More Fangames: A first look at Pokemon Sage (Demo 2.0)

01 Oct

Last year, I wrote about my experiences with some fan-made games, one of which was Pokemon Uranium. One of our commenters made us aware of Pokemon Sage then, and I thought it looked promising and would be well worth keeping an eye on. At the time, I got the impression it was still in a very early state, there was plenty of concept work to look through and a short playable demo but not enough to draw any firm conclusions one way or another.

I later stumbled across discussions of Pokemon Sage again, in reading discussions of Pokemon Uranium in a Let’s Play thread by Orange Fluffy Sheep on the Something Awful forums (the Let’s Play forum is a guilty pleasure of mine, I lurk but don’t participate). People there were much harsher on Uranium than I was (I think rightly so; I do still mostly like it, but I’ll readily admit most of the flaws they tore it apart for are real and deserve the mockery), and several of them kept bringing up Pokemon Sage as an example of a Pokemon fangame that gets right the things Uranium got wrong.

To make a long story short, they’re absolutely right. But we’ll get to that.

Anyway, I was in the mood to play some Pokemon recently, and remembered that earlier this year (late July, I don’t know the exact date) a more substantial demo of Pokemon Sage had been released. I don’t normally care for playing incomplete games – I can tolerate incomplete or abandonned serial fiction, but when it’s a video game and you add to that the possibility of getting psychologically invested in a save file (which may not be compatible with future versions of the game even if it does continue to update), the frustration level increases greatly. That said, Sage intrigued me enough and the new demo had enough of it implemented that I thought it was worth giving a try, so here’s my review of Pokemon Sage Demo 2.0.5 (this version released 10 August 2017, available here) after having played it to completion.

[I won’t be contributing much to this one, I haven’t played it yet – it looks really promising and I probably will, but I also want to try and wait for the full game.]

Before discussing anything about the demo itself, we need to have a brief digression to talk about some background details on Pokemon Sage and its creators. Content note/trigger warning: 4chan and everything that entails.

Here is a link to the About page on the Pokemon Sage wiki, which explains some of the history and design philosophy behind the game. I’ll quote this paragraph because it’s concise and includes all the necessary details:

Pokémon Sage is a Pokémon fan-game, created by the anonymous members of 4chan’s /vp/ board. It began as the project CAPX, which stands for “Create a Pokédex”, and was simply a collaborative attempt to design a set of new Pokémon (fakemon). It was later decided to create a fan-game that used them, and thus /vp/ Makes A Game (also known as Gen /vp/) began. This was later renamed to Pokémon Sage.

Hoo boy. There’s a lot to unpack there.

As someone to whose first mental associations with “4chan” are things like gamergate, child pornography, neo-Nazis, and Trump supporters, this did not instill me with confidence and sounded like a recipe for utter disaster. (Go see what David Futrelle has to say if you don’t want to take my word for it, he’s got lots of examples cited.) I will readily admit that I am not an expert on 4chan (and I have never and will never visit the site) and therefore not well informed concerning distinctions in culture between boards there – I have no idea what /vp/ is, the only boards I know by name are /b/ and /pol/ and that is specifically because they are hives of deplorable scum; I suppose it’s theoretically possible that those are frequented by completely different people but at least some overlap is more likely.

Before you protest that guilt by association is considered a logical fallacy and how dare I judge the site by its worst members – the standard you walk past is the standard you accept (thanks David Morrison although he claims the quote did not originate with him). Participating in a community where such behaviour is tolerated without condemning it is tantamount to endorsing it (or more explicitly: choosing to be part of a community where such things occur when there is nothing keeping you from leaving is at bare minimum a statement that it is not a dealbreaker for you), and normalisation of this kind is precisely what causes the Overton window to shift in the long term. Much as it is anathema to many people to admit, there is no such thing as “just talk” (or its cousin, “just joking”), because through repetition and rehearsal even outrageous ideas gather a veneer of legitimacy. Trolling is not value-neutral, and neither is Freeze Peach.

So I admit openly that I am prejudiced against anything even tangentially connected to 4chan (as any human being with a modicum of decency ought to be), and as such I had a lot of misgivings about Pokemon Sage. Honestly, it helped a bit that I saw enough on the wiki to get a sense of the quality of design involved, and that the game was unlikely to reflect the attitudes I feared it would, before actually learning of the connection.

In the end, I was both right and wrong to worry. Another Pokemon fangame made by people from 4chan exists: “Pokemon Clover”, which I will not link to and honestly feel dirty even mentioning (I learned about this one from the Something Awful thread also). That one is explicitly a 4chan pokemon game, with everything that entails: among other things, it contains pokemon based on racist caricatures like Muslim suicide bombers, as well as others explicitly representing the KKK and the Holocaust. It’s hard to believe it exists, and just knowing that it does (and that that means enough people wanted it badly enough to put serious effort into making it, it’s a completed game for fuck’s sake) evokes possibly inexpressible levels of disgust in me. But at the same time, its existence may paradoxically be what allowed Sage to be good, in providing a dumping ground for those things so they would not end up in it, and an outlet for the people who incomprehensibly wanted a Pokemon game with those things in it.

And Pokemon Sage is good. In fact, not only is it free of outrageous explicit bigotry, it’s actually a lot better on e.g. the unconscious sexism front than many other fangames and even the official games. This isn’t like Uranium, which I think meant well in places (such as offering an androgynous protagonist of unspecified gender) but had far too many instances of background sexism where the best I could say was “official games fucked this up too”. In fact, it was so absent in Sage that I found myself noticing and enjoying the absence (while it’s a horrid cliche, I can’t help thinking of an invisible weight being lifted off the shoulders). It really was an utter relief to play a game that was free of sexist flavour text and mind-numbingly stupid writing decisions. I went back and played Uranium a little as comparison and the difference is palpable.

This is not to say that Sage is perfect; there are still a handful of sexualised trainer sprites (though they’re few enough I’m willing to overlook), and the rematch trainers are still skewed (I gravitate toward those as a metric because it’s easy to measure).

Emerald: 29 female of 69 total (excl. gym leaders/elite four; including them it’s 35 of 82) either way this is about 42%
Uranium: 2 female of 13 total, about 15%
Sage demo: 4 female of 11 total, about 36% (I was actually surprised by these numbers, because the first six alternated and were 50/50 so my first impression was better, then along came a bunch of guys in a row)

Here’s another look. Here’s Sage’s wiki page of generic trainer sprites. It’s not perfect – you do still get a bit of the problem where a female character will be showing more skin (especially leg) than her male counterpart – but far more of them are in functional clothing and you get some variety in body types and skin colour (there’s still the problem that only men get to be fat, though; OTOH I did appreciate seeing muscular/bodybuilder-type women like Amber and Stella get some representation). The wiki actually claims the conceptual inspiration for Stella was Rosie the Riveter, of all things, which is a nice touch.

Weirdly, the Sage sprite that bothers me the most is actually the front/battle sprite for Sofia (female protagonist and/or friendly rival). I don’t object to her character design per se (though the shorts are a bothersome choice considering her hometown is always snowy, and her counterpart Simon gets proper trousers), but her stance in that particular sprite is awful and was clearly drawn by someone who has never attempted to stand that way (I think it’s generally called “pigeon toe”); I suspect it’s supposed to be cute but just looking at it makes me wince. Although, again, I’ve definitely seen worse. And the rest of Sofia’s sprites are fine, so if you play as her you’ll only ever see the awful one on the “trainer card” status screen and there are few reasons to check that (honestly, this almost made me regret choosing Simon).

(It may be worth playing through with both protagonists at some point to see if there are any dialogue changes, as this ended up being quite sexist in some previous games, but I have not yet done this. The wiki doesn’t give any reason to suspect this might be the case, but I’m not sure whether it would.)

But in short, there is nothing in Pokemon Sage that would have suggested the 4chan connection to me had I not already known about it. There are apparently a few subtle references (which I only know about because the wiki explains them): the only ones I know of are the title (apparently taken from a forums term), and the game’s Ditto clone (it’s called ‘Viipii’ after the name of the board, and its visual design is based on the site admin’s avatar), both of which are easily overlooked if you don’t know to look for them. (And on some level, I guess it’s weirdly fitting and self-aware that they made the 4chan pokemon the thing whose identity revolves around being able to fuck anything? I almost want to say that’s cute.)

The other concern I had about Sage is that it could have fallen prey to the “too many cooks” problem, given how many people are apparently involved in working on it, but it seems like they’re managing to avoid that. I don’t know what their methodology is precisely, but it sounds something like people suggest ideas that are eventually put to a vote as to whether they’ll be included and/or which version of a thing will be. Ordinarily I’d imagine this could be a recipe for disaster, but if anything it seems like it might also work as a moderating influence that might also keep outrageous (and/or gameplay unbalanced) things from making it in. Regardless, so far what I’ve seen is coherent and seems to have a consistent aesthetic, so however they’re managing it seems to be working.

Whew. That was a longer digression than I intended, I apparently had more to say about this than I thought I would. Anyway, let’s move on to talking about the game itself.

Pokemon Sage is yet another Pokemon fangame built in RPG Maker XP using the Pokemon Essentials base. This does mean it has some of the problems inherent in that – RPG Maker XP is an outdated version of the software and can have some performance issues on modern systems, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be (it’s much less choppy than Uranium, for instance, leading me to believe that game’s problems were not entirely the fault of RPG Maker). The game mechanics are based on the 5th generation of Pokemon, and the creators have made a deliberate choice not to update things like the type chart to take into account changes after that; given the long development time, it makes sense they may not want to have to rethink their game balance decisions to account for external changes.

The pokedex for this game (seen here) is entirely composed of original designs. There are 229 pokemon, which breaks down to 114 evolutionary lines or 120 final forms (taking into account branching evolutions). Nine of these are legendaries (two trios, a pair, and a single unconnected one that is central to the plot).

The demo has implemented 117 of these, though only 104 are obtainable (and these obtainable pokemon break down to 49 evolutionary lines or 54 final forms). I don’t think it’s possible to get a full sense of what the final set will be like just based on these (especially in terms of things like type availability), but I like what I saw so far. I’ll admit I don’t find all of the designs compelling, but at the very least they are all competently designed and I think the ones I don’t like will definitely appeal to someone (and there are a few I do absolutely love).

[Seconding the love for Galaxagos. It’s a space turtle. And it can learn Fly. You can fly on a space turtle in this game.]

Mark Rosewater (head designer of Magic: the Gathering if you don’t know who he is) often talks about it being more important that different players find something to be enthusiastic about in a set of game components than having everything be moderately appealing to everyone, and I think in that respect Sage is likely to succeed. They’re also trying some interesting things with type distribution compared to the official games – e.g., the early game here focuses on ice types, which have always tended to be a lategame thing and therefore get less exposure; in general, it seems like Sage is trying to turn on its head what we consider “common” types, and this actually does a pretty good job of making the game feel like a fresh experience while still using familiar mechanics and gameplay structure.

The demo has a decent amount of content, it was more substantial than I’d been expecting.

My final time played after reaching the end point of the demo was 12:37 according to the game, though I suspect that’s inflated a bit by some of my playing habits (e.g. I seem to be incapable of not being a completionist). For instance, I really don’t like moving on from a route without having caught one of each possible encounter; similarly, if I plan to actually use a pokemon on my team I will catch enough of them until I get one with a beneficial nature. There are also quite a few upgrades (e.g. HM moves, some key items) that encourage backtracking, and I probably didn’t do that in anywhere near the most efficient manner. Still, even if we assume my quirks make me tend to spend 50% more time than the average player, that’s still a solid 8 hours of content. It may not be a complete game – my impression based on things like the proposed world map and scenario descriptions is that this demo is maybe a third or so of the intended content – but there’s still enough there to be a satisfying experience in itself, I think.

I did find the pacing a bit weird in places, but I don’t necessarily think that’s unusual compared to many other Pokemon games (and also some of the pacing issues are exacerbated by this being a demo and where its endpoint happens to be placed). To elaborate: the first gym is placed about where you’d expect it to be, in the third town (counting the starting town as first); immediately after that is a long, grueling sequence of multiple complicated routes (and some side areas), some of which is plot-connected, and then eventually you reach the town with the second gym. This is a really enormous town with plenty to explore, and the second gym is much more elaborate and interesting than the first was. After beating the second gym, there’s a short plot sequence involving a small side area, then a single route to traverse before arriving in the next town, which contains the third gym (which was disappointingly more straightforward than the second) and is the final area implemented in the demo. There is also no message indicating the demo is finished or anything, there’s just nothing left to do after defeating the third gym leader (and a nearby path with an NPC who explicitly says ‘this area isn’t implemented in this demo, sorry’ which would presumably be the next place to go), so in that respect it ends on a whimper with no sense of closure.

There are also a couple of minor issues in places with how the game indicates where you need to go next – it’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s often not obvious (which may also have inflated my play time). They like using NPCs as arbitrary roadblocks like the official games do, which is fair enough, but it’s not always clear what the flag is that will cause them to move and/or which the next ones are going to be (especially when sometimes a side area opens up around the same time as one of these NPC roadblocks was actually the correct path, I found myself confused by why the side area dead-ended and didn’t realise a certain NPC had also disappeared; there are also a few such NPC roadblocks that I kept checking but never changed). There’s also one case where the route numbering adds confusion – Route 06 is blocked off by a roadblock like this but never becomes accessible at all, despite the wiki having encounter tables for it (I suspect this may be a relic of earlier scrapped plans) and suggesting it’s a place you’ll be able to go. Instead, you move on to Route 07 and never really return in that direction. Presumably it’s planned to open up later as either a path forward or a shortcut, and I think some of the official games’ route numbering had similar problems, but it still threw me off.

Those are pretty minor issues, though, and while it got a bit annoying in places I didn’t find they detracted too much from the experience. Some of these issues (e.g. the signposting) might be easy to fix if so desired, while the pacing issues are (while less problematic IMO) more deeply embedded and would probably require substantial redesign work. I honestly don’t think the pacing issues are nearly bad enough to be worth that much effort when instead they could be putting it toward building the rest of the game.

That got a bit more specific than I wanted to in starting this off (my instinct is to go depth-first rather than breadth-first, I think), so let’s try to do some general impressions before I get to all the little details I want to comment on (because, honestly, one of the most impressive things about this fangame so far is the attention to detail and I do want to highlight some examples).

Overall, this game is just really well done, and a great experience to play. It feels like a real Pokemon game. I can honestly say that I didn’t notice a single moment in the writing that jumped out as feeling distinctly like fanfic, in that way many fangames have (e.g. you can compare this to Uranium, which did have a lot of these). There are definitely aspects that I think come across as derivative – a lot of the time you can clearly see what trope they’re taking from an official pokemon game and putting their own twist on, and that’s what most of the writing in this is (more on this later) – but it’s well done, their approaches are often clever and do enough to feel distinct from the original that it works. While at times this leaves it feeling a bit generic, as it’s well within the space already carved out by Pokemon games, it’s so competently done that that never bothers me. For what it’s worth, the broad strokes of the plot seem a lot like generation 3 (Hoenn) but better executed, to the extent that it’s possible to tell from what’s currently finished.

Here are just a few examples of writing beats like this that I appreciated:

The game gives you a potion for interacting with the PC in the starting house, but doesn’t actually use the PC item storage system (it just says “there’s a potion next to the keyboard”). I like this; it’s a good way to wink & nod at a tradition without implementing a redundant storage system.

They also have an interesting tweak on the rival’s pokemon choice – they initially pick the one strong against yours and use that in the first battle, but that one gets stolen from them and the professor gives them the third one to make up for it. The thief eventually becomes another rival (I’m not entirely sure what I think of him yet, since he only appeared once in the demo – he’s more or less a stock outlaw/bandit out of the Western genre) and includes the stolen pokemon in his team. Admittedly, it annoyed me that after meeting him, the game didn’t let my character tell Sofia or the professor about it in subsequent encounters with them to get any kind of reaction, since you’d think they would care and the player character is supposed to be trying to help them get the pokemon back, but they might address that later.

While it’s not in the demo yet, I also quite like their planned take on the rival’s final team. The friendly (Simon/Sofia) rival’s final team has 4 fixed members, then their starter and the final member is a dual-type pokemon that covers the other two starter types (so fire/water, water/grass, or grass/fire). I thought this a pretty clever tweak on the concept and one the official games haven’t done yet; the closest they’ve come is the approach from the first-generation games (and which has repeated sometimes) where the rival’s team has a pokemon of each of the starter types, one of which will be replaced by whichever starter they chose. The thief is a bit less interesting; from what I can see, it looks like they’re just planning to give him a fixed team of five, plus whatever he stole in the final slot.

[It’s worth noting that the official games physically can’t do this. The only water/fire dual type in the canon ‘dex is an event-only legendary. Because the official games hate you and don’t want you to have fun.]

Here’s another thing I found cute – in one of the towns, you run across the professor’s assistant in the pokemon centre, and she offers to give you an egg if you’ve caught at least 40 pokemon species. I don’t know what she says if you actually do have 40 by that point (it’s feasible but unlikely; I had 38, having caught everything available but not evolved anything outside my main team), but in my case she offered to check and then said she didn’t really care, she had places to go so she’d give me the egg regardless. Once again, the text/scenario is a nice nod to things the official games did, without actually copying it (though, admittedly, I do like when the games actually reward you for reaching pokedex thresholds as that helps incentivise players to try, and hope they don’t plan to eliminate all of them; there were none such in the demo).

The music is also quite good. I wasn’t too impressed starting out, admittedly, but I think that’s just because the first track or two are a bit uninteresting; after that, they get much better (and a few songs grew on me the more I heard them). Quite a few of them I found very catchy, to the point of being earworms, though whether that’s a plus or not may depend on the listener. Also, consistent with their philosophy of reusing as few assets as possible from the official games, the vast majority of the soundtrack seems to be completely original (while also feeling appropriate to the series). The only remixed official songs I noticed were the Pokemon Centre and Shop themes, and while they are recognisable they seem to have used a different sound font so they have a distinct feel. Regardless, while I’m not sure how to define what that would mean, it all does seem to feel like Pokemon music.

Where this game really shines is in the attention to detail, I think. Just to highlight a few examples:

They implemented a pokemon following system, which was very popular when done in Heart Gold and Soul Silver (which generally get abbreviated to HG/SS, amusing Loten and me to no end) but never seen in other games (disregarding its early prototype in Yellow). This means they had to make animated following sprites for every pokemon in the dex (and they look pretty good to me), which is a really nontrivial amount of work especially considering when this is almost entirely a cosmetic feature. On top of this, you can turn around and “talk” to the pokemon to get various messages. I didn’t check this exhaustively, but the messages seem to change depending on the pokemon’s happiness level (giving you an indirect way of checking a normally inaccessible stat) and there seem to be different ones for different species of pokemon (though I’m not 100% sure about that). Truthfully, this isn’t a feature that does much for me in particular (though for contrast Loten seemed excited when I told her about it), but it does impress me with the amount of thought and care (and sheer effort) that is going into this game and is noteworthy for that regardless of anything else.

[I was excited. I still am. Having your pokemon follow you around is awesome. I derived a lot of entertainment from picturing my giant Onix crashing behind me all the way up the very rickety Bellsprout Tower.]

They also have unique egg sprites for each pokemon species (or at least are planning to; breeding isn’t in the demo yet and only one egg can be obtained). I really like this. Admittedly, it’s completely superfluous and the game wouldn’t suffer for lacking it, but it’s a nice quality of life thing when breeding to be able to tell eggs apart, and adds a bit of additional character to each pokemon species. It’s always been a bit weird to me that every species of pokemon hatches from utterly identical eggs, so I appreciate this, but of course it still doesn’t do anything to address the fact that in Pokemon world even the mammalian-looking ones are oviparous. This is yet another feature that probably requires more effort to implement than it’s worth, gameplay-wise, but which I think is more noteworthy precisely for that reason.

There are some aspects of the game where this is less apparent right now – for instance, I noticed quite a few of the move animations are still using defaults and placeholders from Pokemon Essentials (honestly, I only noticed this because Uranium used a lot of these as well, so they were familiar to me from there), but they’ve done enough custom ones that I doubt this will be true in the final version. I guess this just wasn’t a priority for them at this point (though the ones they have done look great).

The other main point worth discussing is difficulty and game balance. The core philosophy, as far as I can tell, is that they want the game to be hard but for its difficulty to be fair (as they put it on the wiki, they’re shooting for tougher than Platinum but easier than masochistic hard-type ROM hacks). On top of that, they seem to be attempting to balance the Pokemon stats and movesets such that every mon has its niche and can be successfully used if you like it (in other words, you won’t be finding any Luvdiscs here). That also helps contribute to the difficulty somewhat, because it means that there are a lot fewer pushover mons to fight and as a result you can find yourself needing to heal more often. I’ve noticed that’s a common thing in fangames to some extent or other (for better or worse, fans are a lot less likely to want to put effort into making a thing nobody will want to use), but I like how Sage is going about it.

I saw somewhere on the wiki (can’t quite remember where) that they intend for the level curve to be such that the player is a bit underlevelled relative to gym leaders when they reach them. This wasn’t quite my experience, perhaps due to my play style (I tend not to run away from random encounters, and spent a lot of time backtracking and trying to catch one of everything), and I found myself roughly on par with their levels when fighting them. They were still far from being pushovers.

Case in point, let’s talk about the first gym leader. I actually lost to him on my first attempt (and not a “this isn’t going well, I think I should restart” sort of thing, I got an actual game over). It’s an ice type gym at a time when there aren’t good counters to the type available, and he has 3 pokemon with a pretty coherent team strategy (and some of them have egg moves). I think what they intend the player to do is train up at least one ice type of their own, so the strategies he uses to benefit them don’t put you at a disadvantage, and beat him at his own game. I didn’t take it as seriously at first as I probably should have because it was the first gym, and my struggle was compounded by the fact I had chosen the grass starter, which meant one of my team members was at a type disadvantage – and would have been 4x weak if it had evolved – and there aren’t really other options available that compare to the other two starters (the fire one would obviously have been great in an ice gym, and the water one would at least resist it; on top of that, if evolved, both of them get secondary types that are good against ice). One thing I did especially like is that there is an NPC in the previous town who will give you a Yache Berry, a held berry which helps protect against a super-effective ice attack; these kind of berries are usually a lategame thing mainly intended for competitive play, but here it hands you one right before a time it will be useful. That’s good game design.

In terms of the demo there are definitely big imbalances between the starter pokemon, which get compounded because all of their types are somewhat uncommon in Sage (especially early on, which ends up meaning the majority of this demo). The grass starter (which I chose mostly because I was most comfortable with its stat distribution) is at a definite disadvantage for the first two gyms and while it’s not exactly bad (it is very useful for the third, and also against many of the wild pokemon) it never felt particularly special or like something I couldn’t replace. The fire one would absolutely trivialise the first gym and hold its own in the second, and while it’d be useless in the third there are enough other options by then that that won’t be a problem; the water one is pretty similar, and would completely trivialise the second gym and hold its own in the third. Neither of those really have counterparts that would be as useful. This may of course change in the later game that’s still to come, but just as far as the demo is concerned I think there’s a definite hierarchy here, and my assessment of the game’s level of challenge may be exacerbated by the fact I think I chose by far the most difficult of the starters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it felt significantly more oppressive than, say, choosing a charmander in the first games. (The game even hangs a lampshade on this, and has the professor compliment you for your bravery if you choose grass, so I don’t think this was necessarily unintentional.)

[The official games have gone out of their way to produce some absolutely awful grass starters; they’ve come a very long way from easy-mode Bulbasaur. So this is running true to type. (And the water starter is the best anyway.)]

While we’re talking about the design philosophy, it’s also worth noting that it’s been explicitly stated they don’t intend to lock things behind trading, etc (it’s not at all clear to me whether the final version of Sage will even have trading at all), and that everything in the game should be accessible to a player on a single playthrough. Admittedly I can’t tell if they mean this to include the starters (and possibly fossil pokemon), whether they will provide methods to get the ones you did not choose eventually or if those will still be exclusive between playthroughs. Regardless, though, I like this, and it seems a much better stance for a fangame to take than to replicate some semblance of version exclusives, trade evolutions, and other such features that have frustrated players for the better part of two decades now merely out of loyalty to the source material.

There are a few more miscellaneous things I want to address before bringing this review to a close. While some of these are complaints, I think overall they’re pretty minor issues and while I would like to see them addressed I can understand why they exist.

Firstly: the earlygame pokeball situation just feels weird. There’s no capture tutorial like the canon games, which I think a lot of people will praise it for since those can be quite annoying (especially in a fangame where the audience are expected to be familiar with the mechanics). At the same time, lacking a capture tutorial means the game doesn’t have a natural point to give the player their first pokeballs. Most of the games did make you go through an area with just your starter before allowing you to capture, so I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to complain about this, but at the same time the way Sage does it is annoying. There’s a single pokeball to be found in Route 1, and then you can buy them in the town you reach afterward, but before realising they were buyable I was seriously concerned that might be the only one for a while. And unlike the official games (which tended to have 2-3 pokemon available on a starting route), there are 5 or 6 here and they’re quite varied so it’s frustrating to think you can only catch one. This does remedy itself once you reach the town (and therefore first shop), but it felt awkwardly jarring to me. Honestly, I almost think it would be better just to have removed that initial pokeball; then reaching the shop would feel like a natural point for capturing to become available, which would be a better design aesthetic.

I’m not completely happy with certain movesets, but as that’s also a common problem from the official games (and I’ve yet to see it done better in fangames honestly) I can’t really blame them for this. Sometimes that’s good design, forcing you to figure out tradeoffs and such – but sometimes it’s just mean, as in the case of one pokemon I liked and ended up using in the demo (okay, my favourite pokemon in the Sage dex). Chelonite/Galaxagos really wants to run a Curse-based physical moveset, with its low speed, but the only physical psychic-type move it can get is Zen Headbutt and that only as an egg move. Breeding isn’t in the demo, so that puts it completely out of reach. It’s fine for the demo, obviously, it would be ridiculous to expect a complete game, but that doesn’t stop it being frustrating.

[That said, there’s some potential for certain pokemon/certain movesets that aren’t available in the demo to be hilariously broken later on.]

The demo is also missing several features that are frustrating not to have around, though presumably this is because they’ll be located in later areas of the game. There is no Move Reminder and no Move Deleter (the latter frustrating in particular because there are still HM moves that cannot otherwise be overwritten), and no Hidden Power checker (despite Hidden Power being one of the few TM moves in the demo). There is no fast-travel outside of Teleport (which is buggy and hard to use) and no bicycle, though the run speed seems a bit faster than official games; this did get a bit annoying, especially considering it often wants you to backtrack. There is also no breeding yet, which is mainly an issue when considering the egg move issue I discussed above. None of this is a huge deal necessarily, but might be worth taking into account if you’re trying to decide whether or not to play the demo.

(There’s also no ingame way to view the hidden values of pokemon – IVs and EVs if you’re familiar with the terminology. While frustrating to me, this is consistent with most of the official games; I suspect it annoys me more because I’ve gotten used to having that visible from Uranium, and from using external programs to mine it from the save file when I play the official games on emulators.)

To go back to pacing issues a bit: the Itemfinder comes pretty late (after a plot sequence post gym-2), and there are loads of hidden items to backtrack for. This wouldn’t be as big a deal in a full-length game where there’s still lots to come, but considering the demo as self-contained, it’s effectively an endgame upgrade. The Good Rod has a similar problem (you get it in the final town), meaning the pokemon you can catch with it are effectively unavailable to use in the demo even though they’re implemented and obtainable (especially irritating if you want a water type and didn’t choose that starter). That said, I did actually quite enjoy the little puzzle they had you solve to get the Good Rod, a sort of fusion between a sliding block puzzle and Pipe Dream.

There are also a few things that are noticeably buggy, which I’d be remiss if I didn’t address. Fewer than I expected, honestly, this game actually played pretty flawlessly, but that makes the couple of screwups more noticeable.

For instance, the move Leaf Shield (one of the new moves created for Sage), at least when used by an enemy, causes the game to throw an exception and an error window to pop up. You can close this and keep playing (it’s not a crash), so it’s not gamebreaking, but the move isn’t doing what it’s supposed to and the error window interrupts the flow of play.

Also, a few moves (I noticed this with Shield Bash, another original move; I think I may have also seen others though I don’t recall which specifically) have different description text in different parts of the game – e.g., in the TM description versus what actually shows up on the pokemon’s status screen. In that case, one of them was clearly placeholder text that got missed; it’s not a huge deal, but given how flawless most of this game was it surprised me to find this.

I think there might also be some issues with how the “last-used healing location” is determined when using Teleport. I’d been trying to use it when backtracking since there are currently no other options for fast travel in the demo, and there were occasions where it’d be set to a town I just set foot in when I went nowhere near the Pokemon Centre (I know for certain this happened in Tremol Town). This got really annoying, as you might imagine. It might be worth looking into – I’m not sure if there are some misplaced flags or tiles or something causing it to trigger when it’s not supposed to.

Also, the wiki isn’t completely accurate or up-to-date with respect to this version of the demo, so there were moments where the ostensible encounter tables were wrong (in one case leading me to spend a fair amount of time looking for a pokemon that wasn’t actually implemented in this release). But that’s not a problem with the game itself, per se.

As a little bonus, here’s a picture of my final team at the end of the demo.

Anyway, while I realise this has mostly been a rambling, disorganised look at the game, I hope it is enough to give a good sense of what the demo was like. I have very high hopes for the full game; I thoroughly enjoyed this demo (despite my tendency to nitpick) and feel comfortable recommending it on its own merits even if the rest of the game takes a very long time to materialise or fails to do so at all.


Posted by on October 1, 2017 in mitchell


Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “More Fangames: A first look at Pokemon Sage (Demo 2.0)

  1. Anon

    October 2, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Wow, this was a fantastic read, thank you for posting this.

    For some context, I am a former core developer on Pokemon Sage. Your review here is probably the most comprehensive single piece of feedback/impressions on the project i’ve seen and it was awesome and deeply moving on a personal level (Working on the project was the single most fulfilling I have ever done and it brings me so much joy to see somebody go into it as much as you did and to have such high praise for it in the process and to see that so many of the things we set out to do we did successfully Case in point is the game tones: As you noticed, the goal behind Sage’s tone and general feel was that it match the official games as much as possible, from the general aesthetic, to the music, to the character and pokemon designs, the dialog. Seeing you mention how well Sage does this in every regard is great to hear.

    To give some background, since you mention it on the review: /vp/ is 4chan’s pokemon board, and as you surmised, decisions were initially made via vote that anybody who was in the at-the-time current thread for the project could vote in.

    However, most work was done by a core group of people, and a few years back now we decided to move off the board precisely because of the “too many cooks in the kitchen” issue that allowing public voting caused (though past then I and I think most current devs would still say this is a huge issue and I/they would find your assertion that we largely avoid it hilariously ironic and innocent: the project still goes by voting with no proper hierarchy even though it’s now privately developed)

    The design process for characters and pokemon was more or less anonymous users coming up with concepts they thought were cool, submitting them, them being voted on, then the process repeating but with specific designs for the winning concept. So while indivual voters may have had specific agendas as far as wanting a certain proportion of males vs females or one skin tone or body shape/build or another (I know a lot of people did want a variety just for the sake of having distinct character designs), the general macro-scale perspective was that whatever people thought looked and sounded the coolest made it in the game.

    On that note, it’s worth noting that Sage is actually based on an amalgam of latin america, in the same way that, say the region from Pokemon X&Y is based on France or Sun&Moon the Hawaiian islands. This is a part of why many characters in sage have darker skin tones, and if you know what to look for you’ll see much of the Pokemon Sage dex is inspired by central and south american wildlife, myths, and culture; and I can say regardless with certainty as somebody who is a huge precolumbian-history nerd that Sage treats those cultures and myths with a great deal of respect and care.

    A good example would be that in addition to ice type Pokemon being found early on rather then just later as you mention, that it’s also because that part of the region is based on the Andes, a mountain range in South America home to many cultures, including the famous Incans and Sofia’s (and Simon’s, to a lesser extent) clothing (not her shorts though: that’s just what her original character art from a fantastic artist that is now lost to us had) is based on native wear from the region: her Chullo hat especially (Capig, the region’s starting rodent and found on nearby routes, is also based on Chullo hats, albiet combined with a guinea pig, which is ALSO native to the andes and was first domesticated there).

    That being said, due to the public voting element of the project, stuff sometimes gets mangled when you have a few specific people who really know their stuff about precolumbian cultures but the general voter base doesn’t, so, say, what name might end up winning is from a different culture then the intended one.

    To answer a few other random stuff you brought up: I laughed when you mentioned the custom egg sprites, as I always thought those were a horrible waste of time and our manpower was better spent on other things (such as polishing up existing sprites or tilework). I’m also not sure if Sage will have trading, but the idea from when I was involved was that anything that would typically be save file exclusive in the original games, such as the other starters and other fossil, will be obtainable post game. The sort of “easy, medium, hard” thing with the starter pokemon was actually intentional. I don’t necessarily like it since it punishes people based on their tastes in pokemon designs or typings, but it is what it is. If it’s any consolation, Foliat’s final stage is easily the best of the 3 starters for competitive play.

    Viipii being a 4chan reference runs deeper then it’s name and design being similar to Moot (4chan’s founder’s) avatar mascot: It’s color scheme matches the board color scheme for /vp/ and other ostensibly-but-not-really sfw boards. It’s dex entry is a reference to how on 4chan everybody argues but out of 4chan most users are pretty polite, reasonable people, it’s species name, clover, is a reference to the 4chan logo (Sage and Clover were the two final competing names for the project, incidentally, before Clover as a fangame became a thing). It’s signature move, catalog, is a reference to the Catalog feature that allows you to see every thread on a board at once, and it’s level up moveset in general is evocative of 4chan mannerisms: Refresh (as in, refreshing a thread to see new posts) Frustration, Torment, Covet, Swagger, Uproar, Facade, Slack off, and Trash are the obvious ones).

    Finally, You mention that the demo just ends with no notification and there’s no bike. This is actually incorrect, and I suggest you explore Andante Bay a bit more. With that, I hope you see the last little bit of content in the demo and have fun, though i’d like you to leave your review up as is with no modifications based on that or my comment so it’s there for posterity.

    • mcbender

      October 2, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Thanks for replying; It’s good to get your perspective, and I’m glad you appreciated my review. Sorry about the delay in your comment being posted, it ended up being caught by the spam filter.

      I should probably clarify what I meant about the “too many cooks” problem, given your response – what I meant to say is that it doesn’t seem to be impacting negatively on the quality of the game, and it easily could have done. I’m sure that there’s a lot of bickering and controversy behind the scenes that I wouldn’t see, having looked only at the wiki and the game itself. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it’s inflating the development time, but a lot of fan projects have issues there.

      I’m especially surprised, and impressed, given this and the fact that the main criterion is “what people thought looked good, was cool, etc”, that the game manages to so be free of offensive content.

      I’m aware of the Mesoamerica/South America inspiration and I think most of that works pretty well. I’m not an expert on the region or its history by any means, but I was definitely able to notice a lot of the design inspirations and references and they seemed tastefully done to me. I just didn’t have a whole lot to say about it and the review was getting long enough as it was, which is why I didn’t mention it specifically. I was not aware of the connection between this and the early regions of the game, though, so thanks for pointing that out.

      Okay, most of those things about Viipii are quite cute, that’s well done. I’d never have noticed that on my own.

      Thanks for pointing out what I missed, I’ve gone back and seen that scene now (heh, here’s yet another instance of me failing to notice small changes in NPC locations, that seems to be a trend). I don’t think it substantially changes my opinion, honestly, though at least it does have the explicit message saying there is no more content in the demo and that’s obviously a good thing; it feels a bit weird to me to end the demo on a backstory dump and plot hook, although I can understand why that decision was made. And considering this is when the bicycle is awarded (and that unless I’m missing something, it’s no faster than the running shoes), I’m honestly comfortable standing by the statement that the demo doesn’t include a bicycle 😛

  2. Gemo Demplay

    May 21, 2018 at 6:53 am

    First of all, this is not the best review for Pokemon Sage that I saw, it is the best review for a pokemon game ever created, and I tend to read a lot of them, even more recently, while trying to know if Pokemon Sage is still in progress and find mylef typing in the search boxes of the internet all day.
    Second of all, I was actually shocked to read a commend from a person involved in this project, as I could not find another one despite my hours upon hours trying if not to contact the team, at least to read a note from one of the members involved. Reading this comment – that seems leggit by the way – made me feel more comfortable and a little bit more reliefed.
    I wrote this reply with two intentions, two objectives that I had in mind: the first is obvious I think and it came true once I left this message sent, and that is to let you know that this review was absolutely impressive in the best way possible; and the second objective/ intention was to find out if the game is still developed.
    During my days spent searching of more answers about this project that the official page offered – I know this is silly but believe me when I say that the fans always add something to an already complex or completed official page of something – I found out that there were rumours about Pokemon Sage that said the game was canceled in the meantime. I found this hard to believe one for me not wanting to believe this and two for the latest update being 2.0.6 that was released recently after the written comments that I have red.
    I notice that there are still things to be added, like a jungle temple, and that is awesome – I immedialty thought of the aztec temples, I always found them interesting – and I really find myself playing this game over and over again, just running to that junlge maze doing nothing – I guess it would have been just perfect for me to have that maze during the demo as this would have fixed my issue with incompleted project being them still in progress or canceled whatsoever.
    As I am trying my best to keep this reply as short as possible, I would like to ask you and any person that come here and reads the review and its comments, knows something about the future of this game. I tried to play it before and I stopped as I had the problem with incompleted projects – and I am just like you regarding the 50% more time spent in the game just for my perfectionism and save investment – however I am thinking of playing the demo for two days, the only reason stopping me being just the fact that it is incomplete and the fear of losing the save if – I actually pray for this – a new version is released.
    If someone can tell me if the project is dead or still going, I would greatly appreicate it.
    Thank you for your time spent reading my reply in its entirety. Keep up the good work with the reviews and to the Pokemon Sage team, keep up the good work with this project and please continue this, as this game is better than the original games in my opinion which is one of a Pokemon fanatic.
    p.s: I hate Pokemon Clover XD

    • mcbender

      May 21, 2018 at 1:34 pm

      I’m glad you appreciated the review; thanks for the kind words.

      I’ve seen a few mentions here and there of rumours that it’s been cancelled, but I have no idea where they’re coming from (my understanding is that, if anything, the devs have been trying to keep a low profile since the C&Ds for Pokemon Uranium and AM2R, but that’s not at all the same thing as a cancellation, and that change in attitude would’ve been in place long before the demo came out and I wrote this review). That said, it’s also been a work in progress for a very long time, and they don’t release new demo versions often. And while I don’t personally go there, I’m told by people who do that the weekly updates on 4chan have still been happening, so the project still seems to be healthy as far as I can tell.

      That said, don’t play the demo with the expectation that you’ll be able to continue with the same save file in a future release: they’ve explicitly said this isn’t a priority to them and not to expect it. As a self-contained entity, the demo is a perfectly coherent Pokemon experience, as I tried to make clear from the review; I’d say that for now it’s probably best to approach it as if it’s a shorter full game, rather than in the context of future plans.

      I don’t know if that helps, but that’s the best I can do at present. If anyone else knows more, please don’t hesitate to weigh in.

  3. AfterthoughtC

    May 12, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Another pokemon fan-game with its own fakemon was completed recently. It’s called Pokemon Solar Light & Lunar Dark. Do you plan to play it?


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