Review: Pokemon X and Y: The series' first foray into 3D

It may be Pokemon's first foray into 3D, but that aspect hardly matters when compared with all of the other things Game Freak added to Pokemon X and Y. Other than a hiccup with a game-breaking bug in Lumiose City (which has since been fixed; if you haven't downloaded the patch yet, it's on the Nintendo eShop), the game is solid.

The game tried a few new things. Some worked fantastically, others didn't. First, the story is still pretty weak and predictable. I still find Black and White to have the most complex plot with the most interesting characters. The issue of handling Pokemon as captive tools meant for the equivalent of dog-fighting or rather their handling as a trainer's friends could have been handled in a black-or-white way. We find N and the player on different sides, and yet N changes -- and hopefully the player's outlook was also impacted by N's words.

But that's enough about Black and White. In X and Y, Team Flare (possibly a pun on "flair") couldn't be more black and white. Even before the player learns much of Team Flare's leader Lysandre, he talks about beauty and his worries for the world. He lacks complete subtlety, and it's hard to see how Professor Sycamore never saw his friend's betrayal coming. When the final confrontation with Lysandre comes, he boils his argument down to his belief that there is so much ugliness in the world, and in a world where people treat Pokemon as tools, all Pokemon must be destroyed to save them. There is no room to empathize with Lysandre because he is a flat character capable of no growth.

We do get introduced to a giant, however, who has had his own ancient morality struggle with Pokemon. The player sees very little of this man, and yet he receives more character growth than Lysandre could ever hope to have.

Game Freak took a different turn with the rival character in X and Y. In the past, Pokemon games have one rival. More recent games have added two characters you occasionally battle. Sometimes they're both rivals, sometimes they're also friends, sometimes one is a great battler while the other finds other ways of enjoying a journey with Pokemon. In X and Y, you travel with four other characters. One is clearly your rival and the next best at Pokemon battling. The second is a friendly girl who you spend a decent amount of time with journeying through forests and routes or keeping each other company while watching the fireworks. The third loves to dance and isn't so good at Pokemon battling. The fourth also isn't good at battling and has decided his goal is to fill the Pokedex, and he will challenge you to see who has more entries in the Pokedex. You both travel on your own and with these four characters, meaning you get to choose to move at your own pace and also battle some recurring characters a few times. The rival, named Calem if you chose the female protagonist and Serena if you chose the male protagonist, and Shauna are with you the most of other characters, and these two become a bit more complex as you learn more about their goals for their respective Pokemon journeys. However, these characters are still fairly simple-minded. Even if Pokemon is traditionally a game marketed to children, there is no need for such simplistic characters in a story. Before people come in and say, "But you don't play Pokemon for the story!" I want to say that people choose their own reasons for playing a game. The beauty of Pokemon is that it feels like your own story. My favorite part of starting a Pokemon game is starting the journey, picking my starter, and catching my first few Pokemon in a new region with new Pokemon. I also get to choose which Pokemon to use in my party, which strategies to employ in battles, and what to name my Pokemon (if I choose to name them). At the same time, the plot of Pokemon games is linear. You are guided to which towns to go to next, which gyms to fight next, and to pursue whichever nefarious team is trying to hurt people/the world/Pokemon. With six generations of Pokemon games out, it's time for more stories that challenge the way you think about Pokemon.

However, I suggest everyone who has already beaten the Elite Four to head to Lumiose City for some sidequests with Looker, an international police officer whom we first saw in Platinum. You meet Emma, a young girl involved with a gang in Lumiose. She ends up joining the bureau with Looker but gets caught up in some nasty experiments. Emma isn't a flat gang-style character. She has reasons for being in a gang, motivation for leaving, and it's easy to see why she chooses to do some stupid things for money. Emma's life revolves around not having enough money, and she feels guilty when Looker takes her in and doesn't ask her for anything in return. I know Pokemon "isn't about the story," but I would have loved to have more time with Emma. I learned more about her in five short sidequests than I did about any other character in the game. And this isn't even in the main plot.

Customization was one of the most fun additions of X and Y. I knew as soon as the clothing customization feature was announced, I would end up spending much more of my money in the game on clothes than on items actually useful in the game. Various styles are available, meaning girls can dress up in cute, frilly clothing or wear a t-shirt and shorts, or wear a combination of styles. However, I wish gender fluidity had been considered in this customization feature. Rather than restricting female protagonists to women's clothing and male protagonists to menswear, players should be able to choose what they want to wear regardless of gender intended for the clothing. And I don't mean "unisex" as in girls can wear the boys' clothing, but boys can also wear skirts and dresses, clothing traditionally considered only for women.

We finally got the option to change skin tone at the beginning of the game, something Game Freak should have had in the games before, but I am grateful for the inclusion of not only PoC NPCs but also an option for the protagonist to be PoC. Thank you, Pokemon for this late but well-welcomed addition!

The other great feature is the online interaction with others. I have rarely connected to the internet in Pokemon in the past, usually only using it for the GTS occasionally, but for the first time I was trading and battling with strangers. The game even encourages you to interact with your friends and strangers playing Pokemon X or Y. You can use O-Powers to strengthen your Pokemon's stats or increase your capture rate, as well as many other things. However, they cost more to use on yourself than others. By using an O-Power repeatedly, its level will increase. Because they're cheaper to use on others, the game encourages you to help others out online. You can also trade with someone, battle with someone, connect to the GTS, or do a blind trade. All of this is easily accessible on the lower screen of the 3DS.

Two other additions can be found on the bottom screen. By pressing L or R, you can navigate away from the online capabilities of the Player Search System to Pokemon Amie and Super Training. Pokemon Amie lets you pet your Pokemon, feed your Pokemon, and play three mini-games with your Pokemon. You don't have to do this, and it's never forced on you, but some Pokemon need to have a high affection for you before evolving (this is partly how Eevee evolves into the new fairy-type Sylveon). The mini-games can take less than a minute, so they never take too much of your time. Super Training is not nearly as cute; instead its purpose is to give you some control over which stats you want your Pokemon to improve. By playing short mini-games in which you shoot soccer balls at targets while evading balls shot at you, you can choose which stat to increase. If you don't feel like spending too much time on it, your Pokemon can hit a punching back once a minute to increase stats.

Overall, Pokemon X and Y is just as addicting as any other game in the series, and with the inclusion of Red and Blue starter Pokemon and some subtle throwbacks to Red and Blue (including a sleeping Snorlax blocking your path and a building with arrow tiles that spin you around), X and Y are a great reentry into the series for anyone who hasn't felt like playing Pokemon since the golden days of old.

The Freshness of Pokemon Black and White

It looks just like all the others--a choice of a starter Fire, Water, or Grass-type Pokemon. A team of bad guys. Rivals. The same 8 gym structure. Similar Pokemon with different names lying in the grass.

But that little comparison does not give the game the justice it deserves. It's true Pokemon seems to have a very distinct formula that never changes in any generation, but if this fifth generation has to have one thing working in its favor, it's the plot.

Remember when we all joked about the rampant animal abuse in Pokemon?

Well, these moral issues of enslaving animals to make them fight each other have finally been addressed--by the "evil" guys of Black and White. They are Team Plasma and they're a fresh change from the evildoers like Team Rocket, Team Magma/Aqua, and Team Galactic. While Plasma does steal Pokemon, they're instead a radical group crusading for Pokemon's rights. They believe that only by releasing Pokemon and separating from their trainers, the Pokemon will be free. The leader of this organization, known only as N, blocks your path with philosophy.

He ain't too bad on the eyes, either.

You have to step back and really consider whether you're treating your Pokemon right. Do they deserve to be trapped only for us to use when we choose? Or do trainers bond with their Pokemon? Will a separation actually change anything? Every trainer has to consider why they have Pokemon and even N falters. He's a welcome addition to the Pokemon universe because he is actually interesting and has layers unlike most Pokemon characters.

Your rivals unfortunately are not as developed. Cheren runs after you only to fight. Winning is an evaluation of his self-worth and because you keep beating him--if you want to move on, that is--he spouts out angsty teenage crap. (And not the attractive kind that we enjoy in anime and games--just the annoying kind.) He might as well fall to his knees and curse himself for ever being born. He is that upset after each battle. He changes that attitude by the end, but it happens off screen. From one scene he's angsty over his loss and the next he's vowed to capture Team Plasma and help you.

Bianca has the potential to be a strong female character, but falls short. She admits that she's not very good at Pokemon battles, realizing that she can instead help Pokemon in her own way. Unfortunately, she ends up needing your help most of the time. She's essentially a dumb blonde and I only forgive Nintendo for this because they gave us such a cool-looking female main character.

She's bringing '80s hair back.

This game, while seeming quick to me after finishing it in a week, had a harder difficulty. I found myself actually stocking up on potions and needing to use strategy. Your opponents have some level of intelligence; they make informed decisions. If you send out an electric type against whatever Pokemon they have, if it knows a ground move, they will use it. And you will curse under your breath. Not every battle is difficult, but the ones that matter are.

Gracing the Pokemon stage are also new battles. Triple battles are just like double battles except the Pokemon on the far left cannot hit the one of the far right and vice versa. Unfortunately, there are few occurrences of this in the game. There are also rotation battles, which are also three-on-three. Instead, one Pokemon at a time fight and you're able to rotate one of the other two in at any time to fight. Unfortunately, these battles don't seem much different from regular battles.

If I had to take one thing out of Pokemon Black/White, I'd rip out the musicals. As a girl who loves a good song and beautiful people singing it, the idea of Pokemon on a stage dancing around and singing sounded fantastic. I wondered how Pokemon moves would be incorporated into it, just like the contests. However, the musicals are a useless gimmick. There's no competition involved, no rankings, and no singing. One of your Pokemon dances on a stage with props that you have and you're able to use those props to appeal to the audience. When the show ends, that's it. You receive a few compliments from the audience and the occasional prop to keep for future musicals.

And then you run far away and tell yourself that you'll never do that again.

The musicals had wasted potential. Had they had some form of competition like the contests from the earlier games, I'd still be running to Nimbasa city to make my Pokemon dance around in funny outfits.

Overall, Pokemon Black/White is fresh material. While some things still need to be improved, this generation brought us the first story in fifteen years that made me think. Pokemon is about engaging the audience and letting them choose how they want to play, whether it be to fight and be the best or to catch 'em all, and for the first time we had to consider ethics in a fictional world.

Maybe next time we'll see Officer Jenny arresting trainers for dog fights.

Pokemon: This One's For All the Parents Out There

It's a boring story. A child becomes attached to a game or a show. That child may collect the trading cards and become engrossed in the fictional universe that is that show or game. The parents of the child say, "You may love _____ now, but just wait until you're 20!"

Because there's nothing strange about sending 10-year-olds off on their own in the woods...with an electric mouse.

Guess what?

I'm 20. And I still love Pokemon.

I can't blame my parents. The show was nothing fantastic--but the first season will always hold a special place in my heart--and the games are practically recycled every generation. With the fifth generation upon us in the U.S. tomorrow, can anyone really say it's that different from the first?

But what's wrong with that? Not every game needs to try something new to make it work. Some parts of a series should never change. There are different versions of Link in every Zelda game, but he's still Link. Mario's never going to get any taller and Princess Peach may never cease her worthlessness. Rather than sticking to the same characters, Pokemon sticks to the same foundation because that very foundation is its stable core. I can find no reason to fault them with that. Pokemon is successful because people enjoy finding the right Pokemon for them. Why fix something that isn't broken?

That said, I appreciate the changes that are in Pokemon. I remember when I first learned of the Pokegear in Gold and Silver or the ability to choose a female character in Crystal. These additions are what strengthen the already strong core. However, I have yet to see a new feature that has captured my interest as well as the first Pokegear did. I vividly remember late nights in the backseat of the car as my family drove home from vacations in the Poccanos. With the only light in the car coming from my Gameboy Color and attachable light, I played the radio on the Pokegear while training my Eevee to evolve into an Umbreon. The light drumming of the Poke March on the radio lured pokemon closer. My parents tuned out my music to the car radio and my sister had already fallen asleep. It was just me, that Pokegear, and my Pokemon team. As I get farther into Pokemon Black, I expect to enjoy myself in the dark corners of Black City. Perhaps this generation's use of wireless interactivity will actually try something new. Maybe I'm an anti-social gamer, but this has failed to capture my attention in the past. I hope something new comes out of it this time.

Of course, my goals today in Pokemon have changed. I have no intention of catching every Pokemon these days. I'm no longer the seven-year-old playing Pokemon Blue, going after Mewtwo in Cerulean Cave. I'm not even the thirteen-year-old reliving the first generation through my copy of Fire Red.

I hope both old and new fans, those both young and experienced, enjoy their copies of Black and White tomorrow. I know I'll be smiling as soon as I choose my Oshawott.

Because derps make me happy.

In the words of my sister, "You'll still be playing Pokemon when you're 40." I look forward to the next 20 inevitable years of Pokemon.