For as familiar Pokémon Sun and Moon is—and it definitely is—it also diverges so far from the formula that has kept it a fan-fueling franchise for the past 20 years that it’s almost alarming. And it would be if these changes weren’t largely for the better, simply making this a more cohesive, enjoyable, and pleasant monster capturing experience than any that preceded it. It removes and revises much of what made this an exhausting series and adds pieces that open the door just a bit wider to more potential players.

Whether you find that good or bad is likely dependent on what exactly brought you back game after game, but it is the undeniable direction they have been moving. That includes a more robust story, a trend the last entry Pokémon X and Y arguably kicked off by greatly expanding the consequential lore of this universe, and more complex rock-paper-scissors-lightning-dragon-etc interactions between all the pugilistic critters. And all of it and more stems from the simple act of changing locations.

You step into the shoes of an 11-year-old Pokémon Master-to-be, recently moved from Red and Blue‘s Kanto region to the Hawaii-lite Alola region. You’ll travel around to the area’s many islands and prove your mettle against type-based combatants, but they no longer reside in gyms and you don’t get badges proving you’ve bested their leader. Indeed, the core structure of the series has been almost entirely gutted.

Instead, you’ll be attempting to survive several trials, though they still do culminate in an otherwise traditional battle with a head honcho. Each one requirements different things of the player to complete, giving the whole ordeal a much more unique and fresh sensation as opposed to stomping into a town and beating up everyone in sight. It’s reminiscent of the movement puzzles of X and Y‘s dungeons and gyms except actually enjoyable.

It is a hard shift, though, if you aren’t prepared for it, definitely requiring some amount of acclimation to the change of pace. But the battles quickly and assuringly settle into what you recognize: monsters fighting monsters. The presentation, however, is greatly improved. Animations and move sequences look far less canned and repetitive. And once you get in there, there are some gameplay changes that are hugely welcome.

First and foremost is now you can see how moves you’ve previously attempted against particular Pokémon chart in terms of effectiveness. This is becomes so unbelievably vital that it’s surprising it hadn’t been included in past games, especially as the number and types of Pokémon continue to increase far beyond the mental capacity of anything less than a fully devout trainer. How are you supposed to remember what’s weak against something that’s both water and electric? That’s just a nonsense creature.

Pokémon Sun and Moon

But you can also get thrown for a loop in the midst of a battle, too, when a Pokémon calls for help from other wild brethren. It might work and it might not, but it adds a layer of urgency to random encounters, trying to get your dirt done under the wire before reinforcements potentially arrive. And once they do, it shakes up the encounter enough to where haggard slogs turn into often interesting double-up battles.

You can also be the instigator for variety by utilizing Z-Crystals, your new reward for beating the trials in the place of badges. They’re pretty much the same thing as Mega Stones introduced in X and Y but any Pokémon can use them. The crystal just has to match the type of the move and you can launch a suped-up Z-Move version of their attack. They’re not as drastic as a Mega Evolution but they’re still fun and relatively useful.

The story of the game is also fairly interesting by virtue of the new trial-based structure, but the characters you encounter are also quite memorable. They don’t just pop up and fight you at inconvenient times on bridges and in dilapidated buildings but instead become genuine friends over the course of the game. This even oddly includes the trial captains, who feel personable and invested in your journey.

Pokémon Sun and Moon

It’s a small cast, which might be why they’re so effective, but it’s also indicative of the overall far narrower scope of the story. It’s almost egregiously linear, pointing you from one location to another with Call of Duty-like efficiency. Even all the fun shenanigans you could engage with in past games seem to have regressed, though you would expect this sunny surf to engender more activities. Sure, there are 800 Pokémon to go out and capture, but there’s little else to promote past the main narrative.

And that’s fine for the most part. Trading in an overtly expansive setting for sizable improvements and ambition of the gameplay is one I’ll gladly take. Sun and Moon is the first game of the series in a long time where exhaustion and frustration weren’t an anxiously anticipated part of the experience. Whether you’re returning or new to the pocket monster lifestyle, this is one to catch for yourself.

+ Refreshing trial structure replaces the tired gyms of old
+ Tracking effectiveness for the player is a damn godsend
+ Gorgeous presentation with some great characters
– Aggressively linear story and world

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Pokémon Sun and Moon
Release: November 18, 2016
Genre: Role-playing
Developer: Game Freak
Available Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Players: Single-player, multiplayer
MSRP: $39.99