"Hey! I'm not weird or anything" says an elderly gentleman working at a children's school to my 11-year-old character as I investigate one of Pokemon: Omega Ruby's early towns. Disturbing overtones aside, I find myself relating to this guy. I've played every Pokémon game over the past 15 years, and Omega Ruby, despite it being an enjoyable entry into the series, has made me realise what used to be youthful excitement and anticipation for the newest entry is now juxtaposed with a nagging familiarity. I might be getting too old for this.
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, for those unaware, tell the same core narrative as the 2002 entries they're based on (aside from adaptations to incorporate Mega Evolutions of later games and some post-Elite Four bits, which I won't spoil here). The game has naturally been given a graphical update, bringing it in line with later instalments. There are also some brand new features, like Secret Bases - glorified storage closets for players to showcase trinkets collected throughout their adventure - make a return to the series, but with a few new tweaks such as allowing players to share their hideouts, either via StreetPass or QR codes, where you can chat or challenge fellow trainers to a battle. New Mega Evolutions, the ability to cosplay Pikachu (although, surprisingly, I never had the temptation to dress up mine) and other minor tweaks that don't change anything in a meaningful way have also been added. The most appropriate way to describe these entries is Omega X and Alpha Y: last year's gameplay with a 12-year-old story.
The ever-increasing sense of familiarity may be disappointing to longstanding fans of the series, but when you consider the core target audience was probably in nappies when Ruby and Sapphire first rolled around, you begin to understand the continued retreads. Omega Ruby is a good Pokémon game, but essentially yet another slight variation on very familiar tropes.
In fact, it is a much easier version of the game we played over a decade ago. The minor gameplay adjustments made with each new iteration, while largely welcome, have served to both aid players and lessen the challenge. Using EXP Share (introduced in X/Y) to level up one's entire party, rather than a single additional Pokémon, means that having a catalogue of high level monsters is now much more attainable, rather than relying on one badass and a bag chock full of potions to take on the Elite Four. Status effects no longer hurt Pokémon outside of battle, XP is earned even when catching them, and TMs (Technical Machines, which are used to teach your party moves) are no longer lost when taught.
All these adjustments create an easier experience, while not significantly damaging the overall product. Traversal improvements like NPCs guiding you to the next part of the game, using a cutscene to take you there, are also very helpful. Cutting out a walk or bike across half of the Hoenn region before being granted the ability to use Fly outside of battle is appreciated, especially if you take a break between sessions and forget what you're doing.
There are still some minor frustrations that could do with fixing. If a player has a party of fewer than six, newly-caught Pokémon automatically join the gang, which is frustrating if you're trying to level up your select few: XP is split between the team, and newcomers can only be removed at computer stations. Pokémon still carry the same sound effects they did on their debuts, with the original 150 sporting midi-style chimes reminiscent of their Game Boy incarnations (Pikachu being the exception, his sounds originating from the anime), so an audio refresh would be most welcome. The fact I still need to drag around a low-level Gyarados just to teach it HMs (Hidden Machine moves) is a pain in the ass, especially as HMs still can't be forgotten without speaking to the Move Deleter. Having to save multiple times in order to get into the game's online section is also tedious, and saying no to any save will prevent you from connecting.
That said the online game, specifically trading, is where more recent Pokémon entries have really shone, and Omega Ruby is no different. Back in '02, my friends and I were using Link Cables to trade Pokémon, trying to pull the plug prematurely to glitch the game and duplicate Mew. Now, I can connect to the internet and trade instantly, with anyone. I've poured too many hours into Wonder Trade to admit, a place where players can send a Pokémon into the interwebs and receive a random one in return. It's surprisingly exciting waiting to see what you get, like opening a pack of stickers or turning the dial on a Gachapon machine.
For the Murtaugh-esque Pokémon fans, the question of whether or not Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire are worth picking up boils down to when you last played Pokémon, and how enthusiastic you remain for the series. If you have a hankering for catching 'em all, then you only have to answer the same question you did in 1996: red or blue?
Episode Delta is a breath of fresh air for the Pokémon narrative
After beating the Elite Four in Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire, a new narrative opens up to play through. Think of Episode Delta as story-based DLC similar to that seen in other games, only this one is included in the entry fee. The setup is that a huge asteroid is heading straight for Hoenn. You're tasked with traversing the region in search of Key Stones to tame the Legendary Rayquaza and save the day.
Episode Delta feels like an experiment. A side project attempting to push the boat out and tell a different tale to what we've seen for nearly two decades, one that doesn't involve finding a professor running around in a bush. While the main game follows the same basic Pokémon plot, Episode Delta is a long overdue change of pace, and arguably the most interesting part of the entire package.
While I could predict the major plot points of the main game, Episode Delta kept me guessing. I was in uncharted territory. While it's still a linear episode, not knowing the script brought back memories of first picking up Pokémon Red.
Granted, while averting its own tropes, it conforms to others of the genre. Much of the episode's playtime was made up of fetch quests, whizzing back-and-forth between locations visited en route to the Elite Four, but the interactions along the way kept me interested. There were also battles to be had in these areas thanks to a respawning trainers, each with upgraded Pokémon to match the progress of the player.
The conclusion of Episode Delta felt more in line with an anime than a game. Again, no spoilers, but the animations used to represent the final battle and its climax created a sense of scale most battles have sorely lacked, thanks to their meagre representation of seemingly gargantuan attacks.
I can only hope that Episode Delta is more than just a post-game story. To offer fans a taste of a narrative away from the familiar, only to deliver yet another remake next year would disappoint. The Pokémon IP has so many stories to tell, particularly from the anime. A completely new story may be a big step, but it could be exactly what the franchise needs.