Pokemon Alpha Sapphire Review: Can't Go Hoenn Again

The Pokemon series brings back two fan-favorites with Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby; but is the annual release schedule starting to wear thin for the venerable franchise? Our review.

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I'm beginning to suspect that the world has enough Pokemon remakes.

Don't get me wrong; Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire mostly do right by the GBA originals. By incorporating more than a decade's worth of new features and gameplay tweaks, some much-needed pacing improvements, as well as hundreds of Pokemon that didn't even exist in 2002, these reimagined versions of Ruby and Sapphire look and play better than ever.

But here's the question I kept coming back to as I worked my way through these remakes: What is it about Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire that's worth revisiting?

It's certainly not the story. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire employ the same tired narrative framework Pokemon games have been using for generations now: a young boy or girl leaves home with dreams of rising through the ranks of the Pokemon League; along the way, a criminal organization meddles with powers it can't possibly control; and, inexplicably, every adult in a position of authority agrees to entrust the fate of the planet to our pint-sized protagonist. If you've played any Pokemon game--not just the ones on which these remakes were based--then you already have a pretty good idea of how these stories shake out.

What about the setting, then? I often see forum posts by fans gushing over Ruby and Sapphire's Hoenn region, but I've never understood that enthusiasm. The overabundance of waterways throughout the map makes navigation a chore; I don't know how anyone can enjoy pinballing between random battles, desperately trying to sort out exactly where in the big, blue void to swim next. Moreover, Ruby and Sapphire's world design is far less visually interesting than the series has been of late. Pokemon X and Y, for example, had this wonderfully-realized French motif, whereas this year's rereleases look more... well, like Pokemon games. It's hard to fault the developers at Game Freak for simply building prettier versions of the environments from the GBA era, but the locales in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do come off a bit vanilla compared to recent entries in the franchise.

Perhaps the one aspect of Ruby and Sapphire that actually deserves another look, Secret Bases received a heck of an overhaul for the remakes. In the past, players could establish their own hidden lairs in the caverns and treetops of Hoenn, then share those decorated spaces with others by hooking up a link cable. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire treat these hideouts like full-on custom Pokemon gyms, allowing you to set up traps, recruit AI-controlled versions of other players' teams, and even modify the rules of battle. On top of that, since we've long outgrown the need for link cables or physical interaction, you can distribute your base to friends and strangers worldwide via QR codes or through the 3DS' built-in Street Pass functionality. It's honestly the coolest thing they've done with this series in a long time, and I hope Game Freak continues to iterate on Secret Bases in the future.

Alongside Secret Bases, the Contest Halls from Ruby and Sapphire are also back for their 3DS debut. This secondary competitive circuit operates much like a talent show, allowing Pokemon to show off their moves onstage in an attempt to wow an audience. While I'm all for giving players something to do with their Pokemon outside of the traditional turn-based battles, these contests never clicked with me. The rules aren't explained well, you almost have to raise Pokemon specifically for contests in order to succeed, and the rewards for winning--ribbons that only appear on your Pokemon's stat page--are a joke. On the plus side, all of this content remains totally optional, and, upon completing your first show, you get to make friends with a Pikachu who's into cosplaying as a luchador. So maybe it's not all that bad.

For what it's worth, though, these aren't just strict remakes of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. In addition to the obvious visual upgrades, Game Freak made an effort to streamline the adventure by providing optional warps at key points in the story. This really helps eliminate backtracking and keeps the plot moving at a decent clip, even if it can screw with your overall sense of geographical awareness. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire also pull in nearly all of the great new features from X and Y; Mega Evolutions, constant access to multiplayer modes on the bottom screen, the ability to interact with Pokemon by using the stylus, more accessible breeding/training, etc. The only major omission here is character customization, the lack of which I find just as puzzling as disappointing.

While Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are technically based on older games, that hasn't stopped Game Freak from including some genuinely new stuff, too. My favorite addition has to be the DexNav, which turns the bottom screen into a sort of tracking device for wild Pokemon. This allows you to identify Pokemon lurking in rustling bushes and decide on the spot whether to sneak up on them or bail. It also sports a search function, which really comes in handy for hunting down specific targets without having to worry about randomly bumping into a bunch of Geodudes and Zubats every few steps. Not only that, but as you encounter the same Pokemon over and over, the DexNav's search levels up for that particular monster; an increased search level means better chances of finding Pokemon with unusual moves, greater stat potential, and higher levels. And because the DexNav keeps track of when you've captured at least one of each species of Pokemon available in any given location, it compelled me to stick around until I'd scooped up every last critter in the area before moving on to the next story beat. It's a smart, surprisingly addictive innovation that livens up an otherwise by-the-numbers Pokemon adventure.

Last year's games wound up somewhat anemic on the post-story content front, so I'm happy to report that there's plenty to do once you've finished the main quests this time around. An additional mission called the Delta Episode unlocks after the credits roll, and while it primarily recycles locations from earlier portions of the game, this epilogue chapter takes the story in some fun new directions. Beyond that, dozens of legendary Pokemon from nearly every game in the series dot the post-game landscape of Hoenn; catching them all should keep Pokedex completionists busy for quite some time.

What you won't find in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire's endgame, however, is the Battle Frontier. Introduced in Pokemon Emerald, the 2005 director's cut of Ruby and Sapphire, the Frontier offered a huge variety of unique and challenging battle scenarios for top-level players. Though it hasn't made an appearance since the 2010 remakes of Gold and Silver, many fans expected the Battle Frontier to return with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Instead, all you'll find where the Frontier should be is the inferior Battle Maison from Pokemon X and Y, and, as if to add insult to injury, a non-interactive monument to the Battle Frontier.

Depending on your math, these games mark the fifth round of rereleases and director's cuts since the original Ruby and Sapphire. That's more than half of the overall number of Pokemon games shipped in the past 12 years. Worse yet, several of the original entries in the franchise share so much of their puzzle design and story structure with earlier games that, apart from incremental upgrades here and there, they might as well be remakes themselves. X and Y were especially guilty of this, and I'm not sure how much longer Nintendo can sustain an annual release schedule on such minor advancements.

Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do a fine enough job bringing the GBA releases up to modern standards. But when 50 percent of all Pokemon games are remakes and the rest feel like remakes, it just makes me wish my favorite game series would stop dwelling on the past.

Freelancer
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Pros
  • The definitive versions of Ruby and Sapphire
  • Secret Bases let you try your hand at being a gym leader
  • The DexNav makes catching them all fun again.
Cons
  • Dull, disorienting world design
  • Fatigue caused by annual Pokemon releases
  • The continued absence of the Battle Frontier
From The Chatty