November 15, 2019
Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Whilst its launch may have been engulfed in controversy, there’s no denying the positive cultural impact of Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon is one of the biggest franchises in all of popular culture, and this latest release marks a pretty big leap forward for the mainline game series as it moves from dedicated portable hardware to a home console experience. That leap forward is also reflected in some aspects of the game’s design, with the ‘Wild Area’ in Sword and Shield reaching towards the open world Pokémon experience of our childhood dreams. But how successful is Game Freak’s newest monster collectathon at fulfilling those dreams?
There’s certainly a warm familiarity to Pokémon Sword and Shield, with the game adhering to many of the norms outlined by its predecessors. You play as a child who leaves home, selects a starter mon, and goes off on a journey to become the very best, like no one ever was. You’ll battle trainers, collect gym badges, fill out your Pokédex, and inexplicably become the very best trainer in the entire region and save the world in a ludicrously short amount of time.
This time around you’ll be exploring the Galar region, an area of the Pokémon universe inspired by Great Britain. The buildings, the people, the landscapes, and even some of the Pokémon will have obvious British characteristics and it’s fantastic to see. The region is also home to a phenomenon known as ‘Dynamaxing’, where Pokémon grow in size and power. This is not only an in-game mechanic but something that plays a big role in the narrative of the game.
Game Freak have actually managed to step it up in the storytelling department with Pokémon Sword and Shield. Don’t get me wrong, the narrative is still completely naff and childish, but to expect anything else out of a Pokémon game would be odd. More specifically, they step it up with the way they manage to tell that naff story. Seemingly learning from the mistakes of Sun and Moon, gone are the huge exposition dumps and cut-scenes and in their place are more succinct and engaging storytelling devices.
In fact, Pokémon Sword and Shield make some other positive steps forward as well that help bring the game series into the 21st century. The bright and engaging art direction, the interesting areas you can explore, the improved storytelling and world-building, the streamlined approach to gameplay, and various quality of life improvements make this the most digestible and consumer friendly Pokémon game available.
Previously implemented systems have been expanded upon too and they work really well here. The fully 3D world with roaming Pokémon (rather than random encounters) is an absolute blessing with a great variety of Pokémon to be found. There are no Zubats or Pidgeys of the Sword and Shield world, with a great variety of monsters constantly keeping you excited for what’s to come next.
The games also introduce a new feature, the Wild Area. This is an area of the Galar region which connects many of the towns. The Wild Area is a much more open space where your camera becomes unlocked and you can explore your surroundings in a way that Pokémon has never allowed before. Whilst I don’t think the Wild Area is a perfectly developed concept, it’s certainly an idea that excites me and adds to the game in some very positive ways.
When exploring the Wild Area you’ll come across a huge variety of free roaming Pokémon and different biomes that are all connected. Some mons will be a much higher level than you’d expect and they make for an exciting encounter. It does make the game feel more alive when you see a high level and final evolution mon just strolling amongst the typical fodder. It gives you that glee of a rare and dangerous find. I do wish these encounters were more uncommon however, because it does start to lose its magic when you see the same “rare” Pokémon every second time you run past that same spot. For balance reasons, these Pokémon often can’t be caught because their level is too high. This creates an instant dilemma because whilst I do enjoy their existence, the game doesn’t feel like it has found a perfect way to implement them and instead uses a cheap workaround to keep you from becoming too powerful too easily.
The Wild Area would also have to be the least visually creative area of the game, with flat, open fields of grass being the standard. I would love the opportunity to seamlessly walk into a cave, for instance, within the Wild Area but it’s just not something the game offers.
Also found in the Wild Area are Raid Battles where you can approach a Pokémon Den and join in a battle alongside other players or NPCs to take down a Dynamax Pokémon. It’s a fun idea that gives you something different to do within the Wild Area but it’s also often far too easy and not fully realised.
“It plays perfectly into the Galar region’s sports-like fanaticism over watching Pokémon battles.”
The whole Dynamax mechanic in general is just a bit lacking. I like the in-world spectacle of the phenomenon because it plays perfectly into the Galar region’s sports-like fanaticism over watching Pokémon battles. However the mechanical implementation falls short. Dynamaxing is most commonly seen in these raids as well as gym battles but the strategy to using Dynamax is pretty limited. When in a gym battle, you and your opponent can both Dynamax a Pokémon once which lasts 3 turns. Some strategy can be implemented as to when you chose to use the power and on what Pokémon, but it’s pretty underwhelming. The NPCs will also always Dynamax when they release their final Pokémon which makes their play incredibly easy to read and often just leads to mirrored Dynamaxing which basically nullifies the mechanic’s existence at all. Not to mention that once you’ve Dynamaxed you actually limit your battle options because it reduces your move pool down to a select handful of Dynamax moves. Add to this the fact that only some Pokémon have special Dynamax forms and you begin to realise that the mechanic is a bit half-baked.
If anything, the Wild Area in Pokémon Sword and Shield is a fantastic proof of concept. If we can see something similar get implemented better in future games, I will be very happy indeed. Whilst we’re on the subject, can we also just get an unlocked camera for the entire game next time Game Freak? That’d be great.
It’s worth discussing some of the quality of life improvements and the difficulty of Pokémon Sword and Shield. I’ve seen some complaints from some of the more competitive Pokémon players that Sword and Shield is too easy, holds your hand too much, and is too short. After playing the game I completely understand where these complaints were generated from, but I can’t disagree more. Sword and Shield remove a lot of the tedium and bloat from past games. As a result the game is more streamlined, simple, and even shorter. Experience shared amongst your entire party for a victory is generous which makes levelling weaker mons easier and helps to keep your team balanced and competitive. This does make the game easier but if the alternative is grinding out wild encounters whilst making constant returns to a Poké Centre then I am all for it.
There’s also no sections of the game filled with huge swaths of Pokémon battles or long routes with no NPC to heal your party. Once again, this absolutely makes the game easier, but it also cuts out some of the most tedious moments of a Pokémon game.
The reality of the Pokémon series is that they do not make for good, competitive, single-player games. Any difficulty found within the campaign doesn’t stem from smart decisions, quick reactions, or really any intellectual or mechanical skill whatsoever. The challenge of the Pokémon games is almost entirely dependant on grinding out levels and adhering to type efficiency charts. So when Pokémon Sword and Shield cut the difficulty, they also cut the most grindy, tiresome, and monotonous elements of these games. Don’t get me wrong, I still wish the games were more challenging. But that challenge has to come from a more engaging element of game design, not from huge towers full of Team Rocket Grunt after Team Rocket Grunt.
Also don’t get me started on those people who are upset that Sword and Shield now tells you what moves are super effective, effective, and not very effective after you encounter a Pokémon for the 2nd + time(s). This is a fantastic quality of life improvement and I will fight any spread-sheet memorising gatekeeper who says otherwise.
A genuine criticism of the game would have to be in its pace. If you were to track gym badges as a measure for your progress throughout the game, it would be very misleading. The game kind of hits a sprint after around the 3rd or 4th badge and suddenly you’re progressing towards the end very quickly. It made the latter parts of the game feel more rushed and less fleshed out. You come across some genuinely beautiful and engrossing areas in the latter half of the game with the town of Ballonlea and surrounding routes being a personal standout. Although more could be done to keep you in these spots for longer.
Game Freak as a developer have always been a bit behind the curb when it comes to the cutting edge of game design. With Pokémon Sword and Shield however, they do finally feel as though they are hitting their stride and finding a sweet spot where more modern sensibilities are merging with nostalgic concepts. That isn’t me giving Game Freak a free pass though, because for every improvement and victory found in Sword and Shield’s design, there’s still an element of lacking.
What we need from future Pokémon projects is an actual dedication to the systems put in place. If your game is going to introduce a Wild Area and Dynamaxing, make those systems flawless and intelligently designed and continue them into the next game rather than scrapping them for a new gimmick. Focus on areas where you’re behind the pack such as battle animations and fix the stagnation that plagues your games.
We’ve long passed the time where Game Freak can use a lack of time and limited man-power as excuses for poor execution. You’re in control of the main entry into one of the biggest franchises in the entire world, it’s about time you started acting like it!
- A colourful and engaging world
- A big step up for the Pokémon series
- A fun and streamlined experience
- Powerfully nostalgic
- Some great quality of life improvements
- Some features not fully realised
- Pacing issues
- Some technical shortcomings
Pokémon Sword and Shield does deliver a fun and advanced Pokémon game. In cutting the bloat and introducing new and exciting concepts, the games manage to recapture my Pokémon nostalgia more than any Pokémon game in the last 5 or so years. It’s a surprisingly well developed title considering the negative reactions in the lead up to its release. The games certainly aren’t quite there yet and lack in some fairly noticeable ways, including technical issues like very obvious texture pop-in, but the end result is still a solid romp through a colourful and engaging world.