Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pokémon X and Y: Two Steps Forward...

I know this review is long overdue, but I just didn't feel comfortable giving the game my full assessment until the Pokémon Bank was officially released in North America, and that sadly didn't happen until very recently. I know it's technically an add-on and somewhat separate from the game, but since the release of the Bank has greatly impacted the Pokémon community since there were over 100 Pokémon previously unavailable, not to mention a large number of moves and abilities locked away as well, it seemed unwise to give my full assessment of the game until now.

First, a little backstory. I'll try to keep this brief. I've been playing Pokémon since Gen I. I haven't maintained the same level of interest my whole life, but I was there at the beginning and I'm here now. The Pokémon anime was what originally got me hooked on anime, I was crowned a Champion at the PAX Pokémon League at PAX East 2013, I have a living Pokédex entirely composed of legit Pokémon, and I own at least one game from every generation. What I say, I say from the perspective of someone who has witnessed this franchise wax and wane over the years and who still actively loves it, warts and all.


Let me be frank. The story for Pokémon has never been particularly engaging. That's not to say the stories haven't been well-written. I actually think the story for "X/Y" had a pretty interesting narrative with surprisingly complex characters, given the sorts of characters we've seen in the past.

But even with the story elements improving as they have, the story itself is still not even close to being engaging. This was more readily apparent in "Black/White" where the story involved what seemed to be dozens of characters, all of whom were doing far more interesting things than your character was doing, but it's still rather apparent here. The problem with the story in most Pokémon games is that the story that want to tell is not the story you're experiencing. The story you experience in "X/Y", and indeed, the story you experience in every core Pokémon game, is the story of an adolescent who gets a Pokémon, defeats a series of gym leaders, and then defeats the local Elite Four to challenge and claim the title from the Champion. There are sometimes other plots that happen in the background, such as the shenanigans of Team Rocket or what have you, but unless those plots intersect with the protagonist's journey in some meaningful way, it's just frustratingly tangential.

The problem I had with "Black/White" and to a lesser extent, "X/Y", is how whenever the background tangential narrative shows up, it grinds my narrative to a screeching halt. One or more of my stupid "friends" shows up to chat me up about how some character I don't care about is doing something off-screen that only affects characters that are also off-screen. Even if someone ends up battling me along the way, I don't care because the outcome of that battle, win or lose, doesn't impact my character's journey. If I lose to my rival, that impacts the journey because in my narrative, that character is my direct competition, the ruler by which I measure my progress. When I'm tasked with postponing my badge-hunt to fight off some bad guys in a nearby system of caves, I really couldn't give less of a crap, particularly when doing so involves multiple cutscenes where my character stands around silently while other characters talk about stuff that doesn't really concern me. "Black/White" was really bad about this in particular, where every side-quest seemed to involve every single gym leader who had to show up constantly and monologue about the same boring pointless stuff over and over again. All of this stuff was happening at me, not with me.

That's why I think my favorite game plot in the series is "Diamond/Pearl". It's roughly the same story as "Red/Blue", but with interesting twists. Your rival is your friend rather than some punk kid, and in an odd twist, he ends up failing to defeat the Champion. I actually felt a little bad for Barry when I finally surpassed him just before facing the Elite Four. Team Galactic's main focus was to summon the legendary Pokémon that you want to capture and their actions also spawn the wandering Pokémon as a result, so their actions directly impact your journey as a player. Yeah, I know that the other Teams often try to involve the legendary Pokémon du jour into their schemes, but Team Galactic's entire plan centered around those Pokémon, whereas Team Flare just used the legendary Pokémon as a power source or something.

As I said, "X/Y" isn't quite as bad as in "Black/White". At least "X/Y" doesn't contrive the story so that you save the world by defeating the Elite Four (I mean, seriously?). However, it still doesn't manage to connect the narrative in a way that doesn't feel tacked-on or frustrating for the pacing of the game.

I know some people enjoy the story, and I understand why. To those people, the point of Pokémon is the journey. When they defeat the Champion, the game is over for them. For me, the point where I defeat the Champion is where the game effectively starts. Defeating the Champion is my way of proving myself within that game, showing that I'm ready to take on whatever challenges are left in this game's world. Once I have usurped the Champion's throne, I am ready to catch 'em all, breed better Pokémon, train my A-team, and pit them against even greater foes. As such, when the story feels like it's slowing down the hero's journey rather than supplementing it, it feels like a pointless distraction to me. And sometimes the fact that these stories are completely at odds with one another is just aggravating.

For example, at a certain point in the game, you are challenged by a certified Gym Leader outside of a Gym. At first I thought this was incredible. A Gym Battle without the chance to prepare ahead of time. The pressure was on. Still, I managed to squeeze out a victory in spite of my lack of preparation and I was eager to receive my badge. Except once I win, she just walks away and tells you to challenge her again when you travel into the next town.

OK, seriously, what!? I defeated you! Yeah, you were using a Pokémon that you only just barely obtained, but that's not my fault. I'm not the Gym Leader who decides to make random challenges for kicks. If you're a Gym Leader and you challenge a Pokémon trainer to a match and you then lose, you should be expected to give them your badge. That's just how this sort of thing is supposed to work. I proved I was better than her, so she should be expected to give me proof of that. But no, that battle was just to tie into the side-plot involving the Mega Stones.

You see what I mean? That part of the game could have easily intersected with the primary motivation of the protagonist, but they deliberately decided not to because they arbitrarily decided that badges can only be earned if you beat the Leader inside the Gym. Which makes that entire battle nothing but a stupid delay to getting that Leader's badge.

I'm not saying they need to scale back the story to match the limited scope of a game like "Diamond/Pearl", I'm saying that if they want the story to be bigger, they have to jettison the traditional badge-collecting story arc. I know it sounds like blasphemy, but the story doesn't have to be about a newbie trainer climbing up the ranks to take on the Elite Four. We don't have to make badge-collection the sole driving force for the game's momentum. There are plenty of trainers in the game world who don't go around collecting badges and they seem to be the people having the fun, interesting adventures since they seem compelled to interrupt me with them every time I walk into their stupid town. Maybe make the story about a gym leader whose gym loses its certification and she has to relegitimize her status as a gym leader through a journey of self-discovery. It could be a fun way to learn how gyms come to exist and what a leader has to do to qualify.


I don't need to spend too much time on this because this has already been gushed over for months now. "X/Y" is gorgeous, at least comparatively. No more immobile sprites, no more limited 4-directional movement, no more boring one-size-fits-all character design for the protagonist.

It's worth noting that we should have expected this kind of presentation for "Black/White", but whatever, better late than never. I'm a little disappointed that the visualized Pokémon battles are still more or less between two stationary Pokémon shooting art at one another as in the age-old "Pokémon Stadium", but it's undeniably great to see these Pokémon visualized in full CG.

I find it weird that they decided to give Pikachu the ability to say its name in-combat while still retaining everyone else's original digital cries, but here's hoping they expand this to the rest of the roster in the future.

Core Mechanics

OK, this is the part where I gush.

"X/Y" does so much with this series' mechanics, some of which I have been dying to get for years.

You can finally breed legit Pokémon with perfect IVs without manipulating the random number generator thanks to new mechanics introduced for the Destiny Knot.

Male Pokémon can pass down Hidden Abilities while breeding with Ditto.

You can battle online without having to go to a Pokémon Center.

You can save more than one battle video online and you can set up mock battles based on the Pokémon you played against (this is particularly great if you want to test out possible counters).

Berry Fields are back and streamlined to make the Berry mechanics actually kind of fun (in a "Harvest Moon" kind of way).

The new and improved Exp. Share and O-Powers have made breeding and leveling-up Pokémon so much easier. I can activate the Breeding Power and use a Magcargo to hatch four new Pokémon about every 5 minutes and the Experience Power plus the Lucky Egg plus Affection bonuses to get a Pokémon to level 50 or above through one round of the Elite Four. It's glorious.

Pokémon-Amie and the Affection mechanic, while effectively pointless outside of the main game except for a couple evolutions, is surprisingly engaging and makes me feel a bit more bonded with the Pokémon on my team. Very adorable.

Super Training has made EV training a central mechanic rather than a thing only weird people (like me) obsessed over. Also, it's made resetting EVs quite a bit easier too. Don't get why EV-training items don't work with it though. That's kind of a weird oversight.

You can search for Pokémon on the GTS even if you haven't seen them in-game yet by typing in their name. Very helpful, especially during the month or so where Japan had tons of Pokémon no one else had.

The Wonder Trade is a great way to dump Pokémon you don't want and a great way to stumble upon the occasional rare find.

The Fairy typing adds some much needed balance to Dragon Pokémon which have reigned supreme for far too long.

And of course, the Pokémon Bank, while inexcusably delayed to a ridiculous degree, is an excellent idea and a very welcome mechanic for solving the "Generation Gap" problem they'd been facing for years.

I know some people have their complaints about the Pokémon Bank. I mean, I can't deny that the Bank and Transporter are REALLY badly designed. You can only transfer Box 1 from Black/White, so every time you use Transporter, you have to open up Black/White and drag and drop every Pokémon you want to transfer into Box 1, one at a time. When you use the Transporter, it loads all of the new Pokémon into a temporary storage box and you can't transfer any more until you've emptied it completely. Oh, and once again, you have to drag and drop every single individual Pokémon from the temporary box into either your Bank or your X/Y game. And you need to have the X/Y cartridge available to use Bank. So for me, in order to transfer my living Pokédex in "Pokémon Black" to my copy of "Pokémon Y", here's what I had to go through:
Step 1) Insert "Pokémon Black"
Step 2) Open "Pokémon Transporter"
Step 3) Transfer Box 1 from "Pokémon Black" into the Bank's temporary storage
Step 4) Swap "Pokémon Black" for "Pokémon Y"
Step 5) Open "Pokémon Bank"
Step 6) Drag and drop all 30 Pokémon from temporary storage into my copy of "Pokémon Y" and save
Step 7) Swap "Pokémon Y" for "Pokémon Black"
Step 8) Go into "Pokémon Black" and drag and drop all my Pokémon from the next available PC Box into Box 1 and save
Step 9) Repeat Steps 2-8 22 TIMES

I can't deny that all of that is really annoying and it definitely took me WAY too long to transfer over my Pokémon. And yeah, waiting close to three months for a product that should have been available from the beginning, only to have it delayed again for another month and some change, and then being expected to pay $5 for it is a bit ridiculous. I'll grant all that.

But seriously. You want annoying? Try transferring Pokémon from Gen III to Gen IV. That's right, the Pal Park. Where you can only send six Pokémon at a time and you have to wander around a closed area for half an hour just to find them all and capture them without even really battling them. Oh, and I forgot to mention, you can only use it once every 24 hours. And nope, screwing with the clock doesn't help. If you change the time, it will reset the clock and make you wait another 24 hours. Why does it have this limitation? I have no idea, but brother, if you think the new Pokémon Bank is frustrating, you don't know how good you have it.

That said, I probably would have appreciated it immensely if they released the Pokémon Transporter tool separately. There's really no reason why you shouldn't be able to transfer Pokémon from Gen V to Gen VI without needing the Internet to get involved. It's pretty obvious they only want to do it to try and curb hacking (though apparently they haven't done a very good job there either) and to get people to actually want to use the Pokémon Bank storage service. In any case, now that it's here, the Bank is a more than welcome addition and should make carrying over to future generations much easier. Now that I'm done transferring my Pokémon from "Pokémon Black", Bank's design isn't so terrible and it gives me a little more peace of mind in the (albeit unlikely) event of me losing my save data or cartridge. I'd say that's worth the $5/year.

As for mechanics I'm not so crazy about... Well, I guess I'm going to join the choir of people who were disappointed with the small number of new Pokémon this time around. I guess I'm not that disappointed since we got to see all of the other Pokémon in full CG and there are a bunch of new Mega Evolutions on top of that (more on that later), but it did make the main story that much more of a trudge to get through. Without even trying, I managed to stumble across almost every single new Pokémon in the Kalos Pokédex before even getting the National Pokédex. Kind of underwhelming.

I also really, really miss the Pokétch from "Diamond/Pearl". That thing was so damn useful! It had a step counter, a daycare monitor, a happiness meter, a calculator... I seriously wish they would bring that thing back.

I pretty much despise the layout of Lumiose City. Granted, you can pretty much just use a cab to get where you need to go and not have to deal with it, but it drives me up the wall. I can never tell where I am because the only major landmark the city has is in the center of it and when the city is shaped like a circle, knowing where the center is is completely useless.

Horde Battles seemed really cool for about five seconds until I realized that you can't throw a Pokéball until there's only one Pokémon left. Talk about tedious.

Why the heck do you have to find a roaming Pokémon 12 times before being able to battle/capture them? All it does is drive the player completely batty.

Lastly, the GTS, while slightly improved, is still incredibly underdeveloped. When you are browsing for a Pokémon you want, you can only search by their species name, their gender, and their level range. And that wouldn't be so bad if you could still see the rest of the info about each Pokémon, but nope. Before you agree to a trade, you have absolutely no idea what that Pokémon's Nature is, what its present stats are, or what moves it has. But that's OK, because they now give you a little blurb to describe the Pokémon to prospective traders. Because surely no one would ever lie about the Pokémon they're trading, right?

Oh, but that's OK, because at least you can see what item it's carrying. Because that's clearly such vital information. Oh, and it has the weird little blue icon! At least now I know it's legit.

Yeah, I know that most players are just looking to fill out their Pokédexes and don't care about IVs, Natures, or Egg Moves, but the vast majority of the people who will use the GTS in the long-term will be using it to build up better teams and it's really hard to do so when you have no idea whether or not the Pokémon you're about to receive is what you need.

Metagame and Online Battle Mechanics 

You'll notice I didn't really mention Mega Evolution in the previous section. Well, that's because as a game mechanic on its own, it's not really that big of a deal. It's pretty cool and breathes some new life into some older, forgotten Pokémon, but I doubt I used it very much during the main story.

When it comes to Online Battling and the Pokémon competitive metagame, however, Mega Evolution is a pretty big deal.

In a way I was a bit surprised at how much Mega Evolution mattered in the new metagame. After all, Mega Evolution requires you to sacrifice a held item slot, something most competitive players wouldn't do lightly, and for the most part, Mega Evolution doesn't generally do much aside from boost a Pokémon's base stats a bit. However, as we rapidly found out, Mega Evolution sometimes did way more than that.

Enter Mega-Kangaskhan, one of the first banned Pokémon of the new metagame.

Yes, you heard right. Kangaskhan.

Why is that? Well, it's true, Kangaskhan's Mega Evolved form has some boosted stats as we pretty much expected, but what it also gets is a new ability called Parental Bond. What does that mean? It means that every single attack gets two hits, with the second hit at half normal strength. So what does that mean? It means that typical counters for physical sweepers like Kangaskhan such as Focus Sash or a Substitute which typically ensures a Pokémon's survival for at least one turn are rendered completely useless. If a Mega-Kangaskhan manages to successfully use Power-Up Punch, which deals damage AND buffs up her attack two full stages, she's effectively unstoppable.

Now let me make one thing clear. I hate going up against a Mega-Kangaskhan in online battles. It's infuriating. But at the same time, I love this. While she will probably never come into play in the metagame played through Pokémon Showdown online, she will continue to dominate in Random Matchups and so the pressure is still on for traditional Wi-Fi players to find an effective counter. I personally like to use Chesnaught which can use Spiky Shield and Rocky Helmet to at least try to work Mega-Kangaskhan down to about half health in a worst-case scenario, but people are still experimenting and finding ways to deal with her as well as a few other big threats like Mega-Gengar and Speed Boost Blaziken.

In addition, prior to the release of the Pokémon Bank, the fact that there was no way to hack the game meant that the online battles were fair and the Pokémon you traded were always legit. No facing off against a team of shiny legendaries with unobtainable abilities. Of course, that all changed when Pokémon Bank was finally released and apparently did a very bad job at filtering hacked Pokémon. Seriously, this is something that services like have been doing for free for years and GameFreak, the people who designed the game, can't program a service (a paid service, mind you) to prevent people from polluting the ecosystem with blatantly hacked Pokémon? It's pretty inexcusable.

While I'm ranting, I want to take a moment to express how utterly pissed I am that you still can't do a ranked 6v6 single battle online and how you can't turn off Team Preview before a match. I understand why they have it like that. A 6v6 battle can take a long time and Team Preview adds a certain element of strategy. But this is the way battles are fought in the game. This is the way the game teaches you as a player to battle with Pokémon. If they want single battles to be fought 3v3 with Team Preview, why isn't it set up that way in the game itself? It just goes back to what I was talking about where the antiquated badge-gathering "classic journey" from the first game is shoehorned in regardless of whether or not it's consistent with what they're trying to do differently in this installment. I mean, I'm more or less fine with 3v3 random battles. It limits my strategies a bit, but it does make battles quick and simple and difficult to dominate with a singular strategy. And I'll admit, the only reason I wish you could turn off Team Preview is because I like playing mind-games with Zoroark. But I guess I'll just have to let that go for now and Team Preview functions as a pretty decent deterrent to things like Mega-Kangaskhan. I tend to keep a couple of Pokémon in my Battle Box that I rarely use but are known Mega-Mom counters just so people think twice about bringing it in after Team Preview.

The last thing I want to complain about is how WiFi interaction is handled. You can't add someone as a friend unless you already have their friend code (and they have yours) or unless you battle/trade with them twice. This seems pointless and arbitrary. I can understand why they don't want you to be able to harass random passersby with friend requests, but surely I can harass people I've traded/battled already, right? Or at least I should be able to harass people in my immediate vicinity. Also, why is it that I have to manually turn on WiFi when I start up the game? "Black/White" asked if you wanted C-Gear on when you started the game. My 3DS has the WiFi on already. It's using it. The lights on the side are blinking. Turning it off in-game doesn't save the 3DS any power. Why do I have to consciously go online? Also, why is it that when the PSS is connected via WiFi it can no longer detect people in my immediate vicinity unless they're also on WiFi? I'm pretty sure the 3DS doesn't have to choose between using WiFi and using the SpotPass stuff, so why can't you guys juggle both? Sounds like laziness to me.

Beyond that, I'm actually really happy with how "X/Y" has changed the online community. Battling online has never been more fun, rewarding, or simple to do. The Mega Evolutions and the inclusion of the Fairy typing have changed things in a really cool way. And in spite of the fact that most people are aware of how broken some of the Pokémon are, they don't seem to be ubiquitous in online battles.


So here's the thing. I'm generally pretty happy with "X/Y". I've been playing it a lot and I expect to continue to play it for quite awhile longer. But it still feels like Nintendo and GameFreak aren't giving us their A-Game.

There's no good reason why a service like Pokémon Bank caused them this much trouble. The amount of data needed to represent a Pokémon is incredibly small. The amount of bandwidth and storage needed to support that amount of data should not need to cost any amount of additional money from customers, but since it does, I assumed that they were pulling out all the stops to make a really solid service that would be bulletproof. Instead, it proved to simply be because of their general incompetence and inexperience with online gaming support.

There's no good reason why they shouldn't be able to support a 6v6 random match online. There are games that need to render complex polygonal models moving in three-dimensional space in real-time with as little latency as possible. Pokémon just needs to render stationary models and turn-based combat. This shouldn't be this hard.

There's no good reason why they can't do a better job filtering out blatantly hacked Pokémon in their online services. The fan community has known plenty of ways to judge a Pokémon's validity for years and while it's not infallible, it at least verifies that a Pokémon is at least plausibly legit. And while I don't expect the powers that be to be hard-asses and scrutinize everything, it's kind of hard to take them seriously when you see a Pokémon like this one:

Yeah, that's a Level 1 Gengar. You want to know how easy that is to detect? All you need is an If/Then statement in the code to check to see if a Gengar being traded is at least Level 25.

That's literally all they had to do. They had three months. I know there are a lot of rules to program in, but like I said, fans were able to do this for fun. These developers are ostensibly being paid to write these kinds of exceptions into the code. We are paying them. And they apparently can't be bothered to spend a few hours writing some If/Then statements. Well done.

There's no good reason why we had to go through three full generations on the DS platform to get fully-rendered CG Pokémon. The DS has been able to do this for years. I know 512 MB wasn't a lot of space to work with, but considering "Pokémon X/Y" is only about 1.7 GB, I'm reasonably confident they could have found a way to make CG Pokémon work as early as "Diamond/Pearl" if they tried.

The Pokémon franchise seems to suffer from what I like to call "iPhone Syndrome". See, the iPhone, in its earliest incarnation, was innovative, but also rather incomplete. It was limited to AT&T, it didn't have GPS, you couldn't use 3G, it only had one camera in the back, it didn't even have the App Store. But with each new release, they would add on one or two of the features the previous generation lacked. Meanwhile, the competition has heated up, but because they're Apple, people didn't care that they were often a few steps behind in terms of features. People will still flock to buy each new version because it is just one degree less restrictive than the previous version.

That's the problem Pokémon has.

It's perfectly possible, and entirely reasonable, to create what is essentially an "ultimate" Pokémon game. But that's not what Nintendo want to do. It's not even doing something as shameless as what Madden does where it just releases the same game over and over. No, it makes changes with every generation, but the changes are so frustratingly incremental that it's hard to imagine that they aren't doing this on purpose. Like, during the development of "Black/White", I have to think that someone asked, "Hey, should we make the Pokémon CG instead of pixelated this time?" to which a higher-up probably responded, "Nah, let's save that for the next generation."

This is the attitude they carry into every generation and it drives me nuts. They just assume they're going to make another Pokémon game, and so they don't bother to make each generation the best it can possibly be. If something is too hard, they just don't bother and save it so they can make it a big feature in the next installment.

And I know that that's kind of the trouble with handheld gaming consoles. If they want people to buy the new Nintendo handheld, they have to be able to play with their Pokeymans. So they know that they will inevitably have to make a new Pokémon game for the new console. And if they know that no Pokémon game is going to be the last one, why should they bother to put all of their creative energy into it?

So while I do definitely greatly enjoy "X/Y", I can't help but feel like the other life-long fans and I have a lot more passion for this franchise than the people who actually created it.