In its sixth generation, Pokémon took on a new lease on life. Pokémon X&Y was a big step forward – a new face for a series that by and large had looked and played the same since its inception 18 years ago.
Coming into the Internet age proper, generation six heavily expanded the online battling and trading hinted at in gen five, and expanded the game’s world with a new region. As has been the case with every previous generation, a mid-gen title has been released – in this case a remake of generation three’s Ruby and Sapphire.
Some slick new features and the series’ continuing refinement refinements make Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (ORAS) the most accomplished Pokémon titles to date.
Starting out in the familiar Littleroot Town, ORAS begins like any other core Pokémon game. The player is created, and a good 20 minutes are spent slowly dragging through the basic mechanics of the series, which are unchanged since day one.
The inability to skip this section with a “I know what I’m doing” button is one of the few gripes to be had with this game. Once that chore is complete, the pace picks up. Familiar to players of the original Ruby and Sapphire, the core story will take anywhere between 10 and 30 hours, depending on how much exploration, Pokémon catching, training, and miscellaneous fiddling-about the player wishes to indulge in.
The main storyline is a slightly modified take on the original, and while it’s not the most compelling plot in the world, it keeps the player moving. Even 20 hours to get to the Pokémon League and face the Elite Four (Pokémon’s traditional end-point) represents good bang for buck, but finishing the main campaign is only the beginning.
The region of Hoenn is the focus of ORAS, and it feels alive. In a series first, wild Pokémon can be seen and heard in the wilderness, popping out of tall grass, creeping about deep inside caves, and splashing from oceans and ponds. Using the ‘PokeNav Plus’ in DexNav mode allows players to hone in and sneak up on these surreptitious blobs and go in for the catch.
As more Pokémon in an area are revealed, DexNav allows the player to identify their prey in advance, which lets them be more selective on who to throw a Pokeball at. This might seem like meaningless busywork, but the new mechanic is how Pokémon with specific hidden abilities and higher chances of rare moves are caught. For players of the metagame (more on that soon), this is a major improvement and helps in building the ultimate team.
Graphically, ORAS is the nicest looking handheld Pokémon to date – hardly a surprise – but the mid-generation graphical flourishes that began with Yellow are present. Slightly tweaked animations and an increased level of 3D and additional camera angles give wizened players something to raise an eyebrow at.
The engine from X&Y gives locations like Mt Pyre a more impressive sense of grandeur than previously possible and the addition of ‘soaring’ lets players break from the land- and sea-based navigation of the world map for the first time in the series, allowing a free flying mode across all of Hoenn and her oceans. This new mode, unlocked as part of the main storyline, lets players find rare Pokémon and items, and leads to capturing a generous number of the series’ Legendary creatures.
Back from Pokémon Crystal are Secret Bases, a feature which lets players build their own digs in and around the countryside. Way back in the Crystal generation, these were a cute but ultimately pointless endeavour. Now, secret bases can be constructed and visited by roaming members of the Pokémon-playing public online.
There’s a sense of competition to not only create the best-looking base, but to visit the hideouts of others and beat their ‘grunts’ and owners in battles. The Secret Bases add another dimension to the obsessive ‘Gotta catch ‘em all!’ mantra of the core series, and help build the feeling that the sixth generation version of Hoenn is populated with real people.
Also making a return are Pokémon Contests, a mini-game that allows players to unlock some specific evolution paths and earn items as rewards. It feels superfluous and could probably have been dropped.
Once the end title credits have rolled, there are many more things to occupy the player, including facing a stronger Elite Four as in previous generations. An extra ‘episode’ of content is unlocked, in a way a callback to Gold and Silver.
As previously mentioned, the meta-game or competitive Pokémon scene is well looked after by ORAS, keeping the same slick online battling and trading interface found in X&Y, while making it easier to find Pokémon with specific traits, ramping up the availability of battle-specific berries, and providing some in-game tips for would-be competitive Pokémon players. Mega evolutions – fourth-stage temporarily evolutions used only in battle – are back, and are a boon for the teams of people around the world trying to build the perfect Pokémon team.
Some lingering problems exist with the Pokémon formula, especially as players of the series get older. The difficulty of the campaign is set a peg or two too low, and would benefit from a built-in difficulty picker. As with X&Y, the player is given an experience point sharing device early in the story, which often leads to overpowered teams by about the fourth gym.
The dialogue of NPCs is still hilarious. It’s oblique and nonsensical for the most part, but the words of the supercilious Team Magma make for some dramatic 3DS lid-slamming at times. Coughing up full price for a tried and true formula, addictive gameplay, and the potential for hundreds of hours gameplay online and alone is a decision the non-hardcore will have to make carefully. For fans of the series, or those with a nostalgic Cubone in their bodies, this is a must-have.