Pokemon X takes the series fully into the third dimension. The camera slowly sweeps and rotates through city streets and cramped alleyways. In dungeons, it creeps right up behind your trainer’s back like an action game. Green hills festooned with flowers give way to ordered urban sprawl, vacant badlands peppered with industrialization. The gym areas before major bosses are the highlight. One eschews a floor for spiderweb walkways, while another is a multi-floor game show set. And of course, there’s the 700 or so Pokemon themselves, each with their own 3D rendering. It’s one of the best-looking 3DS games to date.
The series’ new look is the most radical change for Pokemon X, and there’s no doubt that it looks great. But its disappointing that the attractive Kalos region rests atop such an age-old formula. This is a stock run through a pathway of interconnected cities and linear routes. Pokemon gyms are still monoliths to your progress, and besting the trainers within nets Badges needed to move forward. You still need to capitalize on a bunch of elemental relationships – water’s good against fire, electricity trumps water, and so on – to cream your foes. Moves that are needed to traverse the overworld but are garbage in battle still eat up your Pokemon’s move slots.
It’s not just how you fight, either. Take how the series’ lifeless writing has never felt more empty than it does within these bright, vivid visuals. Towns and dungeons alike take on new life in Pokemon X, but townsfolk are the same cardboard cutouts they’ve been since Red and Blue. Most exist as a singular, endlessly repeating factoid about where to go or how a move in battle works. Their only other purpose is to creepily block all exits and later points of interest in an area, refusing to move for increasingly asinine reasons until you earn a badge or some other pillar of progress. The inviting vistas of Kalos are reduced to a restrictive pen for much of the game, perhaps more than ever.
Playing Pokemon X is familiar to the core, and that’s not always a positive. The good looks are superficial, and opportunities to draw players further into the world – the franchise – are wasted. This is a series that deserves the bubbly spirit and emotional touch the show has been imbued with since the outset. The game’s standard of dialogue and world-building is darn-near soulless in comparison, and that’s a shame.
The combat itself is as solid as ever, if as laissez-faire as ever too. Capitalizing on the elemental strengths and weaknesses of your crew is still entertaining, but once you’ve got that basic bit of strategy down, not much else matters. As long as you heed the game’s direct and frequent advice to roll with a bunch of different Pokemon types, you’re in the clear to one or two-shot your way through the completion. Mega Evolutions are new, in-battle evolutions that are fun to watch but don’t add much to a fight. An optional experience share item gives half of all EXP earned to Pokemon even if they don’t fight, which makes the fighting even easier. It does give you an easy way to rotate new additions into your lineup, though, and odds are good you’ll want to do that. Battles benefit the most from the visual jump, and regularly getting to see new and old creature designs in polygonal form was the best part of the journey for me. A large amount of moves use disconnected animations that repeat across many Pokemon, though, which is a bit of a bummer.
Battling takes on more nuance if you do so with human opponents, and Pokemon X makes doing so over the Internet a simple process. There’s also an easy-to-use trading system, random trades and small buffs you can award to yourself or random players online, leveling their potency. Playing with these features enabled makes the game a little more fun, but it doesn’t make up for the overly painless combat or stodgy groundwork. If you’re the type to fawn over 3D effects (if such a type exists), making your polygons pop out in stereoscopic 3D is largely not an option in Pokemon X. The slider is disabled almost entirely, except for battles and a few cutscenes. Even then, the framerate gets hacked down so dramatically with it on that you’d best hold off.
There’s a good game in Pokemon X, and fans looking for another game near-identical to the ones before it likely won’t find issue with a lot of the dusty trimmings and transparent battle system. If you want to get into into the new stat rebuilding features and grind out tons of easy battles to prep for high-level online multiplayer, it’s never been easier to do so. But for all else, the game’s excellent visuals belie the frustratingly old-fashioned design. RPG folk can find better times on their 3DS.