As a reviewer it’s easy to tell a truly great game from the merely good: it’s when you start worrying when you’ll have time to keep playing it after the review is done and you’re supposed to be playing something else. The size and complexity of Pokémon games has always made them addictive time sinks but they’ve been resting on their laurels for a long time now. Pokémon X/Y is the point at which they rise up and re-enter battle. The usual complaint with any long-running series, whether it’s Pokémon or Assassin’s Creed, is that it’s sequels are just more of the same. And it’s true that from that perspective X and Y are not a major sea change for the series. But as Infinity Ward’s Mark Rubin recently pointed out to us, nothing else makes any sense because ‘otherwise we’re not making Call Of Duty, we’re making something else’. Pokémon is in a slightly different situation though, in that there are a number of features fans have being craving for years, and this is finally the one to start implementing them. There will probably never be a big budget Pokémon game on a home console, but this new 3DS iteration suddenly makes that seem like less of a problem. The mainline Pokémon titles are essentially open-ended role-playing games. Think a family-friendly version of Skyrim, but with turn-based combat featuring an army of friendly monsters as your means of defence. The new games X and Y form what is essentially Pokémon 6 with, as usual, only very minor differences between the two titles – mostly just a few different pokémon between each, to encourage trading. Each pokémon you capture and train has a type (anything from grass to ghost or the brand new fairy) and can learn four moves at a time. These have similar alignments and often various side effects, creating a highly complex web of vulnerabilities, defences, and bonuses. Matching attacks to the right Pokémon, and breeding and training ever more useful creatures, becomes quickly obsessive. This is exactly how Pokémon games have always worked, but much more than any recent game X and Y try to break from the shadow of the original Game Boy games and their technical limitations. The game is still predominately portrayed from a top-down perspective but everything now use 3D polygonal graphics, so the camera is much more mobile and even occasionally switches to an over-the-shoulder third person view.
The previous Black and White games had already started to experiment with this but the significant change now is that the pokémon and their battles have completely abandoned the 2D sprites of the rest of the series. You now get generously animated 3D models that react to combat in a manner very similar to the Pokémon Stadium series of games – the combatants never actually touch but battles are now a lot more visually interesting. The graphics are strangely inconsistent though, suggesting the game was either rushed (which it doesn’t give the impression of in any other way) or Nintendo are running out of space on the cartridge. Sometimes the game doesn’t look much better than a DS title whereas other times, particularly in the third person view, it’s very attractive. The Pokémon battles run at a strangely low frame rate and yet this doesn’t seem to be a technical problem but a stylistic choice. Even odder is that the game isn’t in stereoscopic 3D at all except during battles and certain interiors like caves. If there’s a logic to this, and which character does and doesn’t get a 3D model before a battle, it’s lost on us. Despite these eccentricities the game is certainly more visually interesting than it’s ever been, but its other important improvement is in terms of online. A Pokémon massively multiplayer online game has been the dream of fans for decades and this does come very close to being exactly that. Even before launch there have been plenty of people online and if you switch on the Internet option you can instantly see scores of ‘passerbys’. Any of these can be interacted with instantly, with new ‘O-Powers’ allowing you to give a friendly stat boost to people you notice on the touchscreen. At this point they can quickly be upgraded to acquaintances and then friends (including automatically adding them to the general 3DS friends list). From there you can chat, trade, and battle with surprising ease – especially given how finicky the online options are in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The improvements to the graphics and online options have a measurable effect on how you play the game but X and Y also come with plenty of other new tricks. Key amongst them is the new idea of mega evolutions, which are only temporary and triggered by special stones during a battle. X and Y feature dozens of new pokémon but not as many as previous games, which given some of the more absurd recent designs is a sensible policy of quality over quantity. But this means a greater emphasis on first generation pokémon in particular, both in the field and in terms of getting mega evolutions. In fact the game makes much better use of the hundreds of different pokémon already in existence and where previously you’d keep running into the same two or three critters when moving through an area you’re now assaulted by a different kind almost every time.