Review by Suprak the StudDonate directly to the author of this contribution

Reviewed: 04/13/20

A Double Edged Sword (Or Shield)

If you checked the internet at all last year, you might have noticed angry mobs of internet nerds getting together with their pitchforks and torches and absolutely no deodorant. The target of their ire this time was the new Pokémon game, which was a bit surprising considering this was a series most of them had small shrines in honor of somewhere in their house (which they would occasionally use as a place to sacrifice the weaker members of their community). Pokémon was near universally loved, the Nintendo Switch was near universally loved, so you think the wedding of the two of them would be met with near universal celebration, like when Peanut Butter first met Nutella or when Billy Eilish first met oversized clothes that were meant for husky elephants. Some things were meant to be together, and Pokémon Sword (or Pokémon Shield if you prefer the version with the uglier Pokémon on the cover for some reason) seemed destined for greatness. But then they started leaking information about it, and hardcore Pokémon fans online started looking on in concern. And by “looking on in concern” I meant “threatening to boycott the game and kidnap anyone that bought it and launch them into the sun”. Things were a-changin’, and some of those things weren’t a-changin’ for the better. It is hard to address this game on its own, and not a part of a long running, beloved series. But, in spite of the expectations and in spite of the push back online, this game is ok. I know that isn’t interesting, and I should either love it or hate it. But the best way to describe Pokémon Sword is a perfectly fine game that could’ve been much better.

The story in Pokémon Sword tells the epic coming of age tale of a down on their luck hero. There is some extreme symbolism here, and a deeper meaning you must work to uncover. All is not what it seems and…hahahaha nah, I’m just joking. It is the same exact plot of every Pokémon game. I’ll just summarize a bit here, but in general you want to be the very best, like no one ever was. To catch them? That’s your real test. To train them? That’s your cause. All you really need to know is that you are a young kid setting out on their very own Pokémon adventure. You start with a choice from one of three different Pokémon, and from there you can build a team of six from a total of 400 different Pokémon. There are eight gyms to battle (as normal) as you eventually make your way through the land of Galar and to the eventual champion. Which Pokémon you use are totally up to you, and just like every other Pokémon game you are essentially just looking to build the very strongest team of cute/ferocious animals to beat up other teams of cute/ferocious animals.

There is some other stuff going on in the background of course involving legendary Pokémon and some sort of nefarious organization doing nefarious stuff. I doubt many people are actually all that invested in the story of Pokémon beyond the effort to get all the cute little animals/plants/”is that a sentient trash pile?” in Pokéballs, but even for a Pokémon story this isn’t a good one. I am still not sure exactly what the bad guy was doing here which isn’t helped by the fact they try to do a last-minute reveal which might have been more impactful if they didn’t choreograph it so clearly from the very start. The post-game storytelling was actually more interesting to me as that at least had a semblance of a personality and some charm, which most of the game felt it was lacking. Again, I know the plot of these games are mostly on autopilot at this point, but it would’ve been nice if I had something to attach on to. Some fun writing or a memorable world or something that kept me interesting in the story at all. It doesn’t really have anything like that though, and I feel like a decent chunk of the players are just going to wind up mashing through the text whenever it pops up to get back to the good stuff.

Things aren’t helped by the cast here, who at their very best can be described as forgettable. Again, I fully understand nobody cares about characters in Pokémon games and the most interesting thing they have to say is usually something along the lines of “shorts are comfy and easy to wear”. Here though, characters are even a step below that and they waver between being completely forgettable or genuinely annoying. Hop, your rival, simply will not shut up. He shows up seemingly every 30 minutes to whine and mope and loudly listen to Numb by Linkin Park in an effort to get you to ask him if he’s ok. He is supposed to be a likeable character that you are supposed to be friends with and I never felt anything other than an intense desire to fire him into the sun and never see him again. Outside of him, I couldn’t really even tell you many of the other important cast members names and for example I am having a hard time remembering even what type most of the gym leaders were. There are a couple of semi-fun characters, and the other reoccurring rivals of Bede and “goth girl with a fanatical group of followers” (i.e. literally any goth girl on the internet) were at least a bit more fun and not completely disposable nobodies. There is something about the design here that just feels a bit below some of the older Pokémon games, and gym leaders and rivals just don’t feel as iconic as they used to.

By and large I can say “this is a Pokémon game” and you’ll already know if you’ll like it or not. There are some new additions here and there sure, and some things were removed and some things were changed. But, again, I haven’t played a Pokémon game since Pokémon Silver and there was almost nothing here I had to learn. You catch Pokémon and have them fight other Pokémon through a turn based interface. Pokémon will be of different types, and certain types are strong against these Pokémon and other types will be weak against these Pokémon. You will need to build up a team of six to fight other teams and it is by and large a fairly simple RPG. The fun has always come from designing a team with whatever Pokémon you want, and with 400 to choose from there are a lot of options here. Balancing your team and tweaking them is where all the strategy comes in, and there is just something intrinsically fun about catching a new crop of Pokémon and fiddling with your team to make them as strong as possible. So when I say “this is a Pokémon game”, that fact alone is one of its greatest strengths. However, it also wound up being one if its greatest weaknesses.

If you are looking into this game, you should probably be aware that this is the most controversial Pokémon game since the reboot that cast only female Pokémon. The reasons for this are varied and differ from person to person, but one of the most common refrains was that this was just another Pokémon game. People were expecting something big and new for the first console Pokémon game, and this is neither of those things. If you’re looking for another generation of monsters to snatch up and throw in a box, this certainly has that. But I missed roughly a fifteen years of advancement in the franchise, playing only the very beginning of a couple of games here and there, and even still this didn’t feel all that different. Undeniably, the classic formula still works. Collecting Pokémon is fun and training Pokémon is fun and battling Pokémon is fun and this still has all the same appeal as the original games released like 25 years ago now. The formula is still very solid and somehow it hasn’t grown stale yet. If you were hoping for something new, though, then you’re going to be disappointed. There are some very interesting additions, but by and large this is the same game you’ve been playing since you were eight. You find Pokémon and then you have those Pokémon fight against other people in essentially the same way you always have. Pokémon was never a series that was known for innovation, and that once again rings true here.

One of the other biggest complaints about the game is that it didn’t allow you to catch all 800+ Pokémon from the start. Only 400 were available at time of release, with a subsequent DLC adding another couple of hundred others. Culling 400 Pokémon was a very dramatic event in 2019, and came with the very dramatic nickname Dexit, and for a while you couldn’t go to Reddit or Youtube or any other site that hosted information about gaming without a horde of angry Pokémaniacs yelling about the injustice of it all while you were just trying to scroll through and find some funny memes. It is true that half the Pokémon are missing from this game, and if this is important to you, you might want to avoid this. There is nothing that can be done at the moment, and all the Pokémon you have from older games cannot be ported into this one just yet. Some of them can, sure, but it is possible your favorite for three generations didn’t make the cut and will be stuck in their old game for quite a while. And it doesn’t help that features like Pokémon Home and the new DLC, which are adding Pokémon back into the game, cost extra money. This has led some extreme fans to be quite mad and to burn all their Pokémon cards and Pokémon books and Pokémon onesie pajamas in protest. They have a legitimate gripe here, so if this is important to you, you can probably knock a couple of points off of my final score.

However, from my perspective, as an individual that hasn’t finished a Pokémon game since Pokémon Silver, I could not care less. In fact, if anything, I was excited the Pokédex got trimmed back a bit. Catching over 800 Pokémon was less of a goal and more of a cry for help, and sometime around the fourth generation there just became too many Pokémon for me to feel like it was worth it to even bother trying. Cultivating the total available Pokémon not only helps to focus things a bit, it also helps to emphasize new Pokémon as they are now a larger percentage of the available Pokémon to catch. I fully understand why some people might be upset their favorite Pokémon aren’t available, but at least to me this was a selling point and not a deal breaker. Hardcore Pokémon enthusiasts are likely to have an issue with this but, to me, as someone who skipped several generations of games, it was refreshing to not be immediately overwhelmed by the number of Pokémon in the game.

Unfortunately, some of the other complaints are a bit more universal and won’t impact just the most hardcore of fans. The most glaring issue is that the game feels rushed, and chunks of the game feel like they are missing. There is an all-out sprint from roughly the fifth gym battle until the end of the game, and suddenly it feels like little effort went into building the world of Galar. Towns feel almost barren, and there is one town here that is literally nothing but a Pokémon Center and the gym fight. There aren’t extra places to explore or things to do, and the game is sort of forcing you down the path to endgame at lightning speed while failing to really build up memorable towns or characters or anything, really. It feels a bit barren in comparison to past Pokémon titles, and there isn’t that same sense of world building that past games have had. It just feels like there isn’t as much to do here, and while the Wild Area was a fantastic addition, it seems to have been added at the detriment of some of the other usual content.

And it isn’t just the endgame that feels rushed. This game also lacks the “dungeons” that have become a staple of the series. Typically, you would need to go to some other location that was filled with Pokémon and trainers to get some important item or to find someone or to get to the next town. There is nothing like that here. You just go from one town to the next on a fairly simple, short path without much exploration or discovery at all. In fact, outside of the Wild Area, there isn’t anything here to do at all. Walk through path to new town, battle the gym, rinse and repeat until the game ends. I wouldn’t say the game is completely bereft of content because there is still a lot of stuff to do here between Max Raid battles and filling up your Pokédex and breeding shiny Pokémon or engaging in online battles. But the thing is this is all mostly online stuff, and the sort of things you’d want to do in the post-game. That’s all good, but the main quest doesn’t seem to get the same attention and it really feels like it is missing out on a good chunk of stuff here. I don’t know if this was intentional to draw focus to the online stuff or if they were crunching to miss a deadline or what, but overall this game feels a lot emptier than the Pokémon games before it.

Still, there is a lot to like here. The biggest addition is the Wild Area, a large open area right in the middle of the map with a bunch of unique sections that all contain different Pokémon under different weather conditions. It really helps open up what was otherwise a fairly linear game and it is the one place on the map where you can really explore. You can go wherever you want as soon as you unlock it, but certain sections will be way too overpowered for you at first so you’re best avoiding them until you level up a bit if you don’t want your Pokémon getting slapped around by a level 60 Rhydon just yet. This is where you see the real potential of the game and where it really starts to feel like a bigger, better Pokémon game. There is stuff to find and lots of places to explore and it is also where you find Pokémon dens that take advantage of two other new features in the game: Dynamaxing and co-op raid battles. It isn’t big enough to be truly remarkable and it definitely could’ve and should’ve been expanded upon to build upon the experience, but it is still a very welcome addition to the game and I had a lot of fun finding all there was to find here.

As mentioned before, something that makes the Wild Area interesting are two other new features that get integrated into the big open chunk of the map. The first of these is Dynamaxing. Essentially, in certain battles you can Dynamax any of your Pokémon. This makes them bigger and cooler and also makes their Pokéballs comically large. It also changes their movelist somewhat while they are Dynamaxed, giving them more general, uber powerful moves of whatever type the original move used to be. They tend not to be used all that much, and are mostly relegated to gym fights and some other boss battles. While they are fairly simplistic, they do add at least another little wrinkle to some of the fights and it adds slightly more strategy when you’re trying to decide which Pokémon to save for last to be prepared for their final, gargantuan Pokémonster. Again, these aren’t huge selling points by themselves and honestly they do not change the overall battles all that much. Limiting their use makes sense from a gameplay standpoint, but at the same point it also takes a bit away from the mechanic since you are really only using it as a “get out of their final Pokémon free” card.

The way these all work well together though is in the Max Raid battles. These are cooperative fights that occur in the Wild Area and involve huge Dynamaxed Pokémon (and sometimes rare or unique Gigantamaxed Pokémon). Gigantamax, in addition to being a crazy long nonsense word that is making these long squiggly red lines all over my Microsoft Word document, are special versions of certain Pokémon that change appearances into something new or interesting when they Dynamax. Some of the co-op raid battles are fairly uninteresting and can be beaten by yourself (and a group of three AI trainers that are “Team Rocket trying to steal a single Pokémon” levels of incompetence). The battles are ranked on a scale of one start to five stars in terms of difficulty, and while most can be beaten with your bumbling AI allies, for five stars you’re going to need some help from some actual people. You can join up to three people online, either by inviting them to your raids or searching for other people’s raids via the online hub. They’ve done a good job so far adding new variants every couple of weeks or so where special Gigantamax (or sometimes shiny) Pokémon show up with much higher regularity, and it gives you something to keep coming back to. The battles themselves are enjoyable enough, and add a little bit of a challenge especially if you’re trying to get things done with just two or three people. It adds to the replayability as well, as you can keep trying to find Pokémon with better and better stats from these raids.

A lot of the post-game content is where you’ll have the most fun here. In addition to the co-op raids, you have the same sort of things that people always like about the post-game Pokémon experience. There is the “gotta catch them all” mentality which has always been a strength of these games, and there is something about going around and trying to finish up the last of your Pokédex that is just a lot of fun. It does a great job putting enough variety in types and appearances that it actually feels like a reward for finding a new Pokémon and not just a chore you have to complete. Again, 400 works a bit better for this than it did in the past couple games and it is slightly more manageable than if the game was trying to get you to catch all 800. There is enough here that it feels like a real challenge, but not so many that it feels overwhelming from the start. Of course, there is no need to collect all of these if that isn’t your cup of tea and it is more than enough to just find a handful that you like and go around thwacking everyone else with those six afterwards. There are plenty here for the collectors amongst us though, so be prepared for a lengthy hunt if you’re going for 100%.

There is also a lot of stuff for the more hardcore Pokémon players to sink their teeth into. If you’re the kind of player that likes hunting shiny Pokémon or breeding to max out EVs and IVs and OVs and OhJeez, go nuts. Almost everything has been brought back from the previous games and it should be just as enjoyable for those that are the intense Pokémon stat nerds of the community. I never did quite get into that aspect of the game, but I could tell people were having fun with it based off of the threads I’ve seen on Reddit and the discussions I’ve seen on Discord. A bit more accessible is the standard online Pokémon stuff, like trades and battles. Both of these things are very easy to do and you can jump into an online battle within a couple of seconds. It is yet another way the game adds a significant level of replayability, and you can literally spend months building up new teams and battling online with strangers or friends. It is a good amount of fun for both casual players and hardcore Pokémon nuts, and you’ll really get out of it what you put into it. It is one of those rare games that you don’t need to be hardcore about the mechanics to get into, but if you do you will wind up getting a lot more out of it. By appealing to both ends of this spectrum, Pokémon games have always been some of the most fun competitive experiences out there.

There are some ways these things could be improved though, and a better online interface would’ve been more than welcomed. Trying to find the trade you want online is a bit like trying to find a Weedle in a Caterpie stack and you really should’ve been able to filter this better. There are a bunch of Pokémon typically referred to as “trade evolutions” but what are more succinctly called “really freaking annoying” that will only evolve when you trade them with another player. Say you want to trade to evolve a specific Pokémon, and then have the other player trade it back to you. You can try doing this online with strangers in the same way you can theoretically try to get rich by playing the lottery, and the game has made it almost impossible to get what you’re looking for through the standard methods here. You’ll find people trying to trade evolutions, people trying to trade specific shiny Pokémon, people trying to trade for version exclusives, people trying to trade specific Gigantamax Pokémon, and people trying to trade for high IV Pokémon. It is a lot, but here is the one guarantee: whatever you’re looking for, you won’t find. There has to be a better way to do this, because the system Nintendo set up fails almost in every way. It is borderline useless, and you will inevitably have to check some Pokémon forum to get the ones you actually want.

Looking back, one of the bigger weak points of the game as a whole was how relatively uninteresting the single player campaign was. I’m not even saying it was terrible, but it was largely uninteresting and the least substantial part of the game. It was too short and too linear and too easy and all that combines to something fairly underwhelming. I didn’t even come close to losing until the very final boss of the game, and most gyms I was just blasting my way through. There was maybe one challenging gym here prior to the last encounter, and I wasn’t even going out of my way to level up Pokémon. I actually specifically switched out my Pokémon when I was hunting in the Wild Area because I was afraid of accidentally overleveling everyone but it still didn’t matter. There was a lot of stuff I liked about this game. The core mechanics are still fun and building a team is still great and the Wild Area and online stuff is fun. But the main adventure just wasn’t one of those things and it was something I had to keep forcing myself to get back to because I was a little bored of it. If more time was spent on this, this might’ve been one of the best Pokémon games yet but it feels a little underwhelming because of how much it was ignored.

One last thing this game really had going for it was quality of the new Pokémon. It had been some time since I last played a Pokémon game so a lot of these were “new to me” and not really new, but after checking the list of actual new additions, I was really impressed with the crop they put forward. Five out of the six in my final team were either brand new or regional variants, and that was something I did only knowing the first 250 or so Pokémon from generations one and two. The design was just strong enough and the originality was there that I wound up picking almost all new Pokémon without even knowing they were all new Pokémon. I was having a genuinely hard time picking my final six team members and it seemed like every time I found a new Pokémon I wanted to change up my team to try and include them in it. Roughly a quarter of the time I spent in the early stages of the game was me waffling between who I should keep in my team and who I had to banish to the box, and I was really impressed with the design of the Pokémon included in this game, particularly the brand new ones to this generation. If I had any criticism on this front at all, I would say that these starters aren’t nearly as impressive as past generations. I loved Grookey because he was an adorable monkey, but the other two look kind of silly and were amongst some of the weakest designs in Pokémon Sword. I know some people likely disagree with this, but you are WRONG and FIGHT ME ON THE POKEFIELD, BRO.

Pokémon Sword is a very strange game for me and I feel myself torn in two different directions. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. I had tried to start other Pokémon games before, got bored fairly quickly, and put them down at some point to never play them again. This was accessible and fun and the more streamlined experience got me into it in way a lot of the past games failed too. But I was also somewhat disappointed by the whole experience. It was short and easy and I feel like the second half of the game was thrown together in a week while the bosses shouted from megaphones about how they had to make sure they hit the holiday deadline. These two statements feel like they should be at odds with each other, where both can’t be true simultaneously but somehow I feel like it is the most accurate summary of my feelings about this. I can honestly see this being a lot of people’s favorite Pokémon game, but at the same time I feel like this is also going to be a lot of people’s least favorite Pokémon game. I wish they had maybe pushed back release a couple more months to iron out the single player campaign because I feel like it could’ve been truly great with just a bit more work. As it stands, it is perfectly fine. An enjoyable game with its fair share of shortcomings that will be enjoyable to the right kind of Pokémon fan. In terms of its core fanbase though, this is the sort of game that will definitely not catch them all.

Pikachu (THE GOOD):

  • Underlying mechanics here are just as fun and addictive as they’ve ever been
  • Really good assortment of new Pokémon that makes picking just six to use a challenge
  • Wild Area is a great addition to the game and you can spend a lot of time hunting here
  • Co-op raid battles are great and hunting for more and new powerful Pokémon adds a lot of replayability
  • Trimming the regional Pokédex to only 400 actually works to the game’s benefit by focusing things a bit more
  • Lots of good post-game stuff that will keep you playing for some time
  • Plenty of fun to be had optimizing your team and trying to catch or breed the best Pokémon
  • One of the more accessible Pokémon games

Magikarp (THE BAD):

  • Single player campaign feels largely ignored and is the worst part of the game
  • Entire second half of the adventure feels rushed and pretty phoned in
  • Some of the towns here are just a couple of buildings and the gym and the world feels emptier than some older Pokémon games
  • Dungeons and other similar areas have been almost entirely removed, making the world feel extremely linear and very basic
  • Story and characters are both fairly dull and not at all memorable
  • Like most Pokémon games, this is incredibly easy and I didn’t have any real trouble until the final trainer
  • Online interface is a bit wonky and you’re not going to be able to trade for what you need without going to a forum and finding a partner
  • Half of the Pokémon here are missing, which wasn’t a problem for me but is going to be an issue for some people
  • No significant additions here and if anyone was hoping for something genuinely new, they’re going to be disappointed

Feebas (THE UGLY): One of the returning Pokémon is Feebas, who evolves into Milotic. Feebas is remarkable for being the ugliest Pokémon. How do we know he is remarkably ugly? His Pokédex entry tells us. Jeez, game. You have two sentences to sum up the entirety of a Pokémon and for this one you basically just tell us “he’s an ugly boi”. Sorry, Feebas. At least you turn into something less grotesque.

THE VERDICT: 6.50/10.00

Rating: 7

Product Release: Pokemon Sword (US, 11/15/19)

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