It's easy to look at Pokemon X and think it's just another iteration of the perennial franchise. On the surface, it looks pretty much like every previous game. You play as a new trainer who has moved to the Kalos region of the Pokemon world. Kalos is effectively Poke-France, so it has its own Pokemon, gym leaders, legends and mythos. The basic premise is still the same: travel from city to city, collect gym badges, and stop the plans of a nefarious group of ne'er-do-wells. In this case, that group is Team Flare, fashionistas who are dedicated to their own happiness above all else. It will sound familiar to long-term players, and in many ways, it is. Pokemon X doesn't reinvent the formula, but it comes very close to perfecting it.
The best thing about Pokemon X/Y is that it's polished to a mirror sheen, and a number of frustrating or annoying mechanics from previous Pokemon titles have been improved. The interface is significantly better than in prior iterations, and it's extremely easy to use your items and abilities. You can bind four "use items" to the Y button, so you can instantly access things like the bicycle and fishing rod. Even without the bicycle, you can walk, run, or roller-skate with the touch of a button. (Walking is bound to the d-pad and roller skating to the circle pad.) The menu is easier to navigate, and several items have been added to cut down on tedious features. In prior games, EXP share was a held item that gave one Pokemon experience even if it didn't fight in battle. In X/Y, EXP Share is a key item that makes every Pokemon in your party gain experience even if they don't fight. It's a great way to keep your party on the same level without lots of tedious switching. You also gain experience points for catching Pokemon, not just beating them, and that helps you advance at a quicker pace.
Perhaps more importantly, there's a lot more transparency in the battle mechanics. In previous games, there was a mechanic fans named "Effort Values" (EV) that determined how your Pokémon's stats increased, but they were completely invisible and required players to use esoteric methods to puzzle out how they were growing. This is annoying for adults using Internet FAQs and supremely frustrating for young kids. Pokemon X makes this mechanic far more user-friendly. The new "Super Training" option allows you to see exactly how far your Pokemon have trained toward a certain stat and how much more they can train before they're maxed out. You can also play minigames to max out those stats sooner. Pokemon breeding mechanics also seem to have been simplified, with special abilities and moves seeming even easier to transfer to new Pokemon than before.
However, the "Hidden Machines" (HM) problem that has been in the game since Generation 1 remains an issue in X/Y. HM are special items that teach your Pokemon moves to travel around the world, and they can't be easily unlearned. The bulk of the moves are not very good attacks, but you need them if they're required for a puzzle or basic travel. This leads to a "HM mule" issue, where you have to carry one or two Pokemon just to have access to these abilities. When you only have six slots, that's a big waste of space. This is less of an issue than in previous generations, but it's annoying that it still exists after so many other issues have been fixed. There are several features, such as the Move Relearner, which are gated for no reason other than to pad out their accessibility. With EVs being so transparent, it's frustrating that other aspects aren't as easy to use.
The biggest twist to the combat formula comes from two new additions. The first is the addition of the Fairy element, the first new Pokemon type since Dark and Steel were introduced in Pokemon Gold/Silver. Fairy Pokemon are strong against Dark, Dragon and Fighting Pokemon, and this alters the game balance by making the previously dominant Dragon Pokemon more susceptible to damage, so it's tougher for them to deal damage in return. Many existing Pokemon and moves have been retroactively associated to the Fairy type, adding a wide swath of the new type to the mix. Popular Pokemon like Jigglypuff and Togepi now have Fairy elements and moves like Charm. Steel Pokemon have become slightly less durable, losing their resistance to Ghost and Dark attacks. This gives the Pokemon metagame a nice kick in the tail and offers some much-needed diversity to the type chart, which is over a decade old. There are relatively fewer new Pokemon this generation than the last, but they made up for that by retrofitting old Pokemon with new abilities.
Speaking of retrofitting old Pokemon, the second new combat feature involves Mega Evolutions. They become available shortly after finishing the third gym in the game, and they add an interesting dynamic to combat. Certain Pokemon, almost exclusively from the earlier generations, have the ability to Mega Evolve as long as they're holding a special item. As soon as that Pokemon is in, you can choose to have it Mega Evolve as part of its regular turn. Mega Evolution changes that Pokemon to a stronger version of itself for the remainder of the battle. It may gain new abilities or change its type. For example, Blaziken transforms into Mega Blaziken and gets a huge speed boost. Venusaur changes into Mega Venusaur, who gains additional immunity to damage. Certain Pokemon like Charizard even have two potential forms, depending on which stone you have equipped.
This comes with limitations, though. Only one Pokemon in your team can Mega Evolve per fight, even if multiple Pokemon are holding stones. They also can't use any hold items since they're holding the stone to transform. Certain Mega Evolutions also have drawbacks, such as additional weaknesses due to new types or a decrease in speed in exchange for more power. As such, it's a balancing game. You must decide whether an enemy's Charizard is going to Mega Evolve or if they're saving it for Lucario before you use an attack. Likewise, you have to decide if it's worth sacrificing Leftovers or Quick Claw on a favorite Pokemon to let them Mega Evolve. It's an interesting twist to combat that rewards reading your opponent and planning your strategies, but it seems geared toward competitive play. There are only a handful of characters who use Mega Evolution in the main story, and none of them seem very good at using it.
There are also a number of new features outside of battle, and the coolest ones are the new social online mechanics. When you connect to the Internet, an insane amount of options become available. The bottom screen displays online friends in addition to random people who are currently playing the game online. You can interact with them in a number of ways: battle, send messages, trade, or offer temporary power-ups. You'll frequently get messages, meet new people, get challenged to battles, or get new Pokemon you couldn't otherwise obtain. One of my favorite features is the Wonder Trade, which lets you trade an unwanted Pokemon, sight unseen, with another person who's doing the same. You could end up with a level 2 Caterpie or a level 70 Golem, depending on your luck. It's a neat way to fill up and clean out your Pokedex.
For the most part, the online mechanics are kid-friendly, with basic censorship/word blocking preventing most inappropriate contact. Unfortunately, I did still find a few rotten apples who snuck in obscene words or phrases with intentional misspelling or "creative" use of symbols. None of it seems particularly bad, but for a kid-friendly game, it can be annoying to see a 25-year-old's "hilarious" attempt at obscenity scrolling by when a younger child is trying to trade Pokemon with their friends. Parents can disable the Passerbys feature to prevent this, but that's at the cost of some fun features.
There is a ton to do in the Pokemon world. Poke-France is filled to the brim with things to do. You can go clothes shopping to customize your trainer, visit battle arenas to earn cash and unlock new features, grow berries, hang out in haunted houses, and compete in tournaments to earn cash. There's also the good, old-fashioned Gym Leader Challenge, where you complete each gym. You can dress up and play with your Pokemon, breed them at the local day care, or go hunting for rare Pokemon and Mega Stones. If I had one complaint, it is that Pokemon X is very front-loaded. Once you've finished the Elite Four and become champion, you only have a little more content to see. With so many social features and optional things to do, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are fewer surprises at the end of the game, but there's so much to do that you'll be busy for ages even without competitive battles.
There are some complaints, though. Pokemon X is easy, even by Pokemon standards. The EXP Share device means that you gain tons of experience from every fight, and leveling seems to be much quicker. I was gaining a level every two or three fights, and in some early cases, I gained multiple levels in a single fight. Without grinding, I was well ahead of the enemy level curve. Sometimes, my weakest Pokemon was 20 levels stronger than the enemy. Even if you turn off EXP Share, you can steamroll the game with little effort. It's a Pokemon game, so that's to be expected, but it feels like they could have added some extra challenge. Competitive online batting makes up for that, but it would've been nice if the single-player game were less of a pushover, even if it's designed for a younger audience.
Pokemon X is the first time Pokemon has moved away from static sprites for its characters, and it looks fantastic. A ton of effort and time was put into making the cel-shaded Pokemon look amazing, and the combat animations are full of cute little touches and stylish interactions. Similarly, the environments look great, with huge detailed areas to explore and some clever camera work. However, this improvement means the frame rate chugs a lot in Rotation and Triple battles — or fights where a lot is going on at once. If you turn on 3-D, which is only available in fights, it drops even more. The auto-controlled camera sometimes has issues, especially in the largest city, where it flip-flops around and makes exploring the city even more confusing. The soundtrack is easily one of Pokémon's best. It's a fantastic combination of classic and new tunes.
Pokemon X doesn't necessarily represent a massive leap forward for the Pokemon franchise. Instead, it is a major improvement of existing features. There are new features, new moves, and new Pokemon, and they're all polished to a sheen. Pokemon X is fun to play. The annoyances are few, and the charm is plentiful. It doesn't matter if you're a young child playing Pokemon for the first time or a longer-timer who started with Pokemon Blue/Red. Pokemon X has something for everyone and resolves many of the series' long-term issues. It's possibly the best Pokemon has ever been, and it's a must-have for any Pokemon fanatic. Perhaps most importantly, the transparent battle mechanics and general gameplay polish make it incredibly accessible for newcomers to the franchise.
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