For the past 15 years, Game Freak has tirelessly pursued the lofty goal of producing the perfect Pokémon game, gradually inching closer to achieving it as each new generation is introduced. Pokémon X, and its counterpart Pokémon Y, are the bellwethers of the series’s sixth generation, and the first to be rendered in full 3D on the 3DS. What’s astonishing about these installments is how seamless the transition to 3D is, and how well they maintain the classic feel of the previous games fans both diehard and casual have cherished for a over a decade and a half.
Pokémon, character models, and environments are detailed enough to warrant keeping the 3D switch engaged, and the expansive, star-shaped region of Kalos (supposedly designed to mirror the geography of France) is a colorful mixture of various terrains that offers a wide array of catchable critters, both foreign and familiar, around every corner. Customization has been pushed to the forefront, for the first time allowing players to purchase a variety of clothing and accessories to fabricate a unique look for their individual avatar. Beyond the standard option to choose either a male or a female trainer, the ability to select from several hairstyles and skin tones raises the personalization aspect another degree. Pokémon has always been about creating spontaneous and lasting bonds between players and their Pocket Monsters, and between constantly expanding communities of global participants, through battles, trades, and all breeds of meta-game interactions. Pokémon X/Y is the closest the series has come to actualizing a truly transporting communal experience. With WiFi capabilities enabled, lines of cooperation and communication are open with the world at large, and the prospect that thousands of singular adventures can unite into one concerted happening is something Game Freak has aspired to, but has never been able to deliver until now.
Unfortunately, there are so many technical advancements in Pokémon X/Y that the central story takes a backseat by default. In what might be the weakest narrative in the series to date, a collective of cookie-cutter companions replaces the much more developed rival trainer. There’s the linear good-versus-evil structure, with mysterious figures hiding behind a covert organization (this time, they’re called Team Flare) fighting for an inane cause to preserve the natural beauty of the universe by, in effect, destroying it. The emblematic Xerneas and Yveltal, respective Pokémon representatives of each game, are roped into the quest in a less intriguing way than Pokémon Black/White and Black/White 2’s Zekrom and Reshiram. Avant-garde parables have hardly been among the Pokémon series’s strong suits, but, with the proficiency of the visual upgrades, there seems to be an opportunity to spin a significantly deeper tale. This doesn’t have to be Final Fantasy, but the least Game Freak could do is manufacture a more authentic cause for their pint-sized heroes, one worth fighting for.
Storyline complaints aside, almost every other aspect of Pokémon X/Y can be declared the best in the series. Battles, even the perpetual assault of randomized scuffles, are consistently enticing, featuring splendid move animations and smoother progression of combat. Game Freak has largely stuck to the if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it approach in this particular area, but in Pokémon X/Y, they take a few risks and profit greatly from them. Finally, a fresh type, Fairy, has been thrown into the mix, forcing players to modify their mentally ingrained charts and graphs of super-effective techniques. Recall how stubborn Dragon-types were only amply injured by either Ice or Dragon offenses. Not anymore. Fairy-types fill the once ever-present void in the grand scheme of worldwide meta-game matchups. Additionally, the highly publicized Mega Evolutions alter approaches to battle even further. Certain Pokémon, once evolved to their final form and equipped with a specific item, can be pushed beyond their limitations during battle into a final final form, boosting their stats and often changing their types in the process. Other notable features include Sky Battles, which give your Flying-types a chance to shine; Horde Encounters, where you’re essentially jumped by a gang of lowly Pokémon (this is where attacks that hit multiple enemies really come in handy); and O-Powers, temporary buffs initiated before battle that enhance stat performance.
Grinding to increase your roster’s efficacy has been considerably lessened in Pokémon X/Y. The Exp. Share item is given to you very early on, so keeping your immediate party of six at generally the same strength level isn’t so much of a chore. Pokémon-Amie is Game Freak paying homage to Nintendogs, prompting players to caress their creatures via the stylus and touchscreen, ultimately bolstering their relationship through happiness-promoting therapy. It’s a bit awkward, petting your Pikachu (no, that’s not a euphemism—or is it?), but the cutesy stuff pays off later when you’re crushing opponents with ease as a result of routine Pokémon pampering. Super Training, with its mini-game-style approach to raising stats, is for those who’ve grown tired of the strictness of EV-based cultivation. Whether it be by playing soccer against giant balloons or knocking around punching bags, Super Training is a fun, easygoing method of sharpening stats without actually raising base levels.
When all is said and done, Pokémon X/Y will likely be remembered as the biggest leap forward for the franchise—an amazingly smooth and altogether necessary transformation in presentation that does well to preserve the nostalgia that comprises much of the series’s lifeblood. While there’s only 69 original species to speak of, the 3D remodeling of old favorites makes up for the lack of debuts. When Pokémon Red/Blue boasted a then-sizable 151-count catalog, the thought of eventually catching the lot of them was a time-consuming yet manageable objective. Five generations later, the total number in the National Pokédex stands at 718. That’s roughly a Pokémon for each citizen of New Portland, Maine. Pokémon has come a long way, and if Pokémon X/Y are any indication, the evolutionary trajectory doesn’t stop here. Pokémon Z, anyone?