The Pokémon franchise is one those series that is nearly critic-proof at this point. For 21 years, the series has been a critical and commercial darling; the third major god in the pantheon of Nintendo behind The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the franchise last year, Pokémon Sun and Moon was a massive success for the company, capping off a year-long celebration and reveling in a steady wave of hype that catapulted it to the stars.
Nintendo has continued its traditions with Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, the expected slightly enhanced follow-up release for this generation. Yet, it is around this time where that aura of invulnerability shields Pokémon from major criticism always seems to erode. In playing in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon I can clearly see why this is the case, as Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon does not really deviate wholly from the overall narrative or gameplay structure of its predecessor. It instead just builds upon it to make a more definitive package, which is both a good and bad thing.
Contrary to rumors of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon being sequel games like Black 2 and White 2, they are in fact remixes of the original titles. These remixes include the same plot beats, structure, and overall presentation, but with new cutscenes, plot elements and the introduction of several new features. Over 100 new Pokémon from previous games were added to the catchable list as well, offering up enough variety to keep interest for a returning player, but the story is still the same tale retold with new plot twists.
Admittedly, they are better plot twists than Sun and Moon, mostly because the game falls back upon the type of epic storytelling that Pokémon does best. The last half of the main storyline is particularly strong, changing the motivations of the evil team and even main characters such as Lillie to fit with a new major story thread. It is the closest the franchise has hit a high water mark in terms of its role-playing narrative since Generation V, yet the jumbled pacing and overreliance on unnecessary exposition - especially in the early goings, which are almost word-for-word what we see in Sun and Moon - kill most of that momentum. It is only the latter stages of the narrative where the game really shines but it takes over twenty hours to get to it.
What’s worse, a ton of the features promised in the game's promotional materials are only unlocked post-game, meaning you need to slog through the storyline once more to have full access to everything. (most notably fighting Team Rainbow Rocket, which is all post-game). Game Freak tried to compensate for this by ramping up the number of side-quests in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Some, like finding Ditto masquerading as humans, are clever diversions that add a bit of extra work to the world. Others are your standard fetch quests, only using specific Pokémon, as the requests to gain extra money or items in your journey. These side quests don’t help with the storyline pacing, but they do make the world feel more alive, which is a plus to see.
This brings up a massive problem with the Pokémon franchise as of late; its ultimate identity as a product. Game Freak has increasingly emphasized the more competitive and post-game aspects of the series. Features such as hunting rare and legendary Pokémon via the Ultra Space Wormhole mini-game and after-game features such as the Battle Factory are just as anticipated as the traditional, role-playing adventure. However, the two sides are often at odds with each other, possibly stemming from the fact that many fans of the franchise are well beyond their teenage years. The rise of eSports and competitive battling, including the more active presence of the official Pokémon Company battling format of VGC, has also spotlighted a change of priorities in design elements. The addition of fun mini-games such as Mantine Surf, for example, really rewards competitive battlers the most by giving them enough points to purchase moves from a move tutor- another loved tradition found in the follow-up titles. Mantine Surf, along with the Ultra Space Wormhole mini-game, are excellent new features to help cater to that more competitive or collector demographic.
Other features, not so much. Some of the new collect-a-thons are just another side quest chore with a small reward. Totem sticker hunting, for example, gives you access to a specific number of Totem Pokémon, which are basically bigger versions of some of the game's monsters with slightly boosted stats. The reward is not worth it, as the selection of Totem Pokémon is limited and only works with about three of the choices throughout your adventure. Photo Mode and the Photo Club are revamped but feel more gimmicky and limited compared to Super Mario Odyssey and other Nintendo titles. Other features from Sun and Moon are also present in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, such as Battle Royals, but they are still wholly underutilized and forgettable in the grand scheme of things.
This sort of disconnect between Pokémon the competitive game and Pokémon the RPG makes judging Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon difficult, as there is really nothing inherently wrong here. General fans of the series will likely enjoy the remixed story and more nuanced plot twists, while competitive players will finally have access to the move changes they so desperately wanted. On paper, it is a win-win, but in playing the game, the problems previously seen in Sun and Moon not only linger but are exacerbated because of the long trek to plow through the experience. The game's 40-hour story, for all its positives and changes, is still the same story with new plot elements. Ultimately, players have played over 80% of this game last year, and that is a major hurdle to experiencing most of the new content since it leads right to franchise fatigue.
This does put the entire franchise, in retrospect, under a microscope. For 21 years this has been the formula Pokémon has followed with a few deviations here and there. Unlike the re-imaginings of Zelda and Mario in 2017, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon feel tired and worn out in comparison. The duality of the franchise's expectations by its fanbase is a growing problem; one that is not easily solvable unless we see another soft reboot, like Generation V and Sun and Moon were before it.
Perhaps the next generation, Generation VIII of the franchise, will be the breath of fresh air the series needs. After all, it is planned to be on the Nintendo Switch, which means a ton of new possibilities abound at the developer’s disposal. Perhaps that will be the massive change to the already classic formula the franchise needs. For even a game like Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which is objectively better than its predecessor, needs a little life breathed into it to escape the tedium.
Our Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon review was conducted on Nintendo 3DS with a copy purchased by our reviewer.
Even a game like Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which is objectively better than its predecessor, needs a little life breathed into it to escape the tedium.
- Same Old Pokémon game...
- Excellent New Additions and Mini-Games...
- Remixed Storyline...
- .Same Old Pokémon game.
- ...Most of the Content is Post-Game Only.
- ...That Still Suffers Pacing Issues.