When you’re a fan of a series with iterative releases it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain perspective on what qualifies as an actual substantial update and what is really little more than tinkering. I’m by no means innocent of this myself, as even when I openly condemn the Call of Duty and Madden crowds for buying what amounts to the same game over and over again in 1- to 2-year cycles and rolling my eyes at their excuses I find myself frothing at the mouth for every new version of Pokémon and putting my less-interested friends to sleep with news of new moves and system changes. Because of this you’d probably guess it’d be a bit difficult for me to remain objective on the subject of Pokémon X and Y, but more than anything the sixth time around the block with monsters in my pocket seems to be the point where familiarity breeds harsher judgment.
To put it simply, these newest installments of the staggeringly popular RPG series are downright paradoxical: They’re built both for newcomers and veterans, which would be an ideal situation if the traits in favor of one weren’t working against the other. Basics of the series slavishly but reasonably detailed at the onset of each of the previous five adventures are left largely unexplained this time around, muddying the effort to give new players a fresh starting point. On the other side we’ve got a world map that’s barely a step up in complexity over Black and White’s infamously linear roundabout, leaving what should come off as a cross-country wilderness adventure feeling more like a guided wildlife tour and letting down the veteran players hoping for another step in Black 2 and White 2’s direction. Designing areas such that HMs are only necessary for side content instead of completion is a dubious if not functionally sound touch, but especially for those same veteran players accustomed to setting aside a party slot for an HM slave it adds another point to the ongoing argument that HMs are a relic of obsolete game design.
…and there’s that gushing over minutia. Told you.
Stepping back and looking at the game as a whole, it sticks closely enough to the formula that made Pokémon the powerhouse franchise it is today but with a tentative foot finally in more modern RPG conventions. Once again, anyone who knows my gaming habits knows my love for sprite art, but even though I’m incredibly sad to see it go I have to admit that the job done on translating that art style in three dimensions was handled incredibly well. The controls are a slightly different story, and while the small amount of slipperiness picked up with 8-way movement and the 3DS circle pad doesn’t ruin the game it’s a surprising mar on Game Freak’s track record. Implementation of 3D is also incredibly limited for those of you sticking with your 3DSes for this one, and even in the bits where it becomes available it cuts the framerate at least in half in addition to taxing your system battery. What exactly is it about this game that pushes the portable hardware harder than the likes of Resident Evil: Revelations or Dead or Alive: Dimensions?
Bringing the franchise up-to-date with its roleplaying peers also means dragging as much content from the previous seventeen years of virtual cockfighting into the present as possible, and in that X and Y function extremely admirably. The number and variety of monsters available from the get-go is staggering, coming closer to some of the comprehensive romhacks I’ve researched than any of the previous standard releases. This jives with the “fresh start” philosophy I mentioned earlier, not to mention from the meta perspective of bridging the ridiculously deep existing metagame with the new additions to the formula that every new release works on.
Unfortunately – and this will be especially noticeable to veterans – this comes at the expense of an identity of its own. Even those who revile any given iteration of Pokémon could tell you exactly where they felt the experimentation went wrong, and between the smattering of available monsters from across the generations, the largely forgettable characters, the sparse story delivered in infrequent bursts, and the mostly unchanged mechanics (outside of the addition of Fairy type and mega evolutions) there’s little to lend X and Y anything that really sticks to your ribs outside of the admittedly impressive presentation.
Thankfully, though, this is decently mitigated by the introduction of a series of features making the nuances of the game’s competitive component more accessible than ever. Want to train your EVs without hunting down specific enemies and spending hours grinding? Super Training lets you do it through an engaging minigame and in a fraction of the time. Want to up happiness to speed up an evolution or to power up Return? Pokémon-Amie gives you a series of activities to do that through, not to mention increasing crit chance and resistance against status effects. Want to breed for IVs? Friend Safari guarantees that any creature you catch will have a few at maximum value (so long as you have friends registered) and a handy NPC nearby will tell you exactly which ones.
Where Pokémon X and Y succeed most is in tweaking the finer details, and the focus on detail ends up costing the games in their overall quality. Don’t get me wrong, these are by no means bad games, but they just don’t have the same strength in selling points that the series has otherwise offered. If you’re the type of person who buys and enjoys Pokémon regardless then you’ve probably already bought it and made considerable progress if not already in the postgame. If you fall into the magical middle ground where you’re legitimately interested in the series but aren’t frothing at the mouth to get to it, wait for the inevitable Pokémon Z to flesh things out.
And make no mistake, there will be a Pokémon Z. Xerneas is on the cover of X, Yveltal on Y, there is a Zygarde, there will be a Z.