strategies that I don’t really know. I am, to use the vernacular, a total noob. However, that actually might make me more qualified to write the review than I initially thought. Anyone who is already a fan of the series is probably going to get the game anyway, so it’s the people who aren’t who need to be convinced why it is or is not worth their time. And that is something I will be able to comment on.

So what is this whole Pokemon thing anyway?: Oh come on.

No, really. I mean, I know what it is on a cultural level, but what are the actual mechanics of it?: Oh. Well, that’s actually a pretty good question. Mechanically, the game is a turn-based RPG with a collection and teambuilding aspect. You create a team of up to six monsters, and engage in one-on-one battles with other monster trainers as well as with monsters in the wild. Each turn, you can issue a command to the active monster, use an item, or switch out the active monster for one of the others in your team. Monsters gain experience points when they participate in combat, and, after a point very early in the game, the ones that do not participate also gain a percentage of the earned experience points. Any monster encountered in the wild can be caught using Pokeball items, with the chances of capture being calculated based on current HP, status effects, the type of monster you’re trying to catch, the type of ball you’re using, and some arcane probability formula. When you level a pokemon up to a certain level (or meet other special conditions, depending on the monster), it will grow or evolve into a better version of itself. Suffice to say, if you’ve played any other RPGs, and especially if you’ve played any Shin Megami Tensei games, you will feel right at home here.

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Battles are well-animated and generally look quite spectacular!

Actually, what you’ve described sounds a whole lot like Shin Megami Tensei. What’s up with that?: If you want to get down to details, Shin Megami Tensei actually predates Pokemon by a few years, so several of the collection mechanics probably originate there. However, SMT is aimed at a, uh, significantly older audience than Pokemon is, and there are a few differences. FIrst of all, SMT is more of a party-based thing instead of a one-on-one, so strategies will differ quite a bit. Second of all, SMT is a lot harder, and has branched out a lot more over the years as well. It also does a whole lot more, plotwise, than Pokemon has so far. I suppose the best way to sum up the difference is: Shin Megami Tensei may have started the monster-collecting thing, but Pokemon made it into a trope. And while Pokemon has spent its time refining and perfecting the trope, SMT turned around and deconstructed it as brilliantly as you’d expect.

Hm. Okay. So what’s the difference between the X and Y versions?: Not a whole lot, that I know of. Mostly, it’s that there is a slightly different list of monsters that show up in each game, encouraging trade between people who have the different versions. Other than that, there are, I believe, very slight plot differences because there is a different ‘legendary’ creature that serves as the flagship pokemon for each version. X has this big lightning deer thing, and Y has an evil-looking dark bird thing. I know they have names, but that’s what I call them in my head.

You mentioned that the plot of Pokemon didn’t strike you as ‘deep’, right?: Right. I mean, it isn’t. At all. Basically, your character is the ‘new kid’ in town, and for some reason, the resident (mad?) scientist decides that you and your friends are exactly the sort of people that should go on a highly questionable research mission. And, in a stunning display of the most negligent parenting imaginable, the kids’ parents just say “Okay! Have a good time travelling the countryside on foot!” ..Did I mention these kids are like, twelve or something?

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Though I mean, when your kid can command a gigantic fire-breathing death lizard, I guess you don’t really have to worry about him too much.

Okay, so once you make the mental gymnastics required to be even remotely okay with this development, the plot seems fairly straightforward. You are a kid on a quest to research everything you can about the country’s creatures, culminating in the discovery of previously-unknown forms of them called ‘Mega Evolutions’. In practice, this just ends up translating into ‘catch a bunch of these guys, use them to fight other people’s creatures, and eventually you’ll be able to turn them into superpowered versions of themselves’.

So it’s pretty open-ended?: Uh, sort of. There is a certain path you take through the game, as you have eight ‘gyms’ that you must beat in order to progress to the ‘Elite Four’, who are the best trainers in the country. These gyms each have a theme to them, both in architecture and in the types of monsters that are inside them, so one’s strategy is forced to adjust accordingly. As an example, the first gym is bug-themed and is in the form of a giant spiderweb. Anyone who knows me knows exactly how I felt about that.

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NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO.

However, outside of the narrative itself, there is a very heavy multiplayer aspect to it, and it’s this aspect that has kept the series going for as long as it has.

Yeah, you mentioned a community.: Yes. Oh, yes. And I can’t even begin to comment on the depth of the multiplayer metagame. What I will say is that there are entire websites devoted to how to breed pokemon with perfect stats, which is a thing that you need to do in order to be able to compete with anyone at all. And these stats, just like everything else in the game, is determined by formulas that people have gone through very, very great lengths to reverse-engineer. The basic explanation is that each of a creature’s stats has hidden modifiers to it which are affected by the base stat at level 1, the types of other monsters that have been defeated by it, the type of berries you have fed it, how much you play with it using the ‘super training’ minigames, and probably some degree of randomness. The modifier affects how many points this stat can be raised by at each level, and some of these values are also passed down to the pokemon’s offspring. It is therefore possible, by manipulating these numbers, to breed pokemon with higher stats and thus greater viability in online combat.

There’s a whole lot more to it. This is just how it’s been explained to me by others. I am, as I previously stated, a total noob. There is also a ‘trading’ aspect as well. While previous entries in the series have allowed you to trade monsters using local wireless, this game adds a very robust, especially for Nintendo, online interface.

Uh oh. Nintendo has not been known to be very good with the whole ‘online’ thing.: No, no, they have not. And that’s a valid concern here. Except that they’ve actually been doing a lot of things right lately, where the 3DS is concerned. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for example, was incredibly seamless with its online features and, for the most part, Pokemon X/Y is too. When you tell the game to connect to the internet, not only are you given a list of people from your 3DS friends list who are online, but also a random sampling of complete strangers. You can trade or chat with these people, or give them certain buffs that improve their trainer or monster abilities (called, quite inexplicably, ‘O-Powers’). You can also perform a ‘wonder trade’ which is a completely blind trade with a completely random person. This might seem like sort of a bad idea, because you could put something great into the trade and get something completely worthless out of it. However, thus far, the community has surprised me on this front. Over 75% of the things I’ve gotten from wonder trades have been things I haven’t seen yet, and I’ve even gotten some things that can only be gotten through the trade or breeding systems. So far, it seems, a significant portion of people who use the blind trade system are not just dumping random crap into it like one would probably find in other games. What it comes down to is that the chat, trade, and buff systems are implemented in such a way that at times, I have honestly forgotten that this isn’t an MMO and that I won’t be running into the people on my friends list in the middle of the towns.

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The interface is extremely intuitive.

Oh, wow. Okay. So what do you like about the game?: I like the fact that I’ve put in something like 30 hours so far and I have yet to even see a fraction of the things the game has to offer. I haven’t even made it a quarter of the way through the actual plot. It’s a game in which you can, with only a few constraints, play however you want to play it. The mechanics, which seem simple on the surface, have a deeper layer of complexity that is there for those who really want to dig into it, while still being mostly invisible to those who really just don’t. The online systems are well-implemented and filled with a robust community so that there is never a lack of people to interact with, for those who want to get into that aspect of it as well. And finally, while not every monster in the over 450 that are featured in the game is a winner, a lot of them are incredibly awesome, and the nature of the ability system ensures that even if two pokemon look the same and are at the same level, there are still significant differences in their growth and abilities. I liked the strategy involved in which types are weak or strong against each other. There is a massive table of types and weaknesses, some of which you would never expect and some of which are not inverses of each other. It really makes a person have to put a lot of thought into team creation, especially against a human opponent.

And what don’t you like?: Well, for as well-implemented as the online system is, there is one part of it that is a massive step backward from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and that is its behavior when the 3DS is put into sleep mode. See, in ACNL, when the 3DS is put to sleep the connection is still active, and people who are in your town are still able to move around and interact with it. It is, therefore, a completely seamless experience. For some reason, in Pokemon X/Y, whenever you close the 3DS to put it into sleep mode, the internet connection is completely interrupted and you are given a (quite ugly-looking) communication error. It’s baffling that this is the case, especially after ACNL did the online thing so well in this regard. Also, the single-player part of the game is incredibly, incredibly easy. The hardest thing is finding and catching all the variations of pokemon in the world. Leveling them up is easy because of how experience points are distributed to reserve pokemon, and therefore, trainer and gym leader battles are also incredibly easy. This is especially true when one is used to the brutal challenge of Shin Megami Tensei.

Ah, that comparison again. In general, how does this series stack up to that one?: When looking at all of the things that both games do, Shin Megami Tensei outperforms Pokemon in almost every single case. Demon fusion is a far better, and far more instantaneous, system than pokemon breeding (especially because after demon fusion, you don’t have to walk around while the stupid thing hatches). The combat system in SMT is far more robust and challenging, making you have to really earn all the wins you get and plan your team for every single battle. SMT is, as previously mentioned, obviously aimed at an older audience, and the plot is deeper and mostly more engaging because of it. And yet, there are a couple areas where Pokemon does stand out. The strength/weakness chart is way more in-depth in Pokemon, and the stat system is far more nuanced. And there are things that Pokemon tries to do that SMT does not, such as the online component of it. Really, even though the single-player part of the game is easy, if you look at it in terms of the multiplayer, it can be seen in the same sort of way that one looks at the single-player campaigns in something like Starcraft II or Call of Duty. The main draw of those games is the multiplayer metagame, and the single-player portion is just there to offer plot and to familiarize the players with the game enough to train them to compete against actual humans.

So, would you recommend it? And who would you recommend it to?: Despite any complaints I have with the game, I’m actually having a pretty good time with it. I’d recommend it to anyone who, like me, is really hooked on collecting things. Or, on a different level entirely, to someone who really likes min/maxing stats, number crunching, and competitive multiplayer. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking for a single-player challenge, or anyone who is expecting it to be an experience that rivals Shin Megami Tensei. Really, for me anyway, it’s an open-ended thing to have fun with for awhile, not something I’m going to get incredibly serious with, and it serves that purpose very well.

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