Reviewed on: 3DS. Copy supplied by publisher.
A wise man once said “All you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl”. He also said he didn’t want a North American visa because it would take too long to fly there (although he eventually did). The man in question is the great film-maker Jean-Luc Godard but curiously I find his view to be a little short sighted. To be fair, he said this roughly around the mid 60’s, but what gets me is why has this line only been applied to the movies since? Why not all forms of storytelling? Why not video games? Well, not five seconds into the latest Pokémon Sun/Moon Jean-Luc Godard’s words returned to me.
It all begins with a flashback. A young blonde woman is running through an unfamiliar place, clutching her bag as she evades an endless stream of pursuers. She makes one wrong turn and her pursuers catch up and surround her. With no hope in sight, a giant flash of energy emerges from her bag stunning everyone surrounding her and allows for her escape. Just like in an early Godard film, the girl has a weapon in her bag, but in this story the weapon is a Pokémon, and saves her in quite a visually spectacular fashion, adding to the ways that make this a very cinematic opening to the latest game in the Pokémon franchise.
After the cinematic flashback ends, we return to a pre-programmed generic introduction to the world of these strange creatures called Pokémon, followed by the staple test of what did developer Game Freak’s profanity filter miss during the naming of your character. Introduction over, you wake up in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar house you just moved in to and begin your journey. But what follows is fascinatingly different to other Pokémon games. The cookie cutter Pokémon introduction usually lets you choose a Pokémon of your own within seconds of beginning the game. But Sun and Moon make you wait 30 whole minutes, with excellent effect. The first few steps lead you through your new island home town, meeting locals, new friends and future challengers, all the while setting the scene for the grander narrative. There’s almost a 50/50 split of gameplay and cutscenes which raises the level of storytelling to a height not seen in previous Pokémon games. It genuinely surprised and enchanted me that such cinematic care was taken on the introduction of a Pokémon game. 30 minutes of cinematic storytelling later, following a death-defying encounter with a bridge, you finally get a Pokémon of your own and are sent on your way. This has to have been the most immersive introduction to Pokémon that I’ve ever experienced.
Every ‘generation’ of Pokémon games is associated with a particular region within its world. Each of these regions is loosely inspired by a country from the real world. Sun and Moon introduce a brand new region named ‘Alola’, less loosely and rather more blatantly inspired by Hawaii. If the region name of ‘Alola’ wasn’t a big enough give away to the Hawaiian theme, everyone calling you ‘cousin’ sure is.
Alola is separated into four islands, each one reasonably similar to the other. It’s a slightly gimmicky approach to increasing the feeling of space when exploring the world, but the irony is that no matter which island you go to, the routes you traverse count up from one to seventeen, making your progress extremely linear no matter how much you try to deviate from the path. Normally, you would fight your way from one Pokémon Gym to the next, but in Alola, things are a little different. Rather than the classic eight gyms to progress through, you now have “The Island Challenge”. Each Island has a ‘Kahuna’ rather than a gym leader. Before you can battle the Kahuna, you must complete the trials of the island set before you by the Kahuna. This added a welcome amount of variance from traditional Pokémon games and, oddly, the mini games and problem solving that came with the trials gave you a longer sense of progression.
Now, each time a new Pokémon region is created, there tends to be a collection of new Pokémon that come with it. 81 new Pokémon enter the game with the Alola region, bringing the grand total up to 802. Catching them all is definitely no small feat. Luckily on Alola, there are only a mere 301 different Pokémon to catch, making your task slightly more achievable. But as a somewhat strange marketing ploy (for lack of a better term) , the Alola region brings about another weird addition to Pokémon – Alolan forms. These Alolan forms are specific to Sun and Moon and do some reasonably strange things. For example, a regular Vulpix is a fire type Pokémon, but an Alolan Vulpix is an ice type Pokémon. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
Two particular things stand out to me as strange with these Alolan forms. Firstly, only 18 Pokémon get Alolan forms, and secondly, the Pokémon in question are all from the original 151 Pokémon that we were first introduced to 20 years ago. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at Game Freak to hear that nostalgia pitch. It almost seems comical when the stand out Alolan forms involve a Dugtrio growing lush long blonde hair, a Golem with a moustache and an Exeggutor as a palm tree. Fortunately though, these odd Alolan forms are merely a footnote in a deceptively deep, layered game.
Now, I could mean many things when I say deceptively deep. I could be saying that Pokémon has evolved to be arguably the most complicated version of Rock-Paper-Scissors ever. Or, that you need to somehow choose only six Pokémon from over 800 to make up your team. Or that each Pokémon has a nature that changes how that Pokémon grows, along with ways to improve certain stats to perform better in certain roles. Unfortunately, it’s none of those.
However, there are very deep social and cultural references that seem to be noticeably stronger in Sun and Moon than previous Pokémon games. Let’s take the perceived ‘bad guys’ for instance. They’re all white. There is not a single coloured bad guy in the entire game. Not only are they white, they’re ‘hip-hop’ white and go by the name ‘Team Skull’. They are literally ‘try hard’ white gangsters and they have matching dialogue to boot. Now, a Japanese game set in a fictional region of the world based on Hawaii, where the bad guys are annoying ‘try hard’ white gangsters disrupting the region’s culture and historically documented way of life? Sounds like some pretty heavy undertones there. But wait, it gets deeper.
After a zigzagging narrative, the true enemy is revealed. A tall, fair haired, pale skinned woman with ambitions of control and power. But surprise! In the kinds of twist that we expect from a M. Night Shyamalan film, she is the mother of the young blonde woman from the opening cutscene, and boy does she have some issues. Accusing her of not being a real daughter, failing to be convinced to even listen to what she has to say, even going as far as deeming her own daughter to not be beautiful enough for her love. Inadvertently, this brings up another point, the absence of fathers. Neither you nor your companions have a visible, present father. Sure, there are uncles, grandfathers and Kahunas who are figures of influence and inspiration, but not one of which are your father. Quite an important, yet unanswered question in this world. These challenging (present and absent) family relationships raise some serious issues to bring up in any situation, let alone in the storytelling of a Pokémon game.
But these difficult questions don’t stop there. About two thirds of the way through the game, you enter the headquarters of our favourite bad guys, Team Skull. In one of the rooms, you find two female members bickering with one another about everyone in Team Skull having the same name – Grunt. This is some pretty serious shit. In the middle of a Pokémon game, two individuals that are effectively in a cult, are going through a very serious existential crisis, trying to understand what the point of it all is. I can’t help but think Descartes would be having a field day.
Unfortunately, the post-game story doesn’t even come close to the complexity of the journey that gets you there, but nevertheless it is a good introduction to the end game and really begins to challenge you.
This whole time, I have had to constantly remind myself that I am talking about a Pokémon game. The cinematic narrative, deep cultural references and emotionally challenging topics are curve balls that I would have never expected from the Nintendo staple, and yet they make this game one of the most compelling additions to the series. Pokémon Sun/Moon has a long, complicated, often challenging, cinematic story that makes me yearn for more. If that isn’t storytelling at its finest, I don’t know what is.