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X Marks...Something

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Pahrak Model ZX

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Alright, now that my most recent playthrough of X is done, I wanted to try to compile some of my thoughts about the game.  XY gets a lot of flak so I wanted to evaluate just how much of it felt earned.  Oddly enough, this is my fourth playthrough of X; adding Y that means I’ve gone through Kalos five times now, which might make me look like a hypocrite when I say I’m disappointed in it.  In short, XY is a fine pair of games—as I would argue most if not all Pokemon games really are—but in comparison to other entries in the series it falls flat.

It’s been said before that all Pokemon games are essentially the same.  If you like the core gameplay loop, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself no matter which one you pick up.  XY nail that aspect.  I like Pokemon games, so I can have fun playing XY.  But when multiple options are placed in front of me, when I want to play Pokemon and have to pick which Pokemon game I want to actually sit down and play, what is it that might lead me to choose XY over any others?  This is a question to be asked of every Pokemon game, and I would argue the only time a game can objectively fail in this regard is if the answer is only down to wanting to use a specific Pokemon who appears in a specific place in this specific game.  I replayed X because I wanted to use another Aegislash and a Tyrantrum, which I could only really do in XY.  This was helped by realizing I could finally train a Toxicroak early on, you can get a Steelix through an in-game trade, and by jumping through a few hoops I could get Leafon along for the ride, plus knowing I’d get Crawdaunt with a little patience.  I wouldn’t even be considering it if my sister hadn’t happened to find her copy and given me a good deal.  For me at least, that’s really all it came down to: happenstance and Pokemon distribution.  Because really, what else does Kalos and only Kalos have to offer?  Mega Evolution is in ORAS, so…I’m hard-pressed to think of anything.

I don’t mean to sound like I hate Kalos.  As I’ve said before, it has a lot of potential: it’s a sprawling, wide-open region structured to mitigate backtracking by looping back in on itself at key points, has a Dex that includes numerous favorites from all past regions and one of the nicest-looking batches of newcomers (while also introducing the interesting concept of Mega Evolution), and the locations you visit all feel very distinct from each other.  But playing XY feels like using a Pokemon you know Mega Evolves but can’t find the Mega Stone for: while it might have all that potential, not being able to tap into it just leaves you feeling underwhelmed and somewhat frustrated when you have to move on.

No matter what anyone says about Pokemon only needing a barebones story, I feel like the root of this problem lies in the lack of effort put into XY’s narrative and characters.  Following Gen V was certainly an unenviable task, but XY took such a huge step backwards here that the experience ultimately feels hollow, like just another typical Pokemon journey with nothing truly special or unique about it.  Things just kind of happen, with no real sense of continuity or build-up as you drift from one place to another.  There are scant few characters you’re actually given reason to care about: Korrina and maybe Wulfric are the only Gym Leaders who feel like they had the slightest amount of effort put into them.  The Elite Four in any game tend to be somewhat unremarkable so I’ll give them a pass, but Champion Diantha also doesn’t feel particularly fleshed out, having only two brief appearances outside the League that frankly don’t amount to much.  I’m sure there’s nothing new I can say about Lysandre; Sycamore is fun enough that he’s maintained a following; the player’s friends…well, that’s a whole thing in and of itself.

First off: friendly rivals are not bad.  XY seems to be where people started to really rage about this, but their amicability is not what makes them fail as rivals.  Honestly, I don’t even view Shauna, Trevor, or Tierno as rivals—you only fight them twice each, and they’re not tough because they don’t care about battling.  Which is fine!  I recall seeing a claim that XY was about how everyone enjoys Pokemon differently, and now that I’ve taken another look, it’s clear to me that the friend group was indeed designed with that in mind.  Trevor is the player who wants to fill the Dex, Shauna is the player who just wants to spend time with their Pokemon, Tierno is the player who thinks up unique and oddly specific goals/challenges/themes for their playthrough, and Calem/Serena is the player who only cares about the battles.  That’s genuinely interesting!  However, the game doesn’t quite explore this idea or these varying approaches, they’re all just sort of dumped in front of you sporadically.  Your friends could all use a bit of work, especially Calem/Serena who’s entire personality seems to be “I’m your neighbor and I like Pokemon battles.”  They’re present enough that they’re certainly a rival, but they’re the flattest we’ve had since Gen I.  I’d say if the other three were given a bit more time to shine, showing why they appreciate Pokemon in the way they do and emphasizing the strengths of those approaches, they’d all have been much better received.  For Calem/Serena, I think the most interesting approach would be to take it all the way and have them be a strict and serious competitive battler, doing lots of catching and breeding and EV training without thinking of their Pokemon as anything more than tools; this wouldn’t even necessarily lead to them being antagonistic, in fact the disconnect between them being nice and polite to people but heartless and mechanical towards their Pokemon could be quite fascinating.  But, at this point, I think we’ve ventured off into extremely unlikely territory…

Ultimately, I think it’s that hollow feeling that lends XY so well to being replayed.  You can get through it by caring remarkably little about what’s going on around you, because, well, there isn’t much there to care about in the first place.  But there’s just enough to let you know that there could be so much more—and maybe chasing that is another factor of wanting to replay it.  While I absolutely adore Sun and Moon, Kalos undoubtedly got the short end of the stick: it needed an updated rerelease perhaps more than any preceding paired versions in series history, yet it was dropped unceremoniously so that SuMo would be released during the same year as the 20th anniversary (despite being much closer to the 21st…).  XY feels unpolished, and Game Freak chose to move on rather than try to give Kalos the polish it needed.  Unfortunately, that’s still the way I feel.

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