The new Pokémon games start how all Pokémon games start: You play as a boy or girl who begins collecting adorable monsters and training them to fight. But before you call PETA, you should know that in the world of Pokémon, this is all in good fun. Matches end when a Pokémon faints, and no one really gets hurt.
At a glance, it would seem that these games are strictly for kids. The primary reason for this, of course, is that they are for kids — or at least, that’s who they’re meant to appeal to. What you might not realize unless you look past the cartoonish veneer, however, is that Pokémon games are intricately designed experiences that are every bit as deep and complex as the latest Final Fantasy or Call of Duty. Pokémon is just more accessible.
This year’s dual installments are Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (aka ORAS). Instead of being entirely new installments, ORAS are remakes of Game Boy Advance games from 2003. That might sound like they’re intended to be a quick and easy cash-in to get new Pokémon titles on the market in time for Christmas, but really they’re not.
The games — which are nearly identical, aside from a few exclusive Pokémon and slightly different antagonists — have received a total graphical makeover and have gotten many much-needed updates to make the games fit into the modern Pokémon landscape.
You play as a boy or girl whose family has just moved to the Hoenn region of the Pokémon world, and you want to become a trainer. There doesn’t appear to be much else to do in the world of Pokémon, since Pokémon are all most people talk about, and about a third of the people you meet are also trainers.
Anyway, once you start your new hobby, you take off on a journey to explore the region, collecting all the Pokémon you can, training them to become powerful fighters, taking on gym leaders, and thwarting a criminal plot along the way. It’s all standard stuff for a Pokémon game, but no one really plays Pokémon for the story. You play it because it’s a blast.
Like many role-playing games, the general idea is that you’ll wander from town to town, fighting enemies along the way. In towns, you can heal your Pokémon and stock up on items like potions and pokéballs. Some towns have gyms, which act as the equivalent of dungeons in traditional RPGs. Each gym is run by a gym leader, basically a boss, who sports stronger-than-usual Pokémon.
The Pokémon you’ll find in ORAS are often cute and colorful, and they evolve into even more powerful creatures if you level them up enough. ORAS also features mega evolutions, which turn some Pokémon into ridiculously huge beasts.
The battles here are turn-based, meaning you choose an attack and perform it, then your opponent has the opportunity to attack you. Pokémon battles are pretty basic as far as RPGs go, but they have a ridiculously intricate elemental system. For instance, water attacks are particularly effective against fire Pokémon, but not against grass. Pokémon can support different elements all at once, like Wingull, a water bird, which starts with both a flying attack and a water attack. Smart Pokémon trainers choose a variety of Pokémon for their parties to keep a balanced team.
That’s just one aspect of the depth of these games. As you play, you’ll also collect all sorts of gadgets that help you out in a variety of ways. The DexNav, for instance, shows you all the Pokémon you’ve encountered in a given area and lets you know when you’ve collected them all. It also tells you when a rare Pokémon is hiding nearby, at which point you can try to sneak up on it before it flees.
ORAS may be a remake, but it includes all of the conveniences introduced in later games, like an experience share item that gives your whole party experience for each battle, rather than only the Pokémon that fought. This makes leveling up new Pokémon a lot easier, and leads to less time spent grinding for experience. It also has the Player Search System that lets you connect with other players for trading.
Tons of mini games are also bundled in to help train and strengthen your Pokémon, including a tile-swapping game, a couple of reflex games, and even a digital pet simulator that lets you pet your Pokémon (you know, like you always wanted to do).
On the downside, all of these options — most of which are accessed through the cluttered lower screen — can be confusing for newcomers. Some of the additions are more useful than others, and it seems like they could have trimmed a few features simply to make the game more user friendly. For the most part, however, you can ignore the new stuff if you don’t want to try it out.
I have other nitpicks — like why are some parts in 3-D while others aren’t? Why can’t I see what my moves do while I’m in combat? Why isn’t there an auto-battle option to ease the repetition of hunting to fill in the missing slots in my Pokédex? But these are fairly minor issues in an otherwise fantastic game.
So yes, Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are great games for kids. There’s no doubt that kids will love them. But there’s more than enough depth here to satisfy adults, and this year’s installments offer a fantastic starting point.
Sure, adults will have to look past the cartoonish graphics and the simple storyline to find the appeal. But if they do, they’ll discover a game they can literally spend hundreds of hours exploring while having a total blast the entire time. Looking past the kiddie stuff is asking a lot of some gamers, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Go on, give it a shot.
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