Gotta catch 'em all.
I don't know if those four highly colloquial words can sum up Pokémon-fever as its become this global Hollywood-blockbuster-sized pandemic, but they'll have to do. Since 1998, Pocket Monsters have invaded typical childhood life, a friendly media giant with cute red cheeks, needy black eyes, and a shockingly addictive hook: raising, training, fighting, and collecting evolvable monsters organized by type.
And type is more important than ever before in Pokémon X & Y, the latest mainline games with lots of encouraged interaction between players. It's easier than ever before to meet, battle, and trade with others online. While some elements of X & Y's rigid structure seem boring and uninspired compared to what I would consider a next-gen Pokémon adventure, much of the gameplay feels bright, smooth, and more rewarding than ever. When Pokémon masters finish the game's narrative, they'll discover an entirely different pursuit more engaging and entertaining than the road to the Elite Four.
For the first time, players young and old can choose their gender, their skin color, and of course, between three starter Pokémon, but the process couldn't feel more archaic. Aspiring trainers won't be blamed for thinking that Professor Oak still runs this show, but newer, younger Professor Sycamore will call players to sprawling hub Lumiose City and provide not one but two starter monsters. I chose Froakie, the newcomer water frog, because there's a whole team of people on Reddit peer-pressuring people to join them. In Lumiose City, trainers get to battle the three classic starters and choose from them after winning.
Getting another classic monster proves to be a neat hook for older gamers like me, but I wish the rest of the narrative could have tugged on my sentimentality more successfully. Crawling through eight gyms, complete with puzzles and mini-boss trainer battles, felt more like I had been lost in time. Being so unexcited by these set-piece Pokémon moments left me to explore other avenues of play. I started breeding monsters and trying to complete the Pokédex in certain regions by catching every monster I could.
Whether it's Game Freak or Nintendo refusing to abandon the formula of Pokémon-spirit-walking from gym to gym and on to the Elite Four, the franchise's best elements come full force in X & Y and make it hard to jump back on the route home. Having left the gym-track, I found that the fun I had grinding (successfully catching also gives monsters experience points) further derailed the challenge I wanted as I collected badges. Soon I was over-leveled and the tension was lost.
Moving the franchise away from 12 stepping-stone bosses would also undo the frustration Pokémon Masters will have in finding someone with nefarious means to secure "starter" Pokémon. If a trainer isn't carrying monsters over from previous DS or Game Boy games, he'll not have the lone Charmander he's kept since he erased his brother's copy of Fire Red to get the starters. Despite these small nagging issues, Pokémon X & Y is the very best, like no previous Pokémon game ever was.
Full 3D graphics give each monster even more life and personality and in-battle animations look like they're actually having an effect on opponents. While the 3D effect on Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL is almost nonexistent and probably the worst support Nintendo has put out on the handheld, 2DS owners will be happy. This is a kid-friendly adventure for young gamers to enjoy as early as possible.
The sense of camaraderie they'll have with Pokémon is greater now than ever before thanks to Pokémon Amie. Amie gives trainers Nintendogs-like options for interacting with favorites like Pikachu. Any Pokémon can be used in Pokémon Amie and there are valuable boosts with Pokémon in a tight relationship with their trainers. All of the monsters have nice reactions, and while making funny faces at my favorite monsters felt stupid, it still made me laugh. Face-to-face interactions with a game character is a hard thing to do in gaming, but it certainly works better than Seaman.
In addition to rewarding catch-'em-all goals with experience points, Game Freak has made it easier for trainers to boost specific stats. Now adding a few points to Strength or Speed only takes a mini-game or two. Catching a few monsters I missed outside Route X, Y, and Z became less about grinding around in the grass and more about stopping by on my way to the stores in Lumiose City for a fashion check. I soon developed a rhythm of playing with Frank, my Froakie, in Pokémon Amie and then dealing out O-Powers, boosts I can give other players online at will and at random, while hunting out rare monsters for my index.
Game Freak made O-Powers and other online interactions like trading and battling easier and more accessible than ever, offering Pokémon pursuits entirely up to the trainer's choice. Gaining worldwide dominance online with a dragon-type team or even a starter like Froakie will prove satisfying for years to come, especially after hours of dedicated training. The Player Search System, which displays others nearby and around the world on the touchscreen, also helps with maintaining the online modes.
X & Y are two of the best 3DS games available and succeed in making Pokémon feel next-gen. Before 2000, when Pokémon fever took hold I wondered what it would be like to become a true Pokémon master on a home console like the Nintendo 64. Pokémon X & Y are that adolescent fantasy come to life, an ultimate and truly next-generation adventure in a familiar world. Parts might seem all too familiar, but others are delightfully foreign and new.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on X & Y versions. Exclusive on 3DS.