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SummaryTwo steps forward, one step back... or is it the other way around?
The GoodPokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon bring back the series' once long-standing tradition of releasing an updated "third version" a year or two after a pair's initial release. True to form, these two new games bring a lot of gameplay enhancements to the Sun and Moon experience, some being brand-new features and others simple quality of life improvements. A few of the smaller, yet greatly appreciated updates include making some evolution methods accessible earlier on in the main story, the return of the sixth generation games' O-Powers, and a slightly expanded regional Pokédex.
My personal favorite new feature is the Alola Photo Club, a surprisingly addictive side mode in which you can pose your player character and/or Pokémon for photos, then later decorate them with a variety of cute little stickers and borders. It's probably the closest we'll ever get to a proper Pokémon Snap sequel, and it's way more fun than it has any right to be. One of the other major minigames introduced, Mantine Surf, provides a new way to earn Battle Points. While it's not really my thing, it's great news for those who want to buy from BP shops but struggle with the special battle facilities. Lastly, the Ultra Warp Ride is a minigame where performing well gives you a chance to encounter legendaries, Ultra Beasts, and shiny Pokémon, all while being pretty fun on its own.
As expected of a modern Pokémon game, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon also introduce new forms for existing Pokémon, the standout this time around being an incredibly cool-looking Psychic/Dragon form for the legendary Necrozma. However, in a series first, they also introduce five new Pokémon mid-generation. Four of these are Ultra Beasts, a class of Pokémon I quickly fell in love with after Sun and Moon introduced them a year before. While these new four add very little to the plot or lore, they're all well-designed additions that have the same otherworldly essence I've come to love about the UBs.
The BadHowever, several common complaints about the original Sun and Moon pair remain unchanged, or are addressed in a halfhearted way that doesn't do enough to improve the overall experience. One such example is the lack of good places to train high-level Pokémon. The levels of wild Pokémon in postgame areas have just barely been raised, and while the new Ultra Space Wilds do contain some strong enemies that give good experience, getting there is too inefficient to be considered a good solution.
In one baffling case, a maligned feature has been made even worse. The Rotom Pokédex was a feature from the earlier pair that nobody asked for and has been generally panned for its annoying and repetitive dialogue, and now it's become even more obnoxious. Instead of occasional brief quips from it on the bottom screen, it now has some long tangent to go off on every minute or two. Returning to the overworld from a battle or menu seems to always trigger its unwanted advice-giving, which blocks off other touch screen features like the map until it's done.
My other major gripe about these games is the story. While Pokémon games have never been known for great storytelling, Sun and Moon blew me away last year by not only shaking up the standard formula, but also by telling a surprisingly mature and emotional story about the protagonist's friend, Lillie, and her relationship with her abusive mother. It managed to address the topic in a family-friendly way without pulling any punches, which is something I have a great deal of respect for.
All of that was gutted in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Instead, we get another legendary Pokémon doomsday plot, not all that different from older games in the series. While some of Lillie's family drama remains, what was and was not changed feels very inconsistent and often out-of-place, and it's concluded in a much less satisfying way. Certain plot points from the previous games are still brought up here, but are either never addressed again, or make little sense in the context of the changed story. There's a new postgame storyline about the return of the main antagonists from previous games, and while it does have a few fun and rather challenging battles, it didn't seem to have much point beyond being a glorified boss rush that was over in less than a couple hours. Overall, both of these major plots are messily written, and I couldn't really feel invested in them.
The Bottom LineWhile I've still been enjoying my time with Ultra Moon, and I don't have enough praise for the various additions it makes to the vanilla Sun and Moon experience, it's hard to be totally enthusiastic when considering all the simple and seemingly obvious improvements that could have been made but weren't. Meanwhile, the story is an absolutely enormous letdown after the high expectations I had coming off the previous pair of games.
On top of all that, in the age of DLC, it's hard to justify continuing the old "third version" practice to begin with. Everything Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon bring to the table could have been incorporated into the vanilla games as DLC, and I'd have been perfectly happy to pay $15 or $20 for such a package. However, it's not worth the $40 pricetag of a brand new game. Judged on their own merits without comparison to other games, the Ultra games are an acceptable addition to the series, but with these other points taken into consideration, I really hesitate to recommend them.