Pokémon X/Y review

PokemonXY art

An hour into Pokémon X/Y, you’ll better understand why 2DS exists. In two dimensions, these battles are sensational. Previous games never wanted for tactical tension, but dynamism and spectacle are added in a way that renders a Colosseum sequel irrelevant. Nudge 3DS’s stereoscopic slider upwards and it’s a different story: the framerate dips dramatically, occasionally approaching single digits. And with most overworld locations not even offering 3D – it’s used sparingly but effectively in caves and selected interiors – it’s clear the effect wasn’t a priority for Game Freak. It’s a disappointment, but also the most notable issue in what is otherwise one of the most generous and complete handheld games you’ll ever play.

As with Fire Emblem: Awakening and Animal Crossing: New Leaf, it’s no revolution, more a collection of intelligent refinements to a rock-solid framework. However, some of these changes have to be put in the context of a series that, ironically, has evolved at a glacial pace; it says a lot that the ability to walk diagonally feels like a novelty, and that the early receipt of a pair of roller skates will have you gliding around in graceful loops, giddy with your trainer’s new-found manoeuvrability. This is still a grid-based environment, with trainers waiting idly by the side of pathways to interrupt you as you skate by, but it’s artfully disguised by a camera that rarely stays still.

Your journey through the world of Kalos is a whistle-stop tour of a miniature France: there’s a surrogate Eiffel Tower, Brittany’s Carnac stones, and a coastal town with a tower that resembles Mont Saint-Michel. It’s rendered with a wonderful, wide-eyed innocence, echoing the glee of a first-time tourist excitedly reliving their memories and peppering their anecdotes with amusing exaggeration. Every town here has a boutique, while the central Paris-alike city has no fewer than 15 coffee houses. You’re often encouraged to offer tips, but the money you earn from battles will more than cover a few cups of java and a new outfit for every location. If X and Y aren’t the prettiest games on 3DS, their world is rich in detail and flavour, from the stately majesty of the affluent areas to a dilapidated, overgrown hotel whose only guests are squatting punks.

The games’ bestiary – the series’ largest to date – has had a complete visual overhaul and is thoroughly revitalised for it, with monsters finally represented by 3D models in battle. Animations are smoother and more characterful; some attacks connect with breathtaking force, while others follow a stylus-chewing build-up with a slapstick punchline. The newcomers – of which there are plenty – are inventively realised, too. That’s not to say that a few designs won’t rankle, of course: if you thought it wasn’t going to get sillier than a fridge with eyes, at least one creature here will prove you wrong. The new monsters are joined by a well-chosen selection from past games, including a generous helping from the oft-ignored Hoenn region, which swells the Pokédex to such numbers that it is split into three. Finally, there are Mega Evolutions, which are temporary powered-up mutations for certain Pokémon that require specific items to initiate. Those raised on Red and Blue may consider this blasphemy, but it’s a thrilling flourish for younger and more open-minded players.

Surprises and discoveries like this are frequent. And, thanks to a simultaneous global release, players all over the world will be figuring things out at the same time, rather than relying on a stream of secondhand information from Japan. But the games’ excellent pacing plays a part, too. While the structure of X/Y may be identical to previous Pokémon games, everything moves a little quicker: those roller skates make backtracking less of a chore, while Experience Share items distribute XP points across your whole party, all but eradicating the need to grind. You can strengthen your bond with Pokémon through a Tamagotchi-esque minigame or by participating in short, skill-based activities to earn a virtual punch bag that can increase their base statistics. Such systems don’t have the nuance or depth of the laborious IV/EV training regimen employed by some tournament players, but offer an accessible way for everyone else to give their party a boost.

Everywhere you look there are refinements. A brand new elemental type, Fairy, will no doubt have a significant impact on the dominance of Dragon types in the competitive game. The Player Search system offers tangible improvements to trading and battling, both locally and online. You’ll engage in sky battles, encounter hordes of wild Pokémon, and grind rails as a more stylish way to get around. Even the patronising early game has been streamlined. Few RPGs offer such a convincing sense of journey without resorting to bloated runtimes, and fewer still are intuitive enough for a five-year-old to parse yet deep and flexible enough to cater for a wide range of playstyles.

Those qualities never really went away, of course, although some of the series’ original magic had been lost across so many iterative updates. And while the disappointment of the lacklustre 3D implementation here never entirely fades, the thrill of the new is undeniably back. Make no mistake: this is a pair of games that will lead to formative moments in young lives, moments of the kind that will inspire a lifelong passion for the medium. In the games’ improved communication features, too, X and Y are truer to their narrative’s ethos: the joy of sharing moments of beauty and surprise with others. It’s a delightful message to send to a new generation of players, many of whom are just starting out on their own gaming journey. There can be few better places to do so.

Pokémon X/Y are released on October 12 for 3DS.