Pokemon X and Y getting new friend system, tons of tweaks

By Steve Watts, Jun 12, 2013 8:00am PDT

Pokemon has been one of the Nintendo's slowest-evolving franchises, ironic given what the series is about. The company hews closely to tradition, building a devoted fanbase, and constantly inviting a new generation of players to take up their own mantle as Pokemon trainers. At an E3 panel last night, Game Freak and The Pokemon Company revealed how it plans to pack new features into Pokemon X and Y without jostling the formula too severely.

Online functionality is getting the most serious overhaul, with the addition of the Player Search System (PSS). Entering the system splits players into three distinct categories: Passersby, Acquaintances, and Friends. The first category, naturally, are people who happen to be playing at the same time you are. Interacting with them once, either to battle or trade, moves them up to the Acquaintances list.

Keep playing with those Acquaintances, and the game will prompt you to add them as a Friend, which also in turn adds them to your system-level 3DS friends list. Likewise, your existing friends will be on that list from the start, if they're playing Pokemon. You can also set Favorites, which should come in handy if you have too many Pokemaniac friends to keep straight which ones are the best sports.

Battles appear more dynamic, in more ways than one. Battles against online opponents can be given custom rule sets and even different music if it suits your fancy. Battling Pokemon consists of more sweeping camera angles and action-animations, complemented by the nicely-rendered 3D Pokemon. New Sky Battles take place between airborne Pokemon, like Flying and Ghost types. While not exactly a game-changer, the new perspective does allow for some different camera angles and movement.

The more striking innovation, in terms of battles, comes in the form of Horde Encounters. Game Freak director Junichi Masuda said that it wanted to offer hard random encounters, but since you can capture your foes, you could potentially capture an overpowered Pokemon and throw off the game balance. Hordes are the solution. Rather than one extremely strong Pokemon to up the ante, you'll face groups of up to five all at once, and each of them get to hit you for each blow you deliver. The examples we saw were generally packs of the same types, but one was notably a mixed set. Obviously these battles yield much larger XP rewards as well.

All that might seem like this is a much more rough-and-tumble Pokemon, but Masuda emphasized that they want this game to be a more focused on socializing and having fun. Even the role of the rivals was said to be de-emphasized to make the world seem like a more welcoming, happy place.

Contributing to the spirit of peace and love is "Pokemon-Amie," a new system that lets you interact with your pocket monsters in first-person perspective. You can pet them and feed them treats. As you interact, the 3DS camera will watch you, so if you tilt your head the Pokemon might tilt its head. It's a cute mini-game diversion, but more than that, the Pokemon will grow more attached to you and work harder for you during battles. That means better chances of dodging or landing critical hits, for example.

Pokemon purists might be caught off-guard by the presence of a new Pokemon class: the fairy type. Masuda explained that while the company has tried to balance the Pokemon, the Dragon type has become too overpowered. Since fans don't want the Dragon type to be weakened, they felt they needed to come up with some new class that could serve as a counter-weight.

Those changes are major by Pokemon standards, but a few things are remaining more-or-less the same. X & Y will still only allow one save file at a time, a point the developers are quite insistent on. You can customize your avatar slightly, with options of hairstyles, but the character models look mostly set. And movement is still locked to a grid for ease of placing enemy encounters, though you will now be able to move in eight directions instead of the cardinal four.

And what of your progress in previous games? Asked if players would be able to import from previous games, Masuda simply said they're "working on it."

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