Review: Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon lives in predecessors’ shadows

necrozma
The focus of USUM is Necrozma, an ultimately less interesting villain than the original Sun and Moon. Photo from Nintendo

In 2016, Game Freak released Pokemon Sun and Moon for the 20th anniversary of the Pokemon franchise. It was reviewed in the ECHO before Electric Retrospective came to exist, and was praised for its story, changes to the series formula, and new Pokemon, despite performance issues. Exactly one year after Sun and Moon’s launch date, two more games were released, those being Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, given the acronym of USUM by fans. While returning to the Alola region so soon isn’t a big issue, and the games introduce features not present in Sun and Moon, USUM isn’t an upgrade to the originals.

It should be noted that USUM wouldn’t be the first alternate version of recently released Pokemon games. The term for this is an “enhanced version,” and almost every generation of Pokemon has had one. An enhanced version makes changes to a recent Pokemon game on the same system, usually giving new sprites and images for characters and altering what Pokemon can be caught in certain areas. Enhanced versions also tend to add new forms for popular Pokemon, as well as expanding the story regarding legendary Pokemon that are important to the region’s lore. Earlier enhanced versions, such as Pokemon Yellow, had minor differences, but games like Pokemon Emerald and Pokemon Platinum are hailed by fans as the superior version of their respective generation due to their new features, expansion to the story involving legendary Pokemon, and fixes for previous issues.

USUM expands the regional Pokedex by 100 Pokemon, bringing in fan favorites like Tyranitar and Lopunny from other regions. Rare Pokemon that usually can’t be found until very late-game, like Zorua and Noibat, are available very early on, giving casual players who aren’t into the competitive scene a chance to experiment with new Pokemon they haven’t tried. A small amount of new forms were added, including Lycanroc Dusk, an event-exclusive third evolution for Rockruff being distributed for free until January 10, and the legendaries on the boxart, Necrozma Dusk Mane and Dawn Wings.

USUM does one unique thing amongst enhanced versions, that being it actually adds completely new Pokemon. They’re very well-designed and fit in well with the cast, although it may be possible they were originally meant to be in Sun and Moon but were pushed over for this game. However, a major missed opportunity in the Dex was Alolan forms. One of the best features in Sun and Moon was how classic Pokemon like Sandslash and Raichu received new forms, but these forms weren’t just some alternate version or burst of power. They were regional forms, completely overhauling their design and giving Pokemon new types. Each regional form had an explanation as to how they adapted to new environments, which might just be the most creatively refreshing thing Game Freak has ever done with new Pokemon designs. However, even though the regional Dex expands and new Pokemon were added, no new Alolan forms exist.

Graphically, USUM takes a step forward from Sun and Moon, but also two steps backward. There’s some subtle lighting changes in certain areas that make the game look more visually appealing in screenshots. However, one of Sun and Moon’s major issues was lag, and USUM does nothing to fix it. The problem is that, despite running on the 3DS, the game uses HD models. It makes the game look nice in still photos, and the models could easily be ported to future titles on home consoles, but it pushes the 3DS’s processing past its limits.

When more than four HD models are onscreen at once, the game struggles to keep a good framerate. The sixth generation games (those being XY, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire) have this issue, but handle it much better, since the game’s most prominent modes only have four models onscreen at once. In the original Sun and Moon, however, Game Freak decided to put the Trainer models in battle scenes in addition to Pokemon models, so the game can only run Single Battles properly. The game lagged in Multi Battles, which put a whopping eight models onscreen, despite running fine in cutscenes and overworlds. Not only does USUM do nothing to fix this, but strangely enough, USUM lags heavily in many cutscenes from the original game that received no changes.

USUM introduces some new music, but not much of it stands out. Sun and Moon’s musical strength was overworld themes that gave warm vibes, but its battle music was sometimes cacophonic, unlike previous entries in the series. USUM continues this trend for the most part, but there were about four new songs that stand out.

Sun and Moon introduced Island Trials, an alternative to Pokemon Gyms that end with the player fighting a powerful Totem Pokemon with boosted stats. Most of the Trials and Totems are altered, and though the originals were just fine, the remixed Trials bring a bit more challenge, which is entirely welcome for a series like Pokemon. One extra Trial was added, though it wasn’t very interesting.

Totem Pokemon can be added to the player’s team by collecting Totem Stickers, which are plastered across buildings and landmarks in Alola. This replaces the infamous Zygarde Cell collecting from Sun and Moon, which was one of the least entertaining parts of the original games. Collecting Zygarde Cells required the player to search certain locations at day and night for Cells without any indication of which ones are available at what time, essentially meaning the player has to search the whole region a second time. Totem Stickers improve this by being available at all times, and can be exchanged for multiple Totem Pokemon. The Totems don’t have the stat boosts from when they were fought, so they’re almost identical to Pokemon of that species catchable in the wild, but some of them are valuable additions to the player’s team that are difficult to find elsewhere, such as Salazzle and Mimikyu.

Miscellaneous new features were added, though not many provide enough reason to buy USUM. New Z-Moves for Pokemon like Kommo-o and Lycanroc aren’t major additions to the single-player campaign, but will certainly give some Pokemon more use in competitive play. The Alola Photo Club allows the player to take pictures with their Pokemon, but the feature is rather limited and won’t hold interest for long. Mantine Surf is a minigame that allows the player to travel between Islands, and while it isn’t mandatory once the series staple of flight becomes available, it’s a somewhat fun diversion, and it rewards the player with points that can be used to teach Pokemon special moves, which is usually reserved for the postgame. The Battle Agency is a poor man’s Battle Factory, the latter being a facility in Pokemon Emerald’s Battle Frontier that allowed the player to try out new Pokemon they might not have used otherwise. While the original facility let players pick three from a selection of six random Pokemon that could be swapped with defeated foes, the Battle Agency gives the player a choice of one of three random Pokemon, and two more teammates must be selected from other players interacted with in multiplayer modes.

One of the major features in Ultra Warp Ride, which allows the player to ride their choice of Solgaleo or Lunala, the boxart legendaries from Sun and Moon, across the space-time continuum, traveling to new dimensions that contain Ultra Beasts and legendaries. Because of how long this method takes and how oddly specific finding each separate dimension is, Ultra Warp Ride is immensely tedious, so if the player has caught these legendaries in previous games and can transfer them to USUM, there’s no need to go after every legendary.

There are a few benefits to Ultra Warp Ride. First, the chance of finding Shiny Pokemon, which are incredibly rare Pokemon with different color palettes, increases immensely in different dimensions. Second, Ultra Beasts are put into the spotlight. Despite the games having “Ultra” in the title, and the original games focusing almost entirely on Ultra Beasts, these interdimensional Pokemon are barely involved in the game’s plot. However, Ultra Warp Ride allows the player to catch an infinite amount of all Ultra Beasts introduced in the original games, which wasn’t possible before. In addition, while legendaries have generic backgrounds for their dimensions, each Ultra Beast has a unique dimension they call home. Ultra Beast dimensions add to the lore of these creatures, and one of them in particular feels right at home in a sci-fi horror story.

Of the features introduced in the original Sun and Moon, one of the most interesting was Rotom Dex. Rotom, introduced in Diamond and Pearl, is an Electric/Ghost type Pokemon capable of possessing machinery, and since its introduction, fans wondered what would happen if Rotom possessed the Pokedex, the database the player carries to teach them about any Pokemon they catch. Rotom Dex was added to Sun and Moon as a companion on the player’s journey, and could give advice to the player, show the map, and access the Pokedex.

USUM takes the concept of Rotom Dex further, having it interact with the player much more. On paper, the idea is solid. Rotom Dex becomes closer to the player as they interact along the journey, and the more they interact, a new feature called Roto Loto gives the player special bonuses, which are given more often the more the player and Rotom Dex interact. However, as fun as it is to talk to Rotom Dex, it starts a new bit of dialogue every time the player moves to a new location, and when it starts dialogue, the map disappears. This makes it difficult for new players to progress using the map. In addition, Roto Loto, unlike other touch screen features from past games on the DS and 3DS, pauses the player’s movement entirely for a good ten to fifteen seconds, which causes the game to slow to a halt if the player wants to collect these rewards. Interacting with Rotom Dex is a fantastic concept, but it needs to be implemented better if it returns in future games.

The most important difference from the original games is USUM’s story. As mentioned before, enhanced versions expand the story of the originals, particularly regarding the lore of the region and a specific legendary Pokemon. For example, Emerald depicted the legendary Rayquaza as a balancing force of the climate, breaking up catastrophic battles between the weather-altering Kyogre and Groudon. Platinum also reveals that the legendary Giratina was banished to the Distortion World for its violent behavior during the universe’s creation, and involves the player traveling to its warped realm to stop their dimension from tearing apart. USUM is unique regarding its story expansion, but not in a good way. Rather than just expand the lore, USUM actually detracts from the excellent plot of Sun and Moon, due in part to its two major changes- the Ultra Recon Squad and Necrozma.

The Ultra Recon Squad is a group of travelers from a dimension where the legendary Necrozma, which consumes light, plunged their home into eternal darkness, and they travel to Alola in hopes of stopping its feeding frenzy. They have an entertaining motif of learning about Alola’s culture, and they even try to do Alola’s welcome sign in a robotic fashion. However, the Ultra Recon Squad is so incompetent that it’s actually painful to watch, as the group constantly makes terrible choices throughout the plot. Their plans are so misguided that it makes Team Flare from XY look good, and Team Flare was previously the worst evil team in the franchise.

Necrozma, on the other hand, is the legendary driving the plot this time. However, because Necrozma changes the motivations of certain characters, character development from Sun and Moon is taken away. The original games had one of the most emotional and mature stories in the series, focusing on Lillie, an incredibly interesting character who grows as a person through the game, and a new villain whose descent into madness and disturbing backstory makes them one of the most interesting and effective villains the series has had in years. While Sun and Moon’s plot tackles mature themes and handles them respectfully, USUM throws these character arcs out the window. Necrozma is shoehorned into their motivations, and this changes who they are and their role in the plot for the worse.

Necrozma also receives new forms, Dusk Mane and Dawn Wings, which are created when Necrozma controls Solgaleo or Lunala. This feels too similar to Black and White Kyurem, the fused mascots from Black 2 and White 2, but there’s no reason for Dusk Mane and Dawn Wings to exist. In addition to Black 2 and White 2 being direct sequels rather than a slightly changed plot, Kyurem’s new forms had an interesting explanation- Kyurem is an empty husk of Reshiram and Zekrom, who were originally one Pokemon separated by truth and ideals, and through a thouroughly horrifying cutscene, Kyurem fuses with one of the dragons to become an incomplete monstrocity. However, Necrozma tacks on its appendages to Solgaleo and Lunala, explained as “absorbing their light,” without a compelling thematic reason for them to fuse other than attracting fans of Black 2 and White 2. Furthermore, the climax of the plot causes Necrozma’s fusions to be completely pointless due to something else overshadowing them.

The final major difference is the Rainbow Rocket arc, a postgame quest in which evil team leaders from past games team up to take over Alola. While the event is rather short and doesn’t give every character enough time to shine, the event leaves the plot open for future developments. In addition, Ghetsis, the villain of Black and White, is very faithfully written to his original appearance.

Game Freak announced that USUM is the last main Pokemon game on the 3DS, since the series will continue on the Switch, but for a set of such fantastic games, this is somewhat underwhelming as a finale. There’s welcome additions, but unlike other enhanced versions, major flaws pop up that detract from the game. For those who haven’t played the original Sun and Moon, USUM is very worthwhile, as the base game is still a solid experience. However, for anyone who already played Sun and Moon, the originals may be the better version.

Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are available for $39.99 on 3DS. This review was made using Ultra Moon.

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