Around the time director Junichi Masuda and his team were putting the finishing touches on Pokémon Black and White, they had already begun drafting ideas for the succeeding set of games. Mr. Masuda wanted the themes of the sixth generation to revolve around beauty, bonds, and evolution. Evolution had always played a key role in the series, being a power many of the title creatures possessed, though it would be more accurate to describe the process as a metamorphosis. Bonds had also been a running theme throughout the series with narratives emphasizing the teamwork between Pokémon and humans in their universe. This just left beauty as the sole theme the series hadn’t covered at length. It was therefore fitting that Mr. Masuda would base the setting of these games off of France – a country known for its beauty. To this end, he brought a team with his to France to study the countryside and architecture.
As they worked on the games, the DS’s successor, the 3DS, was about to be released. The console, which would be released in 2011 worldwide, boasted the same dual-screen gameplay of its predecessor in addition to a litany of new upgrades. This included built-in motion sensors, a larger screen, and true to its name, a true three-dimensional presentation. Although it didn’t initially sell as many units as its popular predecessor, it eventually gained momentum following the release of several high-profile, acclaimed games such as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. It would also be the console that finally allowed Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem series to get mainstream acclaim in the West when Fire Emblem Awakening was localized in 2013.
The Pokémon franchise had always been on handheld devices, so it was only natural for fans to eagerly await a new generation to debut on the 3DS. In defiance of the series’ naming conventions, which involved colors or gemstones, the team decided these new games would be called X and Y. These letters were chosen in order to represent different forms of thinking, bringing to mind an x-axis and a y-axis. It was also a subtle allusion to the simultaneous, worldwide release of the games in 2013. Mr. Masuda’s team even attempted to make the names of the Pokémon the same in every country whenever possible, though Mr. Masuda found this task exceptionally difficult.
The anticipation for these games was such that Brazilian stores attempted to sell them prior to their official release date. This prompted Nintendo to issue a warning stating they would penalize them if they continued to do that. However, the United Kingdom ended up following suit when a store in Bournemouth started selling the games on the eve of their release date. This created a domino effect, prompting other retailers across the nation began selling the games early as well. Like the preceding sets of games, X and Y were well-received critically. Commercially, they beat the records set by Black and White by selling four-million copies worldwide during the opening weekend. Being on the 3DS, X and Y would be the first games in the main series to leave spritework behind in favor of three-dimensional models for their characters. After this, there was no going back. Were X and Y able to successfully translate the series’ iconic gameplay into three dimensions?
Playing the Game
One of the most touted features of Pokémon Stadium and its sequel was that you could see the creatures you raised battle it out in 3D. Before you get challenged for the first time, it’s apparent that X and Y left both games in the dust in terms of presentation. While Pokémon Stadium was identifiably a product of gaming’s early 3D era, X and Y demonstrated just how far handheld consoles had come since their humble beginnings.
In fact, before you even begin the game proper, a significant change to the series’ formula reveals itself. Starting with Pokémon Crystal, a rerelease of the second-generation games, players had the ability to choose between a male and female protagonist. This quickly became a mainstay with every successive generation offering the same option. X and Y go a little further with this idea in that the player is allowed to choose their character’s skin tone and hair color. Although this doesn’t have any significant impact on the gameplay itself, it is a welcome option, allowing players a greater degree of customization than ever before.
Even if their appearances may vary, the protagonist of these games is either a boy named Calem or a girl named Serena. They have just moved to a suburban community in the Kalos region named Vaniville Town along with their mother. One day, their mother encourages them to talk to their neighbor. From there, they befriend four other trainers – Shauna, Tierno, Trevor, and either Calem or Serena depending on which character you chose to play as. The local professor, Sycamore, asks these five kids to fulfill a request for him, but they must first travel to Lumiose City to meet him in person. To help them reach their destination safely, he allows Serena, Calem, and Shauna to choose one of three Pokémon. The choices are: Fennekin, Froakie, and Chespin. Respectively, they are a fennec fox that can breathe fire, a blue frog, and a plantlike rodent.
X and Y uphold the time-honored tradition of giving the player a starter Pokémon representing one of three types: Fire, Water, and Grass. The scenario itself pans out as it does in previous generations; your character gets the first pick while others make their own decisions accordingly. The character you don’t choose to play as will serve the rival role, thus picking the Pokémon with a type advantage over your own. Shauna, caring more about having fun than anything else, will choose the one with a disadvantage to your own. Shauna will then challenge your character to a battle, thus formally introducing you to the gameplay.
In spite of its presentation upgrade, X and Y retain the series’ familiar gameplay. A majority of the Pokémon battles are one-on-one affairs. You issue a command to your Pokémon and a round of battle is played out; normally, the quicker combatant acts first. As the first battle in the game, it is appropriately simple. In fact, in defiance of any preceding generation, your Pokémon actually starts off with a move matching its type. This means if you’re especially lucky and land a critical hit, you can win the match in one turn. However, it should be noted that critical hits now inflict less damage. While in previous games, they doubled the amount of damage inflicted, in X and Y, they only increase it by fifty percent.
When it comes to the types offered, the general setup appears to be par for the course by this point. That being said, the sixth-generation starters do provide an interesting take on the formula. While their initial forms represent the standard Fire, Water, and Grass types, their final evolutionary stages, Delphox, Greninja, and Chesnaught, gain secondary types that form a second triangle: Psychic, Dark, and Fighting respectively. Due to its distinctly European setting, this aspect effectively pays homage to classic role-playing games. Relying on its potent special attacks, Delphox represents mage classes. With its swift movements and fragile constitution, Greninja is analogous to the archetypical thief class. Lastly, due to its status as a physical powerhouse, Chesnaught is the Pokémon equivalent of the standard fighter class.
On the surface, the gameplay of X and Y would appear to be exactly the same as their predecessors’. However, after defeating the first Gym Leader, you discover the existence of one mechanic that fundamentally and permanently changes the core gameplay. While en route to Lumiose City, you may happen upon a Pokémon known as a Flabébé. Having never seen this Pokémon before, you would naturally want to capture it. Being a tiny Pokémon resembling a sprite holding onto a flower, one going into these games blind, but with knowledge of the basic mechanics in mind would reasonably infer that it is of the Grass type. This person may then have their Chespin use a Fighting-type move to weaken it. They would then be taken aback when the move is stated to be ineffective. This is strange because Fighting and Grass-type moves are both neutral to each other. Although it was heavily touted in promotional materials, this is when they realize they have just encountered their first Fairy-type Pokémon.
The Fairy type was introduced for much of the same reason why Steel and Dark-type Pokémon debuted in the second generation – to rebalance the metagame. Being resistant to a majority of the types in the game, Steel-type Pokémon gave Fire and Fighting-type Pokémon a greater purpose after being, at best, situationally useful in Red and Blue. Meanwhile, the Dark type was introduced to prevent Psychic Pokémon from dominating absolutely everything like they did in the preceding generation.
On its surface, the game would appear to have reasonably good balance after that. In practice, however, this wasn’t the case. Dragon-type Pokémon absolutely dominated the metagame. Almost every generation had at least one Dragon evolutionary line and there were two types of players in the competitive scene: those who had it and those who didn’t. It wasn’t a coincidence that the former faction tended to win out against the latter. It didn’t matter that the associated moves had little versatility, only exploiting a weakness to other Dragon-type Pokémon. Nobody would want to use a potent Dragon-type attack to take down another one by virtue of it being such a risky strategy. This meant their only consistently exploitable weakness was to the Ice type. While Ice-type Pokémon are prized for their offensive capabilities, they also have four weaknesses: Fighting, Fire, Steel and Rock. The best Dragon-type Pokémon can learn moves of these types, offsetting their primary weakness. Therefore, as long as you had the right setup, you could use these titans to destroy your opponents every time. With every serious team having little variety, something had to be done.
Enter the Fairy type. While Dragon Pokémon used their considerable strength to capitalize on a same-type attack bonus, they are rendered entirely worthless in the face of Fairy types. If your opponent intends to use this tactic, you can ruin it in one turn through strategic switching. From this, one should correctly conclude that Fairy-type moves are strong against Dragon-type Pokémon.
They also prove effective against Fighting and Dark-type Pokémon. It was hard to believe that Fighting Pokémon were jokes in the first generation when you realize their moves exploited the weaknesses of five types by the fifth. This includes providing the sole weakness for Normal-type Pokémon. History had ironically repeated itself only with the once-weak Pokémon now being firm favorites, giving Fairy-types a reason to intervene. This means what Dark Pokémon had done to Psychic-types, Fairy-types got to repeat for Fighting-types. Their advantage over Dark-types seems like overkill, but considering that they could be considered the Pokémon equivalent of the Light element, the relationship works very well.
In fact, not only do their strengths successfully address certain overpowered Pokémon, their weaknesses balance out the gameplay as well. One of their weaknesses is against Steel-type moves – an aspect that originated from many mythological sources wherein manmade iron dampens the powers of fairies and elves. Steel was the thematic opposite to Ice insofar that it fared exceptionally well defensively, but poorly on an offensive front. While they had several resistances, they only dealt super-effective damage against Rock and Ice-types, which had three other weaknesses apiece – albeit with some overlap. All of the other types were more commonly used due to their superior versatility. Consequently, you would only ever see a Steel move employed by Pokémon of the same type.
Their advantage over Fairy Pokémon, on the other hand, isn’t so easily replicated by other types. This is because the Fairy type’s only other weakness is Poison. Until this generation, Poison moves only had an advantage over Grass Pokémon. This was superfluous because Grass happens to have more weaknesses than any other type in the game at five. On top of that, many Grass Pokémon also happened to be Poison-types, rendering the advantage worthless. This meant the only real reason to use Poison moves was to either capitalize on the same-type attack bonus or inflict the corresponding status condition. Now, they provide a logical weakness for creatures of purity: corruption. Because Fairy types were weak to two that didn’t see much use, players now needed to work even harder to ensure they had a plan for every situation.
One mechanic introduced in the fifth generation concerned a Pokémon’s ability. The third generation was the first to have Pokémon with special abilities. Certain Pokémon could have two different ones depending on the luck of the draw. However, as of the fifth generation, almost every single one possesses what is called a Hidden Ability. Originally, players could use an online service called Dream World to which they sent their Pokémon. By using this service, players could encounter other Pokémon. If they captured and subsequently brought them back to their game, these Pokémon always had their Hidden Ability. Despite its name, these abilities could just be ordinary abilities on different Pokémon. Some, on the other hand, were far more potent on certain Pokémon. In rare cases, these Pokémon could even have entirely unique abilities, which made them very appealing to most players.
Because Dream World heavily depended one having immediate internet access, X and Y provides a way to help players get Pokémon without needing to go online: Horde Battles. On certain routes, you may be taken by surprise when, instead of one or two wild Pokémon accosting your team, five appear all at once. These Pokémon are at a significantly lower level than the average inhabitant of that area, but you can only send out one of your team members to fight them. As usual, you can only throw a Poké Ball when there is one Pokémon opposite your own on the field. Not only do these encounters make for some great training opportunities, there is a chance some of the Pokémon will have their Hidden Ability. Finding one this way can be tedious, but it is a nice gesture considering the original method would eventually cease to exist entirely.
Indeed, like the preceding generations, it’s clear that Mr. Masuda and his team continued to iron out various minor annoyances throughout the series. For starters, you have the ability to run from the onset. This means you no longer need to walk at a snail’s pace until you get a pair of running shoes. In fact, your character will eventually get a pair of rollerblades, which are activated by using the circle pad, significantly cutting down on your travel time even further. Berry cultivation also makes a return, and it too is made much easier. There is a single large field for them, meaning you no longer have to scramble across the region looking for where you planted them. You also don’t have to worry about losing any by taking too long to harvest them, which is helpful if you’re planting rare berries.
Bonds formed one of the themes Mr. Masuda wished to emphasize with the sixth-generation games. Although the bonds between Pokémon and trainers had been a reoccurring motif throughout the series, more often than not, it was left to the player’s imagination. In each set of games starting from Gold and Silver, you could go to a certain NPC who told you how friendly a given Pokémon was. Diamond and Pearl also added a character who could tell a Pokémon’s disposition towards the protagonist in greater detail. These were nice touches and even formed the basis of how certain Pokémon evolve, yet the bonds only existed in flavor text. The idea of a Pokémon becoming friendlier over time is a great idea, but the process was very simple; just having it in your party caused it to warm up to the player character. As if to address this slight disconnect, X and Y introduce a feature which allows the player character to develop bonds with Pokémon outside of battle: Pokémon-Amie.
In this feature, players can use the 3DS’s touch screen to pet, feed, or play with the Pokémon on their team. Accordingly, there are three new statistics to go along with this feature: affection, fullness, and enjoyment. To pet a Pokémon, all one must do is drag the stylus across the Pokémon while in Pokémon-Amie. Not unlike a real-life pet, most Pokémon have places they love being pet and others they dislike. In order to deduce this, one must pay attention to the Pokémon’s facial expressions when the player places the stylus on the screen. Whenever a Pokémon is petted in a favored or neutral spot, its affection will increase. Petting a Pokémon in a disfavored spot only succeeds in annoying it.
You can also increase the affection of a Pokémon by feeding it. They are especially fond of pastries called Poké Puffs. They can be acquired through various means, including playing one of the three minigames within Pokémon-Amie. The minigames are: Berry Picker, Head It, and Tile Puzzle. Three Pokémon participate in each game: the active one and the two with the lowest enjoyment. Berry Picker involves guiding a berry to a Pokémon from the tree, Head It is a game in which you have your Pokémon hit a ball of yarn as it falls from above, and Tile Puzzle is exactly what its name implies. These activities increase a Pokémon’s fullness and enjoyment respectively, which in turn adds more points towards its affection.
What I like about this feature is that the developers put a surprising amount of thought into it. For a lot of Pokémon, the disfavored spots are sharp horns or other body parts from which they launch attacks. Their hesitance of being petted in that spot can therefore be taken as a sign they don’t want your character to get hurt. The team also gave players sensible limitations to this mechanic as well. Pikachu, which are the series’ mascot, are known for storing electricity in their red cheeks. If you try to have the player character touch one of the cheeks, they will be shocked. Indeed, many Pokémon have places that interrupt the petting when touched. One Pokémon introduced in the second generation, is Slugma – a slug made out of pure magma. Because of its biology, it’s notable for being one of the very few Pokémon that can’t be petted at all. Other cases will cause strange effects such as the hand cursor becoming translucent when touching a Ghost-type Pokémon, but they are otherwise purely aesthetic.
It’s interesting getting to see a different side of these creatures outside of battle. Players who completed the fifth-generation games and faced off against the main antagonist’s Hydreigon may be surprised to learn that in spite of their fearsome appearance, they are amazingly affectionate. Others may not smile at all regardless of how much you try, but the affection is clear – particularly once you throw them into battle. There are five different levels of affection. Once a Pokémon has an affection level of at least two, they will gain 1.2 times the normal experience points from battles. Upon reaching the later three levels, they will endure attacks that would normally make them faint, avoid attacks with 100% accuracy, cure their own status conditions, and land critical hits far more often.
X and Y also introduce another touch-screen feature called Super Training. Effort Values had been a mainstay of the series from the very beginning. They influenced the stats that a Pokémon would gain upon every level gained along with the predetermined Individual Values. Effort Values could be increased by battling certain Pokémon, but the exact process was highly esoteric to the point where causal players not seeking to compete in tournaments wouldn’t bother. Super Training allows players to play minigames with the express purpose of raising a Pokémon’s Effort Values in a way as to focus on the growth of individual stats, making it much less of a guessing game than before. The only downside is that the minigames are rather time consuming, though they can make for a nice change of pace.
It’s also worth noting that character customization doesn’t end once the game has begun in earnest. Being based on France, the Kalos region has no shortage of salons, clothing stores, and other places dedicated to fashion. For both genders, there is a wide array of shirts, pants, hats, and other accessories for them to purchase. However, your character cannot go hatless, for that would be in serious violation of the series’ rules. Given that X and Y are the first games in the series to render characters in polygons rather than sprites, they were the perfect installment in which to introduce such a feature. Although it mainly serves an aesthetical purpose, there is a benefit to being trendy. Certain proprietaries are owned by decidedly snobbish individuals who won’t give admittance to anyone below their dress code or complete unknowns. On top of that, many stores will give the player character significant discounts if they are highly stylish, making it worthwhile in the long term to be conscious about it. Style can also be increased by completing sidequests, so it is once again worth it to talk to everyone in town to see if anyone is in need of help.
Aside from the Fairy type, the single most significant mechanic X and Y introduce would be Mega Evolutions. Once defeated, the third Gym Leader, Korrina, will offer the player character a chance of receiving a Key Stone, which is required to utilize this mechanic. Once you’ve received it, you need to give your Pokémon a corresponding Mega Stone and select the option in battle. Mega Evolution is quite a bit different from the standard variant in that the change your Pokémon undergoes is temporary, only lasting until the end of the battle. Moreover, a trainer can only use their respective Key Stone once per battle. The advantages to Mega Evolution are similar to the normal variety – increased stats all-around and a new appearance, though the change is usually less drastic. In some cases, these forms can alter a Pokémon’s type.
This mechanic proved to be something of a point of contention – especially among longtime fans of the series. Admittedly, it is easy to see why that is. This is a mechanic that, if handled poorly, would appear to destroy any balance the series may have had. There would be such a wide divide between the Pokémon capable of Mega Evolving and the ones that aren’t. Factor in the Legendary Pokémon with Mega Evolutions, and you have yourself a potential recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, that’s not quite what happens. Throughout the generations, the developers had done a reasonably good job preventing their gameplay from falling victim to what is known in some circles as a power creep. This term was usually associated with collectable card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering, but it could occur in any franchise that sees a sufficient level of competitive play. The first generation had many Pokémon that with above-average stats across the board while later creatures were typically designed to be specialists. In tournament play, you would see fragile Pokémon that hit hard and fast gain the public’s favor while the aforementioned ones with good overall stats lacked situations in which they could reasonably excel.
The designers were likely well aware of this dissonance and subsequently used the Mega Evolution mechanic to address it. You get to see this in action for yourself when you battle Korrina, but the most affecting moment occurs after meeting Professor Sycamore in person. Upon defeating him, he gives the player character a Pokémon, and the choices are highly familiar.
That’s right, these games allow players to pick one of the Kanto starters to join their team, thereby effectively giving them two starters instead of one. While this development could be dismissed as fanservice, the player character eventually receives a stone capable of allowing them to Mega Evolve when they reach their final form. This is what allows the Mega Evolution mechanic to work; most of the Pokémon given the ability to Mega Evolve were introduced in older generations, allowing them to stand a chance in the then-current metagame. It also helps that they’re not horribly overpowered. This means if you encounter one, you’re not completely out of options – unless your team isn’t trained well enough, of course. There’s also the fact that a Mega Evolved Pokémon cannot hold onto an item other than the Mega Stone required to achieve it in the first place. Regardless, although opponents with Pokémon capable of Mega Evolution are rare, you will need a backup plan once you encounter one – especially if you’ve used up yours already.
While I can appreciate the various upgrades X and Y bring to the series, I must comment that if the team sought to streamline the experience, they actually succeeded a little too well. Shortly after defeating the first Gym Leader, you obtain a device called the Exp. Share. Starting with the second generation, you could give this item to one of your Pokémon, allowing it to gain a fraction of the experience the active combatant received. The fact that the Exp. Share is now a Key Item should be your first clue it functions far differently than before. If it’s activated, your entire team gains experience points.
Fundamentally, it’s similar to the item’s original incarnation in Red and Blue: the Exp. All. However, in those two games, the experience points would be divided evenly amongst your team. This made it largely useless, for your team would gain experience at the same rate, only to take longer actually ascending levels. It was only really useful if you wanted to train a low-level Pokémon. In order to do that, however, you would need to reduce your team to two members: a strong Pokémon and the one you wanted to train. The developers likely realized this and created the Exp. Share to replicate that exact propensity, thus saving players unnecessary trips to swap Pokémon.
The Exp. Share in its original form was a great way to train low-level Pokémon without exposing them to danger or wasting a turn in combat. Its incarnation in X and Y could therefore be seen as the item’s services taken to its logical conclusion. Even better, with previous generations having been hit-or-miss when it comes to the level grinding you must do, the Exp. Share would appear to address that problem preemptively. The problem is that if you do elect to use it, don’t be surprised if the Exp. Share gives your Pokémon such a substantial lead to the point where the Gym Leaders’ will be several levels below your team. Even the Elite Four and Champion could pale in comparison to the sheer numbers on your side. Needless to say, this completely destroys any semblance of challenge the game may have presented. I understand the desire to reduce level grinding, but if nothing in the game can reasonably challenge the player, the experience quickly becomes tedious. At that point, clearing the game is a mere formality.
Not helping matters is how easy it is to restore Power Points. In the generations leading up to it, using Technical Machines (TMs) or Hidden Machines (HMs) would give that Pokémon full set of Power Points for the new move. The fifth generation altered TMs so they could be used an infinite number of times like HMs. Sensibly, the developers prevented players from being able to restore Power Points by abusing this fact. For example, if a Pokémon had ten Power Points remaining for a move, the new one would have ten as well – even if the maximum was higher. In X and Y, TMs are capable of restoring Power Points once more. This means if your Pokémon are running low on Power Points, rather than wasting a rare Ether or Elixir, you can simply replace the move with a new one and switch back once you’re finished.
Obviously, this doesn’t work if the move you wish to restore can’t be learned through a TM, but there is a way around the limitation. All you need is a single Leppa Berry, which restores ten Power Points of a single move, and you have succeeded in finding it. Because of how easy it is to cultivate berries, you will have a large supply of Leppa Berries before you know it. You’ll never have to worry about conserving Power Points again once you possess hundreds of Leppa Berries. I can appreciate this aspect somewhat because it cuts down on the backtracking one must do, but it too drastically dampens the games’ challenge.
Discounting the games’ low level of difficulty, I would say the biggest problem I have with X and Y is that it marks a relapse into old habits. One of the greatest benefits conferred by the fifth-generation games was how much they had streamlined HM move management. In those games, HM moves were typically only used to access bonus areas. Mandatory areas usually lacked the obstacles HM moves needed to circumvent. Because their main purpose was to prevent players from exploring areas out of order, the developers instead strategically placed characters to block their path. While fairly irritating itself, this was definitely the lesser of two evils.
In X and Y, on the other hand, the mandatory HM move usage is back with a vengeance. To be fair, it doesn’t quite reach the same level of annoyance as in Diamond and Pearl because there are fewer useless moves. One can easily make their way through a dark dungeon without the use of Flash. There are also no areas that would require a use of Defog, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it means having one fewer HM move to worry about and bad because Defog is now actually fairly useful, being able to easily remove entry hazards such as Spikes or Stealth Rock.
Regardless, it’s still very irritating to teach a Pokémon you intend to use in the long term the mediocre Cut attack only to learn the Move Deleter can’t be accessed until you’ve defeated six Gym Leaders. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand why the developers wouldn’t give players the ability to remove HM moves themselves. The machines are always in the player character’s inventory, and they can be used an infinite number of times. Not only that, but Power Points are restored each and every time an HM is used, meaning there is no obvious consequence to letting players delete the associated moves themselves. If a player is that determined to render their save file unwinnable, it’s their own fault when they succeed. Even if the number of obstacles related to HM moves is lower than it was in the first four generations, you will find yourself needing to swap team members or revisit the Move Deleter frequently to the point where it beings wasting the time saved by the frustration prevention measures.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers for these games and the series thus far.
One of the biggest problems with the story of X and Y manifests before you even get your first Pokémon: the sheer size of the main cast. Previous generations usually limited the player character’s immediate social circle to two or three members, which was enough for a game that involves exploring such large regions. It was interesting seeing them take the same journey as the player character, and the writers usually made good use of their screentime. Seeing them progress as characters was often the highlight of the campaign – especially in Black 2 and White 2.
In this set of games, on the other hand, I feel there are ultimately more main characters than the writers knew what to do with. By the end of the story, Shauna, Tierno, and Trevor are pretty much the exact same characters as when they started. It’s the kind of shallow characterization you get when the writers end up taking shortcuts. They all have one major character trait apiece and the narrative refers to these quirks as often as possible. All you need to know about them is that Shauna has a bubbly personality, Tierno is obsessed with dancing, and Trevor is shy. This is the extent of their characters – no more and no less. They’re not actively annoying or unlikable, but it doesn’t help that beyond occasionally acting as human roadblocks to prevent sequence breaking, their impact on the overall experience is minimal.
This leaves the player character’s rival as the only character who gets any semblance of an arc. In broad strokes, they are highly similar to the rival character in Ruby and Sapphire. They become fast friends with the player character and always enjoy a good battle. They also seem to have traits of Bianca and Cheren in how they come out of the gates expecting to be the best only to get a wake-up call upon losing to the player character repeatedly. They do have a strange tendency to taunt the player character until the latter receives the Mega Ring, but their reaction to being defeated repeatedly is somewhat pitiable. It almost makes you feel guilty for winning every time.
While it is nice for the character to be given an arc, this development relates to the biggest problem I have with the games’ storyline. Although they still offer some interesting story beats here and there, chances are that anyone who had been following the series up until this point saw these ideas implemented better in past installments. This is especially obvious when parsing the resident villain organization: Team Flare.
Appalling fashion sense and obligatory bumbling idiocy aside, Team Flare does manage to successfully up the ante from their predecessors. The schemes of past teams would, in some way, involve using the power of a Legendary Pokémon, and Team Flare is no different.
The Legendary Pokémon of Kalos are informally referred to as the Aura trio. Two of them, Xerneas and Yveltal, lend themselves to the name of their respective games. Their relationship brings to mind the classical Japanese legend of Izanagi and Izanami. This is because Xerneas shares life energy while Yveltal steals it. In other words, these Pokémon represent the natural order of life and death. Similar to the Tao Trio, there is a third Pokémon that acts as a balance between these other two: Zygarde. It stands out from other Pokémon in that it is made up of smaller parts called Cores and Cells. Cores cannot battle, but they are capable of acting autonomously, allowing Zygarde to efficiently maintain order. Cells, on the other hand, are incapable of thinking or moving.
Team Flare’s goal is to create a beautiful, better world while making a good profit while they’re at it. To this end, they seek to use what is known as the ultimate weapon. Three-thousand years before the beginning of the game, the flames of war had engulfed Kalos. The conflict ended up taking the lives of countless humans and Pokémon. Among the casualties was a Floette whose partner was AZ – the king of Kalos. Soldiers had forcibly taken the Floette from him, and her death caused him to become stricken with grief. Unwilling to accept this reality, AZ built the ultimate weapon to revive his Floette from death. He succeeded, but had to sacrifice the lives of many Pokémon to do so. When the Floette returned to the world of the living, she left AZ, disgusted by the king’s unconscionable actions.
Due to having been exposed to the energy of the ultimate weapon, AZ and his Floette are still alive all of these years later. In fact, the leader of Team Flare is the descendant of AZ’s long-deceased younger brother. The younger brother wanted to claim the ultimate weapon for himself, but AZ ended the war by launching it. This caused the brother to see the error of his ways, and he buried the weapon to prevent it from ever being used again. Now his descendant, Lysandre, seeks to use it for himself. Similar to Ghetsis before him, that Lysandre turns out to be the main antagonist is highly unsurprising. He may present himself as a polite person and is a colleague of Professor Sycamore, yet his cryptic speech patterns and ominous character design betray his ulterior motives. This means that like Ghetsis, the driving question doesn’t concern whether or not Lysandre is the main antagonist, but rather what his motivation is.
I will say the reveal makes for an impactful moment. Though both characters are insufferably smug, Lysandre isn’t as vindictively petty as Ghetsis, being courteous to the player character whenever they meet. However, his goal, ironically enough, arguably makes him the single most evil villain in the series thus far. He seeks to activate AZ’s ultimate in order to eradicate every single human who isn’t loyal to his cause. The only preceding villain who came even close to being such a threat to humanity’s existence was Cyrus. One could argue living in the world Cyrus wanted to create would be a fate worse than death, but he never intended to actually kill any living creature. Any casualty along the way to seeing his plans come to fruition was solely a means to an end. With Lysandre, said loss of life is the end itself.
Lysandre is also similar to N in how he is guided by his misanthropic world views. However, there was a genuine innocence to N brought on by a lack of experience interacting with humans. Conversely, Lysandre is a far worldlier individual; through first-hand experiences, he is convinced humanity is beyond hope and that the only way to preserve the beauty of the world is to start over. Notably, unlike N, he does not intend to spare any Pokémon from his wrath. Everything must be eradicated in order to preserve the beauty of the world. The means by which he intends to accomplish this goal is nothing short of full-scale genocide.
One may ask why everyone doesn’t join Team Flare if it means surviving the ultimate weapon. This is because joining Team Flare costs 5,000,000 Pokédollars. This means plenty of people who would sympathize with Lysandre’s cause are doomed because of their lot in life. Similarly, those who are well off, yet don’t share Lysandre’s viewpoints will die along with the poor who had no choice in the matter. This cements him and his organization as both terrifyingly classist and elitist. To put it another way, Team Flare is a fairly accurate portrayal of Nazis and other far-right political groups. That a majority of the grunts joined for the sole purpose of reaping the short-term benefits rather than because they care about Lysandre’s goals adds to their believability.
So with these surprisingly mature developments, why is it that they seem to have trouble sticking? That was a question I asked myself when I saw everything the games had to offer. I think that while the story beats are solid, they’re barely given a chance to settle. Kalos’s backstory especially comes across as a significant missed opportunity. The Pokémon universe is no stranger to the concept of war with a Gym Leader from Kanto mentioning it offhandedly in Red and Blue, but this was the first instance in the main series in which it proved important to the plot. As it stands, its only true purpose was to justify the existence of the ultimate weapon.
I think these problems also flare up when it comes to assessing AZ’s character. He is still seen wandering nearly 3,000 years after the war ended, but he barely has any presence in the story. The player character meets him fairly early on, and it’s not until they infiltrate Team Flare’s base that he shows up again. He makes one final appearance after the player character becomes the regional Champion and is given a medal for their efforts. After a short battle, AZ’s Floette descends down from the sky, having at last forgiven him for his sin.
It is because of what little we see of his character that I suspect much of his arc was also inspired by N. However, I feel that the heartwarming payoff at the end of the game wasn’t entirely earned. N’s arc involved realizing humanity is not beyond redemption and abandoning the worldviews his adoptive father, Ghetsis, had imposed upon him. The reason N’s farewell speech at the end of Black and White worked so well is because he appeared many times throughout the game. As a result, we got to see every step of his character development. Even if he only appeared in Black 2 and White 2 for a brief moment, seeing that he had become a hero in his own right was an immensely satisfying way to end his arc.
The vague notions of an arc for AZ are there, but his interactions with the player character so are far and few in between that it doesn’t come across so well. All we effectively see are the two endpoints and a few glimpses of the center. To be fair, AZ’s backstory does play a significant part in Lysandre’s motivations, but even the latter bears a lot of wasted potential. It is firmly established that Lysandre and Sycamore had a good friendship, yet it is barely expanded upon. There are so many interesting directions the writers could have gone with the plot – such as making the professor a part of Team Flare. For a while, I even assumed the writers would go in that direction. As it stands, the story of X and Y and the gameplay fare very similarly. There are a lot of great ideas, but the execution issues are so hit-and-miss that it can be difficult to appreciate them.
Drawing a Conclusion
At the end of the day, I can’t help but compare X and Y to a greatest hits album. In general, they are only useful for artists who can write individually great songs, but have difficulties arranging them into a cohesive studio album. For artists capable of arranging songs into a cohesive work, however, greatest hits albums are usually redundant. They can be a serviceable introduction for a newcomer to an artist’s work, but even if the songs on the album are all spectacular, more often than not, they don’t sound as good taken out of their original configuration. Any fan seeking these artists’ work would then realize they wasted their money when they hear the deep, quality cuts on the studio albums that aren’t constantly played on the radio. The best ideas an artist have don’t always top the charts, after all.
How does this relate back to X and Y? I suspect that these games were made in a way so as to address certain complaints about Black and White. Although the fifth-generation games were well-received, many players lambasted them for forcing an entirely new subset of Pokémon. Anyone who wanted to use their favorites from Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, or Sinnoh, were out of luck until they defeated the Champion. In some ways, I can understand their grievance because having to come up with an entirely new set of 150 Pokémon led to a quantity-over-quality ethos in terms of design. One has to wonder why the development team thought a living garbage bag or ice-cream cone made for good character designs.
If Mr. Masuda and his team sought to address this problem, then they ultimately overcorrected. Almost every single route has so many Pokémon from previous generations that Kalos barely seems to have an identity of its own. Any overlap between the first four regions was justifiable due to their close proximity with each other while Unova being so far away from any of them allowed the writing staff to properly contextualize why players are forced to use only the new Pokémon. I can understand wanting to placate older fans, but Black 2 and White 2 were able to reach an excellent compromise of prominently featuring the Unova Pokémon alongside fan-favorites from previous generations.
This is why I liken X and Y to a greatest hits album. There are many excellent ideas throughout the experience, but anyone versed in the series can probably point to at least one previous game that implemented them more effectively. While the new ideas such as Mega Evolutions are interesting, they either barely get a chance to shine, obliterate any kind of challenge the experience may have offered, or both. This isn’t to say X and Y are bad games – far from it. Longtime fans will likely enjoy what they have to offer, and newcomers could find them to be good introductions to the franchise. Really, the question whether or not you should play X and Y boils down to how much you would want to experience a work that is a little bit more interested in celebrating its history than contributing new ideas. If you do, you will have a great time with these games. If you don’t, it still wouldn’t be a bad idea to give them a shot – just realize there is a chance they could end up losing you.
Final Score: 6/10