The Pokemon series had been going strong for over 20 years now. What’s not to love? An epic adventure to prove yourself as the best trainer in the region, stopping villians from doing bad things, and completing that collection of Pokemon. To me, the Pokemon games are the perfect handheld games. But these current games are different, for they are the first main series Pokemon games on a home console. The expectations are immense, as people have dreamt of bigger things for the series, and now it can finally happen! But do these latest games, Pokemon Sword and Shield, pull off those expectations?
The Gym Challenge
Every Pokemon game has you journeying through the region, battling gym leaders, acquiring their badges, and ultimately making your way to take on the best of the best to be named the Pokemon Champion. In Sword/Shield, this process actually has a name for it- The Gym Challenge. What I enjoyed about the story this time around, is how much focus was put on this challenge.
With previous Pokemon games, the main goal of collecting badges sometimes felt like an afterthought, like it was just something that’s assumed to do while the games emphasised another story. I didn’t mind the Pokemon games having these other storylines too, but the appeal of growing as a trainer and collecting badges was always what interested me the most.
In Sword/Shield, almost all the emphasis is placed on this very goal. It was made even better by having not just one, but multiple rivals who you meet up (and battle) with constantly throughout your travels. Even as you travel to the different gyms, you can see people talking about you more and more as you succeed. I think they’ve done a very good job of making this journey feel important, like it should always feel.
Speaking of the gyms, I loved how each one presented its own unique mission before the gym leader battle. Some gyms had you play some kind of mini-game, some had you solving puzzles, all the while defeating trainers along the way. I was always excited to begin a new gym because the missions added some variety to the game.
There are some ways they could have improved it though. I mentioned before that you have rivals, and I wish that the game could have expanded more on each of them. You get some backstory on them, but I wish more time was given to them, just so that rivalry can heat up even more and beating them towards the end would have even greater impact.
Like with every Pokemon game, there is a side story to bring in some extra drama, but unfortunately it’s done so poorly here. You can sense there’s another storyline going on, but its build up is almost non-existent, as it doesn’t even feel important or like it’s not building up to anything at all.
Even when something major occurs, you’re just simply told to “not worry about it, just continue your gym challenge”. But what irritated me the most was this side story decided to become important at the worst possible time! I don’t want to spoil anything, but all the momentum and climax for the main story was totally ruined by this poorly told and paced side story. It’s almost like they shoehorned it in just for the sake of having a villain, when it felt so meaningless all throughout the game.
So now the main Pokemon games have arrived on home console, but is it the big evolutionary leap many were hoping for? Not really. As you travel throughout the region, you’ll head to different towns/cities, and all the routes in between. The thing is, each route is so short you’ll end up breezing through them, even if you pick up every item around.
As a result, the whole game feels much shorter than the previous entries. There’s hardly any dungeons or side areas along the way, so you’ll be making your way and collecting badges much sooner than expected.
Aside from all that, there is one particular area that would be considered that evolutionary step for the series, and that is the Wild Area! The Wild Area is a large, 3D sandbox where you can catch Pokemon to your hearts content. There are multiple zones where you’ll find different types of Pokemon lurking about. You can also spin the camera around, making it feel like Pokemon has finally ascended to open world gaming. My main problem though is that it feels more tacked on that anything. It’s almost like the developers were like “Uh oh, we need something to show we’re evolving the series, let’s throw in this large area”.
You’ll pass through the Wild Area twice on your journey, but spend most of your time away from it, at least while you’re progress through the main story. Now I’m not saying the Wild Area is a bad thing, if you’re wanting to build up your collection, or do some training, then the Wild Area is a dream come true. I just think if the series wants to move forward, it needs to have areas like this be more prominent, rather than just acting as a side attraction.
What will frustrate many though is the fact that you have no idea what level the Pokemon you encounter are, so one area they may be fine, but another area they could be far above you and destroy you. It’s not exactly the best example of good game design, and it’s something the developers should have thought of if they allowed you to explore almost all of the Wild Area early on.
But at least it’s a place that will keep you occupied for a while after you’ve finished the main story. There’s plenty of Pokemon here to catch, so for those wanting to fill up the Pokedex won’t want to leave. Apart from that, there’s the Max Raid Battles that can be done solo (with the help of AI), or with other players. Here you’ll combine your efforts to take down a dynamaxed Pokemon to earn some decent rewards- including TMs. It’s a pretty cool feature, but I’m not sure whether the novelty of it all will really last for most gamers.
Another way these games have tried to change things up is in the form of ‘dynamaxing’ your Pokemon. Whenever they’re in a ‘Power Spot”, which is usually during gym leader battles and the Wild Area, you can have your Pokemon grow to an extraordinary size and cause even more damage. When both Pokemon in the battle have dynamaxed, you really just need to pull off a couple of extra attacks in order to down your opponent. So ultimately, from a gameplay point of view, it doesn’t add a whole lot. But what it does add is spectacle!
When I’m battling a gym leader, and they’re down to their final Pokemon, having a full-on dynamaxed battle is just an exciting way to earn your badge. It just ends things in spectacular fashion, and that’s the main thing I enjoyed about this feature. Plus, the new music that plays is actually really good, so it all culminates to something special.
Apart from those changes, everything else is exactly what you would expect. The rest of the battle system has remained the same with its turn-based structure. Being on Nintendo’s latest console, I’m sure many gamers would have expected better visuals, but these aren’t too far off the 3DS games. The battle animations are fairly lacking too, with some attacks just showing little hops from your Pokemon instead of full on attack animations. It’s just a lot of little things like this you would hope more effort was put into because we know the Switch is capable of a lot more than this.
To round things off, I’ll briefly talk about post game. Pokemon Sword/Shield’s post game will providers gamers will some good content after the main story is complete. There’s a decent new quest to undertake involving the legendary pokemon, new items to earn from NPCs, and the Battle Tower. The Battle Tower is where trainers go to test their skills in battle, and earn rewards along the way as you rise the ranks. So post game has you covered depending on how you want to spend your time, whether it be battling (Battle Tower) or catching Pokemon (Wild Area).
Pokemon Sword/Shield Review Summary
I know I criticised a lot about this game, but I feel Pokemon should be in a different place by now. It’s not about completely changing it, it’s about making improvements and upgrades to match the modern era we’re in.
I still had fun with this game and it’s a good thing I skipped the last couple of generations which meant I avoided series fatigue. But even still, at this point in the Pokemon life cycle, I would have expected more from the first home console attempt. The Wild Area is fine in its own right, but it needed to be more part of the game, rather than just a side attraction.
I’ll probably still be coming back to this game over the months, trying to eventually complete my Pokedex, but I can’t help but feel like this was a missed opportunity. It’s funny how the Pokemon themselves can sometimes evolve fairly easily, but the franchise itself is struggling to do so.