Review: Pokémon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon

It’s been a good while since we’ve seen a game like Pokémon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon. Pokémon has a long tradition of ‘third versions’, in Europe dating back to 2000’s Pokémon Yellow, bringing new features to the previously released duo, typically including new story elements and a different Pokémon set.

In recent years though, things have changed. In the fifth generation of Pokémon games instead of one ‘third edition’, there was two. Black 2 and White 2. And rather than being largely similar to their predecessors, as the name suggests, they were full-blown sequels, set in the same world but with a completely different plot and structure. And for it, they were widely praised. Then, with the X&Y generation, there was no third version.

So we come to 2017 with two new ‘Ultra’ games being released, just one year after the release of Sun and Moon. With such a quick turnaround, do these versions provide enough new and a fresh experience akin to Black & White 2? Or are they more akin to the traditional third version, but stuck into two boxes rather than one?

Surfing on a ride Pokémon

Pokémon Sun & Moon were correctly praised bringing a fresh mix of the Pokémon formula, doing away with the standard recipe of eight gyms followed by the Pokémon League, and instead introducing the Island Challenge, which, while in essence still felt similar and culminated in a boss battle, made it feel new. The region of Alola, inspired by Hawaiian/Pacific island culture, was a breath of fresh air. HMs that would take up a valuable spot of your Pokémon’s abilities were done away with in favour of ‘Ride Pokémon’ who you can summon to surf, move boulders, etc. However, it was criticised for being too easy, the games were very linear, it was very slow-starting and cut-scenes were tedious.

Unfortunately US/UM are for the most part, until the latter stages of the game, pretty much identical to their counterparts in terms of story and structure. There has been some streamlining, with you getting your choice of starter Pokémon much sooner after you start, and the cutscene dialogue has been freshened up, which is very welcome and will help the game feel a bit fresher if you’re coming into this having played the original versions. There is a higher degree of challenge compared to Sun/Moon, with some battles pushing my team right to the limits.

But it is still extremely linear, with very little reward for backtracking (come on Game Freak, put some trees for me to cut down to remember return to later in the game!) and for a fan of Pokémon since Red/Blue there is still a lack of puzzles and mazes.

I long for the return of caves which felt like a challenge to get through, that rewarded you for going off the beaten track, that you could actually get lost in and need to use an Escape Rope. Where are the challenges like the tile puzzles from the Rocket Hideout in Red/Blue? There are boulders to move and to push into holes, but these are always treated just as inconveniences and roadblocks, not as a challenge where you have to think about where you are moving them.

Boy character in Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon

In terms of the main plot, without spoiling too much, the only significant change before the post-game comes in relation to the game’s cover-star, Necrozma, with a few new characters from the ‘Ultra Recon Squad’ who pop up periodically throughout your journey. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed what was new here, and the coming-of-age themes are even stronger, with the story of Lillie stronger than in the original.

As you travel through Alola, your journey will be mostly the same. You will find welcome tweaks along the way, and the variety of Pokémon available in the wild brings back more choices from previous generations, for those like me who are coming into these games with a ton of nostalgia for the creatures of our childhood. New mini-games have been added - Mantine Surf a particularly fun way of getting from island to island, and the world feels more lived in, with a smorgasbord of new side-quests.

There’s a handful of new Ultra Beasts, new forms, and new Z-Moves for you to get your hands on. Dotted around the world are Totem Stickers for you to collect, which you can then cash in to get your hands on the Totem Pokémon you battle during the island challenge.

Rotom-dex

Your Rotem Dex is more useful (yet also annoying with cringey dialogue) with you periodically able to take part in a Roto-Loto which will reward you with power-ups including HP boosts, repels, double prize money and a price reduction at Poké-marts.

Perhaps the most welcome change though, is you can save your own game rather than rely on auto-save again! Hallelujah!

There’s also a new photo-mode, which allows you to take photos of your trainer posing with your favourite critters. These can of course, be exported onto your SD card and share with your friends. It’s not a feature that I value too much, but it’s certainly one many will have fun with.

The major chunk of the new content, and the part that will probably excite long-term Pokéfans the most, comes after the Elite Four, and sees the return of Team Rocket, but not like you’ve seen them before - they’re now Team Rainbow Rocket, complete with a glorious multi-coloured R adorning their uniforms. This post-game quest also features the antagonists of each of the previous generations for you to battle, and provides a good challenge, and a fun sense of nostalgia.

With the release of the Nintendo Switch, the next generation of Pokémon games will be coming on the hybrid handheld/home console, Ultra Sun and Moon are a swan-song for the 3DS. Between the two versions, thanks to the ultra-wormholes you can catch all the legendary Pokémon from previous generations, which is a nice touch for long-time fans and ties in well with the trip down memory lane battling past rivals.

Sunset on a city in the Alola region

Ultimately though, if you’ve played through Sun/Moon, unless you are a really big Pokéfan, you may find these versions lacking. For me, there’s just not enough new to justify a new release just a year after this generation’s debut. It feels like a kick in the teeth to fans who jumped in last year, releasing what is essentially a ‘Game of the Year’ edition.

But unlike most re-releases, the extra content is not available to add on separately, nor is it at a budget price-point. This is a full-price release, and it will hold its price. And instead of being one ‘definitive’ version, it’s been split into two, which just screams cash-grab to take advantage of fans who want to get all of the legendary creatures.

The last third version that wasn’t a massive departure from its predecessors was Pokémon Platinum. That was back in 2009. The gaming industry has changed since then with the advent of DLC and post-release updates. The amount of new content available in Ultra Sun and Moon, to me, doesn’t justify a full-price re-release. So much more could have been done to make this feel like a new game.

Why not start on a different island? Why not introduce a new island? While there are new areas through the ultra-wormholes, these aren’t much to shout about, solely serving as homes for the legendary Pokémon who have been shoehorned in.

Pokémon in battle

I understand this next suggestion would provide some challenge to the developers in terms of setting level-scaling and progression, but why not let players take on the island challenge in the order that they wish? Or at least take on the different challenges on a single island in whatever order they want? I will give Game Freak credit that a very linear game has allowed them to create their most cohesive and well-realised story, but it is at the expense of player freedom.

If you haven’t played Pokémon Sun or Moon, Ultra Sun & Moon are definitely the way to go. They take all that was good from last year’s release and enhance it even further. The world of Pokémon has never felt so alive, and it is a joy to play, addictive, and there is so much to do (I haven’t even touched on the likes of Poké Pelago, Festival Plaza and countless other features!). But if you have played last year’s editions, it’ll vary from fan to fan whether the new additions are worthy of the return trip to Alola. It’s a great game. But for this reviewer, it’s just not new enough.

N-Europe Final Verdict

Pokémon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon are a decent improvement to one of the freshest Pokémon generations in years but ultimately do not offer enough for returning fans to justify two new versions of the same base game. Buy if you’re a big Pokéfan, or are yet to visit Alola.

  • Gameplay4
  • Playability5
  • Visuals4
  • Audio4
  • Lifespan5
Final Score

7

Pros

Better selection of Pokémon in the wild
Stream-lined start of game
New quests
Engaging plot

Cons

Not enough new until post-game
Very linear
Lack of puzzles


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