Just a month before the official release of Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, EW got a preview of an expansive new demo being released Tuesday, which features the upcoming Alolan region. The hands-on playthrough of the demo, which teases the brand new story and dropped this seasoned trainer into the most realized game in the franchise yet, showcases intense battles, the mystery of the islands, and the removal of Hidden Machines — a.k.a. HMs — creating a satisfying tease for a full release.
Beginning like most Pokémon titles, the player takes on either a male or female avatar, which will journey the new world in search of the mysterious creatures. Surprisingly, the mechanics already become different than the norm once the user is able to move about the island of Alola. Similar to the art style of Pokémon X and Y and Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Sun and Moon feature a more realistic depiction of environments and character sprites. This new entry, however, takes it even further with realistic height differences between children and adults. On top of it all, one of the first Pokémon seen in the game is a Meowth owned by your avatar’s mother, and its small size is apparent when standing next to its gold-adorned head. Large Pokémon, such as the ridiculously tall tree-like Alolan Exeggutor, also stand several feet taller than the player’s avatar, creating a Pokémon world that seems cinematic and realistic. The surrounding environments are breathtaking, with blades of grass floating by the player and a background sun that droops in the sky as the day goes on. In battles, trainers are now seen standing behind their Pokémon, cheering them on and giving visible cues on their reactions to the fight.
One of the most important and new mechanics in this entry is the exclusion of HMs. Typically, trainers were forced to teach their Pokémon moves, such as Surf, Fly, and Strength to progress through the game, which took up move slots. Likewise, trainers were limited on which team of six Pokémon they could carry, but the new system makes that a thing of the past. Now, trainers can use a call mechanic that will send a Charizard flying over to take the trainer where they need to be, or a Machamp will appear to smash through a rock with two hands, while the other two hold the trainer safely in its arms.
Professor Kukui introduces himself and acts as a guide for a large portion of the playthrough, urging your trainer to explore the island and help find his assistant, Lillie. While the trainer does encounter her and meet a mysterious Pokémon she owns, her placement in the story is still kept under wraps. Most importantly, the island chieftain, Hala, rewards the trainer’s sleuthing skills with an Alolan starter. The Fire Cat Litten, Water Seal Popplio, and Grass Owl Rowlet are the coveted choices (I chose Rowlet), and in a first for the franchise, whichever creature chosen takes a moment to look the trainer over to decide if it wants to take a journey with them. Obviously the creature will always say yes, but it’s a nice narrative touch, pushing home the honor and community themes that Sun and Moon are repping.
The first battle encounter comes from the trainer’s friend Hau, who acts less as a rival and more of a companion, similar to the characters in X and Y. Whichever starter the trainer chooses, Hau will choose the Pokémon weak to it, making the first battle more of a reminder on how to play and less of a real challenge. Within the battle system itself, it’s clear the game wants players to feel at ease in battle, which is seen through the investigation tools. Stats, abilities, and positive or negative buffers are available for each Pokémon. Additionally, every move can be selected to see its strength, accuracy, and typing. Another nifty mechanic is the reminder about which moves are super effective or negated against an opposing creature. Rowlet’s Grass move Leafage, for example, had a bright “Super Effective” notification over it while fighting Hau’s Popplio, giving new trainers or those just unaware of type advantages a hint on what moves to use.
It wouldn’t be a proper Pokémon title without catching and the Pokédex, and thankfully the demo gives players a decent amount of time to see the wild encounter mechanics. They act similarly to the previous titles, forcing trainers to weaken the wild Pokémon in order to catch it with their Pokéball of choice. Once the creature is captured, the similar Pokédex screen appears, but this time it offers a chance to see real-time actions the creature will make on the field, as well as hear its cry. Searching the wild fields for Pokémon has a fresh and updated feel as well. While running in the open field, the character moves more fluidly than previous titles, which instantly makes it feel less like an RPG and more like an open world adventure game. Of course, turn-based battle is still the core, but it seems to take a back seat to the exploration and accumulation of the Alolan Pokémon.
Even after 20 years of generation after generation, the world of Pokémon teases new and exciting mysteries to solve, an expansive Pokédex, and swift turns from previously set-in-stone guidelines. That’s exactly what separates this latest generation from the old. Sun and Moon have staked their claim in adopting fresh and needed mechanics, while also honoring the core of what trainers know and love from the universe.
The Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon demo drops on the Nintendo 3DS Tuesday in the 3DS virtual store. The full version releases for Nintendo 3DS on Nov. 18.