Moonrise Puts a Real-Time Spin on the Pokemon Formula

Undead Labs sure seems to like Nintendo. The studio, created by Valve veterans, made a name for themselves with State of Decay, a real-time resource management game that takes some of the basic ideas of Animal Crossing and injects them with a zombie virus. Now with their sophomore effort, the studio has taken aim at Pokemon. Moonrise is a mobile-based critter-collecting RPG with an emphasis on competitive play and strategy. It wears its Pokemon influence on its sleeve, but having sat down and played the game, I can tell you it feels very much like its own thing.

Solari are peaceful, magical creatures that coexist with humans… most of the time. Unfortunately, whenever a natural phenomenon known as the Moonrise takes place, they become tainted and transform into violent Lunari. As a warden in these trying times, you must take your team of Solari out into the wilderness to fight and cleanse the corrupted, berserk creatures. As you face the Lunari threat, your team of Solari will grow until it numbers in the hundreds (though as in Pokemon you can only use six at a time), and you’ll uncover the secrets of the Moonrise.

This story is pretty standard RPG fare, and to be honest I found myself kind of checking out during the game’s cutscenes, but the world and creatures that it concerns are actually quite captivating. Every last backdrop in the game is rendered with care and attention to detail, and the result is a gorgeous, vibrant world that begs to be explored. Hundreds of Solari are hidden within it, waiting to be fought and captured. I don’t think any of the game’s creatures are as iconic as the likes of Pikachu or Charmander, but they all look unique, and their designs are at least as good as those of most Digimon (and this is coming from a huge Digimon fan). And from venus fly traps to firey foo dogs, all of the creatures are remarkably well-animated, showing a great deal of personality as they fight. It’s impressive, but not surprising when you consider that Undead Labs hired on an ex-Pixar animator for this endeavor.

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Battles in Moonrise take place in real time, and you’ll always fight with two Solari at once. Each Solari has four abilities with their own individual cooldowns and cast-times, so much of combat involves jumping between creatures and queuing up new attacks. It is, of course, possible for Solari to be stunned or even killed while readying their abilities, so it’s important to balance cast time against the impact of a given attack, as well as mitigate weaknesses using defensive abilities. Each Solari can have any combination of hundreds of possible attacks, and the strategy of picking the right match between creature and move is where Moonrise seems most similar to Pokemon.

Like Pokemon, Solari have elemental types with rock-paper-scissors-style strengths and weaknesses. In order to work around these elemental matchups, you can swap out your teams active members mid-combat. Thing is, you can recall and send out solari in real time. This carries risks of course – all of the recalled creature’s cooldowns will be reset – but if you pull your Solari out at the right time you can completely disrupt your opponent’s strategy. You can even pull back both of your creatures and let enemy attacks hit your Warden, although your Warden has his own health bar, and if it hits zero you’ll lose just the same as you would if your team was wiped out.

But your warden isn’t completely defenseless either. You have an array of spells at your disposal, ranging from simple elemental damage to quick shots that can daze or confuse enemies. Naturally, these abilities aren’t quite as potent as what your Solari can do, but they can help to sway the tide of battle. When you take on other players, your choice of warden abilities is just as important as your Solari lineup. It’s important to build your team around some sort of strategy if you want to win, and a stun or heal at the right time can complement that strategy perfectly.

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In addition to battling with pre-constructed teams, you can go toe-to-toe with other players in a “draft” mode not unlike Hearthstone’s arena. In this mode you’re given a random assortment of creatures and abilities, and it’s up to you to concoct a strategy that takes advantages of their various strengths and weaknesses. As in Arena, you earn greater rewards depending on how many matches you can win, and your run ends once you lose three times. It’s a great way for new players to get a feel for different Solari without actually having to collect them, and should provide a fun alternative to Moonrise’s core RPG grind.

Moonrise isn’t going to unseat Pokemon from its throne anytime soon, but it seems to have found its own comfortable little niche. With real-time, cooldown-based battle mechanics, gorgeous graphics, and a solid free-to-play business model reminiscent of Hearthstone, it should have no trouble drawing in a sizeable audience.