I attribute much of my passion for Nintendo and video games as a whole to the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon Blue was the first game that I fully owned and since then I’ve had a connection with the series that led me through every subsequent mainline quest and quirky spinoff. My childhood is filled with nostalgic Pokémon adventures that have left an untouchable impression on my tastes as a fan of video games.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that my interest in the series has significantly waned as I’ve gotten older. The incremental changes made to each newly released Pokémon installment always seem appealing to me at first, but it’s not long before the facade boils away and I’m left with the usual Pokémon formula. A formula, by the way, that I am by no means attempting to talk down to. Game Freak continues to make Pokémon games the way they do because it works. But when it’s the 7th game in a row where I find myself bouncing between trivial trainer battles on a route to make my way to the next type exclusive gym so that I can get to the next route which will lead me to the next gym- I start to lose interest.
That was until Pokémon Sword and Shield arrived on the scene and the controversies began. I had never seen such heated debate surrounding the lead up to a Pokémon title and it got me weirdly excited? Not because I agreed Game Freak’s controversial choices, but because it gave me hope that these choices were being made to make way for a new kind of Pokémon experience. Maybe “dexgate” and subpar battle animations were the price that Sword and Shield needed to pay to revamp the formula. Now that my time with Pokémon Sword has come to a close, I no longer think the tradeoff was worth it. The addition of marquee features like the Wild Area excitingly show flashes of what a truly revitalized Pokémon adventure could be like, but the cost was much greater than I originally anticipated. It's what we didn't see and what we weren't talking about that I believe tell the real story of Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Note: I will be referring to "Pokémon Sword" specifically from this point onward since that is the version I played but almost all of my expressed opinions should be applicable to both titles.
Let me start off by saying that my goal here isn't to add to the cacophony of oftentimes extreme hatred towards these games. This isn't a long-winded tirade on why "Game Freak Sucks" or why a Pokemon game without Surskit is objectively wrong and should be illegal (Spoilers: it is and it should). There's actually quite a lot that I liked about Pokémon Sword. Some of which directly contradicts the controversies.
Pokemon Sword is the first mainline Pokémon experience that's actually able to tap into the wondrous childlike spirit from the anime. I felt like Ash on one of his many adventures thanks to the removal of random encounters as we've come to understand them. You don't have to roll the die anymore and wonder whether or not you'll make a new discovery or run into yet another Yungoos. You just immediately see 5 Sparta balls marching across the path ahead and the excitement kicks in. What the heck was that? I wonder what type it has? If a piece of coal can evolve into a fricken car, what about these walking helmets?
Part of why this new way to discover Pokémon works so well is how they look. Ok, yes, compared to many other Switch titles, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Pokémon Sword’s graphical and artistic performance, but what the game lacks in detail it makes up for with design. The new Generation 8 inductees are some of the most memorable Pokémon designs in recent generations. Additions like Woo-Loo and Yamper are so simple yet distinct that they immediately felt like “instant classics”. There’s something weirdly compelling about taking a familiar touchstone like a corgi and then gracefully imagining what it would be like as a Pokémon.
Turing the average Pokémon interaction from a contrived low-res RPG trope into a scene straight from the anime is enough of an improvement to make me dread going back to play older titles, but thankfully Pokémon Sword delivers plenty of other quality of life upgrades to keep my 3DS on the shelf including automatic exp share, remote access to your Pokemon Storage, and the ability to skip over some tutorial sections.
This is the Way
I think it's fair to say that Pokémon Sword is at its best when it is actively trying to improve or differentiate itself from the status quo. Unfortunately, as can be said with the majority of mainline Pokémon titles, most of the changes Pokémon Sword brings to the table barely scratch the surface when it comes to revitalizing the combat system. Combat in Pokémon Sword and Shield is combat in Pokemon Sun and Moon is combat in Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire is combat in Pokemon Red and Blue with a few minor tweaks here and there. 6 Pokémon, 4 Moves, constantly asking yourself which type beats what other type. It's a primitive system that ironically refuses to evolve, but, as the old saying goes: If it ain’t broke?
The problem is, even though the system might not be broken, it’s being utilized in a broken way. The combat in Pokémon games only really gel during the high stake moments. I'm talking about the points in the game where your opponent not only has a threatening party combination but is also willing to use them effectively. That's when you are forced out of your usual groove of non-stop spamming Hydro Pump and have to actually think, plan, and adapt to the situation. It's proof that the system can work, but instead of focusing on consistently offering these engaging combat encounters throughout the Pokémon Sword experience, the game adopts the old-school JRPG mindset of forcing the player to grind through countless repetitive snooze-fest filler battles.
I ran into dozens upon dozens of NPCs who deploy nonsensical strategies and have laughably inefficient and under-leveled party line-ups. It almost never feels like a fair fight when even three quarters into the game I’m facing off against trainers who refuse to max out their Pokémon count, stick to one or two types, select sub-optimal moves, and can't use more than one item throughout the entire match. The result is a system that barely has to be paid attention to. There are exceptions to this, but that's exactly what they are: exceptions. If you have to wait for key story moments or end game content to fully enjoy the thrill of the battle system then what are we really doing here?
This isn’t just me picking on a tried-and-true staple of the Pokémon franchise just for the sake of picking. Battling is the core gameplay mechanic of Sword and Shield in the same way catching was the core gameplay mechanic of Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, and when the player is not invested in the main challenge that a game sets forth, all other mechanics become markedly unappetizing. Why should I waste my time trying to catch a variety of Pokémon, strategically distributing TMs, and engaging in new “flashy” content like raids, camps, and Poké Jobs if I’ve never once lost a battle? In fact, participating in those tasks would make combat even less challenging than it was before. This actually happened to me after my first visit to the Wild Area . I spent too long having fun exploring my surroundings and the result was a ridiculous steamroll over the next couple of gyms. Ironically, your best bet is to avoid the non-battling content in Pokémon Sword to maintain a certain level of challenge throughout as many trainer battles as possible.
Up until this point, I’ve been largely ignoring the principal upgrade Sword and Shield offers in hopes of spicing up the battle system: Dynamaxing. And the reason for this is because Dynamaxing also largely ignores the majority of battle encounters. Almost to the point of irrelevancy. If your literal “big gamble” meant to “shake things up” is only accessible during key gameplay moments, then it doesn’t make a difference most of the time. Even on the off chance that you are in a potential Dynamax situation, the feature itself suffers from an overly simplistic implementation that waters down an already simple 4 move system into it’s most boring common denominator. Dynamaxing somehow makes each battle less technically interesting by replacing a nuanced move set with “Generic Fire Attack 01” and “Generic Flying Attack 02”, but hey, at least the Pokémon get really big. That’s something, right? It almost feels like a joke at this point, for Game Freak to proudly introduce the latest battle mechanic that is supposed to revolutionize the Pokémon experience but then it winds up doing very little and is casually forgotten in time for the next release
Although Dynamaxing will likely follow in the footsteps of Z-Moves and Mega Evolutions before it, Pokémon Sword is still able to leave a lasting mark on the franchise with its introduction of the Wild Area. With all types of Pokémon to catch and train against, raids to conquer, items to buy, berries to collect, landmarks to visit, mini-games to fool around in, and other players to interact with, (all located in an unrestricted free roaming landmass viewable with a complete 360 camera) I felt like I finally had the agency to personally tailor my Pokémon experience in the same way I typically expect from open-world titles. The Wild Area is truly a glance into the future of Pokémon, but that’s also precisely where it ends. At a glance. It’s a taste. A tech demo for what could possibly be achieved without fully sealing the deal.
The things you can do offer very little depth beyond their promising first impression. It’s a thrill to encounter Pokemon that are attractively overpowered until you realize that you are not allowed to catch them without the appropriate gym badges. It’s refreshing to be let loose in an open explorable area until you realize that the environments all kind of look the same with very little detail in the textures or general design. Raids can be frustrating, simplistic, and difficult to coordinate. Cooking takes too long and is annoyingly repetitive. The main story doesn’t require you to meaningfully interact with the Wild Area whatsoever. It’s just kind of like:
“Well here it is, but don’t forget to come back to the REAL game when you’re done”.
Connecting online with other players simply plops their hologram into your world with almost no impact other than making the game lag. It’s an intriguing experiment but I was never able to shake the feeling that I was playing a proof of concept. Almost as if this was the first attempt at checking if an open-world multiplayer mechanic could work in a Pokémon game. Now I’m a firm believer that it totally can, just not for this specific Pokémon game.
This feeling that the Wild Area lacks depth and polish beyond the surface level is a common theme throughout the Pokémon Sword experience. The Galar region as a whole tries to sell itself as an engaging take of what a Pokémon world might be like in an English setting with the added emphasis of a major “World Cup” style event. It’s desperate to elevate the stakes and convince you that you are participating in a sports tournament with endorsements, massive stadiums, hokey mascots, live broadcasts, referees, uniforms, local crowds, and even trading cards but Pokémon Sword ultimately boils down to the same “go to gym, solve basic puzzle, beat gym leader, go to next gym” pattern that’s been under the hood since Red and Blue. There’s nothing inherently special about the gameplay that couldn’t have happened in any other Pokémon region with any other premise. It’s especially disappointing considering how cool it would have been if a Pokémon game actually ran like a tournament where you had to earn endorsements and qualify for major milestones instead of just looking like you do.
The rest of the region is shocking hollow with cookie-cutter towns that offer little more than being pretty dioramas with the occasional historical landmark. Pokémon Sword teases you with grandiose castles and twinkling fairy forests but taking a closer look reveals… Well. Almost nothing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Postwick or Hammerlocke, you’ll usually see the same thing everytime. A Poké Center. A Battle Cafe. A couple of shops to change your clothes or fix your hair. Apartments and homes share the same layout down the exact 3D model and NPC characters are copy-pasted right next to each other. Is it really too much to ask for Pokémon Sword to at least use a different color shirt for the identical sales clerk and customer?
It’s rare if a town includes a piece of content that truly differentiates itself but even when they do, the implementation winds up being just as empty. Wydon is home to a lavish hotel that doesn’t let you visit anywhere but the lobby. Circhester has a restaurant where the chef begs to buy something to eat before you leave without offering you a way to do exactly that. You can tell that most of the time these locations were only made because the story needed an excuse to take you somewhere special. Like how the restaurant in Hulbury is off-limits until you beat the gym, is utilized for a single cutscene, and then immediately becomes a pointless waste of space. Pokémon Red and Blue gave its towns Museums, Casinos, National Parks, and Gravestone buildings that your could engage with for hours while Pokémon Sword struggles to give a single town any identifiable shred of unique substance.
Being the Best
When you're not picking at the empty husk that is Pokémon Sword's region, the game tasks you with the familiar goal of taking Leon's place as the battling champion of Galar. Being the "best that ever was" has always been a part of the Pokemon DNA, but Pokémon Sword attempts to elevate this motivation by turning it into a cornerstone of the game's main plot. It's a strange move, considering how uninteresting a story becomes when the majority of the characters share the same motivation and when that motivation is so uninspired. One character wants to be the best but his brother is already the best, another character wants to be the best, but comes from a privileged background, another character wants the be the best, but comes from a less-privileged background, and you can't forget the character who wants to remain the best because he's already the best. Where do you fit in all of this? You play the role of, you guessed it, a character who wants to be the best. This character motivation was never a problem in previous Pokémon games because "wanting to win" was always kind of implied, but now that “being the best” IS the plot, the success of Pokémon Sword’s story hinges on how invested you are in becoming the champion.
But you still play the same blank slate mute protagonist that Pokémon games have always had, so the Pokémon Sword chooses to surround you with crazed maniacs whose only goal in life is to become the champion in hopes that some of their, let’s say insanity, will rub off on you and count as character development. That’s not a joke. Pokémon Sword constantly interrupts you with a merry-go-round of characters who love to remind you that you are their rival, or that they want to win, or how you don’t deserve to win, or that they could crush you if they were trying harder. Hop is an insufferable one-dimensional toddler who says things like “fill the page of my legend” and regularly challenges you to physically race from one end of the street to the other (much like a 7-year-old). Bede is a jerk and Marnie seems chill at first like she might actually be human until you realize her “thing” is that she has a psycho fan base who is obsessed with winning on her behalf.
Despite how hard Pokémon Sword tried to tell me that I should deeply care about winning or about these rivalries with other characters- I didn’t. At the end of the day, the game does none of the groundwork necessary to tell an actual story. It throws you in there and expects you to be as deranged as Hop or Bede just because it says so. It doesn’t work because as much as Pokémon Sword might not want to admit it, this isn’t your story at all. You are playing the background character in everyone else’s story and just happen to be along for the ride.
Nothing showcases this more than with the game’s subplot about the mysterious history of the Galar region and a suspicious chairman who may or may not want to abuse it. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s far more interesting than the main plot about an average dude who just woke up one day and felt like winning a tournament. Unfortunately, your friend Sonia is the one tasked with unraveling these legendary secrets so as to not get in the way of your far more important quest to win the thing. Pokémon Sword still wants you to know about Sonia’s journey though, so it will inexplicably make up excuses for you two to briefly cross paths so that she can barf exposition at you and then quickly remind you to scurry your butt to the next gym because It’s been far too long since your last Pokemon battle. Remember that restaurant cutscene I mentioned earlier? Here’s how it plays out: You enter Hulbury and the Chairman’s assistant invites you to dinner after you beat the gym. You beat the gym and you a greeted by the Chairman and Sonia at the restaurant who proceed to completely ignore you as they have their own side conversation relating to what Sonia’s been looking into. Once you’ve heard everything Game Freak wanted to tell you, the Chairman remarks that he has no time to talk to you and then everyone leaves. This entire setup was concocted just to give the flimsiest of reasons imaginable for the player, the side character if you will, a reason to be right next to the main characters so that we can hear what Game Freak wanted us to here.
It’s a real shame that Pokémon Sword cant put together an alluring and digestible story because an intriguing plot would have helped to break up the oftentimes monotonous pacing of the single-player campaign.
The game forces you to stick to the gym, then route, then gym, and then route routine more so than any Pokémon game that I can remember. It’s as if someone heard that Ocarina of Time was an amazing title but never got past Mido, that first dude who annoyingly blocks your way to the Great Deku Tree, and then thought to themselves: we should make an entire game filled with that guy! You go exactly where Pokémon Sword wants you to go and it wants to hurdle you from gym to gym and route to route without much in the way of variety besides cycling between random rival battles with Hop, Bede, and Marnie or her fan base.
Previous Pokémon titles also worked like this to an extent but there were always breaks in the rhythm to keep the single-player progress fresh. Pokémon Red and Blue once again showcase this disparity perfectly as it tasked you with riding on a boat, infiltrating Team Rocket’s hideout, and ruffling through the Safari Zone (among other things) to keep the player from simply marching headfirst from gym to gym. Pokémon Sword takes almost the exact opposite approach by refusing to break the gym/route cycle until the absolute end of the game. Even when the story offers golden opportunities, like when Hammerlocke is being attacked by rogue Dynamaxed Pokémon, Pokémon Sword chooses to resolve that issue with other characters so that it doesn’t disrupt your tunnel vision focus. It makes me want to play from Sonia or Leon’s perspective instead of my own since they are clearly the ones going on the real Pokémon adventure here.
I think the reason for this is that Pokémon Sword relies too heavily on the Wild Area to keep things from feeling repetitive. They want you to stop what you’re doing and go fight in raids or cook some curry in order to serve up the variety instead of designing more unique situations into the main quest like in Red and Blue. The problem with that is that the Wild Area lacks the depth to sustain the experience beyond nothing more than a fun conceptual experiment like I stated earlier. Not to mention that it’s not organically merged with the main campaign in a significant way. So the result is what feels like two separate OK games instead of a single cohesive great one. The Wild Area being an alpha build of what an MMO/open-world style Pokemon game could be like while the rest of Pokémon Sword is a full game that appears to have forgotten even the most basic tenants of good game design when it comes to variety and pacing.
A Good Trade?
Pokémon Sword and Shield have some truly encouraging triumphs with their take on the latest Pokémon adventure. For instance, I never want to play another Pokémon title without free-roaming monsters and the Wild Area is a motivating glimpse into a Pokémon future that I’ve only ever dared to dream of. It’s true that each game in the franchise takes incremental steps towards innovating the Pokémon experience but Sword and Shield go even further than most.
However, It’s also for that exact reason that the games suffer. By focusing too much on the new, Pokémon Sword and Shield choose to throw away the old. Depending on why you enjoy playing Pokémon titles, this trade-off will define how you feel about Game Freak’s latest addition to the ongoing saga. For me, although I do lament the inability to catch a Mudkip in Galar Region, the true dealbreakers came in the form of a sloppy story, repetitive battle encounters, hollow game world, and a poorly paced single-player campaign.