Pokémon Alpha Sapphire

Fall is definitely a time when I think about Pokémon, primarily because most of the games in that venerable series have been released in the autumnal months. As leaves pile up around me I’ll usually be found on a bench, enjoying the chilly breezes and heated battling, collecting, and training. With the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the long-desired remakes of the third-generation core titles, the rite of fall continues.

Note: While this review is taken from gameplay of Alpha Sapphire only, it will use the acronym ORAS to refer to the game, as most of the features mentioned will be applicable to both titles in the set. Anything specific to Alpha Sapphire will be mentioned as such.

Taking place in the archipelago region of Hoenn, ORAS brings the player back to the gorgeously-rendered 3-D world first glimpsed during X and Y. The story is true to the original, with the player– choosing either Brendan or May as their avatar through the game– traveling the region, battling wild Pokémon, performing errands for adults that they happen across, and along the way saving the world from the machinations of Team Aqua and/or Team Magma. Like the originals and also like X/Y, the story is subtly different between the two versions in order to accommodate the myth arc surrounding the generational mascots, Kyogre and Groudon, as well as to introduce a new chapter revolving around Emerald’s mascot Rayquaza and the generation’s most enduring of its hidden Legendaries, the cosmic Deoxys. However, if you’ve played through Ruby or Sapphire before, you know what to expect, both in a general sense and in some of the specifics.

The Pokémon Company’s general modus operandi when creating a game remake is in full effect here: there are only mild upgrades to the layouts of the routes and trainers along them, in order to maintain a verisimilitude between the old and the new. However, visually and musically, the game is as much a leap forward as the GBA series were to the first and second-generation titles. While it retains the graphical engine of the Kalos-region set from last year, that’s not a bad thing at all– it actually improves upon it by eliminating a good deal of the frame rate drops and other annoyances that plagued X/Y. The improved sound hardware of the 3DS also means that the big, brassy soundtrack of the games comes through in its full orchestral glory. Yes, Vileplume-ginia, there are horns. ORAS also returns to using the touch screen as a strong tool for capturing Pokémon and tracking friends’ synced data relatively unobtrusively; the PSS, Super Training, and Pokémon-Amie apps are now augmented by an area map, PokéRadar-like tool, and Trainer’s Eyes-like news channel. Finally, Pokémon Contests return, allowing players to pit their Pokémon against others in a non-combat competition of style and spirit. With them come also the vast and time-consuming Berry system and Pokeblock creation, which fortunately has been simplified greatly from its original minigame roots.

However, in the process of fixing things, some things that were never broken to begin with got rearranged. All of the cities are redesigned to utilize the new engine’s capabilities, and unfortunately this makes things harder than they should be due to the closeness of the camera (which can’t be adjusted). It can be difficult to tell at first glance what the city has to offer, even considering the now-standard practice of coloring the Pokémon Center, shop, and gym roofs. What’s worse, the solution to this is shown in the first city– examining the town’s name placard shifts the camera to a bird’s eye view of the whole town– and then never utilized again. It took me several tries to wrack my brains around the concept that there was no gym in Verdanturf, and by then I was getting impatient to advance the story and activate new features.

Unlike the refinements between Pokemon Platinum and HeartGold/SoulSilver, some of ORAS feel like a step backwards. While the battle engine is virtually identical to that of X/Y– again, why mess with a good thing– some of the ancillary features such as clothing changes and riding Pokémon are missing. Worse still, the game actually introduces incompatibilities with X/Y that TPC and Game Freak have already said are intentional and will not be patched into the older games. This includes certain new Mega Evolutions and new moves. Despite Kalos’ wide-open spaces and relative freedom to explore, Hoenn feels cramped and rushed in comparison; this may be a concession to the fact that the Gen 3 games still had an over-reliance on HM moves and Gym Badge progress gating, rather than the more natural feel of Kalos’ gating or even Unova’s (as of Black2/White2). Though take heart, hydrophobes, certain Pokémon used for surfing will move faster; and using Latias or Latios to soar through the region is much more expedient than the traditional Fly HM.

As the series starts to wind up its second decade, at this point it’s extremely hard to judge a Pokémon game as anything other than its own thing in and of itself. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire neatly sum up the difference between something being formulaic and something being generic: a formula allows the developer, and the player, to work within a known and accepted structure to produce new and exciting experiences, while genericness is a failure to do anything new with the formula, and commodifies the thing which it is trying to express. ORAS are, like X and Y before them, formulaic to a T; and for the most part, that’s not a bad thing. If you like the established and almost inflexible formula of “get starter, collect badges, save world, battle rival”, most every Pokemon game will be for you. If, however, you’re weary of the same game being incrementally improved upon year after year, ORAS will likely not spur a rebirth of interest in the franchise.

Where things get weird is that, honestly, ORAS is an implementation of the formula as it stood ten years ago. For a game series that justifies its continued reflection on the past through incessant reimplementation and refinement, ORAS feels like a throwback trading largely on nostalgia mixed with sensory flair. For those who first threw a Pokéball in Hoenn, this game is a must-own as it returns those players “home”. For those who didn’t, however, it’s hard to say whether this is the beginning of a new respect for the region– or merely the beginning of the end for their habit of buying each new core game.

Overall, though, I have to place the games in Fourth Gear (out of six), because they are still solid games, just not solid Pokémon games. It remains to be seen at the moment where the series is headed, but if Nintendo and Game Freak keep up their pattern of annual releases, this January we should see just how long we’ll be staying in the land of too much water.