Review: Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon

Is the trip back to Alola worth taking?

By Marc Deschamps. Posted 02/15/2018 07:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Deeper experience; bigger challenge; Mantine surf is a great addition; terrific soundtrack.
Poison Mushroom for...
The Ultra Recon Squad is kind of dopey; new content takes a bit to get to; the Poké Finder is still underused.

Full confession: I love Pokémon and I love the state of Hawaii. So, when The Pokémon Company announced that the newest Pokémon region would be based on a place near and dear to my heart, I was, understandably, quite excited. Thankfully, Pokémon Sun and Moon delivered a wonderful experience on 3DS that surpassed my expectations. A year later, Game Freak has returned to the region with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Thankfully, the trip is worth repeating.

Despite Game Freak’s protestations to the contrary, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon very much follow a similar format to previous third entries in the franchise. The main game remains essentially the same, with some additional content strewn throughout. Players still move to the Alola region from Kanto, and still choose from the same three starting Pokémon. Hau remains as unshakably optimistic as ever and Lillie is every bit as meek. Ultra Sun still follows a real-time clock, while Ultra Moon’s day/night cycle is 12 hours ahead. Not everything is the same, however; Game Freak has made some interesting additions and they do enhance the overall experience.

The biggest change to the game is the storyline. Like the recently re-released Pokémon Crystal, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon shift the narrative focus away from Solgaleo and Lunala to a different legendary Pokémon, in this case Necrozma. Necrozma is opening Ultra Wormholes throughout Alola, leading a pair of new characters, the Ultra Recon Squad, to come to the region from another dimension. The light from their home was stolen by Necrozma, and a pair of members from the team have arrived in the hopes of finding a way to stop the legendary Pokémon. The Ultra Recon Squad characters are relatively harmless, though, design-wise, they’re a bit on the dopier side. Despite their appearance, the pair are a welcome addition, because the changes they bring to the storyline also impact the motivations of other characters, making for a much more fleshed-out narrative. Even characters outside the central plot like Grimsley get more to do. Fortunately, while there’s a lot more going on this time around, it never feels overwhelming or overstuffed.

Sun and Moon were the first Pokémon titles to significantly incorporate Pokémon into the game’s overworld: HMs were replaced by ride Pokémon, Wingull can be seen flying through the air as boats arrive, and Exeggutor sway like palm trees on their own titular island. These minor additions truly made the Pokémon world feel alive in a way they never had before, and Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon take this a step further. Wild Pokémon can now be seen at various locations around Alola, and Mantine surfing has been added as both a minigame and a means of travel. The minigame is a bit of a throwback to Pokémon Yellow’s Pikachu’s Beach minigame, but Mantine surfing is a bit more of a meatier experience. Players can earn points for pulling off different tricks, which can be exchanged for some very nice incentives. Mantine surfing only has to be done once, but the more hands-on approach to travel is definitely welcome, and it serves as a fun distraction.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon also beef up the number of Pokémon that can be acquired in-game. For the most part, these aren’t new Pokémon, just characters that weren’t initially available in Alola. The game makes this change very early on, and it also emphasizes Pokémon that haven’t been around a long time. As a result, my party ended up with a handful of Pokémon that debuted in X and Y that I didn’t pay much notice to the first time around. It was nice getting a chance to use Pokémon like Fletchinder and Malamar, both of which I don’t think I even captured when playing the games set in Kalos. Having so many more Pokémon attainable in one game is also terrific for newcomers to the franchise.

Since the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver, players have demanded more post-game content and a stiffer challenge. No Pokémon game has ever quite lived up to that Generation’s return to Kanto, but Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon come closer than any Generation since with the debut of Team Rainbow Rocket, a group comprised of villains from previous games in the franchise. For players that have lamented the lack of challenge of recent Pokémon games, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon also noticeably dial up the difficulty level, with more trainers to face, with higher level Pokémon, throughout the entirety of the game.

In the sound department, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are every bit as strong aurally as Sun and Moon before them. The music is still some of the catchiest ever in a Pokémon game, and some towns even have different tracks during the day and night. A handful of new tracks have been added, including a theme for the Ultra Recon Squad, which has an appropriately other-worldly quality.

One area in which I wish the game had been improved a bit is the Poké Finder function. Introduced as a callback to Pokémon Snap, the feature was criminally underused in Sun and Moon. Unfortunately, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon don’t expand on it in any real significant way, outside one new location and some different Pokémon to take pictures of. I really hope the feature returns when Generation VIII appears on Switch. Given the fact that Switch can easily upload pictures to social media, it would seem like there are a lot of great ways to improve the Poké Finder moving forward. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon do introduce the Alola Photo Club, allowing trainers to take and customize pictures with their Pokémon, but the feature doesn’t really feel all that deep.

Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are the definitive versions of Generation VII. Fans that already made the trip to the Alola region might find that it takes a while to get to the juiciest new additions to the game, but diehard Pokémon fans and those that held off on Sun and Moon will find a lot to enjoy. The games are truly robust experiences, and the new additions help flesh out a game that was already quite strong. I could detail more about the story changes and enhancements, Mantine surfing or Team Rainbow Rocket, but not much else needs to be said. This is a terrific Pokémon experience that has only gotten better.

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