At some points in our lives we all come to experience moments that will never be forgotten, but what are perhaps the most powerful of these events are those that occur during the innocence of childhood. Sometimes, these moments are so commonly shared that they transcend experience of the individual, and go on to define a generation. For me, like many of you, one of these moments in my life was the North American release of Pokémon Red and Blue in 1998. I firmly believe that this year will be forever engraved in video game history. However, after a long fifteen years we may finally have a new event that might be able replicate a similar level of wonder once more – the release of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y.
Like all other games in the Pokémon series, Pokémon X and Y places you as a coming-of-age child cast out on an adventure of wonder and personal growth. Shortly after you and your mother move to Vaniville town in the French-themed region of Kalos, you are given your first Pokémon friend courtesy of the famous Professor Sycamore of Lumiose City. All that the Professor wishes in return for your new companion is that you take a marvelous journey around Kalos, both making new friends and aiding his research in Mega Evolution along the way. Like all Pokémon games, the plot remains relatively fixed around this simple concept, though you will inevitable run into a band of villains with their own misguided motives along the way. These are games meant to appeal to all ages after all, so an intricate, developed story is not the focus here. With that in mind, friendship and teamwork remain central themes, which will certainly appeal to younger gamers.
In line with the story are how the game actually looks and the setting that Kalos is portrayed as. This is where the most immediately noticeable change from previous games in the series is seen: the graphics. Pokémon X and Y mark the first mainstream games in the series in which the graphics are rendered in full 3D. What is most impressive is that the developers managed to portray each character and Pokémon exactly as you would have imagined them. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the X and Y itself looks almost exactly like the anime. Adding to all the charm already packed into the superb art style is the option to customize the appearance of your trainer. Beyond choosing your trainer’s gender, you are given an appreciable number of fashion options, hairstyles and colors, and eyeshades to choose between. This is a much-appreciated feature, though some options (such as hair style versus color) are admittedly few. Nevertheless, you will find yourself filled with glee as you roam across the café-laden cities of Kalos in your snow hat one day, and your stylish baseball cap the next.
Despite Pokémon X and Y’s obvious graphical achievements, the greatest amount of improvements was in the gameplay itself. The core Pokémon gameplay is still here, mind you, but there have been so many tweaks and refinements that have made it an altogether more enjoyable experience. For instance, while in previous titles you were forced to walk around at a snail’s pace until you came across a pair of running shows, in Pokémon X and Y you automatically start with the option to run. Better yet, you receive roller skates very early in the game for even faster travel, with a bicycle to follow soon after.
Keeping up with this theme of increased convenience are the improvements brought to online features. It is now possible to trade and battle anyone via online play anywhere on the map with no need to travel back to a Pokémon center. Simply connecting to the internet will allow you to see other players on the touchscreen, with who you can interact with by writing short messages or sending them helpful buffs called O-powers (on top of the option to select them for trading, etc.). Moreover, finding a desired Pokémon is now easier than ever via the Global Trade System (GTS). The GTS allows you to upload any of your creatures for trade onto a server, as well as search for any of the Pokémon up for trade (as long as they are registered in your Pokédex). Another new, surprisingly fun option for trading is Wonder Trade. This option exchanges one of your Pokémon with another trainer at random, which can yield some surprising results. While you will likely receive low-level fodder via most wonder trades, you may just well get a charmander or even a legendary (perhaps with a Japanese name as well!).
All of the refinements brought about for the sake of convenience would amount to nothing if Pokémon battling were not fun. Thankfully the tried-and-true formula of type-matching weaknesses and strengths remains as addictive as ever, and only serves to drive the craze to catch more and more ‘mons. However, X and Y add to this already complex system by introducing mega-evolutions and a whole a new Pokémon type, Fairy. It was said by the developers that fairy Pokémon were added to combat the strength of dragons in the metagame, though they do much more than that. It may be my lack of knowledge in Pokémon at the competition level, but fairy types seemed just slightly too strong for balance in my play through (the Fairy-type gym was by far the most difficult). On the other hand, I found mega-evolutions (which enable certain Pokémon to undergo an additional, temporary evolution in battle) to be powerful in a way that adds an additional level of complexity to player versus player battles. However, I did not find mega-evolutions to add terribly much beyond a stat boost to the single-player game, as very few enemy AIs are able to use this feature themselves. I personally feel like this is fine, as this mechanic was mostly intended for competition anyhow, and in that realm I feel it truly succeeds.
The art of Pokémon training also has seen a number of welcome refinements. First and foremost is the addition of supertraining, which allows you to further strengthen your team via a series of minigames. Essentially supertraining provides a much easier process to earn your Pokémon effort values (“EVs” – I would recommend checking out this summary at nowgamer for those who are unfamiliar with EVs). Challenges that upgrade each of the six main stats can be chosen for play after competing a short tutorial of this feature. These challenges all involve shooting soccer balls at large Pokémon balloons, and there is honestly little variation between each stat-specific game beyond different enemy balloon attack patterns. Though this does lead to repetitiveness, supertraining provides an amusing diversion from traditional battles. Gamefreak has also introduced a new, intuitive way to level up your Pokémon’s happiness via Pokémon Amie. This feature allows you to pet, feed, and play with your Pokémon in a manner similar to a broken down pet simulator. There is also a set of three unique minigames under Pokémon Amie that will further boost happiness and provide you with better Pokémon food.
Pokémon X and Y certainly have done a lot to please old and new fans alike, and no one can deny that the developers have poured a ton of love into these titles. Nevertheless, no game is perfect, and X and Y are no exception. My one major complaint is that I personally found the pacing of the games to be a bit imbalanced. For instance, while you encounter the first of eight gyms within an hour or two of starting the game, you will not encounter the second gym for many hours later (I think it was not until 10-12 hours for me). This may not sound like a huge problem, but keep in mind that the maximum level of Pokémon that you can use is based off of the badges you have earned. The massive time gap between the first two gyms was so long that I feared my Pokémon would level past my ability to control them if I were to continue holding them on my team. Despite this, all AI trainers I ran into continued using level 10-15 Pokémon while mine were reaching levels 25-28. Thankfully the timeframe between successive gyms after the second was greatly shortened, but for the first quarter of the game this was a major cause of worry. Beyond this, I suppose you could argue that a relatively small number of totally new Pokémon were introduced in these titles compared to previous entries, but this did not bother me in the slightest. I felt enough has been done to mix things up with mega-evolutions and with the retyping of old Pokémon brought about by the addition of fairies.
I may have already stated that the year 2013 will go down in history as the Year of Luigi, but more importantly 2013 will be remembered as the year of Pokémon X and Y. Gamefreak has outdone itself with the latest entries in this well-beloved series, and I think we could have asked for little more. X and Y deliver what is so great about Pokémon in such a convenient, accessible, and well-presented package that my experience playing them entranced me as much as Pokémon Red did for me when I was 9 years old. However, if you were not swayed by the Pokémon craze in the past, then I can’t say that these titles will do much to change your feelings.
Note: All images are credited to the official Pokémon X and Y website.