It's taken 17 years, but "Pokémon" finally feels modern. The series that began on the Game Boy's monochrome screen has slowly evolved with each generation of Nintendo's handheld systems. It went from primitive sprites to fancy 16-bit visuals before later adapting to the dual screens of the Nintendo DS. But one change has eluded fans: the transition from pixel to polygons.
There have been half-steps and minor tweaks, but finally, Game Freak has made the leap. With "Pokémon X" and "Pokémon Y," the Japanese role-playing game gets a long-awaited revamp that will attract new fans and lure veterans back into the fold. In addition to prettier graphics, the team has simplified and bolstered the online mode and added a new dynamic with the introduction of Mega Evolution.
Combine that with a setting inspired by France, and the latest entries are two of the best in a decade. Players will feel like they're exploring new territory in the Kalos region as the move to polygons allows the team to shift the camera and create more interesting locales and dungeons. For example, players may need to hop on a Rhyhorn to get across rocky terrain or venture through some old chateau to attain a battle nobility. Almost every area has a clever twist.
Although Game Freak makes strides in designing the world, the developer still sticks to story conventions established since the original. Players create their trainer, and the local professor gives them the task of filling out the Pokédex. They'll have to catch them all (as the franchise's slogan recommends) and defeat gym leaders along the way. There's even a rival group called Team Flare, a nod to the Team Rocket of yesteryear.
Despite the plot's outline being the same as every other "Pokémon" title, the team does a decent job of mixing up how the adventure unfolds. The campaigns feature a wider circle of friends and a few more surprises with the themes of beauty and evolution factoring heavily in the narrative. Fans should appreciate the visuals that make each scene more cinematic, almost like they're playing a cartoon.
As for grinding through dungeons and leveling up Pokémon, that's still part of the game. The 3-D graphics make the fights feel fresher and less like work. Players will want to see every new attack capture old favorites to see how they translate to polygons.
Other new features are also notable. "Pokémon X" and "Pokémon Y" (each edition has different Pokémon so players can trade, but the games are essentially the same) make it more convenient to trade with and battle against other players. Fans no longer have to trudge to a designated area; they can perform online actions anywhere in the game via the Player Search System. Friends can even give each other short-term power-ups.
The two other additions are aimed at improving a Pokémon's stats and its relationship with the trainer through minigames. Pokémon Super Training lets the critters spar against giant balloons in an activity that resembles the flights in "Kid Icarus: Uprising."
Meanwhile, Pokémon-Amie is essentially like "Nintendogs," but players care for pocket monsters instead of canines. The minigame has a big effect because it influences a Pokémon's performance in battles.
Though there are plenty of changes to digest, they're not overwhelming. The games strike the right balance between giving players new features to play with while not inundating them with bells and whistles.
'POKÉMON X' AND 'POKÉMON Y'
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Platform: Nintendo 3DS