Review by super_luigi16

"Even with a near-perfect entry, the cracks are showing in the fundamentals…"

Pokemon has been strikingly planar throughout its entire history; it has never deviated from its origin other than to take incremental steps down the proverbial X-axis: its formulaic sliding scale, if you will. With each “generation” of new Pokemon, some aspects of Pokemon advance farther down the axis while others slide back down to mediocrity. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of generation-to-generation is ironic: while remaining inherently planar, the game has remained well-received and its review scores have—you guessed it—remained relatively planar. The mainstream gaming media is quick to dismiss both abhorrent and apparent flaws that have slowly bubbled up in the Pokemon world, but they are quick to nibble on whatever shiny new bone GameFreak throws at them: stunning 3D visuals included.

Disclaimer: Pokemon is not a bad game. In fact, the idea that Pokemon is a great game is a foregone conclusion for the most part. But, it's just… just a little worn-out. It's overdone. The creative juices just aren't there anymore. And, even more startling, the game is a dramatic bundle of bumbling contradictions: from the simplicity of the premise to the complexity of the gameplay, GameFreak can't seem to quite figure out what it wants out of Pokemon. The game is quite enjoyable on some levels; on other planes, the Pokemon is hitched up in tradition and it muzzles a better experience. Insofar, this indecisiveness, so to speak, prevents the game from becoming truly better. It's about time to actually have a three-dimensional game, not a one-dimensional joy ride.

The Premise of Pokemon

Pokemon is pitched with simplicity in mind. “Become a trainer! Catch Pokemon! Beat other trainers! Become the Pokemon Champion! Catch them all!” Those buzzwords have been thrown about by GameFreak on various occasions throughout the history of Pokemon as enticements to play what seems like a simple game. And, if you boil down Pokemon to its fundamentals, it really is a simple game. In Pokemon X and Y, there are over 450 Pokemon. Of these 450 Pokemon, you are expected to develop a team of six with which you will traverse through the region, both gathering data on Pokemon for Professor Sycamore (he gave you your first Pokemon and recruited you on this mission) and defeating the Gym Leaders along the way. Gym Leaders can be thought of as “checkpoints,” testing your strength with especially strong trainers that specialize in one type of Pokemon.

Now, this review doesn't concern itself with explaining everything there is to know about Pokemon—that's impossible, and I don't want to bore you. Rather, this review concerns itself with what is pertinent to what makes Pokemon tick—what makes it such a bundle of contradictions that is starting to harm the very fortitude of the structure they work to strengthen. The fissures are starting show up before you even get a Pokemon to learn the move Fissure, and that's trouble for a game that sells itself on the satisfaction of playing through the main game.

Nevertheless, Pokemon's simplicity is still there, even if you have to struggle to find it in X and Y. In previous games, there was no issue handling all of the different aspects that the game threw at you because there were so few of them. It was easy to understand; it wasn't cluttered. In Pokemon Red and Blue, there were only 151 Pokemon; in X and Y, there are over 450 as mentioned before, but, in total, there are over 720 Pokemon. “Gotta catch ‘em all” has been fading as a tagline for Pokemon for this very reason—attaining that distinction is actually an amazing feat of monotony, grinding your way through multiple games (or trades) to reach an artificially high goal.

Pokemon, by nature, is additive. Basically, whatever is added from game-to-game sticks, for the most part. Pokemon breeding? Added in Gen II (Gold and Silver). Day/night cycles? Added in Gen II (Ruby and Sapphire). Seasons? Added in Gen V (Black and White). Jynx? Gen I. Salamance? Gen III. Berries? Gen II. Goomy? Gen VI. Double battles? Gen III. Triple battles? Gen V. Rhypherior? Gen IV. Individual Values? Gen I. Abilities? Gen III.

Case in point, you can still find all of these major additions in X and Y. Is that a good thing? On their own, yes. Getting seasons in Gen V was refreshing; it spiced up the regions as you kept playing. Abilities added a whole new layer to battling, tilting the competitive sphere. Goomy revolutionized the internet. GameFreak can and does make great additions to the game. Just look at Gen VI: the various peripherals, like Pokemon Amie and the GTS/PSS, tacked onto these games have added to the experience greatly. That much is true.

But… What about when you add them all together?

Problems. This is where problems arise. What was once touted as a “wonderful addition” or something that “livened up the game” or that was “refreshing” is now lamented as another thing to keep track of, another variable to factor in, another dimension on the same plane. Of course, I'm making one rather large—and safe—assumption: that Pokemon is too complex for its own good. Let's justify this assumption for a paragraph:

In competitive Pokemon, you have to take into account a lot of variables. Firstly, let's start with the basics: moves and types. Types and movesets must give adequate coverage and resistances to cover all bases. Next up are, what I like to call, subjective classifications: having an adequate balance of offensive-oriented Pokemon, or “sweepers,” defensive-oriented Pokemon “tanks,” and special units, or “utilities.” With regards to each individual Pokemon, your Pokemon must have the correct singular ability out of a family of 3+ abilities. Pokemon must also have a good nature or they will hurt or neutralize their important stats. Held items must be found, traded, or earned for specific Pokemon. Effort Values (EVs) must be trained to a ceiling of no higher than 510, forcing you to keep track of Pokemon encounters (or use Super Training) for each individual Pokemon. Finally, Individual Values (IVs) are the trickiest of them all as they are mostly randomized; Pokemon are randomly assigned gene-like values that affect stats in a moderately significant way, and these IVs are pre-determined and Pokemon must be bred over many generations to a good product.

Does that sound like a simple game? No, it doesn't. And GameFreak has made it worse on two levels over time. The first is the concern of this part of the review: in X and Y, we have reached the pinnacle of complexity thus far. It is frankly impossible to have the perfect Pokemon without hacking. That is not a bad thing. But, when Pokemon strength is correlated to the amount of time you can pour into an arbitrary stat (like an IV!), we have a problem. No longer is Pokemon about the battle; rather it is about the insane amount of preparation used when breeding. And that brings me to how the additive property of Pokemon brings about massive cracks in the foundation.

To prove this end, I'm going to use breeding as my vehicle. Breeding, when it was introduced in Gen II, was hailed as a revolutionary mechanic, allowing one to infinitely multiply one type of Pokemon easily. That made it easy to trade, easy to start over and try again with a Pokemon, easy to invest time and effort into a fresh start. However, in Gen VI, breeding is the means through which competitive Pokemon survives. By breeding Pokemon, one does not simply leave natures, IVs, movesets, abilities, and other variables to chance; no, one attempts to control them, with a dramatically larger correlation between the amount of time spent working for an “awesome” Pokemon and the awesomeness of the Pokemon. In essence, Pokemon boils down to a mechanic of who has spent the most time working for the best Pokemon and strategy has, for the most part, taken a second seat to this. Breeding has been the enabler for this mechanic, allowing Pokemon to be artificially “perfected” in a way. That obviously was not likely the intention when the mechanic was first introduced in Gold and Silver.

Moreover, later additions (i.e., those after Gen III) have only marginally attempted to correct for this complexity. Rather, until Gen VI, the amount of Pokemon added has significantly hindered efforts to compensate for this additive nature; Gen V added over 180 Pokemon, hardly simplifying the game. Rather than address the core mechanics and the fundamentals, Pokemon has taken the stance of simply ignoring the problem away, adding superficial things like seasons which only affect Pokemon that have already been added!

Gen VI—the games at hands—is conflicted in ridding Pokemon of such trivialities. X and Y remove some features, but leave intact most fundamentals. IVs, natures, and abilities remain overly complicated. And, although X and Y do address EVs, they add complexity to battles with Mega Evolutions. It's as if GameFreak ignores the larger problem—that the game itself is flawed in its additive nature—and simply fails trying to correct for it. To introduce one mechanic while nerfing another does not solve the problem; rather, it subtly exhibits an innate ignorance of it. That is not good.

Earlier, I argued that GameFreak has complicated the game in two ways; I've argued the first over the past few paragraphs or so, but the second is more simple:

It's online.

As Pokemon has gradually entered the world of online since Diamond and Pearl, competitive battling has grown from a benign offshoot of Pokemon gameplay to the central tenet defining the success of a trainer. Everyone is connected by the various online mechanics in Pokemon, rendering the actual main gameplay moot. You're stacked against one another from the start. This means that if even your starter isn't up to snuff, you'll know about it when battling against someone else. Furthermore, you're encouraged to improve your Pokemon's chances online by engaging in the very mechanics that have complicated the gameplay you enjoyed until you ventured online. It's a vicious circle: as GameFreak integrates online further, more people engage in competitive online mode, and, as more people get online, the competitive scene only grows more and more important, ruining the gameplay. One must abstain from online or from the power of knowledge that has disseminated across the internet due to the advent of competitive in order to fully enjoy the game. Is that truly how a game is supposed to be played? In my humble opinion, I don't believe a game should use artificial forces—whether positive or negative—to affect the game. The fundamentals should speak for themselves, and, in this case, the fundamentals speak loudly and clearly.

How do X and Y stack up?

X and Y do not assuage the problem; rather, they mostly aid the enemy, so to speak. Pokemon is trying to be too many things at once, too many things that it simply cannot be without compromising the entire foundation.

Pokemon X and Y try to be casual and competitive. They try to be holistic and specialized. They try to be big and small. They try to be simple and complicated. By making the biggest region yet, GameFreak both creates an unforgettable grandeur but also undermines the “specialness.” By adding more layers to the gameplay, GameFreak creates an unforgivable and unenjoyable online scene. By adding online, GameFreak attempts to be competitive. By adding Pokemon Amie and Super Training GameFreak attempts to be casual and holistic. By continuing to limit the amount of Pokemon in a party, GameFreak specializes the game and undermines the tacit of more is better.

Pokemon has slow battle animations but fast field movement. It has fancy 3D graphics but it relies on the same outdated movement system. It has a simple premise but an overtly complicated gameplay. It has the preponderance of doubling-back on everything. At some point, one must simply ask GameFreak,

When are you going to make up your mind about what you want from Pokemon?

Both ecosystems GameFreak is attempting to nourish cannot sustain each other. They do not co-exist. They don't work. Choose whether Pokemon is going to be competitive or is going to be casual! If Pokemon is going to be a competitive, make an MMO and flesh out competitive mechanics to their fullest—the foundation is there. If Pokemon is going to be casual, roll back the competitiveness gradually and expand on the casual mechanics that have been creeping their way into Pokemon cities since Gen V.

X and Y are good games. They really are. But they're also showing that, even with the best implementation, the games are cracking at the seams with too many dynamic underflows carrying the game in opposing directions. In due time, Pokemon will be reserved for the competitive if GameFreak keeps the course steady. And I think it's time for GameFreak—and for us—to step back and decide if that's what Pokemon really wants to be. X and Y are good: they improve the graphics seamlessly, they expand the world seamlessly, they create another environment seamlessly, they make a true Pokemon story seamlessly. But, when are we going to take a look past the superficial and peak at what's underneath? It's now or never, in my opinion.

What about me?

Well, when we get right down to it, deciding whether or not to buy Pokemon is a reflection of the trainer. If you can't stomach another Pokemon game (because you're getting a traditional Pokemon game) or you can't stomach the idea of not having perfect Pokemon or a perfect setup (and hence getting cobbled) from the start, you will have a tough time with X and Y. Otherwise, X and Y are the pillars of the 3DS; they exemplify everything that Pokemon should be on the 3DS. You know what you're getting; the flaws didn't undermine the game for me, but that can and has been another story for others. This Pokemon will be Pokemon, and for how much longer that will stay a good thing remains to be seen.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10 | Good

Gameplay
+ Good overworld controls; they were changed for the better, even if they are awkward at first.
+ Gameplay is as deep as ever.
+ New Pokemon fit in well.
+ Mega Evolution is awesome, even if it is somewhat broken.
+ Lots of Pokemon available to mix and match.
+ Overworld is very expansive and complete; the best overworld yet.
- Too much reliance on competitive core mechanics.
- The fundamentals still have not been addressed.
- Competitive must be “adjusted” or “embraced” to be truly functioning.

Story
+ Hits all the right heartstrings.
+ Slight improvement in writing.
+ Slightly more dynamic relationships, if still one-dimensional.
+ “French” setting is implemented well.
- Team Flare is predictable; ineffective.
- A little too cheesy still.

Graphics
+ 3D. Need I say more?
+ See above.

Music
+ Battle music is mostly electrifying. As with every Pokemon, some pieces are simply amazing.
- … And others are absolutely horrendous. It's hit-or-miss.

Online
+ As immersive as ever.
- Too immersive for its own good? Do I really want to be spammed about all sorts of Link this and Link that?

Replayability
+ It's Pokemon. 400+ hours by nature.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/13, Updated 10/21/13

Game Release: Pokemon X (US, 10/12/13)


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