Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Genre: Role-playing game
Rating: E for Everyone
Price: $39.99 each.
We’ve seen this before from Game Freak. First they release two games side by side—they contain the same story, but host slightly different features. Then, a few years later, they release a third game—one that takes the best qualities of the two that preceded it, and combines it into the one title. Rinse and repeat this formula. Each cycle is a “generation.”
Except since the fifth generation, this pattern has been breaking down. Instead of a single game being released after the first two (Black and its counterpart, White), we were instead treated with yet another two games (Black 2 and White 2 instead of what many hypothesized would be a Grey), and they were a continuation of the story rather than a glorified retelling of the original. Then, for the sixth generation (X and Y), we didn’t receive a third game at all! Fans are still wondering if a “Z” is in the works.
So when Pokémon Sun and Moon, the seventh generation, came out last year, while rumors of a “Stars” title were rife, veterans knew all too well this formula was no longer a guarantee. Indeed their suspicions were right—like Black and White, we are given two follow up games instead of one: Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. But what are they? Are these games a direct a sequel as well? Or are they like what was done in previous generations, where they feature the best elements of their predecessors?
NOTE: Since Ultra Sun & Moon are extended versions of Sun & Moon, a lot of the content is the same. Therefore to save repeating oneself, please see the Content Guide in our review for the previous games. The warnings below will only address the newly added material, or delve deeper into existing issues.
Spiritual Content: The game doesn’t shy away from the concept of death. A few NPCs will reflect on loved ones that have passed away, though not in an overly depressing manner. They also do not go into graphic detail about the cause of death—one character says their husband passed away in an accident, but that it all that is said. There are two cemetery areas in the game.
Ghost-type pokémon have been a staple in the franchise from the start, however the game hints at the existence of human ghosts as well. In an optional side quest, players are tasked with debunking several ghost stories. The change in music and pacing could be too spooky or suspenseful for really young players, though most of the missions end with a hilarious, innocuous twist. However, one part of the mission strongly points towards a supernatural conclusion.
When a pokémon reaches a particular level or fulfills certain requirements, they will evolve. They will glow white and suddenly change into a more powerful form. While this process is called evolution, how it is depicted in the games ironically goes against the core principles of Darwin’s theory.
Violence: The game features a gang of delinquent teens as one of the antagonists. Their antics are conveyed in melodramatic fashion; they make over-the-top gestures, are amusingly cliché. They mistreat pokémon by stressing them out, hounding them, or stealing from other trainers, though their actions are not clearly defined on screen—they merely flail their arms in front of a pokémon’s sprite.
Another antagonist seeks to utilize the energy from a pokémon for their own benefit, which will risk the pokémon’s demise as in death, not just fainting. This causes an end of the world situation, which the player must resolve. Conflict is settled through pokémon battles, though the vast majority of matches in the game are friendly bouts.
There is some disrespect and down-talking to the games’ child protagonists. One of the villains (a man in this case) ignores the outcome of a pokémon battle and threateningly moves towards the girl protagonist. The screen goes to black. When the image returns, the girl is cowering on the floor and the man is standing over her. While it is never directly stated that he assaulted her, this is quite a shocking moment and his actions are rebuked.
Some NPCs and encyclopedic entries of certain pokémon species report on predation, either on humans or other pokémon. Part of the main story is about one pokémon possessing control of another pokémon’s body.
Language/Crude Humor: Extremely light. Derogatory terms such as “loser,” “dumb” and “silly” are used. One geriatric character describes herself as an “old f*rt.” A saying is mentioned which normally includes the s-word, though it is altered to something innocent in the game.
Sexual Content: There is a bizarre fascination with bikinis. While comical, some NPCs point out how ludicrous it is for them to be swimming while armed with their pokéballs, and that others must wonder where they keep them. Others talk about how they love wearing their bikini. The main scientist walks around with no shirt, but wears a lab coat. However, characters aren’t depicted in a degrading, sexualized fashion. One NPC repeatedly refers to the player as “babe” or “hey baby.”
Drug/Alcohol Content: Apart from the various medications pokémon receive to replenish their health after a battle, there are no drug or alcoholic references.
Other Negative Content: There are a number of absentee parents in the game. The main story revolves around a broken, dysfunctional family unit. Although, as opposed to condoning or making light of the situation, it directly comments on the damage the separation has caused.
Positive Content: The Pokémon franchise has always been great at promoting the importance of friendship and kindness, both towards humans and the creatures residing the in the natural world. This game is no exception. In this particular case, there is more of a focus on the need for teamwork. That is, great things cannot be accomplished (or rather, shouldn’t be accomplished) by one person alone. Rather, it is beneficial to fix problems as a community; that it is okay to rely and ask for others to help.
There are also multiple tales of redemption. Outcasts that have been misunderstood lash out as a way to make their mark on the world, though they change their ways when someone finally respects and gives value to their life. The game promotes the old saying of “not judging a book by its cover,” to withhold judgement until both sides of the story are heard.
Pokémon Ultra Sun & Moon is a fun revisit to the Alola region. It’s not a sequel—the story isn’t set after (or before) the events of the first, rather the games produce an alternate tale. It’s as though they’ve borrowed the narrative spine of Sun & Moon and added some extra muscles, though they’re not necessarily following the same tradition as Yellow, Crystal, Emerald and Platinum.
It has only been a year since Pokémon gamers witnessed the opening cutscene of the seventh generation, and it’s one that still feels very familiar in the first few minutes of Ultra Sun & Moon. Yet as soon as we begin to believe that it’s all the same, two new characters appear and throw all of our pre-conceived ideas off-kilter. In essence, that moment summarizes the game perfectly. For the most part it’s a replication of its predecessor, but every so often the player will stumble upon little (and sometimes big) differences that will upset their nostalgia trip.
Since it’s not a direct sequel, this means that for those that haven’t played the previous titles as of yet, Ultra Sun or Moon work fine as standalones. However, since the games cheekily tease the player by constantly upending expectations, a lot of the comedy will be lost on first timers. Considering the lack of voice acting, Game Freak accomplishes conveying humor through camera angles and awkward pausing, making the Ultra series the most amusing journey through the Pokémon world to date.
The Pokémon franchise has now hit its twentieth year, and as a result it has a wide following. With so many different demographics in the mix, the upside is that we are presented with a game that is bloated with content. Veterans, newcomers, battlers, shiny hunters, collectors, fans, and those that simply love the journey; there’s something for everyone. Unfortunately it also means that there are a lot of tutorials, and chances are that it’s for a feature that doesn’t personally appeal to you.
One of the biggest criticisms of Sun and Moon was that the game had an extremely long introductory period with a lot of handholding. This was fantastic for first time players but infuriating for veterans. Ultra tries to rectify this issue by changing the sequence of events and speeding things up. It’s refreshing, even if it’s ultimately an illusion; it still takes three hours till the game is comfortable enough for you to walk a quarter mile down the street without needing constant instruction. Thankfully you get your starter pokémon earlier this time around, though the conversation is still on the long side for shiny hunters.
The problem is that the tutorials are long, unavoidable, and cannot be quickened. One of the most annoying moments in the game involves the new Alola Photo Club, where players can take snapshots of their avatar and pokémon posing together. Striking the right pose is more complicated than expected; the instructions aren’t terribly helpful, while the multitude of buttons on screen feels overwhelming. Unfortunately you are forced to take a photo in order to progress with the story. It is a cute addition, one that raises a pokémon’s friendliness, and players can customize further by adding stickers to the picture, but it’s really not for everyone.
Most of the time, the game is subtler with its tutorials, linking in the new feature with the storyline. Mantine surfing is one such example. While the ferry still exists, players can now play a mini-game to travel from one island to another. Operating like a standard skateboarding game or half pipe snowboarding event, players earn points (BP) for pulling off tricks at the crest of waves. Yes, this is the same currency used at the Battle Tree, meaning that if you’re not a fighter but a surfer, you’ll still be able to reap the rewards. The controls are a little clunky, but there’s enough incentive to persevere.
Fans will quickly notice that a lot of the finer details have changed. The Rotom Dex now alerts the player at the start of a battle if they’re witnessing a new pokémon, which is handy for beginner players. There is also the Roto Loto, where the Rotom Dex occasionally turns into a single slot machine and rewards players with useful benefits, such as increased experience for a temporary amount of time, or boosted stats during battle. Don’t worry–while Pokémon has been lambasted in the past for promoting gambling, the Roto Loto, while looking like a slot machine, isn’t actually gambling anything the player owns. It’s just a snazzy way to give the player a free, randomized prize.
Nuzlockers beware! Trainers have changed their pokémon teams, or are positioned elsewhere. Some of the Totem Pokémon have also been altered, along with the regular wildlife. Ultra includes more pokémon from previous generations, so be prepared for Inkay in the grass, Noibat in caves, Frillish being thrown into battle, and the gigantic round shadows of Chansey jumping from trees, to name just a few!
There are also some new areas to explore, but nothing too grand; either the existing route has been tweaked, or it peels off into a location that houses one of the game’s new features, such as Mantine surfing. Yet with all these little additions and changes, we’re treated with different puzzles to solve. There are side quests galore! There’s at least one per route now, and you’ll find yourself grabbing a pen and paper more often than not just to keep track of them. Some are simple fetch quests or battles, but others operate as short stories. The best I’ve stumbled across involved beating down a rascally group of Dittos, while another had me debunking ghost tales.
Some may be happy to learn that the side quest of collecting Zygarde cells no longer exists, and has been replaced with Totem Stickers. Stuck in all sorts of nooks and crannies in the townships of Alola, players can trade in the stickers they find in order to redeem their own Totem Pokémon—a giant sized pokémon that holds special abilities. While Game Freak hasn’t merely reused the same locations, thankfully the stickers aren’t impacted by the time of day, unlike Zygarde’s cells, so it’s a much easier and enjoyable challenge.
One particular activity that has been the cause of a few rumors is the ability to play and pat some of the tame pokémon found on route. Like The Sims, when a player interacts with selected pokémon, a menu of actions pops up to choose from, and the pokémon responds with emoticon thought bubbles. If you bond with them enough, they will follow the trainer a little. Bewear and Slowpoke are particularly amusing in their animations. Seeing this feature in the trailer has caused some fans to believe that Ultra incorporates the mechanics found in the second generation where a player’s pokémon follows them across the entire map. Obviously this assumption is incorrect. As it stands, interacting with pokémon in Ultra is a cute addition, but pointless.
It may sound like a lot of changes so far, but all these are minor compared to the fact that the story is radically different in Ultra compared to Sun and Moon. Alright, let me clarify: the standard formula has not been touched. For the most part, the player is merely trekking from one Totem boss to another, where the story merely serves thinly veiled excuses to do so. Yet like most in the franchise, at a whopping thirty hours in, the game finally develops its narrative further and forces the player off their championship trajectory.
So the linear pathway has not changed, but the meaty portion of game’s narrative has been altered drastically. Ultra is all about Necrozma and its impact on another dimension. This shift in focus from Solgaleo and Lunala, which were the legendaries in the original, meaning for a total repackaging of the main character arcs, their motivations, and the over all core message of the game. It may be similar in gameplay to its predecessors, but in the end, one cannot declare it to be the same story. It’s just too different.
It was touched upon in the previous games, but in Ultra, jumping into portals and exploring other dimensions is a major component to the story. On the one hand, this critic was wondering if Pokémon had finally jumped the Sharpedo, as it was now just getting too weird. On the other…it’s kinda cool! Ultimately the entire concept does come across as merely the solution to Pokémon’s accessibility issues, in regards to obtaining the creatures from past games. There’s not much to explore in regards to the size of the areas—the portals just lead to cavernous dead ends with funky scenery.
These “Ultra Wormholes” are entered by playing a mini game. This one’s more like a flying simulator where you have to pass through rings (or energy balls in this instance). Sounds fun, until you find out that it’s operated primarily through the Nintendo 3DS’ motion sensors. With over thirty hours of playing using the circle pad and directional buttons (or stylus if your hand isn’t prone to cramping), it’s quite jarring to suddenly adopt a new gaming mechanic. It’s also not a good look playing this part in public! Sadly, if you wish to reap the best rewards from the game, then you also have no choice but to “get gud” at flying through wormholes. There is a way to switch the controls from the motion sensors to the circle pad…by speaking to an NPC in a random building, on a different island. Gotta love Game Freak’s logic there!
As for the post-game episode, once again it is completely different to Sun and Moon. It’s no longer about Looker, but rather Team Rainbow Rocket. Honestly it’s disappointing, given the advertising, that these villains are simply relegated to a tacked on side story and not an integral part of the plot. The episode is nostalgia heavy, where veterans will recognize some familiar, dastardly puzzles, and will come across some interesting boss battles. Yet it’s basically just one big battle grind. It’s a tremendous source of experience points, though it’s not terribly interesting when you’re over-leveled by fifteen and facing your fifth trainer that’s armed solely with a Raticate. It’s fun in parts, but it’s also very tedious.
With the gameplay, just like the others in the franchise, for the RPG genre the Pokémon games have never been too hard. So it’s great for younger players. Those new to the series may be overwhelmed by all the different species and their type advantages and weaknesses, but for those that don’t want to study up, it is entirely possible to simply bash your way through the game, using brute strength over strategy. Ultra, like its predecessor, has a nice difficulty curve, and a player doesn’t need to spend copious amounts of time grinding up levels–I didn’t need to do that at all.
There are only ten or so trainer battles that were particularly difficult. It’s enough of a challenge for children who may not understand the deeper mechanics of the game. Yet for adults that have followed the series for years, the onus of mixing up the formula or finding ways to challenge oneself seems to be more on the player. It’s the reason why Nuzlockes are so popular (which, for the uninitiated, is a method of playing the game with a set of self-imposed rules).
I didn’t play a Nuzlocke run, though I feel Ultra (either version) will be harder than Sun and Moon. I suspect some people’s games will end as early as the Trainer’s School. If one does survive as far as Necrozma, then be prepared, because there’s a slight difficulty spike at that point in the game and that Pokémon hits hard. There aren’t many easy legendary captures any more either. For those really wanting a challenge, then consider doing a Totem-locke (an option unique to Ultra), or restricting the use of items and/or Pokémon Refresh. I have personally never used so many healing items in battle before. The game is rather inconsistent when it comes to healing the team or teleporting out of the area after important events.
The graphics have been enhanced even further since Sun and Moon, edging the 3DS towards its limits. Only rarely are the 3D capabilities of the system actually utilized. This will be the last main Pokémon entry on this console, and while it will mean that I’ll finally have to fork over the cash for a Switch, it may be for the best. Whenever more than two Pokémon are on the battlefield, the screen does noticeably remain black for a few seconds, lagging to load all of the animations. However, while the graphics, although lovely, are rather touch-and-go, the music is better than ever. There’s some really interesting techno tunes in the mix thanks to Ultra’s wormhole settings and inter-dimensional travel.
Overall, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is a wonderful game, and with over forty hours of guided content, so you will get your money’s worth. However, the biggest issue is the game’s release date. Playing through, it did feel too soon to be exploring Alola again, and it’s a shame because had it been released this time next year I would be recommending this game without hesitation. The extra content, while sometimes clunky, is phenomenal and it’s hard to conceive how Game Freak could have done better when it comes to pleasing their audience. However, as it stands, it was at times arduous to slog through the same stuff in order to reach the new content. There is enough to keep it fresh, and the new additions are splashed out at regular intervals, but if you’re not terribly excited, low on cash, or you’re not bothered about missing out on Event pokémon like dusk form Lycanroc, then maybe hold out a while longer and just wait for a sale. It is worth buying, but if you’re apathetic or still worn out from the previous game, maybe just not right now.
The Bottom Line
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon offer a fresh journey through the wonderful region of Alola, though it may be too soon for some players to fully appreciate the revisit.