The Pokemon franchise has been evolving for quite some time. When Pokemon Black and White changed the face of modern day Pokemon adventures, it paved the way for more fully-realized worlds and more intricate battles. Remakes, such as HeartGold and SoulSilver, had also proven that backtracking for Pokemon could be profitable. There has never been a series more inextricably tied to the success of Nintendo’s handheld devices, and, on the back of successful new titles and remakes, Pokemon Sun and Moon had extraordinarily high expectations for it when it came time for launch.
To the surprise of very few, Pokemon Sun and Moon were incredible, oozing the series’ characteristic charm while also making a number of high-profile innovations to the Pokemon formula. The series abandoned the gym system, now a feature of Pokemon GO, in favour of a more sprawling adventure, while Sun and Moon also introduced Totem Pokemon, Ultra Beasts (a lot like legendary Pokemon, but different), and more. If players had any complaint, it would be in the way the game’s story was overly simplistic, nullifying some of the impact of the reintroduction of fan favorite characters from the past.
Now, just a year later, Pokemon has returned to Alola with its upgraded Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon games. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are meant to be redesigns of Sun and Moon, with a number of improvements in graphics and gameplay. Yet, so soon after most Pokemon fans spent hours exploring Alola last year, is there enough in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon to justify taking a second look at the island region?
The answer, in short, is yes—just barely. Pokemon Ultra Moon, which is the copy of the new games we reviewed, offers the bare minimum of improvement to make it worth adventuring through Alola once more. It still has all of the greatness that characterized Sun and Moon, the charm, and the exciting world of Alola going for it, and those are hard to topple even after a lengthy adventure through them not too long ago.
The most immediately noticeable improvement in Ultra Moon is that its graphics are significantly better than its predecessors. The world of Pokemon Ultra Moon is living and breathing in a way that Pokemon has never achieved before, with things like shadows of flying-types looming overhead and the rustle of a far off beast creating an intriguing, captivating version of the Alolan region. All of the vibrancy of Sun and Moon returns here in even more color as well, while some of the graphical hiccups that had plagued the more intense animations in battles have appeared to be smoothed out. These are major achievements for Nintendo, especially considering Ultra Moon is on the same hardware it was last year.
The addition of generational crossovers is probably the biggest draw to Ultra Moon, which features the return of the notorious Team Rocket to the Alola region. The criminals have even upgraded their uniforms to better reflect the beauty of Alola, upgrading their emblematic Rs from the normal red to a rainbow. Team Rocket definitely gets time to shine, too, although it’s buried in the game in such a way that players will have to get through a sizeable portion of the story before they make an impact.
That’s fine, but it is also an indication of the biggest pitfall for Pokemon Ultra Moon—most of the changes are superficial ones, and while they’re good, like the crisp, clear music and the vastly upgraded environment, they don’t actually alter the way players progress through the game. The story of Ultra Moon remains almost identical to the one from its predecessor, and that’s sort of an issue given that the narrative was already the weakest element of Pokemon Sun and Moon. It can be difficult to slog through at times, at least for players who have already experienced it. Unlike the original journey in Red and Blue, the adventure of Ultra Moon really isn’t the kind of tale that needs to be told multiple times.
That being said, things do change. The challenges are smarter, and a bit more fun than they were in the original Generation 7 instalments. There are better characters and a much more interesting mystery towards the end of the game, which is where Ultra Moon really starts to differ from Moon. After making it through about ten hours of the early game, things are enough different that it begins to feel like playing a new Pokemon, rather than just a better-looking Moon.
Having reached what amounts to the “end game” of modern Pokemon titles,it becomes clear that Ultra Moon is easily the better experience when compared to the original jaunt through Alola. Nothing becomes worse, and there are enough upgrades to side stories and the addition of some new Pokemon to the game that it is still well-worth playing, even for those who have completed Sun and Moon already. While some more story extras and a refined narrative would not have gone amiss, Pokemon Ultra Moon is still the best Pokemon experience to date. If you’ve already tried Sun and Moon, this is worth a look, but if you haven’t experienced any of what Alola has to offer yet, Pokemon Ultra Moon is an absolute must-own that stands as the best handheld Pokemon title since the originals. With a Pokemon Switch title in the works, this could be the last time the series is tailored specifically for the Nintendo 3DS, and it’s the send-off it deserves.
Pokemon Ultra Sun and Pokemon Ultra Moon are available now for Nintendo 3DS. Game Rant was provided a copy of Pokemon Ultra Moon by Nintendo for this review.