Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon (3DS) Review
When Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon (USUM) were announced for the 3DS in June, fans of the series met the announcement with questions. “Why isn’t this on Switch?” “Why are we getting a new Pokémon game so soon after Sun and Moon?” “Why should I buy this when I already have Sun and Moon?” The slow drip-feed of information following the announcement didn’t help, with only minor additions being shown off until much closer to launch. It was easy for fans to feel like this was a misstep by Game Freak, that Ultra Sun and Moon were simple cash grabs to tide us over until a Switch game was ready. I don’t blame fans for feeling like this, but I’m nonetheless happy that they were wrong. More than a cash grab, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are a refinement of not only Sun and Moon, but everything the series has worked towards since 1996. More than that, they’re the best Pokémon games available on the 3DS, and come close to being the best games in the series to date.
So what makes USUM so different from Sun and Moon? Well, that’s a complicated question. USUM is the latest in what is colloquially called the “third versions,” games that are released towards the end of a generation that acts as a sort of director’s cut of the games they’re based on. The practice started way back in 2000 with the release of Pokémon Crystal, and continued with Emerald and Platinum, before being retired in favour of sequels set in the same region with Black 2 and White 2. The 6th generation of games, which started with X and Y, didn’t have a third version, which lead many to believe that Game Freak had abandoned the concept altogether — that is, until USUM were announced. Third versions usually provide enhancements, add new story elements, and often new forms for certain Legendary Pokémon.
Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon follow this trend, with a massively expanded story, new features, new forms for the Legendary Pokémon Necrozma, and for the very first time, all new Pokémon. These new Pokémon are definitely interesting, but only feature very late in the game’s story, which takes a little wind out of the sails for the games. I’d hesitate to suggest adding new Pokémon in the earlier parts of the game, but a lot of my excitement surrounding the game was focused on those Pokémon; having them available so late in the game, with some even being locked off until the post-game, was frustrating, to say the least.
The expanded story takes a while to get going too. The first half of USUM plays out almost to the letter as it did in Sun and Moon, which, if you’ve played those games, will give you some cause for concern. Sun and Moon were dreadfully slow in the early-game, with constant tutorials, far too many cutscenes and way too much handholding, and USUM doesn’t do much to stray from this. It’s a disappointment, as it was with Sun and Moon, that Pokémon games still don’t have a way to indicate that you’re a seasoned pro. No, Professor Kukui, I don’t need to be taught how to catch Pokémon. Yes, Hau, I do know what a Pokémon Centre is. Lillie, please stop telling me where to go, I’m certain I can figure out what direction to head in on a route with only one exit. I understand that Pokémon has to be accessible to children, but some of us have been playing Pokémon for 20 years, and being taught the basics over and over again in every single new game is getting tiring.
Negativity aside though, when the story does finally get going, Game Freak knocks it out of the park. While Sun and Moon’s story was good, USUM added some of the best storytelling the series has seen to date. Characters like as Hau and Lillie are given some incredible fleshing out here that they just didn’t get in Sun and Moon. Hau, in particular, has been transformed from my least-favourite whiny tag-along to a formidable rival, a character with drive and ambition, and most importantly, a likeable friend who feels like he belongs in the Alola region. Lillie, too, is no longer the weak-spirited pushover she once was, and now stands as one of the best secondary protagonists the series has ever seen. RotomDex, too, has gotten a character overhaul, with more interaction and a blossoming friendship over the course of the game. Even Gladion, everybody’s favourite edge-lord, gets real character development in USUM, even going so far as to not only smile, but make a friend. A friend!!
Other elements of the story are similarly excellent. The introduction of the Ultra Recon Squad, for example, is a welcome addition to USUM. The Ultra Recon Squad is a mysterious group of people who live in the depths of Ultra Space in a futuristic city known as Ultra Megalopolis, and they’re incredible in their otherworldliness. They play an integral part to the new plot, and from the moment they first greet you with their strange, square “Alola wave”, they’re a taste of intrigue in a world well-explored a year ago. The Ultra Recon Squad turns up occasionally throughout the story, each time drip feeding you a little taste of the story of their world. Ultra Space was once a world like any other, filled with light and Pokémon and people — until a Pokémon of great power extinguished the light. Now the people live in fear and darkness, and all but the strongest of Pokémon (dubbed the Ultra Beasts) have died out. The Ultra Recon Squad is the last hope of the people of Ultra Megalopolis, tasked with finding a way to restore light to their world. It’s a story with roots deep in science fiction, and it works incredibly well for a lore-rich series like Pokémon.
Taking a leap from sci-fi to comic books, USUM takes a leaf out of the DC Comics playbook in its post-game chapter, Episode Rainbow Rocket. After peace has been restored to both the Alola region and Ultra Space, Faba (the Aether Foundation’s decidedly evil “branch manager”) harnesses the residual energy of the Ultra Wormholes to bring together a formidable rogues gallery of past Pokémon villains, all from alternate universes where there was no hero to stop their nefarious plans. Led by Giovanni of Team Rocket, and featuring just about every big bad you can imagine — from Maxie and Archie to Lysandre, and everyone in-between — Team Rainbow Rocket is a mismatched league of injustice, hell-bent on taking over the universe any way they can. Each villain is armed with iconic Pokémon from their regions, and you have to take them all down, one by one.
While recent games in the Pokémon series have fallen a bit short in the post-game department, USUM shines in its flawless delivery of the Rainbow Rocket saga. The environmental challenges are a throwback to Rocket bases of the past, with sliding and teleportation puzzles reminiscent of the early days of the series. The boss battles are nothing short of epic, with a level of difficulty I’d not experienced since Black and White 2’s Pokémon World Tournament, and a varied set of teams designed to ensure you’re always kept on your toes. The episode as a whole is a love letter to those who’ve been playing since the beginning, a reminder of the challenges you’ve faced, and a glimpse at what might have happened had you not been there.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to mention Team Rainbow Rocket without mentioning the incredible music featured in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. The villains of Rainbow Rocket each get a masterpiece remix of their original themes, each one brimming with menace and power, as if the mighty Zeus got together with his thunder god buddies and formed a band, solely to provide music for these games. This extends to the rest of the game too, with some of the most incredible music coming from even the most inane situations. The new Wild Battle theme is incredible in its energy, and the first wild encounter shows you that USUM isn’t messing around; this is a new Alola, and the game doesn’t waste time in proving it. Of particular note, too, is the battle music for Necrozma, a wild, powerfully electric theme that perfectly conveys the sheer terror of the beast before you.
And frankly, you should be terrified. Remember how I said earlier that the Rainbow Rocket battles were difficult? That’s not an outlier in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon; most of the game is significantly harder than Sun and Moon. It starts at a fairly reasonable difficulty, but it spikes so fast you’ll wish you’d stocked up on hyper potions and revives. No matter how many healing items you have, there’s a good chance it won’t be enough. There were battles so hard that I was convinced I’d never be able to finish this review. I even tried to cheat the system by trading over some high-level legendaries, but even they were crushed like ants. The pushover difficulty of previous 3DS Pokémon games is not present here, and it’s a welcome challenge.
If tough battles have got you feeling defeated, USUM provides a much more relaxed distraction in its minigames — namely Mantine Surfing and Ultra Wormhole exploration. In Mantine Surfing, you take to the waves on the back of a Mantine, performing tricks and avoiding obstacles to earn Beach Points (which are synonymous with Battle Points). There’s not a great deal of benefit to a casual player in Mantine Surfing, as BP is used almost exclusively for obtaining competitively-viable moves and items, but it’s fun enough without a reward anyway. Exploring Ultra Wormholes, on the other hand, provides more tangible rewards. In this minigame, the player hops on the back of a Lunala or Solgaleo, throws on a protective suit, and jumps into a Wormhole to find rare Pokémon in far-off worlds. Traversal of Ultra Wormholes is vaguely reminiscent of the Dive Mode system in Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance; you fall through space, dodge obstacles and hit rings of light for a speed boost. Eventually, you’ll find portals, and inside of each is a rare Pokémon, which can range from the humble Stunfisk to just about every Legendary Pokémon in the series’ 20-year history. As an added bonus, the rate of shiny Pokémon in these portals is significantly higher than normal play, which is always nice.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon represent everything Game Freak has worked towards in its 20 years of growing the Pokémon franchise. It has its flaws, as every game does, but they don’t detract from the lively world, incredible writing, and sheer fun that the game provides. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are likely the last big games to be released on the 3DS, and Game Freak sees the console out with a game that will be remembered as a shining example of what the series can do when at its best.
Rating: 5 / 5
Ramped up difficulty adds a real challenge
Music birthed from the gods of thunder
Takes too long to get going
Still no option to skip tutorials
New Pokémon far too late in the game