Soundtrack to Pokémon X and Y

Indulgence week, part the seventh: a greater capacity for electronics, at the expense of accurately rendering real instruments.
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With the advent of the sixth generation, we waved goodbye to the trusty old Nintendo DS and welcomed with open arms the shiny new 3DS. Taking advantage of bigger screens and stronger processors, X and Y boast a cornucopia of new features — character customisation, petting and treating your beloved buddies, certain species going Super Saiyan and attaining a temporary but fiercely strong phase of Mega Evolution. And of course, the system's improved capacity for sound brought about a whole host of big changes.

Visually, the Kalos region stuns from start to finish. From the crashing waterfalls of Couriway Town to the Arthur Dentesque Lucario statue decorating the soaring atrium of Shalour City's Tower of Mastery; from the henge maze of monoliths dotting Route 10 to the starry skies and constellations suspended above technicolour walkways in Anistar City's gravity-warping gym, there is not a tuft of grass out of place. No longer fenced in by dense forest on all sides, Kalos feels larger and airier than any region to date. The capital of Lumiose City is an ambitious homage to Paris with its spacious plazas and endless cafés, and when exploring the exquisite topiary garden of the nearby Parfum Palace, more than a few design cues from Versailles become apparent. X and Y introduce the first example of industrial facilities hinted at by previous games' inexhaustible supplies of potions and medicines. The Poké Ball Factory mass-produces the iconic device, and the player can ride the conveyer belts to their heart's content or simply observe the facility from rickety catwalks. Among the various inspired locales of Kalos is Reflection Cave in the region's west. The lacquered walls of some shiny mineral are burnished to a sheen, effectively a natural hall of mirrors. Here, hikers and tourists admiring the surroundings can even spot and challenge the player passing behind them.

Each route in the Kalos region bears a French subtitle, lending a touch of personality the soundtrack also attempts to provide. When locals are strolling along the river from Camphrier Town to the coast, they do not take Route 7, they take the Rivière Walk. Route 16 winds its way from Lumiose through a perpetually autumnal forest, the brilliant oranges and browns lending a hushed atmosphere to Mélancolie Path. Frequently deviating from the static camera of the past, dramatic low angles offer scenic previews of your next goals. From the city gates of Snowbelle, the Frost Cavern looms large through the driving snow. The canyons of Route 13 offer an intimidating vista of the Kalos Power Plant, with all its important tubing and geometric shapes, where the player must investigate a crippling blackout. X and Y also borrow a memorable moment from Unova — the player must pass through a series of gates that automatically and flashily check your qualification to enter Victory Road.

Finally, Kalos hosts the most impressive Pokémon League ever created. Despite the magnificent view from atop Mount Lanakila, Alola's bright rainbow dome is inelegant and garish, while the Indigo Plateau overshoots minimalism and arrives at dry. Even the spectacularly detailed arenas of Unova pale in comparison. A magnificent cathedral towers ahead, spires and turrets jutting commandingly into the sky. Your footsteps echo loudly as you enter a majestic vestibule. You stand in the light of an intricate stained-glass window, eyeing the four torches set along the wall. They must be snuffed in order to enter the Radiant Chamber ahead where the Champion awaits you. The Flood Chamber lives up to its name: two chained plugs twist upwards, releasing twin spouts of water (eagle-eyed players may recognise this as the battle animation for Hydro Pump from all the way back in Red and Blue) allowing Siebold, a pretentious artsy type, to make his grand entrance. Two enormous swords crash from the ceiling of the Ironworks Chamber and turn like keys in colossal locks, revealing Wikstrom, a genuine knight in shining armour. And most audaciously, entering the Blazing Chamber cues two enormous jets of flame to spew from the floor, utterly dwarfing the player and providing dramatic lighting for a fight with Team Flare sympathiser Malva.

X and Y take so much care with such short moments, unfortunately making their only characterisation blind spot all the more jarring. Inflation has hit the Kalosian economy: the player is accompanied on their journey by not one, not two, but four friends. In the past, a more modest number of rivals (mostly successfully) struck a balance between challenging you and helping you out with rare items and directions to the next plot point. But on this front X and Y stretch themselves too thin — the foursome never grows beyond irksome caricatures. Nerd bugs you melancholically about filling out your Pokédex, Dance focuses his phlegm on his only skill, sanguine Cute collapses into paroxysms of panic at every setback and Actual Rival channels their choler into becoming a stronger trainer. Conversation with each friend never deviates from their single personality trait, and the player is left with the impression that their thoughts don't either.

Despite the best efforts of your squad, Team Flare's explosive plotline manages to deeply impress. A depraved idealisation of beauty underpins their every decision. Their fabulous crimson suits are the envy of the thriving Kalosian fashion industry. They locate the dormant husk of an ancient beast said to bring life and absorb it, either the graceful ungulate Xerneas or the noble wyvern Yveltal. And snazziest of all, Team Flare schemes to reactivate an ancient superweapon and purge the ugliness of living creatures from the face of the globe.

The moment of the weapon's activation had me holding my breath — the mossy stone monument in the square of Geosenge Town is revealed to be the tip of a colossal machine, a poisonous flower as Flare's chief scientist puts it, which proceeds to blossom violently above the soil. In a tongue-in-cheek moment of levity, the weapon knocks the surrounding houses on their sides, otherwise completely intact, like upended cardboard boxes. This is immediately undercut by the reveal that the weapon has been used before in an ancient war, to devastating effect, and that the monoliths of nearby Route 10 are in fact the unmarked graves of all those who perished to bring peace to Kalos.

The player must descend deep into the Flare facility beneath the town and cut off the machine's power, which it drains from the games' legendary emblem. You must awaken Xerneas or Yveltal from its hibernation and prove your worth to it in battle. Shortly thereafter, the machine fires on emergency power, destroying itself and Team Flare — or perhaps cursing them with eternal life; the games are intentionally ambiguous — as they remain buried miles below Geosenge Town. The player and the squad narrowly escape with their lives.

The track that plays when challenging the legendary Pokémon represents X and Y leaning into the 3DS' greater capability for synthesisers and electronic beats. This theme pounds away excitedly in a way that the DS never could. Likewise, challenging Gym Leaders and the Elite Four involves subjecting yourself to a hammering wall of sound that is less a piece of music and more an abstract art installation. For an added touch of nostalgia, the player can confront Kanto's horrifying force of not-nature Mewtwo after completing the game — you are treated to a tight, rippling, muscled techno mix of the Red and Blue battle theme that cleverly samples the original chiptune.

Tragically, as the beats have finally come into their own, much of the sonic pallet has tripped and plunged headlong into the uncanny valley. The faux orchestra that boldly stalks the player through wind and rain sounds at once the most and the least realistic yet. Strings swell, horns blast and percussion booms, but far too cleanly, too squarely, too perfectly. These are the flattest and most generic route themes GameFreak has ever published. Past games were soundtracked like actual games, but X and Y aspire to symphonic heights the 3DS is simply incapable of reaching. Thankfully, the sonatas are mostly confined to the passages between the charming locales of Kalos. The themes for most of the cities and towns are simple and unambitious background affairs meant to supplement the games' content rather than be it. A gentle chiming tune vaguely unsettles visitors to Anistar City, intrigued by the large crystalline sundial overlooking the ocean. Charmed by a mystical pealing waltz, many who stumble across Laverre City in the middle of a forest fail to heed the warning of the clock tower built into an enormous tree in the city's centre — its face displays thirteen hours.

X and Y represent great advances in all physical aspects of Pokémon games, but they had not yet figured out how to take full advantage of the 3DS sound system. It would not be until three years later with the release of Sun and Moon that GameFreak would lay their hands on the key to soundtrack success.