Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
As we do every time a new (or old!) Pokémon game hits shelves, my partner and I have been working our way through Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which launched today on the 3DS. These two are sort of a remix of last year’s Sun and Moon, using the same monster-filled archipelago as those tropically themed installments while telling an altered story, dumping in the requisite additional super-strong creatures, adding a few new sidequests and annoying mini-games (please stop asking me if I want to take photos with my Pokémon), and changing up a few of the Island Trial challenges that stand in for older games’ gym battles. I’m only two islands deep right now, and the changes have been pretty minimal, but it seems like most of the new stuff is being saved for the backend. Still, I’ve enjoyed falling back into the comforting Pokémon rhythm, and as revisiting Sun and Moon after having played some of the old-school games again proves, these latest iterations finally made some great, much-needed changes to that rhythm.
Yes, there are all the little conveniences that the series has slowly been building up as standards changed and technology improved—unlimited inventory space, using a touchscreen to manipulate your Pokémon collection, letting you teach the same TM to as many Pokémon as you want—but it took 20 god damn years for the developers to finally shake up Pokémon’s fundamental structure.
And holy hell, did it need modernizing. The decision to move away from traditional gym gauntlets and toward this new model of island trials yields some mixed results—the totem Pokémon boss battles are an interesting concept, and while most of the trials themselves are completely uninspired, they at least allow for you to visit some interesting settings—but the obvious stroke of genius was ditching the HM system that’s haunted these games ever since their inception. Now, instead of having to load up your team with pointless slaves that can cut down bushes or brighten up dark caves, you eventually get the ability to hit a button and call in a Pokémon that can do the same thing. Functionally, it’s the exact same system, but you never have to worry about doubling and pulling out some piece of crap Pokémon because you found a bunch of rocks that need pushing. Honestly, how did it take them this long to come up with an alternative? [Matt Gerardi]
My wife is pregnant as all hell—you do not know anticipation until you’ve waited a week for a damn child to be born—and so we’ve been looking for things to do to pass the time. In addition to watching a bunch of Noah Baumbach movies and stockpiling frozen dinners, we have finally gotten around to cracking open the copy of Pandemic: Legacy I bought earlier this year, and the hype is absolutely real. Pandemic is the most popular and acclaimed of the new trend of “Legacy” games, which, rather than resetting after each round, evolve wildly with each playthrough. New rules are introduced, characters and locations are permanently named, cards are torn up, and insults are scrawled across the board. There’s a bawdy touch of heresy to the proceedings, as well as mystery: The boxes themselves are full of secret compartments, dossiers full of warnings and “never open” precautions, sealed envelopes that you may not crack into for months. Most of all, the games draw out the nature of the group playing, forcing difficult partnerships and arguments that are, at the end of the day, the reason we play tabletop games in the first place.
I’d previously played Risk Legacy with a group of friends over the course of months last year, and the rifts it inspired in our friendship have proven lasting. (I am still referred to as “Oathbreaker” by them, but I stand by my methods.) The collaborative nature of Pandemic makes a lot more sense alongside someone who is housing a fully developed, obstinately unborn human who enjoys high-kicking her ribcage. But moreover, designer Rob Daviau seems to have taken the lessons of Risk and crafted something altogether more balanced, with carefully designed mid-game lurches in difficulty and a masterful set of checks and balances that turn each game into a last-second victory or loss.
And while Risk packed some true insanity in its various hidden compartments, Pandemic’s narrative is just as bonkers and even better told, the twist ending of one game leading masterfully into the challenge of the next. We’ll probably be done with the game’s entire first “season” by the time this little asshole comes out, but fortunately enough, the second season just came out, so we’ll have something else to do while he barfs on us all winter. [Clayton Purdom]