Pokémon X and Y review: Game Freak’s first “We dun goofed” moment

(Spoilers for Pokémon X and Y’s story and Gameplay segments ahead)

Today is a strange time to be a Pokémon fan. What was once a franchise with a huge emphasis on adventure, forming bonds with our Pokémon & overcoming insurmountable odds with them, has now devolved into an underwhelming, casualized turn-based experience. All for the purpose of milking players of their hard-earned money with annual releases, spin off games, as well as a fuck ton of merchandise. For many people of the fanbase, they all point their fingers on Pokémon X and Y in particular, for starting this downgrade in the first place. Pokémon X/Y is (They’re two games I know but regardless, they’re essentially the same product) a strange beast of a game. For every step forward it takes to innovate the series, it also takes many steps backwards on other departments to its design. To be frank, Pokémon X/Y isn’t a terrible game by any means. But in comparison to past titles before it, it becomes very clear to see why most people have a spiteful view towards it.

But let’s get to the positives of X and Y first. Prior to its release, Pokémon fans have long since been clamoring for a core title that took full advantage of a 3D graphical aesthetic. This meant witnessing human NPCs, whole environments, and most importantly the Pokémon themselves, fully rendered in a 3D space for the first time in the series’ history. Pokémon Battle Revolution, which was released on the Wii, served as an appetizer of sorts, teasing many fans of the amount of scale, spectacle, and beauty that a core Pokémon game in full 3D would take advantage of. After X and Y became open to the public, all our wishes finally came true… sort of. Firstly, the game’s stylized, anime aesthetic is very charming to look at, especially when viewing the overworld’s chibi-esque characters, locations, and the Pokémon in particular. The Pokémon during battle feel highly distinct from each other due to each of their expressions and animations mid-battle. I couldn’t help but just smile when I saw my starter Pokémon enter the battlefield for the first time in full 3D. Keep in mind, this was all before Game Freak had the brilliant idea of recycling models/animations for Sword and Shield. Hence, absolutely no one batted an eye about how the Pokémon looked or moved during the 3DS era. Not every character model looks as perfect as Daddy Prof. Sycamore however. The player avatar for instance have this deadpan expression constantly slapped into their face that never seems to go away throughout the entire playthrough.

Meanwhile, the Kalos region (while not the most memorable setting in the series’ history) does offer some unique looking locations for you to explore. With highlights being the Parfum Palace, a regal mansion filled to the brim with lavish decorum and history. Glittering cave, where narrow and dark corridors rule supreme and can easily lead you to encountering to the cave’s wild Pokémon. Shalour city, home to the Tower of Mastery, the place you get to in order to unlock the ability to use Mega Evolution (more on that later). Lastly of course there’s Lumiose City, a roundly structured, bustling concrete jungle with NPCs entering in and out of buildings, just minding their own business. Despite the lack of ambient sounds like people chatting/walking or the sound of traffic, it almost still feels more immersive than most towns or cities you visit in Sword and Shield. Hell, even the draw distance is better in X and Y, as character pop-ins are less conspicuous. The camera perspectives are much more dynamic this time than prior to gen 6, with some areas even closing in on the player’s avatar and controlling them on a 360-degree plane. This can really make the world feel believable and immersive. The trade-off, however, is that controlling the camera can be a pain in the ass at times, as the circle pad is both used for moving the avatar as well as the camera simultaneously, making for an overall unnatural or non-intuitive experience. Using the lower D-pad for camera control can help things slightly, but the overall result comes off just as cumbersome as before. Even in certain places such as Parfum Palace, there isn’t really anything to do there outside of the main story.

X and Y also vastly improves on the overall pacing, which otherwise was usually a detriment to past games, due to how incredibly taxing the first few hours were before you could actually get to play at your own pace. You immediately notice this during the first 10 minutes of the game, when you already obtain your starter Pokémon. X and Y feels like a breath of fresh air in that department. It’s now more possible than ever to get your first Pokémon, go to the first town and get your first gym badge in less than 30 minutes. Since everyone and their grandma knows how to play Pokémon at this point, this addition is more than welcome.

Example of the Pokémon-Amie feature with Sylveon

X and Y also added some other much requested quality of life features, such as player customization and a streamlined matchmaking system in the form of the Player Search System (PSS). Customization isn’t deep but it’s a nice addition nevertheless. You can change every personal feature from head to toe, starting with your hair style and then progressing towards your contact lenses, hats, glasses, shirts, pants, backpack and shoes. The PSS, meanwhile, features various online activities players can easily access to such as global trading, battling, and wonder trading (trading Pokémon without the perceived result) and all of them can be set up with friends or random passersby. At the end of the day, the PSS is just simply a highly accessible and easy-to-use matchmaking system that has been praised by many fans to this day and it’s easy to see why. Additionally, you also have Pokémon-Amie, which is presented as this small hub of sorts, where you can personally interact, pet and play with your Pokémon to your heart’s content. You can play minigames with them, feed them sweets to raise their friendliness towards you, and you can even make funny faces to them (I don’t advise it, the 3DS’ camera is crap at picking up facial expressions).

Charizard Mega Evolution X

In terms of the Pokémon battling itself, pretty much everything you know about is the same except for two very large additions, being the introduction of fairy types and of course Mega Evolution. Fairy types, first of all, are the newest type added to the games since gen 2 with dark types. They’re a pretty huge deal for the competitive metagame, since they’re immune against Dragon (one of the most powerful types) and can deal super effective damage towards them, as well as to other commonly used types such as Dark and Fighting. Hence, this makes using fairy type Pokémon a very viable strategy to utilize in battling, and it’s also justified since they’re weak against steel and poison types (two types which had little use offensively). The way Game Freak was able to balance the competitive scene after adding Fairy type Pokémon honestly needs to be commended here. And then there are Mega Evolutions. They’re a simple concept: they allow a Pokémon to change its form, meanwhile giving it buffed-up stats, a new ability and maybe even change its type as well. They add just enough depth and complexity into a player’s battling strategy, while avoiding being regarded as nothing but a glorified stat buff. What’s even better is how this mechanic is balanced. Only one Pokémon per battle can use mega evolution, and while doing so has to hold a specific item in order for the change to go into effect. It seems overpowered at first glance, but a smart opponent can quickly devise an easy counter to it, as long as they have the right ‘mon for the job, that is.

The last praise for X and Y happens to be of course the soundtrack. I mean when hasn’t the music for the Pokémon games being good? (Maybe in Sword and Shield I guess) You have such highlights being Professor Sycamore’s theme, the background music for Shalour city, Anistar City, and the theme for the mascot legendaries. However, I instantly noticed that there were some instances where certain routes, towns and caves reused the same tracks over and over again, to the point where traversing or exploring through different routes became more of a chore rather than a journey to enjoy. Kinda of a huge step back, considering how the rest of the soundtrack is so memorable in comparison.

A grunt of Team Flare: the primary antagonists of the game

And this is where the negatives of X and Y really start to pile up. In addition to the small gripes that this game has, certain design choices do nothing but add insult to injury. The story for starters is rubbish, it is a joke. Never have I seen such a shallow and uninspiring cast of supporting characters, NPCs, and villains in a Pokémon game before, and this was just right after Pokémon Black and White’s story, which was magnificent in comparison and is easily the best narrative the series has ever had to date. To begin the autopsy of this garbage plot, let’s look at the game’s evil team: Team Flare. Their end goals are generic, the likes we’ve seen before and done better (take a look at team Galactic for instance). But worse yet is that their overall motive doesn’t make a lick of sense when you think about it. How the flying fuck does reducing the planet to ashes make it infinitely “beautiful”? I mean I get that beauty’s in the eye of the beholder and all that shit but in this context, that’s a pretty lousy excuse to play with a medieval doomsday weapon. That’s not even mentioning how skin-deep the main villain’s own motivations are, that a spinoff anime OVA had to be made just to give him more depth for the sake of it. The supporting characters meanwhile don’t fare any better either. Your rival has no legitimate goal or passion other than to master mega evolution (for reasons unknown) or to beat you for some reason. In addition, you also have some obese kid who really likes dancing, some skinny ginger boy who’s obsessed with the Pokedex as well as some cookie cutter anime girl who tags along. The whole story just feels like filler just padded out to make the game feel longer than it is. Most characters are given no solid background to make each other stand out and just feel shallow and boring to engage with in the end. The only redeemable character arc in X and Y I can think of is the one with the tall king who made the weapon that ended the region’s great war thousands of years ago, but that’s just brushed to the side until the very end of the game when you get to battle him.

Speaking of battling, the whole game is locked at 30fps, including mid battle. This may not be a deal breaker for many people and that’s fine. But once you start to turn up the 3D slider on your 3DS, the frame rate just simply tanks from there like a landslide. Certain camera movements around the arena really chug at a snail’s pace once you have 3D turned on. This is also the case during important cutscenes, by the way, so for all intents and purposes I’d advise you to play through X and Y without 3D turned on if you want your playthrough to be a smooth running one. Outside of battling, a myriad of design faults can also be found. HM moves for example make a return, though thankfully they seem to be less prominent in X and Y. The only time you really need to depend on them is during victory road. Though it really needs to be said regardless, HM moves are just a waste of space at the end of the day. They pad out the game’s length in a lazy fashion which forces players to switch out any of their more useful monster with another one that’s more likely gonna be useless outside of being a HM slave. I’m glad this feature was stripped out entirely when Sun and Moon were released. Certain routes in the meantime, require you to ride on certain Pokémon themselves to traverse through the area. For context, let’s say you’re riding a Rhydon through a jagged, rocky landscape. It’s a novel concept (which was also improved in Sun and Moon) but eventually it just stumbles due to how sluggish and awkward it feels when controlling the Pokémon you’re riding on. Just turning or rotating in the other direction is fucking agony, it feels like an entire decade could pass once you decide to go the other way while riding on a Mamoswine.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a review on X and Y without addressing the game’s biggest sin: its difficulty. I’ll state this now and forever…the game is piss easy as fuck, especially with the exp share turned ON. It’s a travesty how much Game Freak changed the exp share from what it used to be in previous games. Rather than being a held item that only one Pokémon could gain shared experience with, the damn thing now share experience with every single monster in your party. As a result, your Pokémon have higher chances than ever to evolve at faster rates as well as out level almost every AI opponent in the game. It simply strips the challenge from any encounter you could face during your playthrough. That being said however, I did a recent playthrough of the game, where I turned the exp share off from the very beginning. Fortunately, I found that the game was slightly more challenging than before. Hell, I even LOST at certain battles during my recent playthrough. The damage was already done however, considering how much the gym leaders and the elite four are neutered this time around. Compared to the ones featured in Diamond and Pearl for example, they’re nothing but a cake-walk, and by a country mile at that. The gym leaders in gen 4 usually used three Pokémon per battle, while the elite four used five and that was during your first encounter with them. The gym leaders/ elite four in X and Y meanwhile are a shadow of their former counterparts, with the first leader using only TWO Pokémon, both of which had lackluster base stats and move sets. It only gets worse when you realize that when you first encounter the Kalos league’s elite four, they only hold four Pokémon. All of these examples listed only shed light on just how easy Game Freak have made the major challenges be for this game. It just further proves that turning off the exp share doesn’t fix all of the game’s inherent design flaws. It doesn’t end there either. Pokémon-Amie as mentioned before increases a Pokémon’s trust towards you, but this progression is also transferred into the main battle system. As monsters with a high friendship can withstand an OHKO and can even do other insane feats which just ruin the challenge of a battle such as shrugging off status effects. Additionally, there are also buffs called O-powers that essentially make the game much easier than it has any right to be. You can share them with other players in order to level them up but considering how much of a cake walk the game already is, what’s even the point on using them? You see a pattern with all of this? The game constantly goes out of its way to give you the most casual gaming experience as possible, by giving you the most powerful tools during its early and middle segments, like getting a Lucario (& its mega evolution) right after the third gym badge or getting a Lapras sometime after that. Fuck, it even forces you to choose a second starter when you reach the professor’s lab. What’s even ironic about it, is that these design choices would’ve been valid if the game actually had challenging gym leaders, a challenging elite four and an even tougher champion.

On a more random tangent, I want to rant about how redundant sky battles are. There’s literally no reason for them to be in the game. You’re forced to use fewer Pokémon and the battles themselves play out exactly like normal battles. To really prove how unnecessary they are, Junichi Masuda himself even stated that the only reason that they were included to begin with was that they featured “cool looking camera angles” (?????) Fuck off, Junichi.

At the end of the day, Pokémon X and Y represent the starting point of the total, gradual downgrade that would eventually take hold on the future titles to come. All thanks to the incompetence, laziness, and greed of its developer, along with that of the upper corporate brass, that are likely pulling the whole franchise’s strings by now. Many of the game’s flaws, such as the entire downgrade to its difficulty, the poorly constructed and shallow story as well as many other bizarre design choices conducted by Game Freak are just symptoms to the fact that Pokémon games are no longer being made for the fanbase with passion or love. X and Y feels more like it was made in an assembly line, with the only sole purpose of making profit from an already gigantic consumer base. You can’t help but accept this when you hear people like Masuda, quoting in interviews such as the one on Polygon’s 2013 article, where he states; “In Japan, one thing I really noticed, especially among middle school students, is everyone is really busy…They just have a lot of different entertainment options with a variety of media. It just feels like a lot of people these days don’t have a lot of time. One of the things we focused on with Pokémon X and Y was to really speed up the pace…make it more of a brisk-paced adventure and make it easier to raise Pokemon. There are a lot of free games out there, and if you get bored, it’s easy to just switch to something else”. Says a lot about the current mindset Game Freak have with their flagship series, doesn’t it? Make the game brisk-paced by making it as casual and easy as possible? If you get bored of X and Y, just play something else right??? Fuck off, Junichi. Anyway, Pokémon X and Y: not a great entry in the series but it isn’t terrible either. I would give it a 6 out of 10 at best.