Forget your often dodgy spin-offs – we love Pokémon first and foremost for the canon RPG titles, Game Freak’s bread and butter. Black and White sequels aside, Nintendo prefer to be frugal with their core role-playing games, rather than churn out annual updates. This has meant that, rather sneakily, they have gotten away with not actually evolving the franchise a great deal. That doesn’t mean they’ve been lazy, or have released bad games – but it does mean that each sequel arrived with the comfortable familiarity of a favourite pair of slippers, with everything just-so. Pokémon X & Y represent the first time Pokémon proper has been engineered for the 3DS and, by combining supreme nostalgic fan-service and time-honoured series tropes with a bunch of genuinely revolutionary features, the Pokémon Company have managed to add to the growing list of handheld hits in 2013.
The pocket-monster-loving child within us all is easily coaxed out of hiding from the jump off, simply by how ace everything looks. Once the initial shock is out of the way that you are no longer viewing the pixellated sprites of yore, the wonderment of seeing all of your faves in all their cel-shaded polygonal glory takes hold. With the slider up, there is just enough depth of field to make the battle scenes really pop, as the camera swirls around the Pokémon face-off, capturing their gloriously animated attacks. During over-world sections, the camera switches between top-down and third person view, with the Gallic-inspired land of Kalos a thing of real beauty. In a nod to the past, when viewed on the lower screen, icons representing the beasts under your command are rendered in the old-school 2D style. Something for everyone, then.
Although this is essentially a single player role-playing game, a genre that can live and die by its narrative merit, the story is pretty much unimportant and exists solely to allow you to do what you came to do – fill up your Pokédex, win Gym Badges and earn your right to join the Elite Four. There are the usual messages about love, peace and understanding – with the splendidly coiffeured Professor Sycamore being a particularly cloying exponent of the kiddified morality soundbites. But you don’t play a Pokémon game for a good story (Hell, even the telly shows and movies are pretty much one long, incomprehensible advertisement for merchandise), which is why the excellent, whip-smart pacing quickly makes you forget about the plot, and focuses your gaming mind on learning all of the tricks, tasks and exceptional bells and whistles you need to become the ultimate Pokémon Trainer. You are bombarded with new features at every turn, at a pleasingly brisk pace. There is no dull trudge through thinly-veiled tutorials here.
In a first for the series, you can select your gender and customise your trainer avatar, which isn’t massively expansive, but it freshens things up a bit. Down the line, you can alter your appearance further by doing stuff like going to the barber. You even get to make your own ten-second video clip to link to your profile as a kooky animated calling card. Once you have created your cap-wearing charge, you get to pick a starting Pokémon from a selection of three Generation VI newbs – endearing amphibian Froakie, arson-loving fox Fennekin, and Chespin, who is basically a rodent with a chestnut strapped to his head.
Although the combat is exactly the same elemental rock/paper/scissors stuff that you’ve come to know and expect, there are plenty of ways to tinker with your party to spice things up, plenty of new monsters to encounter – including a brand new Fairy type – and some interesting new variations on the traditional battles. You can now find yourself facing off against “hordes” of wild Pokémon, or engaging in aerial battles that are strictly for flying monsters only. The new Mega Evolutions – one of the fundamental elements of the plot – allow you to further evolve a fully-evolved Pokémon if you equip a special, monster-specific item. There are training minigames, the Nintendogs-esque Pokémon-Amie interface that allows you to show your menagerie some loving and, of course, reams of information at your disposal in the colossal triple-Pokédex.
Where Pokémon Y truly shines is in the way it allows you to interact with other players, whether they are friends or randoms. The excellent PSS system on your lower clamshell allows you to easily access other Pokémon players, whether they’re friends on your list, people you have interacted with online previously, or the many other folk around the globe who happen to be playing the game. Battles are easy to initiate and fun to participate in, and the Wonder Trade system allows you to jettison one of your Pokémon for trade, to be exchanged for a completely random monster that another player has cast aside. There are areas in the game where you can take pictures a la Pokémon Snap, and then upload them should you wish. You can even put a shout out for Pokémon you may be after, which gives the feel of swapping trading cards back in the day. Once discovered in the core game, O-Powers allow you to gift your friends and acquaintances with temporary stat boosts. Chatting with friends is simple, and you can even initiate friend request exchanges without leaving the game. Thanks to Spotpass and StreetPass, you are constantly updated with messages and information.
For all its brilliance, there are a few areas where Pokémon Y slips up slightly. Movement can sometimes feel awkward and unwieldy – especially when you are on rollerskates and your avatar zings all over the shop. Despite its 3D stylings, the world map is still essentially a giant grid, and your movements are governed as such. The sudden camera changes that happen in the over-the-shoulder sections can be jarring and make navigating around some of the larger city areas confusing. And then there’s the issue of difficulty. When you factor that you can blitz through a large early portion of the game using a duck holding a spring onion that can one-hit-kill most of the random battles and challenges that come your way, it could be accused of being too easy. And it is. But that misses the point.
This isn’t a game to be rushed through simply to beat it in quick-time; this is an exercise in exploratory adventuring, hence the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” spirit inherent in the series. The duck holding a spring onion – which may or may not be a leek – yeah, he can kick some ass. But a one-hit attack is useless if you want to catch a wild Pokémon, innit?
VERDICT: Unquestionably the finest Pokémon game for years, Y offers a huge challenge in many other ways than just the battles – and there is so much to enjoy. The modern features make it feel something close to a fully-online experience without abandoning the basic stuff that made the games so beloved in the first place. A beautiful looking, expertly crafted evolution for the series, and another truly essential 3DS release.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.