As a seasoned veteran of the Pokemon franchise since its inception with Red and Blue, a lot of the reveals leading up to the release of Pokemon Sun and Moon left me somewhat on edge. Why the heck does Raticate have those cheeks? What do you mean there’s no Gyms? What the heck are Trials? I had a lot of questions, and because of this I thought that maybe Sun and Moon would be crushed under the weight of innovation. How silly of me to doubt a series that’s been consistently good for over 20 years, because Pokemon Sun and Moon are simply fantastic.

All of the changes I worried about do nothing to change the core concept of Pokemon in these new games, and that’s perfectly fine. I’m still catching Pokemon, training them in battle, and even petting them whenever I feel like it. I still have an enemy team of jerks and morons to take on, this time the gangsta rap stylings of Team Skull, and at the end there’s still a gauntlet of trainers to take on before the final credits. The soul of what makes Pokemon fun and exciting is thankfully still intact, Sun and Moon just give it a new sense of style.

- Game Freak

These new games take things previously thought to be untouchable elements of the Pokemon experience and turns them on their heads, delivering a completely unique experience from its predecessors. Most notably is the removal of Pokemon Gyms and replacing them with Trials. Trials are short events in particular locations that culminate in a battle against a Totem Pokemon, or a beefed up version of a pre-existing Poke. Only after all of these trials are bested can the Grand Trial, or the final battle against the head or “kahuna” of the island, begin.

Is it basically the same idea as a Pokemon Gym, making me run around and fight random battles before facing the “leader?” Sure, maybe at its most basic definition, but the key thing is how different it feels from previous adventures. Gyms were simply fun houses with obstacles and conveniently placed Trainer battles while Trials are puzzles to solve, pictures to take via PokeFinder, and at one point a “name that tune” audio test. Best of all, the prizes for completing these trials aren’t simply Badges that collect dust in a case, they’re crystals used for beefing up my Pokemon. I found myself much more invested in the trials of the islands than I have in Gyms anymore, and that’s key to elevating Sun and Moon as a whole.

- Game Freak

Not all of the game’s changes have this impact however, and a big example of this is the new Z-Moves. Z-Moves require the aforementioned Z-Crystals held by Pokemon to pull off, and some of them look like they’ve been pulled from Dragon Ball Z. For example, clown seal Popplio evolves into clown seal mermaid Brionne, which then becomes clown seal mermaid opera star Primarina. The Primarina-exclusive Primarinium-Z crystal (yes, the names are corny) unlocks a move called Oceanic Operetta, which allows my Pokemon to essentially create a Water-type Spirit Bomb with its voice and drop it on my poor sap of an opponent.

Is the move fun to watch? Yes. Is the move incredibly satisfying to pull off, especially against Fire types? You bet. Does it have a major impact on strategy? Not one bit. All it costs me to pull off is one Power Point of whatever move I temporarily replaced it with. I only get to use one Z-Move per battle across my entire party, but there’s no other detriment than a standard PP loss. A move like that seems like it should come at a much higher risk, but I suppose that’s Game Freak playing nice with us even if it turns Z-Moves into just another attack option and little else.

- Game Freak

I want to touch on the Alola region for a second, as it’s grown to be my favorite region in all of Pokemon. That’s right, take a seat Kanto, there’s a new sheriff in town. The Hawaiian influence is strong in all four of Alola’s island, but what I didn’t expect is how alive this new world feels. Each town is bustling with like, human and Pokemon alike, and everyone seems to be moving with a set purpose. Machamps are seen walking around helping with building and other hard labor. Trainers scan the surrounding area for new battles, with the screen noticeable changing when a potential battle is nearby. The sounds of wild Pokemon can be heard as part of nature while I’m walking through a town, which may be the coolest thing of all.

Alola’s charm is enhanced by the fantastic story that complements all of the Z-Crystal collection and Trial completion. There were moments that I legitimately did not know what was coming next, as this story takes more risks and employs more twists than any other Pokemon game before it. Some characters are completely transparent, while others take a while to break out of their shells and help out. This was a tale that kept me interested from start to finish, and I know I won’t be alone.

- Game Freak

The online offerings are pretty neat, though it’s easy to ignore the online element until much later in the game. Festival Plaza will consistently add new buildings and places to explore as more visitors come through, and the building management is sort of neat, but it quickly loses its appear and becomes more a chore than anything else. The Poke Pelago while not online is another interesting touch, creating a world where Pokemon stuck in boxes can roam free and other Pokemon and items can be found. Again it’s neat to start but is quickly forgotten in lieu of the single-player storyline. That’s not to say either of these modes are bad, they just feel a tiny bit ancillary to the main story arc.

Pokemon Sun and Moon challenged me to try the franchise’s formula in a brand new way, and despite my reservations the games came through in a big way. Trials are a fantastic alternative to Gyms, the Z-Moves are flashy and powerful if also lacking in strategic risk, and the world of Alola is bright and colorful. There are a few odd nitpicks to throw at the two games, but it’s hard to argue that Pokemon Sun and Moon is the best thing to happen to Pokemon in years.

This review was completed using digital copies of Pokemon Sun and Moon provided by the publisher for Nintendo 3DS.