Review by discoinferno84

"You know where it ends, it usually depends on where you start..."

You've got to wonder about Professor Sycamore. He runs the most prestigious Pokemon laboratory in all of Kalos. He's intelligent, friendly, and remarkably laidback. Judging by his interactions with other major characters in the game, he's well-connected with influential people. Despite all of these resources and skills, however, he sends children to do his dirty work. Why would someone that has an entire staff of scientists at his beck and call ask neighborhood kids to help with research? Does he really think some ten year-olds would be responsible enough to travel around the country unattended? Are the parents compensated for the inevitable emotional scarring? Shouldn't he be worried about the equipment being lost or stolen? Those Pokedexes can't be cheap. Maybe the true purpose of his study isn't to catalogue Pokemon, but to see how preadolescents adapt to sudden isolation and unfamiliar, often deadly surroundings. Now that would be interesting twist.

Instead, Pokemon X treats you to what is essentially the same plot as the franchise's other titles. Your character and a rival are tasked with tracking down as many species of Pokemon as possible. Along the way, you'll build a team of these fantastic and monstrous beings, slowly amassing an unstoppable army. There will be dozens of other Pokemon trainers – and ineffectual villains – standing in your path. You'll ruthlessly claw your way up the competitive ladder, culminating with the Kalos Region Championship. The premise is simple enough to work, but the subtext has far more meaning. Pokemon X explores the themes of individual choice and finding a purpose in living. Everyone approaches life in unique ways, and your decisions affect the lives of others. It's a surprisingly profound message for a Pokemon game. However, the way that message is delivered almost ruins it. Aside from its dark and tragic backstory, the narrative lacks substance and cohesion. Rather than having a single rival, you're given four. Each wants to approach the adventure in different ways, yet they barely have any development as individuals. That goes double for the evil Team Flare, whose motivations and schemes are so one-dimensional that it's comical. Even some of the NPCs mock them! Try comparing them to Black/White's cast; in those games, the story allows both protagonists and antagonists to have steady, nuanced character arcs. As a result, you become more invested in their journeys. This time, you'll probably forget most of their names halfway through.

Such shortcomings are easily overlooked due to the sheer amount of content with the adventure itself. Pokemon games generally begin with a slow, narrow progression; you spend a few dozen hours traveling amongst the cities, capturing whatever precious few monsters you encounter. It's really predictable – How many times have you trained that Pidgey? – and quickly gets tedious. The majority of their features are structured in a way that cheapens the single player experience; endure the terrible story long enough and you'll be rewarded for it post-game. Pokemon X strives to improve this design and succeeds in almost every way. There are some long stretches between some of the major storyline battles, allowing you to explore and discover what Kalos has to offer. It could take you several hours just to reach the second city. Veteran players will quickly realize they no longer have to rely on their usual workhorses; there are so many different types of wild Pokemon available that it's possible to craft multiple teams with little effort. There are so many good tactical options that you might have trouble choosing a lineup. It's as if the game was designed on the moral of its story; there many ways to undertake the journey. You just have to choose.

The process is made easier thanks to a few simple, but effective changes to the gameplay mechanics. At its core, Pokemon combat revolves around the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each of your monsters. Fire types can roast Grass types, but fizzle against Water types. This complex web of vulnerability spans across eighteen categories, including the newly-introduced Fairy types. A good team is determined by how well each member covers the others' weaknesses. The deadliest Pokemon aren't necessarily the ones with the highest level, but the ones that can do most damage to an opposing team. Some gamers have spent years perfecting their multiplayer tactics down to the extremes of minutiae. Pokemon X makes this metagame far more accessible with its introduction of Super Training. It's a series of touch screen-based mini-games that directly boost a Pokemon's individual stats. Want stronger attacks? Kick a virtual soccer ball at a target. Need more speed? Furiously tap a punching bag. It's possible to max out your Pokemon's base stats before you even reach the second gym battle. There are even more mini-games in the Pokemon-Amie Mode, which lets you feed and pet a monster to your heart's content. The more your Pokemon loves you, the stronger it'll become. These touch screen features are simplistic and feel tacked on, but they make a huge difference in the outcome of a fight. By making the more technical aspects accessible, raising Pokemon has never been easier.

Even if you're not interested in strategy, Pokemon X makes other gameplay elements easier. In older titles, the majority of your adventure was spent level grinding each Pokemon in tedious, repetitive battles. This time, you're given the option of letting your entire party share EXP, regardless if they participate in battles or not. When you don't have to worry about your monsters individually, it makes the journey go much, much faster. However, it's not entirely beneficial; by the time you reach the endgame, your Pokemon will be so over-leveled that your strongest foes will barely pose a challenge. It makes the final confrontation anticlimactic and takes away the sense of accomplishment you'd get in some of the other games. The process of filling up the Pokedex has an interesting, but flawed option as well. The Wonder Trade function allows you to swap Pokemon with random strangers from around the world. The problem is that you can't see what you're going to get until the trade is in progress. If you're lucky you'll find someone generous, but it could take hours of sifting through other players' low-level throwaways before you get something rare. It's a neat way to diversify your team – I had nearly two hundred species registered a few hours in – but it's hardly reliable.

Instead, you'll likely fall back on more orthodox multiplayer options. The Global Trade Station is back and revamped with a better interface, but the demands for certain Pokemon – especially those that are rare or high-leveled – are often unreasonable. You're better off using Friend Codes and helping each other directly. Exchanging items, reading profiles, viewing battle replays, and even voice chatting is a breeze. Long gone are the days of the link cable; you can trade or fight with someone with a few taps of the stylus. You can two or four-player matches, set limitations on Pokemon levels, and indulge in double, triple, and even rotation battles. If you register at the game's companion site, you can enter tournaments and earn a few achievements and items for your efforts. The stream of online players constantly updates; you could connect with someone in France, Spain, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, and several other countries within seconds. Assuming you can deal with the lag, of course. It's rarely severe and is by no means game-breaking, but it's ever-present. It's kind of hard to make battles exciting when ten seconds pass between each attack.

It's noticeable even in regular gameplay. Pokemon X was designed to take advantage of the 3DS's graphical capabilities; the classic 2D sprites you grew up with have been replaced by wonderfully animated 3D models depicted with dynamic camera angles. The attack animations - especially Brave Bird – are incredibly stylish. But in every battle, the frame rate occasionally plummets and makes everything look atrocious. It's even worse if you've got the 3D filter on. It's unfortunate that a game that indulges so much in its graphical quality can't utilize its full potential. The game tries to distract you from it as much as possible. If you're not interested in advanced tactics, the newly-implemented Mega Evolutions will be little more than eye candy. The ability to customize your avatar's appearance and edit promotional videos is interesting, but smoother animations would have been better. Do characters really need to communicate via 3D holograms? The first visit to the game's central hub is breathtaking; Lumiose City is on a far grander scale than anything else in the series. Anyone who's been to Paris in real life can appreciate what a great homage it is. The size of the buildings, interconnecting streets and alleys, the various cafes and tourist traps…it's a lot to take in. But in subsequent visits, you'll realize that the city is much smaller than it looks. The Pokemon Gyms – particularly the reality-breaking one in Anistar City – offer more variety and creative designs. The real treats, like the optional music tracks in Snowbelle and Coumarine Cities, the Battle Chateau's glimmering waters and cloudy skies, and the ambience of the Sea Spirit's Den deserve far more attention than they'll ever receive.

Despite such details, it's easier to focus on what the game doesn't have. The postgame content is underwhelming…at first. A few legendary Pokemon, NPC side-quests, the Friend Code-based Safari Zone, and the Battle Maison challenges don't seem like much. However, this is disappointment is only in relative terms. Though it would have been great to have another country to explore, consider everything that's given to you right from the start. Everyone gets the same ending, but how you get there is up to you. There are so many Pokemon to catch and train into a perfect team. The level of freedom and control you're given over your party is not only enormous, but it's easy to use as well. For the first time, the road to the championship doesn't feel like just a massive level grind. The touch screen mini-games are simplistic and gimmicky, but at least they serve a practical purpose. The multiplayer is a phenomenal step up from the previous titles. It's not perfect experience by any means; the new features detract from the experience almost as much as they add. The story is laughable at best, and the graphics and online functionality need some fine-tuning. Flaws aside, Pokemon X is still one of the best titles currently available for the 3DS. It's a journey waiting to be taken.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/22/13, Updated 10/23/13

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


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