Pokémon are everywhere. They’re on your phone. They’re in your augmented-reality backyard. And they’re stacked on your local game store shelves. But as we approach this season of gift giving, what some parents really want to know about these little imaginary, evolving critters is: “Are those new Pokémon Ultra Sun and Pokémon Ultra Moon games something new? Or are they just tired retreads of last year’s 3DS games—designed to rake in a few more of my hard-earned bucks?”
The answer to that, Mom and Dad, is that these Ultras are something of a 50-50 affair.
The first thing I should mention—for those who didn’t purchase last year’s Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon—is that those two games were designed as a reboot of sorts for the 20-year-old Pokémon series.
The gamemakers set the action down on a special group of tropical Hawaiian-like Alola islands. Gameplay involved much friendlier battles with your captured team of “pocket monsters” and encouraged a lot more virtual-pet caregiving in its mix. Those loving Poké then helped their Pokémaster pal take on a series of trials to prove their worth, put a stop to a nefarious plot and ultimately solve the mystery behind a rare and powerful interdimensional Pokémon.
That was the story then, and that’s the story now.
Most of the island characters that players encounter in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are exactly the same. And your end goal is pretty much unchanged as well. The dialogue has been tweaked to give the feel of something new on otherwise familiar island jaunts. But the only real addition to the main storyline comes in the form of something called the Ultra Recon Squad—a pair of robotic-looking characters from another dimension. It’s through them, though, that this game’s double-dipping temptation is truly dangled.
*The Ultra Recon Squad sorta cracks open the interdimensional portal side of things this go ’round. That lil’ wrinkle in Pokémon spacetime enables players to ride certain creatures through Ultra wormholes in order to lob their colorful Pokéballs at some very, very special potential catches indeed—including much-coveted Legendaries such as Lugia, Groudon, Latios, Moltres and Zapdos, among many others. (That said, some of Legendary Pokémon are only available in one game or the other, while others require catching other Pokémon first.)
Oh, and that’s not all. There are also a lot of new Pokémon and a slew of other collectables scattered throughout the islands that we haven’t seen before either. Numerous mini-game side-quests give you still more gameplay options.
For example, on some of the island beaches you can take off and go surfing on a creature called Mantine. These manta ray-like Pokémon crash through the surf and deliver flips and other impressive looking ride-the-waves moves. Those kinds of side games earn useable rewards for your on-going quests. There’s also an extra adventure after the close of the game’s central story that harkens back to past game villains, a narrative coda that will definitely appeal to older fans of the series.
Keep in mind, however, that all the potential negatives of the Sun and Moon games—and, frankly, of all the past Pokémon games—are still packed in with these Ultras, too. There are clownish hoodlum trainers that mouth off regularly. The central action involves repeated battles that feature melee and magical attacks. They’re bloodless, but still pummeling with slashes and flashes of light.
And, of course, these Japan-originating games are rife with far-Eastern spirituality—ranging from mentions of preordained fates; to the evolutionary nature of the creatures themselves; to a worshipful approach to Pokémon “Guardian Deities,” who are said to watch out for each island’s welfare.
So there’s a lot of same-old-same-old to endure here in a young fan’s 30 or 40 hours of play. But interesting tweaks to the tale, combined with the chance to nab a lot more of that “gotta catch ’em all” Pokémon roster might just make these two Ultra retreads worth the money—especially for über fans of this long-running franchise.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.