By Cassandra Ramos
It is no secret that I am a huge devotee of the Pokémon series. I await each coming generation of games with high anticipation. For the most part, I feel the series has been getting better with every subsequent pair of games. After especially enjoying the fifth generation of games, Pokémon Black and White, and to a lesser extent Black 2/White 2, I had hoped that the sixth generation's Pokémon games would at least meet the previous games' quality, and perhaps exceed it. Imagine my surprise when Nintendo announced that Pokémon X and Y for the 3DS would be released a year after Black 2 and White 2, and only two years after the original Black and White (outside of Japan). I was somewhat worried that the games' development was rushed, but thought that perhaps X/Y had spent a long time in development before being revealed.
The video games I look forward to playing rarely disappoint me. This is often because I tend to play games several weeks, months, even years after their release. While I avoid story spoilers, I do read reviews and hear general opinions that temper my expectations. I played X/Y as soon as it was released and thus didn't hear many opinions of the whole game as I played. Due to this, I was unprepared for the disappointment I would feel with the sixth generations Pokémon games. I should say outright that I do enjoy X and Y and rate it above most of the other previous generation games sans the fifth and third ones. Before I can explain why X/Y disappointed me, I first need to go into detail as to why I enjoyed Black/White so much.
Among Pokémon Black and White's strong points are their large variety of unique Pokémon, the decision to have only new species be catchable until the main game is over, and their unexpectedly great soundtrack. What most pleasantly surprised me, though, was the games' story and characters. Pokémon games are well known for having light plots, but each passing generation has made the stories a little more in-depth. Black and White's story is still a far cry from being plot-heavy or original, but it is several steps ahead of previous generations. Black and White is the series' best attempt yet to balance the typical trainer journey with a more involving plot. Team Plasma's true goals are obvious, but the lengths which the game's main villain goes through to achieve his goals are startling and cruel. The involvement of the two legendary dragons, with Unova's ancient history repeating itself in the struggle between N, the apparent leader of Team Plasma, and the player, is decently plotted. The ending is also something quite different from the usual Pokémon fare. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that the game doesn’t necessarily end with the player beating the Elite Four and the Champion.
As for the characters, they are among Pokémon's most interesting, engaging and complex personalities. This isn't saying much since Pokémon characters tend to be one-dimensional, but the writers managed to make many of Black and White's characters a little more nuanced than in previous games. Bianca, one of your character's childhood friends and rivals, is cheerful and naive to the point of being spacey. The girl has self esteem issues, though, and has a number of other shortcomings. Though it seems she is not cut out to be a powerful trainer, the journey and the people she meets along the way help to give her much needed confidence and find a new goal. Alder is a not only more involved with the plot than most regional champions, he is given more of a backstory and even develops a little. During the game, Alder wanders the Unova region and while he is friendly, he also seems a bit aloof. Alder later reveals that his partner Pokémon had died years ago, making him lose his battling spirit and reexamine his life. N is perhaps the most complex of Black/White's cast, being an intriguing and well-written character. His fast speech and public awkwardness hint at his unconventional upbringing. While N appears to be the primary antagonist, he is more of an anti-villain, being rather amicable with the player and caring deeply for Pokémon. He genuinely and innocently believes it would be better if humans and Pokémon lived separately. As his caretaker Concordia put it, though, "there is nothing more beautiful and terrifying than innocence." Despite this, he shows hints of struggling with his goal of liberating Pokémon even as he continues to pursue them. Even each of the Gym Leaders have an extra layer to their characters. They all have occupations and/or make apperances outside of their gyms, have more pronounced personalities, and most of them show up near the end of the game to help the player defeat Team Plasma.
While Black 2 and White 2's story didn't match the quality of the original games, and none of the new personalities were as well-characterized, I still had high hopes for X and Y. After all, Black 2/White 2 did a good job of adding even more characterization to returning individuals like N, Ghetsis, and the Striaton City Gym Leaders. At the very least, I had anticipated that the sixth generation games would have a story and characters on par with that of Black and White. I instead got several steps back to the personalities and plot of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. The balance of major subplot and trainer journey is once again skewed, making Team Flare's objectives and the history of ancient Kalos seem much less important than they should be (the history parts are rushed as well). X/Y's twists and turns lack the strength of Black/White's and the overall plot of the sixth generation is less creative than that of the fifth, as it feels like a rehash of Diamond and Pearl. Team Flare is perhaps the most inept of the main series' evil teams and their goal is nonsensical in a world that is practically a utopia. The mascot Legendary Pokémon, Xerneas and Yveltal, feel like they were shoehorned into the plot. It probably would have been better to leave them out of the main story entirely.
The characters feel like an especially hard blow, as I greatly value lovable and competently-written personalities in the media I enjoy. The characters are once again mostly uninteresting and one-dimensional. The player's friends/rivals are especially guilty of this. Calem and Serena are good-natured but competitive, and that's about it. Tierno is always going on about dancing and the best Pokémon dance partners, and that's about it. Shauna is energetic and amicable, but lacks clear goals for herself, and that's about it. Trevor is always talking about how he will be the first to complete the Pokédex and while he has a reason for it, it isn't revealed until after the player enters the Hall of Fame. There is a lot of interaction among the four with the player and other NPCs, but the characters' shallowness makes it feel hollow. Other characters are apparently supposed to have a bit more depth to them, but either they aren't given enough material to work with, or enough time in the story to make their characterization effective. The mysterious character AZ appears once, then doesn't again until late in the game when his backstory is unceremoniously dumped on the player. Oh, a few interesting hints are mentioned here and there before this second encounter, but his characterization is very poorly paced and his infrequent appearances made me care little for him despite certain events in his past. Lysandre, the head of Team Flare, is more of a poor example of a Well-Intentioned Extremist rather than a competent antagonist. What more, an NPC reveals that Lysandre spent much of his life trying to make the world better, but would later become jaded, after the player beats the main story. It's too little too late to explain his actions and beliefs. It is perhaps telling that I believe the post-credits side quest involving the recurring detective Looker and an orphaned girl named Emma has a better story than the main game.
Though not as glaring as X/Y's story and characters, I am also a little disappointed at the game's small amount of new Pokémon. It is a tradition of sorts that every even-numbered generation has a high number of creatures connected to previous monsters as evolutions and pre-evolutions. In the sixth generation's case, this is in the new Mega Evolution mechanic. These Mega forms are more similar to the Alternate Formes of previous generations and thus are not considered new species. Only seventy new Pokémon were introduced, and while the vast majority of them have their useful niches and are creatively designed, with about thirty fewer Pokémon than the average generation adds, it still feels like there's several things missing. I was also hoping for a return of a region with only brand new Pokémon during the main story. I enjoy the prospect of building teams with creatures whose abilities, strengths, and weaknesses were entirely new.
It may strike some people as odd, even baffling, that I would complain about a poor plot in a Pokémon game. However, I can't help but think of the wasted potential in Pokémon X/Y's story and characters. Black and White are a major change to how story is usually handled in Pokémon. True, the pacing of the main plot could have been better and the characters aren't nearly as well-written as many other RPGs, but the story and characterization is well ahead of that in previous Pokémon games. Developer Game Freak tried to do something different and more involving with the fifth generation's narrative and cast and I feel they succeeded. Why the developers felt the need to go back to Diamond and Pearl's level of plot, but with better cutscenes, I can only speculate.
As I said before, I do love Pokémon X and Y. The presentation is excellent and the Kalos region is perhaps the best-looking setting in the series. X/Y has various ways for players to connect their games and play together in unique ways over WiFi and it is easier than ever to raise competition-ready Pokémon. While I am still a little lukewarm to Mega Evolutions, I also like several of them and appreciate the concept of powering up once-overlooked creatures (though several powerful and overused monsters also get them). Pokémon-amie is a fun and adorable distraction. The quality of music in X and Y is just as good as that of fifth generation games. All of these positive aspects, though, just aren't enough to combat against my disappointment in the game's story and characters. The unexpectedly low number of completely original monsters also adds to my disappointment, even if it isn't by much. With a plot on par with Black and White, the sixth generation of games could have even become my favorite.
While I will be keeping my expectations in check for the next generation, a part of me still wants to hope that we will once again get a decently plotted main story and characters with more than one dimension to them. Only time will tell, I suppose.
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