Review by MeleeSonic97
Pokemon Sword and Shield Cannot Block Criticism of Their Cut Content.
Expectations are everything in life. Video games are certainly no exception. Our opinions, reviews or “scores” for a given video game are a direct result of our expectations. A change in expectations - either deliberately or unconsciously; sudden, or as a result of multiple experiences - can result in radically contrasting impressions of the same underlying video game. With that in mind, it begs the question: what are reasonable expectations to have for a game like Pokémon Sword and Shield? What should we use as the baseline for forming these expectations?
- The level of quality, polish, depth and amount of content in previous main entries in the series?
- The relative quality of alternative $60, 1st party Nintendo Switch titles?
- The hardware capabilities of the Nintendo Switch relative to previous handhelds on which Pokémon has appeared?
- The certain level of production value one might anticipate in a watershed moment for the highest grossing media franchise of all time?
These are all perfectly fair and reasonable baselines from which to form one’s expectations of Pokémon Sword and Shield. Nostalgia, goodwill and sentimentality for this particular series have seemingly always resulted in an expectation discount of sorts, but for many the 50% price increase for this installment, outright lies from GameFreak and the non-stop, in-your-face Kanto exposure in recent years have all but eliminated said discount. The unfortunate reality is, that even with a discount of sorts on expectations, Pokemon Sword and Shield still fall woefully short of expectations by any reasonable baseline.
Content removal has reached a fever pitch, and what remains lacks effort, ambition, or even a semblance of challenge. Since its transition to 3D, Pokemon has gone from mildly challenging to downright patronizing. In an era where Mario, Zelda, Fire Emblem and Super Smash Bros. have displayed radical ambition in their main Nintendo Switch entries, pushing their respective series’ to new heights…Pokemon Sword and Shield are aggressively mediocre. With the transition to console – from 4GB cartridges to 32 GB cartridges – from 240p to 1080p – that we even had such confusion and debate regarding the re-use of models, animations and textures is a tragedy. While a novel could be written on the business inner-workings of GameFreak and The Pokemon Company, having standards for their products - especially given their capacity to produce good ones when they try - does in no way make one entitled.
So it bears repeating: Pokemon Sword and Shield fall woefully short of expectations by any reasonable baseline.
Much to its detriment, Pokémon Sword and Shield offer substantially fewer features, shallower depth, and reduced challenge relative to earlier, cheaper Pokémon games on weaker hardware. That is the brutal reality of these games. If one is completely new to the Pokémon series and does not possess any level of – and here is that word again – expectation for these games, this might not matter quite as much, but will still worsen the overall experience if they have had even a taste of the Nintendo Switch’s JRPG contemporaries (XenoBlade, Dragon Quest 11S and Atelier, among others). For series veterans, especially those who have experienced the relatively ambitious, content-loaded, reasonably-challenging, generation 3-5 games, it will be hard for Pokemon Sword and Shield to block criticism of its cut content.
The overall gameplay loop of the Pokemon series - however dated, however formulaic - is present in Pokemon Sword and Shield in full force. For the uninitiated, one can expect to choose one of three “starter” Pokemon, with which they will begin their adventure comprised of exploration, capturing Pokemon, battling and light storytelling. 3D exploration in the Pokemon main games continues its progression, albeit at a Slugma’s pace compared to other 3D adventures games over the years. New to Pokemon Sword and Shield is the introduction of camera controls, which is a very welcome addition. Speaking of which, controls in general are very fluid and responsive.
Exploration is suffocated by route linearity. Multiple times I felt compressed and shoehorned by the simple pathways offered by most routes. The Wild Area suffers from this as well. Very shallow cliffs cannot be traversed, for example. The game “funnels” you in a way that feels like you can only play the game the way GameFreak wanted you to play it.
Battles are functionally identical to games past. Attempts to innovate – via new moves, abilities or mechanics – are noted, but ultimately fail to impact in a meaningful way. However, this is something that I personally don’t mind nor will others. Since the completion of the physical/special split in gen 4, it’s been pretty consistent and solid.
Not every game needs to be Dark Souls. It’s ok to be an easy game. However, Pokemon Sword and Shield continue the series’ recent trend of handholding to the point of patronization. Experience points are now given to each Pokemon in your party, and without a significant multiplier reduction for non-participants. This is mandatory. In-game assistance in the form of NPC-handouts, heals, provided items and tutorials have crossed the line from quality-of-life to suffocating, unavoidable hand-holding. The absence of a difficulty setting truly accentuates this trend for series veterans, who are ever increasing in age and number. No gym in the game has more than 3 Pokemon, and thanks to the mandatory EXP-all, you’ll be overleveled for all of them. Routes are linear and dungeons are absent. The result is an experience direly lacking in problem-solving, resource management or even a hint of critical thinking.
In isolation, there is some value here. You’re getting a 15-25 hour adventure, pending one’s pace, complete with exploration, story, “bosses”, and party progression. The quality of those 15-25 hours is arguably substandard, but the completion-time to dollars-spent “ratio” is comparable to some other Switch games, but it’s much less than other Pokemon games on lesser hardware. In fact, there are only 10 routes in the game, and they’re quite short.
In the context of what a main Pokemon game traditionally offers, and what $60, first-party Nintendo Switch titles typically offer, the value proposition is Slaking, to say the least. Content removal from generation-to-generation is in no way new to the Pokemon series, but never has it been as severe and unjustified as it is in Pokemon Sword and Shield. Gone are critically-acclaimed fan favorites such as Mega-Evolutions, Z-Moves, the Player Search System, and following Pokemon. Gone are over 140 moves. Gone are an untold number of so-called “one-of” features varying in their reception, but almost certainly of value; Horde/Inverse/Sky/Triple/Rotation battles, Challenge Mode, Secret Bases, Pokemon World Tournament, VS. Seeker, Pokeball designs, O-Powers, seasons, over-world Pokemon, DexNav, and so, so much more.
There is also the most sinful, sinister omission of all: Pokemon themselves. If you’ve been living under a Rock Tunnel or in a Union Cave the past 6 months, Pokemon Sword and Shield are the first main installments of the series to not include each Pokemon that has existed to-date. It’s an unprecedented departure from series’ norms, and an exponentially unpopular one that will result in a feeling of incompleteness for many, if not outright resentment for the omission of one’s favorite Pokemon.
Pokemon Sword and Shield does not leave you entirely empty handed in the new content department; however, the new additions are pedestrian. Raid battles are a new mechanic, and a welcome foray into co-operative gameplay for the series. However, they lack the challenge the imposing figures would imply and even as a plot device, Dynamax seeks to “replace” Mega-Evolutions and Z-Moves, but its limitations – both in turns and battles it can be used in – leaves one wanting. The concept of a mere super-sized projection of existing Pokemon feels more like a gimmick than a mainstay. Trainer customization is brilliant, but if previous feature abandonment is any indication, don’t get attached to it. Camps and curry represent a tasteful reincarnation of the previous Pokemon Refresh and Pokemon Amie.
There exists minimal post-game. Perhaps 2 hours of story-related content and the usual Battle Maison/Frontier/Tower equivalent. That’s it. Online trading and battle functionality is a far cry from what it was using Pokemon X and Y’s Player Search System. And for you competitive types – I used to be one myself all the way through gen 6 – I don’t anticipate the slashed PokeDex to facilitate a better meta game. In fact, I think it will have the adverse effect of certain Pokemon (Ferrothorn and Aegislash come to mind) overcentralizing the meta game in the absence of their counters.
I won’t spoil too much, but it’s riddled with the usual Pokemon tropes and given a United Kingdom coat of paint. Galar’s battle scene is heavily influenced by Soccer themes. You won’t be surprised by nearly anything, plot-wise. Character depth hasn’t been the series’ forte, and this is no exception. Also, Hop is overbearing, and his incessant dialogue is insufferable.
Pokemon Sword and Shield offer the graphical quality of a high-end PlayStation 2 title. This is perfectly reasonable for a full-priced console game…released in 2004. While graphical quality has never been the series’ strong suit and was often bottlenecked by the limitations of the portable hardware of generations past, Pokemon Sword and Shield’s graphical inadequacies stick out like a red Gyarados against the backdrop of its Nintendo Switch contemporaries, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Textures are grainy and low-resolution. Battle animations are generally lethargic. Draw distances are comically short and would make PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games blush. In fact, I’d say this games most atrocious flaw to Pokemon newcomers will probably be this. Things (trees, Pokemon, bushes, etc.) just pop up within 5-10 feet of you character. You can’t see very far at all, and it has the effect of making the world and wild area feel barren.
Certainly worth mentioning here is the art direction taken. While individual preferences for Pokemon designs are very subjective, the Galarian newcomers offer a blend of cool and cute, stylish and brutish, masculine and feminine, quirky and serious, and everywhere in between. “There is something for everyone here,” as IGN’s awful reviews so often reiterate. Still, myself and many others and disappointed in the trend towards anthropomorphic, humanoid designs for final starter evolutions. The enormous head, rounded eyes, minimal body detail trend is also accelerated in generation 8. This is a stylistic preference of course, but to myself and many, Pokemon are to be creatures, not toys or furries. Character designs pop. Gym leaders are striking in their appearance, and immediately let you know at first glance what they and their Pokemon type is all about. Despite the previously mentioned technical shortcomings, the over-world is stylistically well-done. From autumnal country-sides, to inhospitable deserts, geographic diversity has been a series mainstay, and continues here. Unfortunately, animation re-use and a critical lack of variety in NPC models mar an otherwise impressive visual presentation.
It’s solid by video game standards, but not by Pokemon standards. I’ve yet to find anything that has “hooked” me quite like certain Gold/Silver/Crystal tracks have. Sadly no epic Lance or Cynthia battle theme comparable, at least not to my ears. But it serves its purpose.
The old effects are “remastered” and there (menu/dialogue navigation, item pick-up, attack effectiveness sounds, leveling up, etc.). It’s a nostalgia play, but a welcome one. Footsteps are audible. Pokemon cries continue to “improve”, if that’s your thing (although I prefer the 8-bit noises, personally). Solid.
If it isn’t obvious by this point, I’m a Pokemon veteran. When it comes to the main series, I’ve played them all. Beat them all. Caught them all. I was a kid during Pokemania. I’m 30. I’ve bred competitive teams, “EV-trained”, shiny-hunted, you name it. I realize that I may be coming in with different perceptions than others.
Still, even when I mentally detach myself from the standpoint of a series veteran and try to approach Pokemon Sword and Shield from the perspective of an outsider, I still can’t call these games anything but a substandard product. Again, by any reasonable baseline of expectations – which I list at the beginning of this review – Pokemon Sword and Shield fall woefully short. It’s painful to say and type that, along with everything else I have. What is even more painful however, is the reality that these games will likely be an enormous commercial success based on name recognition and have already received critical acclaim from the corporate critics and “content creators”, both of which are subject to an insidious conflict of interest when assessing the quality of these games. Said success will only incentivize low-effort, unambitious annual releases.
You will see many negative reviews here, none nearly as lengthy as my diatribe. However, recognize that these negative reviews, like mine, come from a place of love and passion for the Pokemon series, and a sense of heartbreak and betrayal over seeing what it has become. To us, we love Pokemon, and in order for it to improve, there needs to be a place for criticism. This is it.
Anyways, do not buy Pokemon Sword or Shield. For the good of your money, your time, and the future of this franchise, do not buy Pokemon Sword or Shield.
Product Release: Pokemon Sword (US, 11/15/19)
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