You might have seen this fan-made image doing the rounds. It shows five generations of Pokémon games side by side, a single picture - a postmortem of sorts - laying bare 17 years of progress... or the apparent lack of it.
The popular view is that Pokémon, like war, politicians and Coca Cola, never changes.
What rubbish. You'd have to look for it, but the changes were there: EV training, natures, weather, day/night cycles and new elemental types. But in Pokémon X & Y you needn't so much as squint; this is the giant leap for a series that usually takes baby steps. In fact, it's the biggest change in Pokémon history.
Upon entering Lumiose City, the circular capital of new French-inspired region Kalos, the perspective swings low to offer views down peach Parisian boulevards lined with busy pedestrians and inviting shopfronts. In Glittering Cave, the viewpoint tucks tight behind your shoulder and, as you creep along, wild creatures attack from the darkness and leap not up, but towards the screen.
Now fully 3D, and with a dynamic camera replacing the detached eye-in-the-sky, Kalos is the first region in the series with appreciable beauty, from shimmering seas below mountainous peaks to ancient stone bridges extending from continental castles. It's basic 3D, low-res and a little fuzzy around the edges, so you'll have to use your imagination, but the groundwork's there.
"The perspective swings low to offer views down peach Parisian boulevards lined with busy pedestrians and inviting shopfronts"
There are even signposted points where you can call up Phil the photographer to take a snap, adjusting zoom and focus on the 3DS yourself (photos can be shared on the Pokémon Global Link site). The handheld's actual protrude-into-your-face 3D is used sporadically, resigned to battles or cutscenes (when the green light comes on you'll know to flick the 3D switch up). A fireworks show on the balcony of a grand mansion, or a quick flick through the Pokédex, visually sparkles with the 3D effect on, though framerates suffer as a result
As well as gawping at the world, players can also travel across it much more easily than in previous Pokémon games, thanks to the eight-way directional movement. People and objects are still fixed to a grid, but it's a more expansive one which allows for more complex environments. A tree-lined avenue stretches diagonally into the horizon, for instance, while an intricate garden maze demands adjacent movement. The downside is a more finicky character who's especially jerky on bikes or roller skates (approaching someone often results in you circling them like some sort of wheeled shark), but it's manageable with practice.
The reinvigorating effects of 3D extend to battles. The camera manoeuvring in 3D space around fully polygonal Pokémon means that no longer does you monster exist solely from the front and back. All have unique animations. Martial arts master Mienfoo's jump kicks are not a few frames of animation anymore - now players see him perform spinning roundhouses. Meanwhile, when the self-explanatory Mr. Mime character idles, he performs his trapped-in-a-glass-box shtick.
Familiar issues remain, though. There's still a disconnect between Pokémon who never physically interact with each other, (although in fairness, a full-contact scrap between a Wailord and a Weedle throws up a world of clipping issues). Worse are screechily digitised roars which sound as if they've come fresh from the GBA. Close you eyes and it might as well be 2004. The only Pokémon who doesn't sound like he's stepped fresh off a Game Boy cartridge is Pikachu, with his "Pika Pi!" battle cry and his anguished cries of "Piiikaaa!" upon fainting. It's all the more egregious compared with the strides Game Freak hasmade elsewhere.
As for the battling itself, the underpinning mechanics remain largely unchanged, apart from a new fairy type that throws the gauntlet down to previously untouchable dragons, against which it's immune. It's the new layers of audio-visual feedback and fidelity which provides fresh spark rather than a new batch of hardcore-baiting algorithms indecipherable to most. That's the thing with Pokémon X & Y - their improvements are tangible.
Game Freak's biggest success is in making Pokémon feel like they're somehow more than drawings. Super Training is the first of two new touch-screen minigames which contribute to this. It's used to boost your Pokémon's base stats (or EVs). There are two workouts: hit a punch bag, or shoot footballs at giant Pokémon-shaped balloons. It's meant as a friendlier alternative to the inaccessible concept of EV training, more than it is a shortcut to level-up success.
The Pokémon-Amie, meanwhile, is a Nintendogs-style touch-screen minigame where you'll tickle your monster under the chin and feed it Poké puffs. The friendlier your Poké pal becomes, the likelier they are to avoid attacks and land critical hits. Both Super Training and the Pokémon-Amie serve to bond you to your Pokemon, but can be ignored without penalty.
Traditional leveling techniques - such as pitting Pokémon against each other in your typical fight to the death - have been bolstered. You'll now randomly encounter hordes of up to five weaker Pokémon in the wild, and if you ride the challenge (not easy when an army of Sevipers have you binded) you'll earn more EXP.
There are also sky battles; fights that only flying Pokémon are eligible for. Catch the sight of a trainer on a cliff or mound to challenge him. Meanwhile, poor old ocean-dwellers like Goldeen limply splosh on dry land.
You'll notice we've left story impressions until the end. That's because you already know what to expect: boy or girl (you can choose gender and customise clothes) waves goodbye to mum, coincidentally inherits a rare Pokémon from an inexplicably invested professor, defeats a troupe of baddies (here Team Flare) and smashes an Elite Four. Along the way there's a choice of fossils to resurrect, HMs to gather, and legendaries to humiliatingly imprison.
Online, meanwhile, offers small solutions to minor niggles. Out goes arduous friend code swapping with the PSS (Player Search System), which tracks recent strangers and allows you to quickly initiate battles or trades. You can also perform blind trades with anyone in the world through Wonder Trade, and request Pokémon you haven't encountered yet in the Global Trade System. Finally, O-Powers (temporary stat boosts given out by mystery men in the story) can be swapped with others. It's approachable, comprehensive, and remarkably sturdy server-side.
A running hunt to solve the riddle of Mega Evolutions (certain Pokémon such as Charizard, Blastoise and Venosaur have a fourth evolution tier) and a thankful lack of a snooty rival (you tag along with a group of four bantering buddies) only offer minor deviations. You could argue the formula needs freshening, but it's comforting in a way; a vast region filled with ranks of new Pokémon could have been daunting if not for the warm embrace of a familiar structure.
Ardent fans have been professing for years that Pokémon actually changes. For once, you don't have to be an ardent fan yourself to see it. X & Y's general structure remains almost identical to its forbears, but the rest of it - the detailed 3D visuals, touchscreen minigames, Mega Evolutions, new elemental type and, of course, the new Pokémon themselves - has resulted in more innovation than the last three games combined. It's bigger, more complex, and makes its hardware sweat.
A major leap forward for the franchise. Welcome to the first Pokémon game worthy of the 21st century.
- 3D visuals bring Kalos and its Pokémon to life
- Super Training, Hordes and the Poké-Amie enliven training
- Another 200-hour Pokémon RPG to rinse, easily
- The story's easy - most trainers present little challenge
- Eight-way movement, especially on skates, is finicky