All I wanted was a goddamn holiday.
“Come to sunny Alola,” the brochures said. “Let all your cares wash away,” they said. “Relax on the beach and enjoy the sunset with a glass of cool Pinap juice,” they said. “Immerse yourself in the vibrant local culture,” they said.
The brochures did not mention roads blocked by irritable Tauros, strange waifish girls with dangerous and suicidal cosmic Pokémon, “quests” handed out by mysterious and fickle gods, ritualised duels to please the aforementioned fickle gods, or anything that might be described as a series of “trials.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Yes, better late than never, it’s time for me to play Pokémon Moon, so I’ve left all my Pokémon in Kanto, packed my bags, and set off for a nice relaxing couple of weeks in the Alola region. On the way, I glimpsed airport security chasing a strange pale girl, carrying in her bag a round black object that I assume is a bomb, but I’m sure they could handle it. Besides, I’m not a Pokémon Master today. I’m on holiday.
My contact in Alola is Professor Kukui, a youthful, energetic and enticingly shirtless scientist who studies Pokémon moves and techniques, and is apparently a reasonably accomplished trainer himself. Interestingly, he seems to have followed Pokémon Go in ditching the traditional “are you a boy or a girl” question (which was retained as recently as Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby) in favour of just presenting us with a selection of six portraits and asking us which photo he should use on our passport, probably in a laudable effort to be more accommodating to people whose appearance or mannerisms don’t precisely match up with the game’s idea of what “boys” and “girls” are. On the other hand, it does sound suspiciously like Professor Kukui is forging a passport for me without knowing exactly what I look like, and needs to be given a rough idea so he can wing it. But hey, Alolan border security is notoriously fickle, and I’d rather have someone local to fix my documents and arrange the appropriate bribes than try to work it out myself. Kukui stops by the holiday home where I am staying with Mother Dearest (who gets a full-sized bedroom in this game, rather than the measly alcove in X and Y) shortly after our arrival to greet us. We’re in a comfortable house on the outskirts of Hau’oli City, the largest city in Alola, on Melemele Island (roughly equivalent to the city of Honolulu and island of O’ahu in the real world). It is assumed, of course, that I will want to pick up an Alola starter Pokémon and begin a journey – after all, I’m a child of ambiguous age and gender who suffers from no obvious physical deformities or ancient tomb-curses (that he knows of). I affect a polite refusal, but it seems that local custom requires me to at least meet with an authority figure known as the Kahuna, a powerful Pokémon trainer, so I go along with it and set out for nearby Iki Town, where Kahuna Hala lives. Hmm. So does this mean that instead of eight Gym Leaders, we have four Kahuna (one for each of the islands – Melemele, Akala, Ula’ula and Poni)? Or are the Kahuna equivalent to the Elite Four? Either way, it sounds like we’re going off-script here, which is interesting.
Iki Town is a pleasant, if somewhat nondescript, village of a few houses clustered around a larger meeting-house (presumably the residence of the Kahuna) and a wooden stage painted in white with dubiously Polynesian-inspired patterns. The Kahuna is nowhere to be found, so Kukui sends me to look for him. “He looks like a Kahuna!” he explains encouragingly. “I don’t f#%&ing know what a Kahuna looks like,” I mutter under my breath as I stomp off towards Mahalo Trail, where Hala apparently might be hanging out. This is the path up to the mountain where the islanders worship Melemele’s guardian deity, a being known as Tapu Koko (I don’t know a word of Hawaiian, but tapu in New Zealand Maori, a distantly related language, means something like “sacred” or “inviolable,” something that ordinary people shouldn’t mess with). The Kahuna still evades me, but I do find the young terrorist girl from the airport, who is in some distress as her bomb has run away from her. The bomb, it turns out, is actually a puffy midnight-blue Pokémon named Nebby (possibly short for Nebula?), whose species I later learn is called Cosmog. Nebby has escaped from his trainer and is now trapped in the middle of a rickety wooden rope bridge over a yawning ravine, being harassed by a trio of angry Spearow. In answer to the terrorist girl’s pleas, I grudgingly creep out along the bridge and attempt to extract her Pokémon. I appreciate that the game is giving me such a heroic role so early, before I even have any Pokémon to ensure my safety, but I do wish it could have catered more to my selfishness and basic natural cowardice. Nebby’s distress reaches a critical level as I gallantly try to shield it with my body, and it explodes, frightening away the Spearow but also destroying the bridge we’re standing on. I grimly reflect that Nebby was a bomb after all as I plunge towards certain doom in the ravine below… until, out of the blue, Nebby and I are rescued by a swooping bolt of lightning that deposits us safely back on the cliff side. The bolt of lightning briefly resolves itself into a black and orange humanoid bird-thing with yellow shield-like wings, before soaring into the air once more and vanishing.
So… I guess I just met Tapu Koko.
The terrorist girl chides her Pokémon for exploding prematurely, and when Nebby finds a curious sparkling stone on the ground, she decides to give it to me. Though relieved to have her Pokémon back, she pleads with me not to tell anyone other than the Professor or the Kahuna about Nebby, whose existence is apparently a secret. We head back down to Iki Town together, where Professor Kukui greets the girl as his assistant and introduces her to me as Lillie. I decide to reserve judgement on whether or not she is really a terrorist, but make a mental note to watch her closely. At this point, Kahuna Hala finally materialises. I give a sigh of relief as I prepare to run through all the necessary pleasantries and protocol so I can get back to the house and start enjoying my holiday properly. Unfortunately, Hala has noticed that Tapu Koko is on the move, and needs to listen to Lillie’s account of what just happened.
“Kukui, my boy,” Hala declares once Lillie has finished speaking, “I think we have cause to celebrate! It seems I should entrust this brave and kind young boy with a Pokémon of his own. We’ll make a fine trainer out of him!”
“What? No, I- I’m a seasoned Pokémon Master, I just left all my-”
“You’ll need a Pokémon partner of your very own if you want to go travelling by yourself!”
“Wha-? No, no I’m fine, seriously, I’m on holi-“
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take one of th-”
“Fine, fine, whatever, just give me the Grass-type.”
“But… don’t you want to see them and learn about their unique-”
“No. Give me the Grass-type.”
Hala and Kokui obligingly present me with the Grass-type starter Pokémon, Rowlet, but I’m not allowed to leave just yet. There is a ceremony to perform first. “Only when you have both chosen each other can you truly call each other partners,” Hala explains. They put me on the stage in the centre of town, with Rowlet standing opposite me. “Let us see if little Rowlet there also decides to choose you!” I stare at Rowlet for a moment and give it a half-hearted little wave. Apparently encouraged, it hops over and smiles up at me. In that moment, my frigid black heart melts a little, and I smile back and pick up the little owl Pokémon, to a resounding cheer from the spectators. This… is a really amazing world-building thing. A ritual of joining, where picking a trainer’s first Pokémon isn’t just a snap decision but a moment of high ceremony, an opportunity for the human to offer themselves to their chosen partner to either accept or reject, a beautiful, celebratory-
…wait a minute, did I just get married to an owl?
…eh. Whatever happens in Alola, stays in Alola, right?
Kukui wraps up the event by presenting me with a Pokédex and a trainer passport (this document has fifteen pages, the first of which bears a stamp declaring me an official trainer; presumably the rest will be used to record other milestones and/or protect me from the scrutiny of corrupt officials). Since the Kahuna’s residence is now open, I poke my head in and take a look around – it’s pretty impressive. There’s a throne on a podium, living space for several members of the community, and… uh… some kind of unidentifiable spikey slug Pokémon that seems to live in Hala’s bathroom. I squint at them for a moment, trying to decide whether they really are Pokémon or in fact some kind of exotic loofah, before they answer my question by wriggling around a bit. I slowly back out of the room, then the building, then the town. On my way, though, I am intercepted for a battle by the Designated Rival – a bubbly young boy named Hau, apparently Hala’s grandson, who was recently partnered with a Poplio. Hau compliments me on my new partner, to which I reply “Thanks?” I’m noticing that, in situations where previous Pokémon games would often give you a choice of answering “yes” or “no” and then put you into an infinite dialogue loop if you dared to say “no,” Moon is openly admitting that it’s railroading me, but giving me the option of being snarky and jaded about it. The experience is strangely liberating. As in generation VI, the starter Pokémon of Alola already know elemental moves at level 5, so the battle between Rowlet and Poplio is brief, with a forgone conclusion, but while we’re fighting, Hala notices the sparkling stone I got from Tapu Koko. He asks to borrow the stone, but promises to return it tomorrow. Apparently, being given this stone constitutes some sort of Destiny. Great. Just great.
The next day, Kukui shows up at the house again to escort me to some kind of festival that I have apparently roped myself into by accepting a starter Pokémon. He takes me out to route 1, gives me the standard “how to catch Pokémon” tutorial, and then leaves me to my own devices at last, so I decide to make the most of things and explore. I quickly meet two new Pokémon, a woodpecker called Pikipek and a small mongoose called Yungoos. Clearly these are the regional Pidgey and Rattata stand-ins, but I am mindful of how quirky Bunnelby and Fletchling turned out to be, so I reserve judgement and recruit one of each for further study. Investigating my touch-screen options, I note the welcome return of Pokémon Amie, or at least its new equivalent, the “Pokémon Refresh” screen, which not only retains Amie’s functions but will sometimes give you the option to patch a Pokémon up a little bit at the end of battles – dry them off if they’re wet, administer medicine if they’re poisoned, clean off any bits of assorted lint they’ve accumulated, and so on. This is fantastic; I loved the personal connection that Pokémon Amie encouraged us to imagine, and this new option, the ability to give a Pokémon a little extra care right when they’re a bit run-down, adds to that immersion wonderfully. It really stresses the idea that you’re in there with your Pokémon while they’re fighting, doing your best to support them. I note the return of some old hands – Ledyba and Caterpie – then advance towards Iki Town.
On the way, I have my first random trainer battle, with one Youngster Jimmy, whose partner is a Rattata… but not as I know it; this Rattata is black and has a curious bushy moustache. Despite my best efforts to remain spoiler-less in the lead up to this game, I am already aware that some older Pokémon who appear in Alola have new tropical forms with subtly different powers, but this is the first I’ve actually seen of it. Although the moustache looks a little silly, I like where they’re going with this – regional variation is an idea that makes perfect sense, gives existing Pokémon something new and exciting to do, and reinforces Pokémon’s core theme of exploring the diversity of life. I’m going to enjoy discovering what other regional forms exist here. Subsequently, I discover through consultation of the Pokédex (and some pointed hints from my brother, who’s been playing this game for a while already) that “route 1” is not a monolith, and that different patches of grass along the route actually have different distributions of wild Pokémon. This leads me to pick up a Pichu and another new Pokémon, a curious little horned grub that attacks with Vicegrip; this Pokémon is known as a Grubbin, and I assume for now that it is the Alolan equivalent to Caterpie.
When I finally do get to Iki Town, it turns out that the festival involves battles between new trainers, which are apparently pleasing to Tapu Koko. Some years, of course, there are none, and when this happens, Kahuna Hala steps up to provide the entertainment with a bout of sumo wrestling (incidentally, I really like the strength of Alola’s regional identity and the effort the game has so far put into developing the local culture). Today, Hau and I will provide the entertainment; he’s been practicing since yesterday, of course, and now has a higher-level Poplio as well as a Pichu, but my obsessive canvassing of route 1 has built up a team that is difficult to match. For my victory, I am rewarded with a distant cry of triumph from the unseen Tapu Koko, as well as the return of my sparkling stone. Hala has refined the stone into the core of a magical bracelet, which he calls a Z-Ring. It resembles the Mega Ring from X and Y, but Hala declines to explain what it actually does (it had better not be for something called “Z-Evolution” or I will lose my $#!t). To my dismay, he has decided that Tapu Koko gave me the stone because it intended to send me on a mission: I must take the so-called “Island Challenge,” earn the approval of the four Kahuna, collect “Z-crystals,” gain “Z-power,” and use them to do… something? I’m not really sure anymore. I suspect I’ve been drafted into some kind of elaborate multi-island ritual for Tapu Koko’s amusement. Starting to wish I had let the damn thing drop me.
The next day, Lillie takes me to Professor Kukui’s lab, which stands on its own on a beach to the south of the house, in hopes of an explanation. We cannot yet enter Hau’oli City, because there is a Tauros in the road. It’s not really clear why. The Alolans just seem to accept it. On the way to the lab, I note the presence of Slowpoke and Wingull, but no new discoveries (Wingull, though, turns out to have access to the Hydration ability now – a fairly substantial improvement over her previous options). Another little quality-of-life improvement makes itself known here – when you have a full party, new Pokémon that you catch can be swapped into your party instantly, sending someone else back to PC storage instead. This is something that had already been tried with the main legendary Pokémon of Black and White, then X and Y; making it standard for all captures seems like a straightforward, sensible addition. Once we reach the lab, Kukui gives me some more details on the Island Challenge – on each island, I’m going to have to pass seven trials in order to earn the right to challenge the Kahuna. Beating all four Kahuna apparently makes me an Island Champion. Well, that can’t be too hard, right? I’ll blitz these island yokels, tell Tapu Koko where to shove its magic rock, abolish the Alolans’ heathen religion, then grab a piña colada and hit the beach. What could be simpler? Professor Kukui also has one further gift for me: a Rotom to inhabit my Pokédex. This is another thing I knew was coming, because the Rotomdex was revealed in the very first trailer for Sun and Moon, but I imagine I’ll have more things to say about it as the story progresses, since the Rotomdex is apparently a character in its own right and has opinions about events in the game.
So yeah, all of this is really promising so far! I’m not yet 100% sold on the new Pokémon I’ve met so far, but they get the benefit of the doubt until they evolve, and I am loving the new mechanics and world-building. Alola seems like a really well fleshed-out place, and the fact that they actually seem to be ditching the usual Gym Leaders and Elite Four in favour of something with a more specific regional identity is frankly beyond anything I’d dared to hope for. There’s life in this old series yet!
Ridiculous quote log:
“Pretend you’re a Pokémon and use your Agility!”
…shut up, Kukui.
“Let’s go! Kneecaps!”
I… I think this random youngster wants to kill me and take my knees. Can I go home now?
“Oh yeah! Let’s go, Rockruff! My body is ready! Woo!”
…Kukui, I’m not sure what you’re doing in there, and I don’t want to know; hell, I just married an owl so it’s not like I’m in a position to judge; just… promise me I won’t be implicated in anything unnatural.