It's been 18 years since Nintendo first introduced humanity to a world of adorable monsters that would capture the hearts of millions and grow into the sort of media juggernaut that usually involves a teenaged British wizard or an especially smug Robert Downey Jr. Despite nearly two decades of success, the series' core - the handheld Pokemon role-playing games - have remained perennially good, if not particularly revolutionary. The biggest leap in series history arrived last year with Pokemon X and Y, and while our review of those games was glowing, they weren't without flaws.
Now, developer Game Freak is ready to take another shot at it, using the same enhanced graphics technology, but leaning on the existing plot found in the 2003 GameBoy Advance releases Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. It might seem lazy to rehash these old storylines, but after working my way through the remakes, it's clear that it was a wise decision that allowed the developer to forgo writing a new plot and instead focus on the aspects of Pokemon games that truly matter to players: combat, the expansive world and, of course, the Pokemon themselves. If Pokemon X and Y were Game Freak's first tentative steps into the world of 3D monster taming, Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are proof that the studio has mastered the technology.
For those who've somehow managed to avoid the Pokemon RPGs for the past 18 years, they all play out in pretty much the same way. A young boy or girl meets an eccentric researcher, is introduced to the world of adorable fighting monsters, and embarks on a quest to prove that they are they best critter wrangler/battler in the region. Somewhere along the line a group of idealistic, yet ultimately bumbling goons will hatch a nefarious, far-reaching plan to somehow control the planet, its Pokemon or both. Your youthful avatar will inevitably foil these plans, but that's largely incidental compared to a player's ultimate goal of beating the Elite Four (read: the very top tier of Pokemon trainers) and earning a spot in the regional hall of fame. It's exactly enough plot to sustain a Saturday morning cartoon show, but as an excuse to throw myriad fascinating Pokemon against one another in strategic, surprisingly complex battle it works perfectly well. Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (henceforth Pokemon ORAS), do bring a few new plot elements to this basic structure, but if you've played any Pokemon RPG released this century, you know exactly what's in store.
As in all Pokemon games, the first few hours see your character (either a boy or a girl, though the differences are almost entirely aesthetic) gathering the tools they'll use throughout their adventure. Most notably, you're given a new Pokedex app called the DexNav that quickly becomes the most important new addition to the series. While you can still be ambushed by unseen Pokemon in the tall grass, the DexNav allows players to scan the nearby area for special Pokemon that come equipped with attacks they wouldn't otherwise naturally learn. The first Poochyena I found on route 102 knew Ice Fang, an attack that usually requires complex breeding schemes to instill in the little grey canine.
Once the DexNav locks onto a Pokemon, you'll see the critter rustling a patch of the tall grass. If you sprint over and try to grab the 'mon, it will vanish, but by tilting the 3DS circle pad slightly you activate the new sneaking mechanic which, while slower than running, allows you to sneak up on these wily Pokemon. On paper that seems minor, but in practice - and especially for those hoping to catch 'em all - this new mechanic adds immense depth to hunting Pokemon, both by adding additional variety to the wild Pokemon you encounter and by forcing players to alter the typical "run everywhere, constantly" behavior that has long been a hallmark of the series. If nothing else, it should alleviate any thumb cramps you might develop from holding down the B button for 40-plus hours.
Much like Pokemon X and Y, Pokemon ORAS introduces a new type of evolution for certain Pokemon, dubbed "Primal Reversion." Despite the fancy name and some in-game bluster about how Primal Reversion taps the primordial forces of the universe, Primal Reversions are just another way to boost your Pokemon's power and give it a new, more impressive look. That's not a complaint though. Both Groudon and Kyogre - the mascots of Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, respectively - look really cool in their Primal Reversion forms, and each is enhanced in its own unique way.
It's the small graphical nuances that elevate Pokemon ORAS beyond its most recent predecessor. The way the camera subtly zooms in on characters during important conversations, or the animated flourishes that each Pokemon demonstrates during battle add a more cinematic feel to a series that's long been defined by addictive gameplay while aesthetics took a back seat. In the era of the GameBoy that was by necessity, but now, on the 3DS, Nintendo has a far more robust palette of technical options, and its developers have put them all to good use. Given the slow-paced, turn-based nature of Pokemon ORAS, it's hard to describe them as the most technically impressive games on the handheld, but the more colorful, vibrant art style and dynamic use of 3D space easily places the duo in the running for most pleasing to the eye.
The least notable but perhaps most important changes made to Pokemon ORAS are all the little, subtle ways in which Game Freak has streamlined the tedious chores that players expect from the series. You can now trade Pokemon stored inside your PC. There are fewer button presses involved in watering a patch of soil. You no longer have to line up directly in front of a non-player character to speak to him or her, as the game will automatically turn your character toward the NPC when you start a conversation. Most useful of all, the touch screen menu has been completely overhauled, not only to make the new Pokedex apps more readily available, but also to offer immediate, one-touch access to every item in the options menu. You can still switch out Pokemon or sort through your bag by pressing the Y button, but Pokemon ORAS gives players options, allowing each individual to play the game in whatever manner is most comfortable for them.
These thoughtful touches make Pokemon ORAS the most inviting, intuitive games in the series. By streamlining long-standing minor annoyances while including more to see and do, Game Freak has created the finest entry point to the world of Pokemon since the franchise began. New players will find Pokemon ORAS immediately accessible and self-explanatory, while old school Pokemasters will be delighted by the new features and attention to detail poured into every aspect of the game's ostensibly rehashed world.
If you can't stand the cutesy vibe or slow, turn-based gameplay of Pokemon, Pokemon ORAS are not the games that will convert you. They're not a revolution for the series, but are instead an evolution and refinement of concepts that have been fan-favorites since the 1990s. This is a larger, more detailed world than the series has ever seen, and thanks to a swath of subtle improvements, exploring the Hoenn Region is more satisfying and rewarding than it's ever been. Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do little to overhaul the major pillars of a series that's long relied on the same set of classic ideas, but they don't have to. The core mechanics of Pokemon remain immensely addictive, and Game Freak's latest coat of polish only enhances an already captivating adventure.
This review is based on eShop downloads of Pokemon Alpha Sapphire and Pokemon Omega Ruby, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo. The author was unable to discuss online play due to embargo restrictions. We will be discussing online play during our podcast on Pokemon ORAS's launch day, November 21. And update to this review will be appended on the same day.
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