You kind of knew that Pokémon was running out of ideas when we got to the Black And White generation. “Well,” one designer said, “I guess we’ve done all the primary colours, precious metals, rare gemstones and paint names that could work as titles. What do we do now?”
“Calm down.” Said someone else. “There’s still monochromatic shades, dimensional measurements and the Greek alphabet. After all, who doesn’t love monotones, geometry and antiquated dead languages?”
And so we got Black and White, X and Y, Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. How lucky we are to have such relentless variation. Maybe they’ll even come up with some decent new mechanics in the next one, because they haven’t yet and this dead horse is starting to smell.
I’ve said before that I thought that the series has desperately been in need of some real advancement since Platinum, the last good game, and even put forward a few reasons what they could do for that (see here). But I figured recently: “what better way is there than to play through the most recent game and see what went wrong?”
Well, the most recent game but one. I’m not going to review Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, because those poor creations are just the inexpertly reanimated corpses of better instalments of the series. So instead I’m going to review Pokémon X, my least favourite of the series.
Not that X doesn’t have its moments. I found great joy in trying to find a rude name that would break through the Nintendo-Brand Fun Filter, because just after you enter the world your new battery-farmed batch of generic anime friends ask what nickname you’d like. So after ten minutes of catchy but profane titles getting booted back in my face, I finally found one that made it through. My new pals all smiled at me and my choice.
“Alright, Ball-Licker!” They chorused with already-grating chirpiness. “See you up the road!”
And they bloody mean it. Aside from the fact that there’s four or five of these wittering losers clogging up your contacts menu, the little bastards refuse to leave you alone, showing up to stop you every alternate step. It’s a good thing nobody needs to go to the bathroom in this world, because I bet they’d be waiting in there for you, too.
And it just gets to be a pain after a while. In the first generation your rival Gary was annoying, but it was kind of the point, and he wouldn’t show up unless it was to battle. But here you can’t go ten minutes without these weirdos herding you into a new location and trapping you with mandatory dialogue. Any sense of flow or chance for exploration goes out the window when you can see them waiting with frozen smiles and glassy eyes up ahead to break up the pacing, and none of them are fun to be with. I want to give a personal shout-out to the fat kid with the dancing obsession, who could’ve easily been cut from the whole thing without any problems whatsoever. Then again, I suppose it would mean X was failing to meet the minimum level of irritating bollocks that most modern Nintendo games saddle you with.
And there’s yet more bollocks on show when you first dive into the long grass. Before you’ve even beaten the first gym you’ve got a diverse team of every type you need, appearing before you like hopeful prospects in an arranged marriage. By the time I was an hour into X I had everything necessary to win, and any possibility of challenge was a distant memory.
Again, compare that to the older games, like Yellow. “Here’s your electric Pokémon,” they would say, “And you can only catch bug, normal or flying types. Now there’s a rock-type gym – have fun with that, buster.” Not only does X do away with this, but in the second town they just simply give you a Gen I starter of your own choice. So combat just becomes boring when you can cancel out any threat with ease.
(And yes, I know you can catch a mankey in Pokémon Yellow prior to Brock’s gym, but it’s on a diverted route to the west and honestly, what kind of gimboid wants a mankey anyway?)
And of course there’s Mega-Evolution, the new gimmick that now holds the series back like a set of cast-iron manacles. For no cost at all you can infuse your Pokémon with the power of love, which oddly enough gives it the killing ability of Jason Voorhees. But considering that the game was too easy and poorly paced to begin with, a long, unskippable animation that pushes your pet into going Super-Saiyan isn’t what was needed at all.
I could stop the review at this point. The fact that the central gameplay has become a chore is the ultimate problem any game can have. It might’ve been able to pull out of that nosedive if the story was any good, but it isn’t. The turncoat villain is obvious the second you see him, sporting a black coat, fiery hair and musing about immortality, but I still found myself siding with him in spirit, if only in the hope that he’d kill the dorks who’d been pestering me from day one.
Beyond that, the game is filled with annoyances that make it too aggravating to recommend. The story is flaggy as hell, yanking you back every ten minutes for a chat and a cup of tea whether you want to or not, and the environment design team must’ve been drunk, because the whole world is laid out like a plate of spaghetti. Here’s a fun idea: stop off in the main city and try to find your way to a specific landmark in less than five minutes. The labyrinthine alleys and camera breathing down your neck makes the whole thing a claustrophobic mess. It’s entirely possible to walk past your destination several times without knowing it’s there, as I did over and over.
What makes me really cross is that there’s bugger-all that exists beyond the combat mechanics, or even exists beyond fighting at all. I liked the contests in the old games, at least they gave you another purpose and had a little depth and nuance to them. Here all they’ve got is a boring character dress-up mode, where you can swap out clothes on your avatar for other clothes, none of which matters a jot. No reason or purpose beyond just being there at all, really. It’s also pretty unimpressive and incredibly undeveloped, to the extent where you can’t even take your hat off and only swap it out for others. So certainly no chance of getting a shirt with “#TeamBallLicker” stencilled on the chest, much to my despair.
But that’s the point. This entry of Pokémon isn’t offensive or broken, just tedious. It’s become more linear, more toothless and more poorly written than ever before, and manages to be both cluttered and anaemic at the same time. I went through all the motions I’ve done a hundred times, barely thinking about them, absent-mindedly tearing through any enemy that tried to stop me and not even considering tactics. The core of the series is still there, but every edge has been sanded away so as to become even more accessible and homogenised than before, to the extent where they’re even afraid to tell you to put some effort in for fear of scaring you away.
For a while now every entry in the series has had some unnecessary gimmick added on, like a dog collar with a barometer hanging heavily off it. But for what it’s worth, Pokémon X is more gimmick than game, the metaphorical collar weighed down with so many unneeded trinkets that the dog can barely move. Whatever the series needs, it isn’t this.
But what upsets me more is the attitude displayed all over, because Pokémon X seems to be terrified of its own identity. After peeling away the layers of challenge, exploration and strategic thinking, the series is reduced to an uninspiring husk. Instead, it tries to distract us from the obvious flaws with a thousand tiny toys, each as dull as the last one, too scared to do something new but too worried about returning to the old, tougher style for fear of alienating players. Pokémon needs updating fast, but X is a step backwards into the terrible void of Bill’s PC Box, not a step forwards into the mythical Rare Candy shop.
Pokémon X is everything you’ve seen before, and then made a bit worse and a bit less imaginative. The loss of challenge or originality makes this installment about as appealing as porridge, and just as flat and grey.