There's always been a disconnect between Pokémon the games and Pokémon the everything else. For five generations, the games have followed a blank slate lead on their pleasant journey logging and catching wildlife, supported by genial trainers and civilians, and antagonised by genuinely nasty outliers such as Gary Oak and Red. For that same amount of time, the anime, the manga, and the spin-off games have carved out their own identity – one predicated on pratfalls and the constant learning of important life lessons.
The Origins spin-off anime earlier this year made a move to bridge the divide, more sober than the adventures of Ash and company and more in line with the tone of the games. Now we have the sixth generation of games, and they’re doing the same. X and Y are a little more open to the idea of silliness and much more kinetic and colourful in their aesthetic.
Game Freak has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered by the 3DS hardware, and the result is a world that feels significantly more alive than those in previous generations. You move faster, buildings are bigger and more ornate, the Kalos region is so much larger, varied, and positively bustling with people and Pokémon.
The game even breaks from the traditional top-down camera every so often, infusing travel and action with the kind of awe and drama lost in the original games. There's a real sense of being dwarfed by Lumiose City’s Parisian architecture when the camera snaps to a low-angle third-person following shot.
Likewise, a slow pull-out as you run down a hallway to Kalos Power Plant is such a dynamic way of generating tension and import that parts of the game using the traditional camera feel inert in comparison.
Then there are the battles. X and Y don’t mess around with accepted mechanics, retaining the exhilarating, infuriating complexity of the traditional attack/defend framework and its myriad of modifiers. The changes are all aesthetic, but they result in a battle experience that does justice to both Pokémon’s cockfighting conceit and the intricacy of the systems underpinning it.
The static, muted battle sequences of the previous generations are finally done away with. In their place: battles that are kinetic, visceral, and constantly looking to break the dual-plane tradition.
The three-dimensional character models and attacks give real depth to skirmishes and a corresponding sensation of impact when attacks connect.
We follow Hydro Pumps and Embers as they build up then explode across the arena and connect, and screen-engulfing attacks like Petal Blizzard and Blizzard actually look like they consume the battle space.
Meanwhile, battle animations are more dynamic than ever, the camera often breaking from its over-shoulder perch to give us a close-up on a move, or even to play out an attack as a small, brutal film.
For example, the editing and angles of Yveltal's Oblivion Wing animation have been clearly ripped from mecha anime.
The violence is no longer abstracted and neutered by two dimensions – it's fast, it's palpable, it hits.
It helps, too, that battling has been streamlined for new players. This generation introduces a couple of features that cut down on the need to max out stats through time-consuming grinding.
Mega Evolutions, brought to life by fantastically ostentatious Digimon-esque animations, provide temporary stat boosts (though this is never really discussed in the game), while Super Training allows for the easy boosting of specific stats. These are small things, but they’re incredibly valuable in developing an online competitive scene that’s more accessible for new players.
However, this sixth generation of Pokémon isn’t really that much of a change from those prior.
Not that it needs to be, though. A decade and a half of fine-tuning has made battling an intuitive, challenging, endlessly impressive set of interlocking mechanics. Similarly, the gotta-catch-'em-all sub-objective is still powerfully addicting, the mere existence of question marks and black spots in a Pokédex filled with captured Pokémon as powerful a call to exploration as any.
But Pokémon’s gotten friendlier, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. X and Y tell what is by now a classical Pokémon story: an unobtrusive, family-friendly hero’s journey about learning to have confidence in one’s self and trust one’s companions.
But Kalos is nicer than Kanto or Johnto or Hoenn or Unova. Its eight gym leaders have no interest in sassing you, and your rivals treat you with friendship and respect instead of outright contempt. Even the Ace Trainers – generally founts of condescension – are pleasant enough to get along with.
Kalos is an opportunity to lose yourself in positivity for a few hours, which is great to start with and great to finish with.
But Kalos’ sunnier disposition means that it has trouble holding the kind of conflict that helped hide the slow pace of previous generations. Team Flare are blustering non-entities until around 15 hours into the game, and making up for that are gyms that are poorly spaced out and four ‘rivals’ who don’t really speed things along.
You can't get on a roll with the gyms because you only beat the third one around ten hours in; you can't get sucked into the region-wide crisis represented by Team Flare because they're absent for so much of the game (and when their story finally kicks into gear it's over in 90 minutes); you can't measure yourself against an antagonist trainer because there is none.
A simple lack of forward momentum is the sixth generation’s undoing.
But it's Pokémon. It's better in some ways – the aesthetic is finally bursting with the energy and excitement of its anime counterpart, as if oppressed by its two dimensions for the last five generations – and it's a lot easier to engage in the game's massive online community this time around.
It's worse in others, carrying a narrative that treats conflict as a nuisance and damages its pacing as a result. And it's exactly the same in other ways still, ways that don't need to be change or revolutionise because they work so damn well. Maybe that's all that needs to be said.