Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon review: Minor Evolution

It seems like just a few months ago that I was last wandering through the islands of Alola, feeding beans to my Meganium and reading my friends’ responses in Festival Plaza. Compared to the usual Pokémon formula of releasing a third version well after the release of a new generation, it feels surreal to already be playing a new Pokémon title only a year after the release of the originals. Given their naming scheme, you might be expecting Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon to be a sequel title similar to Black and White 2, though they’re more of a ‘remix’ of the originals, akin to Pokémon Emerald and Platinum. As a result, the games fit into a strange place compared to the rest of the series, with several changes that aren’t bad but certainly don’t feel like a necessity.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon introduce new features to the Alola experience, such as the simple yet enjoyable Mantine Surf and the Alola Photo Club, which is effectively a virtual photo booth for you and your Pokémon. Even though they don’t add anything to the core gameplay, showing off your Photo Booth pictures to friends is heaps of fun, and Mantine Surf provides a new way to obtain Battle Points for rare items. Totem Stickers invite the player on a fun and challenging scavenger hunt across Alola’s multiple islands, allowing you to receive Totem Pokémon: Larger, stronger variations of the ‘boss’ Pokémon you fight at the end of each Island Trial.

The mechanics of Pokémon catching and battling haven’t changed, but new encounter rates and appearances mean that there are a lot of fun opportunities to make a new team as you go. One of the things I found most enjoyable in Ultra Sun was catching and raising a team of Pokémon I’d never even thought about using before, thanks the addition of some unusual Pokémon available at the start of the game (like Smoochum and Delibird, two Pokémon that I doubt anybody would be excited about except me). The difficulty of trainer battles is roughly the same as Sun and Moon, so not overly demanding; though if you’re looking for a challenge, I enjoyed the added difficulty of playing with the EXP Share turned off entirely.

Like in Sun and Moon, your character sets out on an adventure through Alola to complete the Island Trial, helping friends and catching new Pokémon along the way. In the Ultra versions though, the start of your journey is sped up a bit, and you receive your first Pokémon sooner than you did in Sun and Moon. This is an especially welcome change for fans who didn’t enjoy the pacing of Sun and Moon’s introduction, though the linear progression of story and tutorial cutscenes still makes the overall pace of the game feel very slow to start. The more subtle differences to the game’s story help to keep it interesting enough, with characters appearing at different times and story events taking place differently, culminating in a significantly different ending (but I won’t spoil any of that here!). Other differences include dialogue changes and side quests, which were the two things I liked the most; they added freshness to a region where I felt that I’d already done and seen everything.

Unfortunately, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon still don’t address a number of Sun and Moon’s significant issues, namely the linear nature of the game’s plot and the lack of postgame story. Aside from breeding competitive Pokémon and filling the Pokedex, I was disappointed in how little there was left to do in a region that had so much potential, especially when compared to the Delta Episode in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire and the Battle Frontier in Emerald. I loved the bizarre designs of Alolan Pokémon such as Dugtrio and Persian, and it’s a shame we didn’t receive more new forms in the Ultra versions.

I felt that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon missed an opportunity to become the definitive versions of this generation, instead falling short of what they could have achieved as either third versions or sequels. Though an improved third version is what Pokémon players have come to expect over the years, it’s hard to justify two fully-priced, new titles for additions that felt like they could have been DLC. While similar remakes such as Platinum and Emerald were acceptable even five or ten years ago, the possibilities of today’s downloadable content mean that a lot of gamers would expect more for the price point, including myself. I also felt that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon should have been consolidated into one version; four games for a single region feels seriously excessive, especially since there are no groundbreaking differences between them. Despite all this, the core gameplay is still enjoyable, whether you’ll be battling, catching or spending hours prodding and feeding them in the Poke Amie function (not that a serious trainer like myself would ever spend their time doing that).

If you really enjoyed the original Alola experience, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon provides an an opportunity to go through the adventure again, and it will tide you over until the series’ inevitable Switch entry arrives. If you weren’t a fan, the minor changes to gameplay and story don’t warrant enough of a difference to replay the story. Otherwise, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are a pleasant, if inessential, way to experience Alola again from a new perspective.