Oh, Game Freak.
You did me dirty, old friend. You truly disappointed me twice in one year. You might think your Wild Area is fancy enough. You might think that your console-ready combat animations and more impressive graphics were worth the price of entry. But I’m older now, and I have seen you at your best and worst. And to be quite frank? Pokemon Shield is close to one of those extremes.
I’m pretty sure you can see where this is going.
If you are not familiar with the controversy surrounding Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield, I don’t really blame you. There has been a great deal of misinformation, inappropriate behavior, and unfortunate truths swirling about these titles leading up to their release, but the long and short of it is this: Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield do not currently and will never have the National Pokedex, otherwise known as “the ability to utilize any Pokemon in campaign or competitive play.” These are the first mainline Pokemon titles where players cannot access their previously caught Pokemon through a backwards-compatibility chain in some way, shape, or form, and can only utilize the Pokemon that are featured in the Galar Pokedex. While many may believe this is a betrayal of the motto “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” there are potential benefits to such a system. This means that the competitive scene is much less-centralized on certain Pokemon from prior generations, and that the experience that Game Freak has crafted can be much more polished in terms of pacing, balance, and variety. It’s only one of these things.
Yet, there will always be a camp that will cry foul when their favorites go unrecognized, and I won’t argue that a Pokedex missing my favorites doesn’t sting. I’ll pour one out for Granbull, Zoroark, Typhlosion, and Azumarill, all the while hoping that the new Pokemon featured in these games have worthwhile and memorable enough utility and traits to make up for said losses. Though many see the sacrifice of the National Dex as a “turning point” for the series, I believe that this happened before Sword and Shield. I’ve never personally enjoyed the increased emphasis on narrative and overdesigned characters that more recent games in the series have attempted to champion- yes, gym leaders should be themed and have personality, as they represent the most individualistic elements of the series, but this has never been an RPG franchise where the design or motivations of secondary and tertiary characters should surmount the player character. That’s a personal preference, however.
What Sword and Shield have attempted to do is dial back the stranglehold that narrative possessed in the seventh generation and focus a bit more on player freedom. While the result is a “vast” open space to explore in the Wild Area, the result is still something that struggles to let the player enjoy the experience in their own way.
Pokemon is Pokemon is Pokemon. You are the mute protagonist, a Pokemon trainer who seems to have miraculously discovered the ability to hold six Pokeballs on your person- unlike the majority of human civilization- and you and your stupid friend Hop decide to embark on a journey after being endorsed by Leon, the champion of the region and Hop’s older brother. You’ll battle a number of trainers, explore the wilds of the world, catch oodles of Pokemon, and be showered in more money than you can possibly imagine.
Pokemon follows a fairly strict formula, in that the player will travel from one town to the next in order to challenge gym leaders and progress the narrative running parallel to their own journey. Each town is usually separated from one another by a route that will likely contain several trainer battles and plenty of tall grass, from which wild Pokemon will spawn. This is also the first mainline Pokemon title where tall grass will spawn physical models of the titular creatures to ruthlessly hunt you down.
New mechanics are the name of the game, and it seems that, after trying to iterate with gimmicks like Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves, Game Freak are wiping the slate on some ideas while keeping others. The Pokemon Box system is now readily accessible in the field, allowing players the chance to swap out Pokemon on the fly. HMs are a thing of the past- there’s no need to interact with the environments if they’re mostly simplistic mazes with little height variation, after all. The fascination with Rotom as a slave to human innovation now takes the form of the Rotom Bike, which can even pedal across bodies of water after receiving a late-game upgrade. Air taxis carried by massive Corviknights take the place of Fly, and also invalidate the train system of the Galar Region, which exists simply as a means to segment off parts of the world from one another. All in all, the Galar Region feels quite claustrophobic, as even its Wild Area feels like an extended route rather than a massive open world zone.
The Wild Area itself is meant to serve as a major gameplay element, a place where trainers can roam and hunt Pokemon with less restriction. Except, there are a number of areas that have unobtainable Pokemon throughout, simply due to their over-leveled nature. While previous games might have let you catch these behemoths and wait for the possibility to use them in battle after beating a gym, these titles won’t even give you the chance to catch them, meaning their only use is as a big experience boost for your party. That doesn’t matter all that much, though, as you’ll find your team remains properly and consistently leveled throughout the campaign thanks to the EXP Share. The other key feature of the Wild Area are its Max Raid spots- underground caves where player can either team up online or recruit some generic NPCs to take on Dynamaxed Pokemon- giant versions of Pokemon with supercharged moves and extra HP. Taking these beasts down will often result in the opportunity to snag a strong Pokemon, though these dens also offer physical rewards. We’ve come full circle with TMs that now break after one use- no, no… they’re called TRs now. The main reward from roaming the Wild Area is Watts, a form of currency used to buy special items that aren’t on the market in an affordable fashion otherwise.
To be frank, there’s really very little reason to muck around the Wild Area before completing the game’s campaign, as your rewards for coming across Pokemon and Max Raid spots increase substantially as you acquire more badges. Items obtained in the Wild Area will filter back into your normal cash flow, however, as there are still plenty of cosmetic items available for purchase in towns. If you’re looking to get into the competitive side of Pokemon, the Wild Area offers the monsters and the resources you’ll need in order to succeed, and the obsessive Pokehunter can comb this area and its many weather variations in order to find low-encounter, unique ability companions. Outside of that, however, there’s nothing all that much to do here, other than fill out the absurd Currydex by joining or setting up campsites. The curry minigame is as shallow as they come, offering a bit of interactivity for nothing more than an adorable cutscene of you and your Pokemon chowing down on the same grub- how do humans and Pokemon eat the same food, anyway?
Narrative and Aesthetics
Yes, it’s true. The trees in the Wild Area look stupid. Despite the stylistic choice, there’s little justification for how bad the textures on these trees are- what’s even more disappointing is how little a geographical difference the Wild Area possesses. There’s a random patch of desert and a few stone formations here and there, but the terrain isn’t even expanse enough to feel like a series of rolling plains- the routes in between towns are meant to evoke this feeling, but they possess even less elbow room. This isn’t to say that the game is ugly looking, however- when things aren’t too far zoomed out due to draw distance, there are some lovely textures and effects on display. A few trails, such as the gem-studded Galar Mine and the industrial wasteland that is Route 8 have nice thematic elements that make them an eye-pleasing romp, even if they are a bit small and straightforward. Likewise, there are a number of towns with impressive aesthetics, from the Stonehenge-like Turffield to the ethereal Ballonlea. It’s simply a shame that so many of the these towns fail to feel like, well, towns, as they hide many of their buildings and landscapes out of the player’s reach and possess simplistic infrastructure. In a somewhat disappointing twist, the Lumiose City-like Wyndon is one of the last locations you’ll visit, but its structure sadly pales in comparison with the 3DS supercity.
Outside of the environmental aesthetics, however, things are much more impressive from a character standpoint. Unique character design has become a highlight of more recent Pokemon games, and many of the Gym Leaders and important NPCs have some delightful aesthetics. While it never really feels like there’s much aesthetic consistency across the bunch in terms of fashion, their outfits are varied and full of personality. Game Freak did indeed boast that these games would feature improved animations, and for many attacks, this is certainly true. Pokemon-exclusive attacks get the most love here, with some truly dynamic sequences unfolding, and more powerful and newer attacks certainly seem to be a step above others. But aside from that, Dynamaxing adds little to the spectacle of battle outside some red-colored clouds and cataclysmic-looking animations for each move type. A few Pokemon receive Dynamax exclusive forms and attacks in an attempt to make the gimmick feel more palatable, but these Gigantamax forms, though impressive, are cosmetic only, and wear out their impact fairly quickly. The newest Pokemon on display in Galar are a mixture of new concepts and unique ideas, though some feel absolutely superfluous in comparison with previously-existing entries in the National Dex. New type combinations are always enjoyable, but did we need another Dark-type fox Pokemon, or a generic, dessert-themed Fairy type? Though the inclusion of new regional variants is always welcome, some feel so far removed from their original design that it feels wrong to compare them. Also- and this is a spicy take- Mr. Rime is a sin against Arceus and makes no sense in-context.
Though Sun and Moon were more firm in the way they forced their narrative upon the player, the changes to narrative structure in Sword and Shield attempt to do away with the past sins with an alternative that doesn’t offer much improvement. Throughout the game, the player is shepherded from one Gym to the next, receiving small hints at the nature of the overarching plot thanks to the inquisitive nature of Sonia, the granddaughter of the current Pokemon Professor. You’ll meet some new rivals, most of whom are actually worthwhile inclusions due to their aspirations and personality quirks, though the most insufferable character by far is Hop. For some reason, Game Freak continuously hopes to evoke sympathy from the player for defeating this character in Pokemon battles, going as far as to include him in almost all major narrative beats. Though his relation to the current Champion could have added an edge to his character, his simultaneous enthusiasm and self-deprecation make him an unwelcome addition, serving a similar, yet more useful role to Lillie from Pokemon Sun and Moon. In any case, there is a sinister plot going on in the Galar region, though you’ll only be a passive observer until things really turn South. There’s a bit of a narrative bait-and-switch for those of us who are familiar with the traditions of Pokemon narrative design, but the payoff makes it seem like there are no actual villains in the narrative, especially when the main antagonists turn out to be both inept and wooden. Time and time again, these games undercut any sort of narrative heft they might have possessed in order to emphasize spectacle over interaction, which feels like a surprising step back from Sun and Moon.
Impressions and Conclusion
That last statement is certainly a bold one, but I want to emphasize how, outside of wild Pokemon encounters, the lack of interactivity in this game is such a strong detriment to the overall package. There are so many moments where this game fails to challenge the player thanks to its short routes between towns and overall lack of environmental density. Yes, we have all lauded Game Freak’s decision to move on from HMs, but the existence of these abilities was originally as a means of creating additional environmental puzzles, turning what could have been a straight line of progression into a maze-like sequence. Gone are the caves that might have presented an actual obstacle to progression, as are facilities that housed complex traps and multiple engagements as a means of building dramatic tension. A dramatic story moment is punctuated by… three double battles in a row without any exploration necessary, during which the player is given the chance to heal their Pokemon twice.
There are a few spare moments where taking a walk through the Galar region actually feels like an expedition, and it doesn’t help that most trainers have only one or two Pokemon each, offering little impediment or the need for careful consideration of resources. The Escape Rope item now has infinite uses, but never did I feel the urge to use it at any point in the game. The Wild Area can be entirely explored from its initial access point, but there’s so little to actually do there that it feels superfluous. Arguably the most expanse and adventurous area in the game is plagued by desolation, no thanks due to the low draw distance and the limited amount of objects on the screen.There are a number of landmarks present in this area, but none of them possess character or purpose- they are simply wallpaper.
There are spare moments of brilliance, such as a Fire Gym Challenge where the player must catch or defeat wild Pokemon before their double battle partner gets the chance to do so themselves, or a true lesson in double battle synergy against a trio of elite dragon tamers, but just as many of the these are supplanted by bone-headed challenges like a rotating tea-cup sequence, sheep-herding mini-game, and a quiz where the types of questions are never telegraphed. The climatic moment in the narrative is undercut entirely by a lack of stakes- you are assisted by three other characters who can heal and deal significant amounts of damage in turn. In many ways, these new Pokemon games feel like a theme park ride- you are taken along a path that offers some exciting scenery, but you rarely get to interact or play a meaningful role along the way.
There are parts of this game that represent what makes this franchise worthwhile- some Gym Challenges are more puzzle-oriented in nature, and there are a number of NPCs with minor trading requests. Route 9 in particular feels like the length of an actual, substantial road in-between towns. In terms of post-game, the Wild Area and many of the game’s quality of life improvements seem primed to offer the most accessible competitive experience yet to be seen, but these elements do not necessarily make a strong single player campaign. I finished the campaign in less than twenty-five hours- a far cry from the forty to forty-five hour campaigns of previous Pokemon titles- and that was with a fair amount of exploration. Mind you, the exploration I undertook was an attempt to see if any nooks or crannies could be found, though I discovered that the game is just as linear as its predecessor- if not more so. If you feel that the ability to go out to battle and catch Pokemon to your heart’s content is the main draw for these games, I could see someone enjoying the Wild Area for a decent amount of time. I don’t feel, however, that these new Pokemon titles do the best job of translating what once made this series so compelling to a console experience. In many ways, Pokemon Shield feels like a handheld game on your television screen in the most generic sense- a game light on features that could pass on a less-powerful system, but fails to hold up here.