At the time of writing, I have played over 90 hours of Pokemon XY. Released globally last month, I purchased the game digitally through Nintendo’s eShop as soon as it was available for release. It quickly became my obsession for the entire month of October, until recently when I started craving human interaction, full meals, and other sources of entertainment beyond Pokemon XY (or at least in addition to it).
Despite the length of time I have already dedicated to the game and the amount of enjoyment I have received from the game’s tried-and-true formula, this new edition to the long-running series is difficult to review. Having skipped the last several iterations (Ruby was my last entry in the series), Y was an incredibly pleasant homecoming. Of course, just like coming home, once the nostalgia fades, you quickly realize why you left in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Pokemon. The series was an important part of my gaming life when I was growing up and Pokemon Red & Blue first released. Even with Pokemon XY, that same formula is just as addicting and just as fun as it was then (perhaps more so after my long break). A new setting, a new graphics engine, and some serious streamlining all help make Pokemon XY one of my favorite in the series. Even if it is the same formula, it is that formula perfected to a fine art.
When I first read about the French influence on the Kalos Region (Pokemon X/Y’s setting), I was a little worried. I am no Francophobe but I didn’t get the point of combining all things Pokemon with French cafes, French cuisine, French fashion, and other vaguely French things. Somehow though, it really worked for me. Kalos, unlike any other Pokemon region that I have visited, felt uniquely different, more developed, and more distinct. By using France as a template, Game Freak has created by far my favorite Pokemon region.
By far, the best part for me was introducing fashion into the series. Coming from a Massively Multiplayer background, I’ve always valued the ability to customize my character to better fit my own personality. Pokemon XY let’s you do that, while also introducing things like status and rare clothing going for obscene prices to make finding the right outfit a mini game unto itself. Additional French influences, such as the restaurant battles and the cafes on every corner, were nice, but not as developed as I might have hoped.
Of course, Kalos wouldn’t be nearly as cool if it weren’t so beautifully rendered. Though I love sprites, I am happy to see Pokemon embrace modern technology, especially when it comes to rendering the world. Though the 3D effects are forgettable (despite being the name of the system, the 3D was never a factor for me buying it), the art-style is not. The French template may have given Kalos more depth and culture, but the graphics are what bring it to life.
Pokemon battles look great as well. Though they are exactly the same as they always have been, I really found myself enjoying the battles in this one more. The series is often treated like a kid’s game, but generations of the Pokemon have really given the game real strategic depth. Not unlike a game like League of Legends, there is a definite meta to competitive Pokemon play that is redefined and reshaped with every new entry in the series. I am not a big follower of Pokemon as an eSport, but I can definitely understand why others might be. As the depth continues to grow and the game becomes more cinematic to watch, I look forward to seeing where the series might go in the future always-online world.
If you are interested in competitive playing Pokemon, the online in this one is better than ever. Multiplayer fights can be started anywhere in the game, for instance. More importantly, however, is that Pokemon’s daunting and mysterious system for training competitive Pokemon has been completely fixed with some much needed changes. EVs are now trackable and easy to train and retrain without forcing you to fight specific Pokemon in the wild over and over while keeping count of how many you’ve downed. IVs, while still a bit obtuse, are now easier to transfer into newly bred Pokemon now that the Destiny Knot allows up to five IVs to transfer to a new generation and the Friend Safari guarantees at least two perfect IVs per Pokemon caught. You may have never heard of EVs and IVs, but believe me when I say things are a lot easier, and even more fun for it.
Also worth mentioning, the new Experience Share makes leveling a team of Pokemon a lot simpler as well. While it is still beneficial to switch in the Pokemon you want to level quickly into every battle, you no longer have to worry about constantly switching around Pokemon to make sure experience is spread evenly. This does mean that some members of your team will see a lot less use, but I think its a fair compromise. Being forced to constantly shuffled Pokemon around to maximize experience gain was never especially fun or compelling gameplay.
While there is a lot to love or at least to note hate, Pokemon XY has one sore spot for me that I really disliked: the story. I could try reciting it for you, but that would be a waste of my time. The series is largely known for throwaway plots, but with better rendering (including cutscenes), my expectations also naturally rise. Honestly, I am perfectly okay with these sorts of games abandoning all pretense of story, and instead embrace an Elder Scrolls-like approach. Separate factions for separate playstyles, each with its own progression and story-lite to focus on. Anything would be better than the nonsense we ended up with, which is a shame.
It also didn’t help that they changed the formula in ways I don’t understand. I know, I know: I complained earlier in this same review about the game being too formulaic. But, I really liked having a true Rival in earlier Pokemon games. In this one, your Rival is just a friend who wants to be as strong as you. It’s a bit boring, to say the least, and leaves a motivation vacuum for the entire game.
Gym Leaders, boss battles, and even the Elite 4 have never been especially hard. In Pokemon XY, they are easier than ever since leveling your team is so much simpler and you can capture almost any type of Pokemon in the first few hours. In past games, the Rival kept me motivated because they were often so rude, callous, or mean. While every other battle is to make sure you are strong enough for the next lap of the race, beating your Rival was fun in-and-of itself because they deserved to be beaten.
One final point on the game’s campaign: worst pacing ever. Gyms are supposed to come along at regular intervals because they represent your progression in the game’s world. Defeating a gym solidifies your status as an up-and-coming trainer, but they also allow you to train higher level Pokemon and use special abilities to cut/swim/waterfall/fly your way through the world. There is a weird multi-hour gap in the game where you don’t see a gym for a while. It isn’t a gamebreaker, but it felt horrible.
Ignoring the campaign and nostalgia completely, Pokemon XY is easily my favorite Pokemon game of all time. The experience is refined, accessible, and incredibly fun. It’s also a game that can’t shake the feeling of being “too safe”. Still, I can’t complain too much when Pokemon training (the series’ most glaring weakness) is finally fixed, even if this game is easier than any other entry in every other aspect as well. Pokemon XY is a wonderful step forward into a new generation, but it is a baby Pokemon step rather than the fully-evolved experience we might of been hoping for.
TL;DR: I wouldn’t fault any fan for skipping this one, especially if they had conquered Black & White 2 or any other Pokemon game in the last five years, but I still think they’d be missing out on the charm and beauty of Kalos.