Reviewed: Pokemon X & Y
Pokemon X &Y
I have always had an unusual relationship with Pokemon. The series that began in Japan in 1996 that has you capturing, training and battling small monsters in gaming’s very own fantasy cockfights is nothing short of a phenomenon. I’ve seen the wall-to-wall crowds that pack into the Pokemon Center in Minato, Tokyo, children and adults alike perusing Pikachu plushies and every other type of pocket monster memorabilia. I’ve even been to the Pokemon World Championships, rows and rows of expert players filling a grand hall, bringing their super-powered ‘Mons into battle to stake a claim as the best ‘trainer’ on the planet.
My relationship with Pokemon is unusual because I realise and am fascinated by the pop culture relevance but --aside from a few snatched hours here and there-- have never really played the thing. I’ve tried, but struggled to invest in it, that motto of ‘Gotta catch ‘em all’ never really applied.
Pokemon X has changed that. The reason, I think, is that despite Pokemon reaching its seventeenth year and sixth ‘generation’, its time has never been more relevant. It has always been a social game, players able to battle and swap their Pokemon initially through cable links and eventually wireless and internet, but the world it has occupied has never been as socially connected as it is now. In Japan, players gather in meeting places to swap and battle. A scene not as pervasively recreated in the UK. Maybe I just didn’t mix with a Pokemon crowd (make of that whatever you will), so the social aspect never had the pull.
Now, with the advent of Twitter, I can’t escape Pokemon chit-chat. Upon the release of X & Y, my feed began to fill with talk of Bulbasaurs and Cadabras, of the location of special items, tales of people accidentally knocking out a rare ‘Legendary’ Pokemon and the resulting anguish that their chance may not come again. The enthusiasm is infectious. Pokemon is a Japanese game at heart, but the appeal is completely global.
The social play aspect of X and Y is front and centre, with menus appearing on the bottom touchscreen allowing you to connect with friends or ‘passerbys’ in order to trade or battle the Pokemon you have found. The main quest, however, is a solo pursuit. In terms of structure and gameplay, X & Y is largely more of the same, but with a few key alterations. You are a youngster that has moved into a new town, when one day you receive a letter from a local Pokemon professor inviting you to adopt a Pokemon and travel the world to fill the ‘Pokedex’ by capturing and battling different Pokemon, beat the eight gym leaders (essentially end of chapter bosses) and enlighten yourself along the way. It’s a coming of age story, essentially, with the saccharine beginnings of a jolly jaunt giving way to harsher challenges along the way.
It’s a bright and friendly world you start out in, with everyone you meet obsessed with Pokemon. The rather dark connotations of capturing wild animals and have them fight each other isn’t entirely lost on you, though offset by the suggestion that the Pokemon, when treated well, thoroughly enjoy their lot. Building a relationship with your Pokemon by keeping them in your party of up to 6, grooming and feeding them in the Pokemon-Amie minigames or simply by supplying them with a comfier Poke ball to sleep in sees boosts in their talents.
Otherwise it’s a case of roaming the world and honing your skills by taking part in turn-based battles. Another reason why Pokemon X & Y has chimed more with me than previous games is that there is a number of smart concessions to player convenience. Early on you are given roller-skates in order to zip around the world at speed and, more significantly, all of the Pokemon in your party can now earn XP from battles rather than just the active participants. Pokemon purists can turn this option off, but it helps impatient so-and-sos like me strengthen their party, while also encouraging experimentation as your new recruits develop in step without having to grind out battles for each one.
That generosity of spirit means that it’s not long before you have built a squad of Pokemon that is unique to you, swapping new moves in and out, capturing new recruits and deciding on allowing your budding Pokemon to evolve. The battles themselves are a lot fizzier, with a lovely visual overhaul seeing earthquakes rumbling, fireballs sizzling and water attacks spattering the camera.
Maybe I’m just shallow, but watching the battles take place with more impact goes a long way to offset my general dislike of turn-based menu battling. Not entirely, mind you, and Pokemon is guilty of the odd anachronism, namely the fact that its menus can be rather labyrinthine. Healing an injured party member or grabbing a poke ball to capture a weakened Pokemon, for instance, are buried behind a number of menu options. It just seems unnecessary to obfuscate essential actions when you have a whole touchscreen to play with, and is slightly at odds with a game otherwise keen to make things easier for the player.
They’re niggles, rather than a deal-breakers, and it isn’t long before you figure out where everything is placed. Which is good, as my clear case of attention deficiency means I’ve rarely managed to get the the nub of Pokemon’s battling. There are different ‘types’ of Pokemon: the traditional Fire, Water and Grass, plus Fairy types, Ghost types, electric and so on, making for an ever-increasingly complex game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Each has strengths and weaknesses against specific types, and figuring out what they are is the Pokemon trainer’s greatest trick.
There’s a large amount of tactical thinking in the battles themselves, but the real advantage comes with knowledge. Knowledge of each Pokemon, what their type is, how to counter it. And here, perhaps, is the real secret of Pokemon’s success and its Pokedex obsessives. It’s a curious form of digital safari, where spotting a new kind of Pokemon gives an unusual thrill. Much of it is down to the terrific design of the creatures which runs the gamut of cute, creepy, wacky and weird. And much of it is down to what they will then do in battle.
I know what some of the already Pokemon-literate among you are thinking: “we could have told you this years ago.” And you’re right. But here is X & Y, finally dragging me in with added accessibility and a visual flourish. If Pokemon’s greatest pleasure is the joy of discovery, then I’ve finally discovered it. And hooray for that.