I said I didn’t care about the new Pokemon game. I said I wouldn’t buy it. But there I was, two days after its release, veering two lanes over on a whim to pull into the Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m a man of principle, you see.
Undoubtedly the most controversial core games, Sword and Shield bring Pokemon to the Nintendo Switch, offering a new way to capture, battle, and trade your favorite creatures. And by that, I mean it’s almost exactly the same way as always except now once your spine is thoroughly inverted from looking down at your handheld you can pop the game onto your TV screen and offer a bit of relief to your aching bones.
The first thing I noticed upon sitting down with my copy of Sword is that the game looks good. To say it looks great would be a stretch. Animations are still fairly robotic outside of cutscenes and trainers’ motions, several character designs just clash terribly (looking at you, Police Officer), and, well, it still lacks a layer of detail in its aesthetics that other series have adopted. By that, I mean the graphics could have passed for a Wii game if I didn’t know better, but all in all, it’s one of the best looking Pokemon games, even if that’s not a terribly high standard at this point in time.
The second thing I noticed is that once again there are no vocal performances. I’m not asking for a full-on dialogue read like in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but at this point in the franchise’s life cycle, there’s really no excuse for having practically zero voiceovers. At least during cutscenes, there should be something. And that’s ignoring the fact that the majority of Pokemon voices are still just soundbites. It’s 2019. We can do better than digitized blipping sounds.
But what about the game itself? Sword, and I assume Shield, follow Gloria/Victor, or Normie Girl if you’re a highly creative namer like Alpharad, as they explore the Galar region, characterized by a strange phenomenon known as Dynamax, in which Pokemon grow to gigantic, terrifying, destructive proportions . . . you know, for sport. According to legend, a Sword and Shield once saved the region from ruin at the hands of Dynamaxed Pokemon, but since that day, humans have been able to control the Dynamax phenomenon at specific power spots across the land and now use them to gain edges in battle. Now, it might sound like I just read the back of the product box to you, but in truth, I just summarized the entire narrative of the game.
By which I mean there is almost absolutely no narrative.
As the player character, you slowly learn about the legend, which really never gets more detailed than anything a, well, 10-year old could have figured out on their own. The plot, as it were, involves SPOILER recreating the original destructive Dyanamax incident. Why? I’m still not sure. Because the game really never gives any context to its characters’ actions. All you know is that something bad is happening and you have to stop it. That’s all there is to it. Sense and reasoning be damned!
The majority of this bare-bones “plot” is unveiled in the last leg of the game, which means the bulk of the game is quite linear. You start your adventure and earn your badges. No sidetracking — it’s really just a breeze through the gyms for the most part. There’s nothing wrong with that itself, but it does feel like a sort of empty experience compared to past games where you dealt with the villainous organization’s attempted schemes between badges. Those games really made it feel like the climax was building up throughout the entirety of the game. In Sword, it feels like an afterthought. The game’s progress is just start your adventure, battle a leader, battle Hop, battle a leader, battle Hop, battle a leader, battle Hop— wait a minute, did I mention Hop?
Strap in, lads.
Hop is your self-appointed rival. Self-appointed because he absolutely sucks. Now you may be thinking, “Hold on! Rivals always exist to lose to the player character.” And you’re right. But Hop doesn’t only suck at battling, he sucks as a presence. It doesn’t matter where you go, what you’re doing, or who you’re looking for — Hop is there. He’s like a shadow, always creeping around, waiting to strike and challenge you to YET ANOTHER BATTLE. The kid exists only as an obnoxious means of info dumping. It’s like due to the absence of real subplots, the game designers just said, “You know, we can fill these gaps with MORE. HOP.” Hop’s so awful that the rest of the game looks like a work of art by comparison. Brilliant game design strategy, actually.
Your other two rivals, Bede and Marnie, aren’t much better, but at least Bede offers a less annoying foil to Hop, and Marnie is, well, bland but satisfying is the best I can come up with. This game’s “evil team” is Team Yell, and they exist solely to follow Marnie around like puppy dogs, barking and biting at anyone who dares pose a threat to her as a challenger for the championship. While far from the franchise’s best team, Team Yell at least ends up being somewhat endearing in their idiocy, which is something Hop fails to achieve.
Up until now, it probably sounds like I hate this game. I don’t. And while I certainly have more negative points to address, I’ll provide an interim with some of the game’s more positive notes.
Being able to customize Gloria and Victor’s looks is great fun. While this feature isn’t new to the franchise, it works out better than ever before given just how often you get to see Gloria and Victor in full detail on-screen. The hairstyles, makeup, and clothes become choices just as important as selecting your team for the championship — or maybe that was just me. The customization options are still fairly limited, but for what they are, they go a long way in adding personal flare to your adventure.
The wild encounter system received an overhaul. Instead of being hidden in the patches of grass, most wild Pokemon can visibly be seen moving through it, and the ones that are actually hidden appear as an exclamation mark before they charge. Unlike in previous titles, you can now largely avoid wild encounters altogether by sneaking through the tall grass or simply blazing through it so fast no Pokemon can catch you. It’s neat to see the wild Pokemon just chilling about, and it also helps to avoid rampant overleveling of your team, an issue I’ll address later.
Speaking of wild encounters, there’s a place called the Wild Area, an extensive location with several subareas that you can explore and encounter a gazillion Pokemon, including Dynamaxed ones. Tall grass patches exist still, but you’re able to move around in a more 3-D like fashion, which grants a greater sense of immersion when traversing the Wild Area than when you’re just running through regular grassy patches. It’s what many long-time trainers have always dreamed of having in a Pokemon game, and for a first attempt, it’s a great start for GameFreak. Unfortunately the novelty does wear off, as once you’ve spent about a half-hour in the Wild Area, you’ve seen almost all it has to offer, but nonetheless, it’s a cool addition that just feels underexplored by the developers — much like the camping feature, in which you can play with your team and cook curries for your Pokemon to enjoy. Both are fun experiences, but they also don’t feel like they were given the love and care they deserved to reach their full potential. This issue is much worse in the individual cities and towns of the game, which offer very little to do aside from battle and heal your Pokemon. I’m reminded of the cardboard city from Ed, Edd, N’ Eddy – looks interesting on the outside, hollow on the inside. A total scam.
Now that all that’s out of the way, I’m going to turn to what I consider to be the biggest grievance of the game besides the lack of a narrative. There’s extensive handholding in this game. From the unnecessary (and un-un-equippable) EXP Share, to the constant full team heals, to being able to change game plans between championship matches, to being told which moves are effective, the game frankly just treats its audience like toddlers. Which is even more insulting given that a core percentage of the game’s audience is comprised of adults now, who played the series when it was in its infancy. The game was more challenging when its audience was almost entirely made up of children. Now that it is attracting adults and kids alike, it seems to have toned down the difficulty, which is baffling. Pokemon isn’t the only Nintendo series with this problem as of recent, as Three Houses also was a cakewalk no matter if you chose Hard mode or not. It seems like it could be an unfortunate trajectory for Nintendo games in the future. But as it stands, there was almost zero challenge to the game. Part of the old Pokemon experience was losing multiple times before you figured out a strategy that worked, and while not everything needs to be as difficult as Whitney’s Miltank, some level of challenge is needed to keep things interesting and exciting. I did lose a couple of matches over the course of the game (grudgingly including one or two to Hop), but if I had actually used items or TMs, I’m almost certain I could have just breezed through everything, which is just never fun.
Overall, the community’s main complaint about the lack of every single Pokemon is not what makes this game subpar. In fact, I don’t even think that’s a downside to this game unless you’re just unable to play without that Ambipom on your team (I miss my best boi. . . ). What drags this game down is an incoherent skeleton of a plot, annoying characters, and condescending handholding. It still maintains the feel of a Pokemon game, which means that, at worst, it’s fine. But GameFreak relies heavily on predatory business practices, from its archaic model of splitting up minor content across two games to its confidence that people, like me, will still purchase the game even if it’s not up to par simply because of how powerful the Pokemon brand name is. The gambling mechanics omnipresent throughout the game cheaply keep it entertaining (critical hits, IVs, Pokedex completion), but all in all, this is Pokemon near its worst. Still better than the crowd, but at a a disappointing low compared to what’s come to be expected.
- Maintains the primary entertainment value of any other core series game
- Random encounter overhaul
- Character customization
- Majority of new Pokemon are decent design-wise
- Lack of any sort of challenge; excessive handholding
- Non-existent narrative
- Visual dips when moving
- Wild Area and Camping feel underexplored as concepts; cities are mostly cardboard cutouts
- Hop; Togetic's flapping noise