Review by Uta
Reviewed: 11/25/19 | Updated: 02/06/20
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Pokemon Sword and Shield made many improvements over the core Pokemon formula, but for every feature added two or more major features were cut from the game. Many feel that Pokemon is above reproach. Many more had hoped Pokemon would follow in the footsteps of Mario, Zelda, Fire Emblem, and Smash Bros. While this game certainly has its charms, it regretfully falls short of its contemporaries. In a world where Nintendo's flagships are pushing forward into never before seen heights; GameFreak felt that maintaining the status quo, was good enough for them. Some might argue they've done even less than the average with how much was cut from prior entries. If you're the kind of person who will be pleased with any Pokemon game so long as it has Pokemon in it, then stop reading now. This review is likely not for you. If you're more critical than that, and wanting an honest opinion of the game from someone who has played every entry since Pokemon Yellow then please read on.
Story (1 / 5)
For many years Pokemon has settled into a comfortable story flow. An evil team is used to highlight the problems that the world faces, and the trainer must put a stop to them. Along the way they gather 8 badges and become a Pokemon Champion. Pokemon's stories have ranged from animal right's activists calling the nature of Pokemon Battling itself into question to goofy teens who are bitter they couldn't be champions. Sword and Shield flips the script, for better and worse. In Galar, the Pokemon Championship is a major sporting event that everyone watches. Gyms are now Stadiums packed with people. Trainers require Endorsements to participate in the league, and other Challengers talk about how hard it is to make it as far as you have. Never before has Pokemon made me care so much about the League aspect of the game. This side of the stories' only real weakness is how often everyone talks about the undefeated champion and his favorite Pokemon, Charizard. As for the evil team...well there isn't one. Team Yell are just fans of a rival challenger named Marnie. The most heinous act they commit is allowing an elderly woman to cross the road. Certainly, Galar has its fair share of troubles, but every single one of those troubles happens off-screen, and the player character is strictly forbidden from interacting with any of them. Every time the game threatens to get interesting and allow you to face the real threat's plaguing Galar, someone stops you. "No Pokemon Trainer. Let the Champion handle this, you go back to your Gym Challenge." The most egregious instance of this takes place somewhat later in the game. A major disaster occurs not even 10 feet from the player character, just off camera. You get told to stay back, but then pressing forward anyways has Hop walk up to you and start hyping up the events you apparently missed. He then shows you a screenshot of the aftermath. Unfortunately this means that literally every chance the game could have used to show us how powerful Champion Leon is never gets shown. Any other game; prior Pokemon games included, would have shown us what happened to sell Leon as a viable threat, but apparently not here.
Many of the game's "cut-scenes" play out like this. Something happens, the screen fades black, and then the screen returns with characters commenting on what you missed. Simple scenes such as getting dinner are given the exact same treatment as a localized disasters. Beyond that this game is perhaps the most linear of all time. One of Team Yell's jobs is apparently to become a living barricade that keeps you from exploring where you want to go. Instead you must stick to the critical path, where every 20-40 feet a character reminds you of where you're going. A typical route will usually start off with someone telling you to go down this route, then you go down it a bit before bumping into one of your rivals. You'll beat them and they'll remind you to keep going down the route. Then you'll meet a supporting cast member, most likely Sonia, who tells you to keep going down that route until you arrive at the next town where you'll usually fight one of the other rivals. There is zero chance for the player to walk off the beaten path and explore on their own. Beat the Gym, and get on the next route to begin the process anew.
But it's not all bad. Usually, shortly before or after facing a Gym Leader or meeting a key player they'll hand over a copy of their Trainer Card. These nifty little cards have nice artwork of the character on them, but more importantly serve as a sort of datalog giving information and history for the people you meet. A surprising amount of character detail can be found on these cards; such as who is friends with who and major events in their childhood. Most of these details can even be seen at least once in game, so the additional nugget of lore was greatly appreciated. Especially when reading a card suddenly makes a character's actions make more sense. While the story is prone to hand holding quite regularly, for perhaps the first time in the series history the tutorials can be skipped by simply telling the tutorial giver that you already know what's up. Telling Hop you've been to the Pokemon Center before will have him respond with "No point telling you what you already know then." Even the capturing tutorial gets skipped if you've caught at least one Pokemon prior to it appearing.
The Gym Challenges themselves are greatly improved as well, and a nice touch was the return of Version Exclusive Gyms. Challenges are now a mixture of Trials from Sun and Moon, and the more tried and true puzzles of prior generations. This mix worked surprisingly well, and with the added hype surrounding the Gym Challenge as a whole I legitimately felt like I was challenged, even if it was only placebo effect. Most of my Pokemon were consistently 5 levels ahead of whatever gym I faced. If future titles manage to preserve this level of quality in the Gym Challenge side of the story, while also giving us a tangible threat or an evil team to fight they may yet crack the formula for the perfect Pokemon game.
Technically speaking, the last hour of the game does reveal a villain, but their plan makes absolutely no sense and probably wouldn't have even been a problem if they had waited like, two more days before attempting it. Post-game is relatively short, it took me about 2 hours to complete it. Following that the player can engage in the Battle Tower, Max Raids, and Competitive Battling. All of which have the potential to extend the game's lifespawn indefinitely. Provided you don't do those things, the story will take somewhere between 10-25 hours. I was able to 100% the game; including a Living Pokedex in just over 80 hours. The replay value is pretty low. The excessive hand-holding was aggravating enough the first time. With how linear the story is the only difference a new playthrough would offer is the chance to choose a different starter.
Gameplay (2 / 5)
The core of Pokemon Gameplay will almost always be fun. Collecting, Trading, and Battling a wide array of fantastic beasts never gets old. As Harold Nathan Braunhut once said, "A kid's three favorite things are surprises, toys, and pets." Pokemon perfectly captures those three things in one neat little package. Seeing a creature leap from the tall grass for the first time always elicits a thrill. The anticipation of the ball-shake when trying to capture something rare keeps me engaged. And seeing what my beloved monsters evolve into keeps me on the edge of my seat. Long ago Satoshi Tajiri once said that Pokemon were monsters, and that the most important part of the game was controlling them. They could represent your fears, your anger, or your sadness, and the ability to stuff those things into little capsules and control them was essential to what makes Pokemon, Pokemon. Over 20 years of refining that formula and it still feels great. Although the battle system has not seen any major overhauls the core concept still remains enjoyable enough that most players will at least be entertained with the game should they give it a try.
But this review is titled "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back" for a reason. The only new battle mechanic added was Dynamax and its cousin Gigantamax. These are special super-sized forms that your Pokemon can take during battle, and come with supercharged moves. Stat-wise they just multiply HP by two. Gameplay wise the mechanic can be hit or miss. Many Pokemon such as Wailord had to be scaled down in order to support Dynamaxing. On top of that, many Bipedal Pokemon are so tall after Dynamaxing that their upper torso sails above the screen. Some trainers may find this cool, but I personally felt disappointed only seeing 2/3rds of the Pokemon I worked so hard to train. In exchange for the Dynamax Phenomenon: Mega Evolution, Z-Moves, Triple Battles, over 400 Pokemon, and a handful of other moves were removed from the game. Your attachment to the removed features will heavily influence if this game is right for you. Venomoth, Ampharos, Breloom, Lopunny, Volcarona, Floette, and Lurantis were all counted among my favorite Pokemon. And all of them are gone. This alone was almost a dealbreaker for me, and for many players it was.
The two most significant aspects of Pokemon are the ability to explore a world full of monsters, and the ability to befriend and battle them. Pokemon was built around the concept of exploring nature and capturing Pokemon in the same way that Satoshi Tajiri did as a kid. Discovering things like the Power Plant and Mystery Cave felt empowering and rewarding, and they usually had many unique or rare Pokemon to reward those adventurous Trainers. Sword and Shield seems to have forgotten that love for adventure. The locales and set-pieces are mostly stimulating. Ballonlea and Circhester were among my favorite towns in the past three generations, but for those looking to leave the critical path and forge their own will be disappointed.
There is nothing to explore. The Wild area; though vast in its own right, is more like an overgrown sandbox. The game has two caves, and both are on the critical path. Both of the caves are designed exactly like the routes; very few branching paths, no detours, all other paths aside from the main one is a dead-end that may or may not have an item. There are no hidden dungeons, no power plants, no Victory Road, and no legendary locations. This game features only the critical path forward, and the Wild Area. This game is more linear than any Pokemon game that has ever come before it, and that is made somehow even worse with characters every 5 steps showing you the way you're meant to be going. And even when they aren't there, Team Yell will block every path except the way forward to funnel you onto the "correct" path. As a child I always missed getting Flash in the original Yellow version, so I was always forced to make my way through the Rock Tunnel blind. While challenging, I always felt a bit of pride when I made it to the other side. I even used to brag to my friends, "I can make it through the Rock Tunnel blind!". This game provides you with no opportunities to get lost like that, everything is curated down to the lowest possible denominator. The only way exploration could get anymore milquetoast is if it literally held your hand and dragged you from point to point.
The Wild Area however is one of the best new features this generation has to offer. It legitimately feels like a good start towards a fully open-world Pokemon. The area feels suitably vast, and the new Max Raids offer a new way to play together with your friends that has brought me and mine closer than ever before. As the only competitive battler among us my friends always refused to play Pokemon with me except to trade. Now we finally have something we can work on with each other, rather than against. Be that as it may, the mechanics are hilariously broken and can enable players to overpower themselves to outrageous levels. A single "lap" of Raids will take the average player about 30 minutes, and if the player chooses to use the Experience Candies earned from them they can easily see their Pokemon shoot to level 40 or 50 before seeing even the very first Gym. "Just don't use the Candy" is the common defense I hear, but this can happen totally by accident. A player who doesn't know any better may choose to spend their candies and stare in horror as any semblance of difficulty dies unless they box what may have been their favorite Pokemon. This selfsame mechanic however is a godsend in late game though, as it makes grinding easier than it's ever been. I usually don't level my Pokemon up to 100 because it takes too much work, but a couple hours grinding raids looking for rare Pokemon saw two Pokemon reach it in short order.
Online features are the worst the series has seen since the days of Link Cables and Infrared. The Global Trade Station; a place where Trainers could request a specific Pokemon in exchange for one of their own was removed. Although the GTS wasn't exactly the most balanced of systems (kids demanding Legendaries in exchange for Bidoof's were rampant on the service) it was still a useful tool for more patient players. The Y-Comm is also severely downgraded from previous mechanics such as PSS. For the first time ever in the series' long history you can no longer Trade, Battle, or participate in the new Max Raids with your friends. In order to do any of those things with someone you know, you must set a 4-digit Link Code; instruct your friend to do the same (with the same code), and then pray no one else is using the same Link Code as you. In just about any other Pokemon Game the Link Code system would have been a welcome addition. A nice way for player's to connect when they aren't registered as friends is just the thing the series needed, but when coming on the heels of losing both the GTS and the ability to trade with people on your friend's list Link Codes instead feel clumsy and bothersome. The tagline, "Once Step Forward, Two Steps Back" comes to mind.
Sound (4 / 5)
Pokemon Sword and Shield boast one of the best sound tracks of any Pokemon game to date. From the chanting in the stadiums when a Leader's Ace takes the stage to the uplifting and energetic Battle Tower theme there's at least one track that will get stuck in your head for years to come. Although every track is excellent not all of them fit the mood of the area they appear, and it's the main reason I took a point off for this section. Galar Mines is a particularly bad example. It sounds like it would be more at home as the Casino Level music in a Sonic Game before being used in a nondescript cave. Good music, but definitely the wrong place for it. When the music and environments came together just right, such as the aforementioned Stadium Music or a few key pieces in certain towns I hit levels of immersion that I rarely feel in Pokemon games, so I feel confident that this is an all-time high for Pokemon music. I'm glad that at least in this one area Pokemon is falling in-line with other Nintendo titles.
Beyond the great OST however is the game's sound design. Most of the time its simply serviceable, but I did feel the need to mention that audio controls are locked behind a Key Item that many players might not pick up. This was especially important for me, as I found Dynamax Pokemon to have excruciatingly loud cries and had to turn that down as soon as I got the item. Beyond that most of the sounds used are classic sounds the series has become all too familiar with. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on if you want Pokemon to go the way of the rest of Nintendo and ditch MIDI sounds for Foley audio.
Graphics (3 / 5)
For a Pokemon game the graphics are pleasant. Villages and towns feel more detailed than ever, and there's far more of them than in more recent generations; even if the towns themselves are a little on the small side. Often only having one or two houses total. The new graphics engine has a lot to love; Pokemon seems to be taking advantage of new cel-shading techniques as well as a filter that allows them to draw black lines onto a Pokemon's model, enabling a much more "anime" feel. Unfortunately the engine seems to be incapable of rendering anything more than a few feet away. Pop-in, especially for characters and Pokemon is constant and annoying. Most of the time it won't hinder actual gameplay (though it easily can in the Wild Area with Pokemon frequently "spawning" directly under foot) but the damage to immersion is constant. There's also several points in the game where the frame-rate is choppy or inconsistent, trainer's will despawn during attacks that have too many particle effects, and the wild area is prone to severe frame rate drops when online. Still, despite the strange technical problems the graphics have a level of polish never before seen in Pokemon. While it's a far cry from other Nintendo titles it does stand above its 3DS predecessors.
Cut-scenes however did not get the same basic treatment. A common example is a Pokemon turning around will their default walk cycle and a rotation transform applied. Even the original Jak and Daxter from 2001 had more expressive turn-arounds than that. But that's when they choose to animate things at all. As mentioned in the story section above; there are a lot of moments where the game will simply fade in and out and then tell you what happened during the transition. Animations in general are mostly recycled from older generations; with Hop in particular being pretty noteworthy as re-using all of Hau's old animations from Sun and Moon. This much I can understand; Pokemon has a LOT of animations. Even for the 400 included monsters there's still thousands of animations. This is the one area where I expect Game Freak to take short-cuts, but to do so during important cut-scenes felt especially bad. Attack Animations on the other hand have received another fresh coat of paint and many are looking better than ever. There are still many weaker animations such as double kick and headbutt, but in general the animations are eye-catching, snappy, and properly convey the impact of what's going. Especially for more explosive moves like Dynamax attacks and Hyper Beams.
Most people don't usually care about this stuff, but the game's UI is also cleaner and more snappy than usual. Player's can also reposition the icons for easy access to things like the Town Map or the Pokedex. The cleanness of the UI does make those old sound effects feel a little bit clunkier, but otherwise the enhanced UI is appreciated.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield manages to improve many areas of the core game. It is visually the best Pokemon game to date, and offers a familiar Pokemon experience that new and old fans will enjoy. However, older fans in particular may find themselves displeased over the sheer volume of cut content. For nearly every good thing these games do, almost two or more good things of equal value were cut entirely. This leaves the games more-or-less enjoyable, but feeling as though there's some missing ingredient holding it back. The degree with which players were attached to those missing features or Pokemon will heavily influence one's judgement of the game.
In the end, I enjoyed my time in the Galar region, and will continue to play until my Pokedex is complete and I'm tired of competitive battles. However the game had serious problems at every step of the way, and still does even outside of the story. For players with less tolerance than I, this may be a game worth skipping out on, but if you're just looking for your next Pokemon fix you will certainly find something to love in Sword and Shield. That's why I give this game 2.5 out of 5 Hearts. The game deserves the moniker, "Average"
For die-hard Pokemon Fans it was probably already a day-one buy. For more casual Pokemon fans I'd suggest finding it used or renting the game. For everyone else I would suggest you avoid it. The game is too unpolished and too unfinished feeling, and would not serve as a good entry to the series.
Product Release: Pokemon Sword (US, 11/15/19)
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