Review by KMAnsem
"The pieces are all there, and for what they are separately, they're beautiful...but they never come together."
Well, the newest heir of the Pokemon dynasty is upon us, and...well, I'm going to say it:
It falls short.
Don't get me wrong: There are so many good ideas to be found here, so much passion and creativity and life and color and newness, but that fact only makes it more disappointing that the game itself feels...undeniably incomplete.
The plot, for starters, is a big, wobbly ball of clumsy, awkward weirdness. Some people will tell you story doesn't matter in a Pokemon game, that no one ever plays them for the plots, but until my dying day, I'll disagree through and through. Pokemon is all about the journey, and there are things a journey has to have -- a good motivation, a clear focus, an emphatic moral, and riveting adventure along the way. Without those, there would be no point to it all. Of course, there are lots of ways to go about a good quest. You could be really simple, like generation one was, focusing on the quest itself, the physical trek from gym to gym to gym. Or you could be really complex, like generation five, where the plot was genuinely clever and deep and a total philosophical deconstruction of the foundation of the entire franchise. Either way, what you need to have a distinct sense of self. You need to know what the story is, where it's going, and why, and that's where generation six drops the ball. X and Y have no sense of identity, no feeling of purpose or direction. It tries to ask a few very poignant questions, but it bungles them from start to finish.
"Beauty" is the central theme here, and it's a pretty good one, especially considering the graphical innovations happening for the first time in the series and the unique visual flair of the new France-inspired setting. "What is beauty?" the game wonders. "How do you achieve it? What does it mean? And how can you share it with the world? How can you make the entire globe a big, bright, beautiful place to live for everyone in all walks of life?" That would be really amazing and deeply fascinating...but it falls flat on its face. The villains constantly talk about beauty, but there's nothing meaningful about what they ever have to say. There's no emotional or personal undercurrent there. All they really ever do is brag about how snazzy their clothes are. Seriously, every enemy grunt in the game just rambles on and on and on about how amazing and breath-taking their team uniforms are, and that's pretty much the only dialogue any of them ever get. It's stupid, it's painfully redundant, and it's a complete waste of a perfectly good potential theme. Compared to last generation's Team Plasma and their legitimately powerful, hard-hitting philosophical ideas, it's a complete and utter disappointment. Even their leader (whose identity is played out like it's a twist, but really, it's ridiculously obvious from the get-go) never gets any worthwhile development. His motivation is...virtually nonexistent, and beliefs seem really arbitrary, muddled, and odd. You never get any idea just why he thinks the things he thinks. None of what he says is ever backed up by the rest of the game. If anything, he's only ever contradicted -- time and time and time again -- which makes his endless spiels come off looking hollow and pointless. He keeps talking about overpopulation, hunger, strife, people having to struggle in poverty without enough to get by...but none of these things exist in the Pokemon world. Not at all. The world is a patient, cooperative paradise, so none of that makes even the smallest about of sense.
The lore itself is wasted, too. Our legendary Pokemon are based off the mythology of the Norse, a rich and vast well to draw from if there ever was one, but frankly, they only show up for about five minutes before disappearing altogether. They hold no significance, no feeling of power, and they have no memorable scenes or lasting impact. They're treated literally like disposable objects by villains and heroes alike. There's a lot of history here, too, a whole saga spanning back three thousand years, but it's all delivered to us so quickly, so cheaply, and so late in the game that it just feels forced and glossed over. It leaves me wanting more, sure, but not in a good way -- in a "they frittered away a potentially amazing plot for no justifiable reason" way.
The pacing is truly weird. The game spends the first several cities pushing the new gimmick of Mega Evolution as hard as it possibly can, to the point where it feels like the main plot of the entire game for a long, long time, but then, as soon as you actually get Mega Evolution, it drops off the map entirely. Everyone just stops talking about it, despite the fact that they'd spent the last five or ten hours doing nothing but talking about it. Even the final confrontation with the villain feels out of place. There's really nothing in particular that triggers it. All of a sudden, it's just kind of happening, and then just as abruptly as it began, it ends, and when it's over, it's only rarely ever referenced again. There are very few lasting consequences for something so seemingly huge and no real feeling of accomplishment. You just march off to the next gym and keep going with what you were doing before as if it never happened to begin with.
That's a recurring problem with the game, really. It's full of amazing, lovable, vibrant characters, but thanks to a lack of continuity from any given scene to any other, they never really get the chance to grow, change, learn, or evolve. At one point, you and your friend Shauna stand on top of an ancient castle, watching fireworks go off in your honor, and it's so atmospheric, so emotional, so important and monumental and genuine and big, and you get the feeling that it should be a really meaningful, iconic moment in your friendship, but it never goes anywhere. No one ever mentions it again, none of her behavior changes, your relationship doesn't actually get deeper or anything, so it feels like a real waste of what could have been a really sweet scene. When you think about it, it's just one more thing that happened with no real trigger and no logical result, and there are tons of moments like that, tons of really well-constructed, thoughtful, beautiful encounters that just never add up to anything. Nothing in this game ever connects to anything else, so the adventure doesn't feel much like an adventure. It just feels like a bunch of completely isolated episodes that might as well be starring entirely different characters each time. It's frustrating. It's so frustrating.
The same approach of "good but messy and totally unrefined" seems to apply across the board, in all areas. For the first time in the series, the Pokemon all have three-dimensional models, not flat sprites, and they're beautiful. You can tell a ton of work went into making each and every one, but as psyched as I want to get about that, I can't ignore the fact that despite being on the 3DS...this game has next to no actual 3D. You can only turn the 3D on during battle, and even then, the effect is so weak, it's barely there at all. What is that? Why? This game was arguably the biggest and most highly anticipated release of the entire lifespan of the 3DS. Why wouldn't it be in 3D? Why wouldn't it take advantage of one of the system's most unique and distinctive selling points? It's unjustifiable.
You can customize the way your player character looks, another big first in the franchise, but it's such a letdown. Most stores only sell about five items at a time, so you never have many choices, and there are so many restrictions on what your character can wear that you might never find a look you like. Your character has to wear a hat, for example. Why? I don't know. I don't know what possible reason there would be for that, but God help you, you must wear a hat twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Almost every item is prohibitively expensive, anyway, so you probably won't be able to buy a lot of clothes until close to the end of the game, anyway, meaning you have to play the majority of the story with either the default look or something really close to it, which almost defeats the entire point. What they should have done instead is let you create a character from the ground up right off the bat for free, so you could have spent the game in a form of your own choosing from day one. If you want to change that character later, then alright, then they could sell you new clothes, but the initial creation should have been your own. The haircut system is even more more expensive and limited, especially for the male characters, who have almost no styles to choose from at all. Customization is good, but customization so small, so hard to use, and so unnecessarily restrictive almost feels more like a personal taunt, like they're just mocking the audience by giving us only the tiniest taste of what we know we could have.
There's a new system where you can make your Pokemon happier and improve their performance in battle by petting them, feeding them, and bonding with them, which is a wonderful, sweet, and heartwarming idea in theory, but in practice, it's also shallow, repetitive, and monotonous. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance already came out with a much more interesting version of the exact same idea last year. God knows Kingdom Hearts didn't do it perfectly, but it gave a better effort than this did. It had so much more variety, and the system was noticeably much more streamlined. Here, it's rough around the edges and boring, at best.
Same goes for the new "super training" mechanic. Ever since the very beginning of the franchise, Pokemon have had so-called "effort values" that change the way their stats grow when they level up, and these values are a massive and overwhelming piece of what makes a good Pokemon good or a bad Pokemon bad, but they've never been an explicit, official part of the series before. They've always been implicit, hidden away deep in the coding of the game, but here, for the first time ever, we can actually see them and manipulate them directly with a little mini-game. Again, it's a wonderful idea, but again, it's incredibly dull. You're going to have to play this mini-game hundreds of times to get anywhere or do anything remotely worthwhile. Super training even a single Pokemon can take upwards of an hour. That's at least six hours to train a whole team, and that's a hell of a long time to play a single mini-game. It's a tedious, tedious grind, and there's really no excuse for it.
Honestly, the biggest and best new feature is probably the integration of the bottom screen. In past games, like Black 2 and White 2, the touchscreen was filled with an unreadable, inscrutable, unusable web of cluttered nonsense, but here, it's neat, it's organized, and it's more convenient than you could possibly imagine. Gone are the days when you had to hike all the way to a Pokemon Center to make a trade or battle a friend. Now you can do all that and more with a simple swipe of the stylus -- almost anywhere, at almost any time. You can chat with your friends, trade with your friends, trade online, trade with a randomized stranger from across the world, send temporary power-ups to anyone you come in contact with, and more. It's so great.
So, when all is said and done, there's a lot to love here, but there's also a lot to be disappointed with. In all honesty, it feels like we're looking at a rough cut of the game, a prototype of some kind, like they're waiting for a theoretical "Pokemon Z" to finally pull everything together, and, frankly, I hope a Pokemon Z does come someday -- and soon. There are so many amazing characters crying for more screen time and so many potentially great game play elements kicking and screaming and wailing for more refinement. I'd love to see them all get what they deserve sometime because they just don't get it here.
All in all, do I recommend the game? Yes, I do, but I only recommend with the caveat that you keep your expectations modest.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 10/21/13, Updated 10/22/13
Game Release: Pokemon X (US, 10/12/13)
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