Pokémon Alpha Sapphire - Review  

Neither a Beginning nor an End
by Glenn Wilson

Click here for game information
Very Easy
40-60 Hours
+ Improved pacing from the GBA version
+ Most convenient breeding and training ever
+ Keeps improvements from X/Y
- No challenge whatsoever
- PokéNav interface is complex and awkward
- Retro flourishes after actions get tiresome
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   Milking the Pokémon cash cow for all it is worth, Nintendo produced a 3DS remake of the GBA's Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire in the new engine created for X and Y last year. Expected, but not exactly desired, Pokémon Alpha Sapphire aims to appease its fanbase by stacking the postgame with numerous legendaries, convenient breeding, and a new way for the perfectionist to capture rare Pokémon in the wild. Actually getting to the postgame is as mundane and easy as Pokémon can be, and outside of the millions of children and diehard adult fans who get every entry in the series, there are more reasons to skip this version than there are to play it.

   Ranking as one of the worst Pokémon childhoods ever, Alpha Sapphire opens with the male or female protagonist riding in the back of a moving truck, alone, bouncing around with the boxes and furniture, while on the way to his new Hoenn home and absentee parents. It takes mere minutes for a local professor to give him a Pokémon and send him away from a mother who ships offspring across the world like a bed frame. He makes a few friends, gets noticed by the richest people in the Hoenn region, and runs afoul of a nihilistic cult that provides a reason to keep traveling from place to place. The story is a neutral entity. It is there, it won't kill brain cells or insult anyone's intelligence, but it is sparse and would struggle to fill a thirty minute cartoon episode. If anything qualifies as a highlight, it is the more plot-driven Delta Episode that takes place after the protagonist defeats the Hoenn champion, although Pokémon's attempts at real storytelling peaked in the fifth generation's DS titles.

   Alpha Sapphire's gameplay makes no tweaks to the series' formula. The protagonist ventures into the world with a single starter Pokémon and a large sack of balls. By tossing them at wild Pokémon, he captures them to increase his entourage. Pokémon learn new moves and often evolve into new forms as they level up. While fighting is complex on paper — there are eighteen attack types, 171 unique combinations of Pokémon types, and attacking and defending are split into physical and special damage — the execution is so intuitive and sharp that even a grade schooler can handle it. There's nothing new to the system, and no new Pokémon, but a large draw of the game to initiates is testing out different party members as they are captured and the joy of watching them power up and evolve without warning.

The new DexNav lets you sneak up on rare Pokémon in the grass. The new DexNav lets you sneak up on rare Pokémon in the grass.

   The meat of the game is spent fighting against other trainers on routes between settlements. This builds up the party Pokémon in preparation for defeating a tough gym leader in the next town. Eventually the plot hits a couple climaxes against legendary, world-threatening Pokémon, though the steepest challenge in the game is a series of five fights against the best trainers in Hoenn, including the champion. Unfortunately, Alpha Sapphire is so easy, type advantages and general tactics can be completely ignored. Without any sense of difficulty, the bulk of the gameplay systems are ineffective, and if there was a hope that Alpha Sapphire would restore the challenge of earlier Pokémon games, it was not realized. An optional item giving experience to every party member is a culprit contributing to this, but turning it off adds the old-school annoyance of swapping out low-level Pokémon at the start of each battle without addressing the inherent lack of difficulty in the design. Alpha Sapphire is even easier than X/Y, and at least X/Y introduced new Pokémon and Pokémon types to keep experienced veterans engaged. Unless this is a permanent direction for the series, Game Freak needs to work on rebalancing future entries.

   Series veterans are thrown bones in other ways. Thanks to a burst of magical Pokémon energy late in the game, every non-event legendary Pokémon in series history teleports to Hoenn and awaits its inevitable capture, with the exception of the few that appeared in X/Y. A new tool in the PokéNav allows a chosen Pokémon to be scouted in the wild. Information about rare moves, hidden abilities, and potential is displayed before the fight, and the more often a Pokémon is scouted, the better the chances that it is outstanding. After the entire plot is finished, access to the Battle Resort puts all of a Pokémon breeder's needs in one convenient spot encircled by a looping trail for egg hatching. Super secret bases and hunting for mega stones, new and old, are fun diversions that also help with postgame training.

If I had a screenshot of the mess on the bottom screen, I would show it to you. If I had a screenshot of the mess on the bottom screen, I would show it to you.

   Convenience is a mixed bag elsewhere. The game has a quick pace. Encounter rates are relatively low, wild Pokémon and trainers are often avoidable, and caves are straightforward without the devious tricks the series sometimes employs. Long overdue, Game Freak finally makes its first baby step away from party-limiting Hidden Machine moves. A key item allows the player to Soar to any map location, negating the need for Fly late in the game. GBA-era berry farming makes a dull return with no extra thought put into making it less unimportant or boring. The bottom screen packs too many features into too horrible of an interface. The map, news channel, DexNav, and PSS are all included, each with various useful functions requiring multiple stylus taps and drill downs to reach, and only one at a time can be used. The bottom screen has a retro, needlessly pixilated graphic look that seems like a neat throwback to the GBA until it ends up cluttering things and making them less attractive. As usual, doing anything on the bottom screen freezes the top one, so multi-tasking isn't possible. The 3DS is capable of much more than this.

   The graphics on the top screen look great, being a hair sharper and cleaner than they were in X/Y. Unfortunately, the vivid, colorful locations in X/Y that popped off the screen did not inspire the developers when making Alpha Sapphire, which retains the GBA version's visually bland take on forests, oceans, and caves without much else. The Kyogre/Groudon climax looks outstanding, as do a couple other key plot moments and when using Soar, but the rest of the game's pale locales do nothing for the eyes, and the cell shading only looks great on the Pokémon themselves. In sticking with the retro vibe, most, if not all, of the music is recycled. Pokémon sound effects are still slightly less grating than a dial-up modem, and the rest of the sound effects are not much better. Releasing next to Persona Q, which features voice acting, a well-designed bottom screen, and detailed, creative visuals, Alpha Sapphire's Nintendo-published presentation values make it look like the cash-in it is.

   Aside from dropping the popular Friend Safari, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire bring all the improvements and features from X/Y to the world of Ruby/Sapphire as expected. The presentation has minor issues, mechanics retained from Ruby/Sapphire are still not fun, and the diminished difficulty and lack of any draw for newcomers make this a less appealing game than X/Y for those who are picky about which Pokémon titles they play. The best features come in the postgame and would greatly appeal to series aficionados and hardcore trainers over casual fans of the Pokémon formula. The formula is there along with everything that makes this series so fun and popular, and this game is fun. However, one of the best battle and growth systems in any RPG when it's balanced perfectly becomes merely good when the balance is slanted this far in the player's favor.

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