Pokemon Sword And Shield Review: Not Quite next Generation

fI’ve finally had a chance to play the highly anticipated and controversy-ridden Pokemon Sword and Shield. Pokemon Sword and Shield exist in the 8th generation of the mainline Pokemon RPG games. I’m nearing completion of my first play-through of the base game and it’s clear to me why this game has been so divisive amongst the fanbase. While there are no perfect games, and there are also no games that have no value to anyone, I won’t leave you guys in suspense regarding my overall feelings on the game. I like Pokemon Sword and Shield. I enjoyed playing this game. To be fair, I also love Pokemon. I think that love has a lot to do with my final feelings on this game. My love for this franchise goes back for well over 20 years. Game Freak and the Pokemon company certainly benefit from my near-blind nostalgia and optimism. I, however, was let down time and time again, expecting this franchise to finally evolve into the series that long-time fans have been begging for. Again for the record, I like this game. I’m excited to continue into the post-game and maybe the competitive scene. I do however believe it’s important to discuss what the game got right, and where the series has plateaued, and what that means for the future of Pokemon. 

Pros of Generation 8

Sword and Shield are the first mainline Pokemon games to be released on a proper home console (Well, The Nintendo Switch is a Hybrid). The Nintendo Switch boasts an enormous advantage over the Nintendo 3DS in terms of raw power. The 3DS was the previous home for mainline Pokemon games. Fittingly, Sword and Shield are the best looking and graphically impressive mainline Pokemon games to date. The game’s resolution is also the highest it’s been. The Games run at a dynamic 1080p HD while docked and 720p when being played in handheld mode. Pokemon is fast approaching 1000 unique monsters, and some of these Pokemon have various forms and special evolutions ( Mega Evolution & Gigantamax). Even with so many Pokemon in existence, the designers at Game Freak are still able to produce amazing new Pokemon designs that are sure to become fan favorites. 

Some may consider my next “pro” to be a con, but it’s all about perspective. I think it’s a good thing that Pokemon’s core formula is unchanged. Pokemon is still a simple and accessible turn-based RPG that has various mechanics tacked on top to add depth and strategy. Playing a Pokemon game is like riding a bike, once you learn it’s easy to jump into a future game, no matter how long it’s been since you played. Even though the core gameplay of Pokemon is simple enough, there is a robust competitive scene where only the most seasoned Pokemon veterans should even attempt. 

The Wild Area is the undisputed biggest and most revolutionary change to this generation of Pokemon games. The Wild Area is an open-world segment of the latest Pokemon games. In this area, players have full control of the camera and have a relatively large area to explore and catch Pokemon. The addition of the Wild Area is a sure sign of the Pokemon company attempting to step out of their comfort zone and provide new experiences for their games. 

Where Pokemon Sword and Shield Miss the Mark 

While again, I feel the need to stress the point that I ultimately enjoyed Pokemon Shield (The version I played), the game is not perfect, actually far from it. My first con with the game is that it feels incomplete. Due to the nature of the Pokemon franchise as a whole (the games, anime, trading cards, and other merchandise all need to come out around the same time), it is clear that these games were on a very tight release schedule. As a result, the game feels like it was rushed. During development, fans for the series were quick to criticize certain aspects of the games as more details were revealed. The most infamous was the removal of half of the entire roster of monsters in the Pokemon universe. This single decision outraged millions of fans worldwide and rumbles of discontent continued up until the game’s release. The Pokemon companies’ response to these complains did little to ward off concerns of the fans. Their explanation for the removal of Pokemon was so they could focus on improving animations for a smaller pool of Pokemon and improve the overall quality of the games. Again, as more information from the games was revealed fans were quick to point out inconsistencies with the Pokemon company’s claims of a higher quality game. Within a promotional trailer of the game, a tree in the wild area was shown to have a very low-resolution texture. Many fans and critics likened the tree’s appearance to an asset that might have been made for an N64 game. Fans complained that the image of the tree was far too low of a resolution to existing in a modern game being released in 2019. Regarding that point, I do have to agree. Unfortunately, there are low-resolution textures all over the game. Overall the game falls short of the standards that most gamers expect for a home console game released in 2019.

In the animation department, there is little indication that Game freak was aware that they were developing on a platform that is an entirely different league than the 3DS. Battle animations are your standard Pokemon fare, just a higher resolution than 3DS. It would have been nice for Game Freak to have added some variety to battle animations, for example when Pokemon reach different stages of their health during a battle there could be a more obvious sign that Pokemon is reaching exhaustion (besides their standard animation slowing down).

Aside from the moments of disappointing graphics, another con of these games was a very bland story. Major plot points concerning the legendary Pokemon and the heroes of legend were merely glossed over. Many of the characters in the main storyline just weren’t interesting. Your three rivals during the game were one dimensional and attempts at minor story arcs were not consequential. Given the resources and talent Game Freak has at their disposal its disappointing more effort wasn’t given into providing a more enriching story.

The scope and scale of the game are quite diminished from what one would expect from looking at the world map. When you are venturing outside of the wild area, paths are very linear and only serve to lead from one location to the next. There are hidden items scattered about in the few deviations from the beaten path. I do wish there was more to explore, and what is here to explore, I wish that was simply more interesting. The art design for Pokemon games has been overly simplistic for far too long. Before, those design choices had to consider the current handheld hardware. On the Nintendo Switch, however, Game freak could have used their imagination to lead us through extraordinary landscapes. Instead, we were treated to bare open fields, sparse trees, and rocks here and there. These scenes bare little resemblance to the high fantasy landscapes that can be found in most JRPGs.

The Pokemon game’s improvements have always been iterative. So no one should be shocked that Pokemon Sword and Shield are more of the same. Can we be blamed for expecting more? Nearly every other game developer is pushing the boundaries of their beloved franchises, and those risks have been more than rewarded. Just take the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The Zelda games have been formulaic for decades, but Nintendo decided to take a risk and make a Zelda game for the modern age, that still felt like Zelda. Pokemon Sword and Shield are by all accounts still Pokemon games. They have visually improved, and have received a plethora of quality of life changes that were only for the better. The problem is that even though I enjoyed this game, the changes weren’t enough for me to love this game. Modern gamers expect developers to push the boundaries of software and the hardware it is run on. Game Freak received a message loudly and with fury during the development of Sword and Shield that they had failed to deliver. Only time will tell if Game Freak and the Pokemon Company can find a balance between their vision of the trajectory of the Pokemon franchise and the future long-time players will continue to demand of the series.