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Pokemon Sword and Shield Review

Posted December 5th, 2019 at 2:41 PM by Elite Overlord LeSabre™
Tags games, pokemon

Pokemon Sword and Shield are the 8th generation of Pokemon games, and the first main-line games on a home console system (if you don't count Colosseum and XD Gale of Darkness as main-line, as most fans classify them as spin-offs,) the Nintendo Switch. These are also my first Pokemon games since X/Y, since everything in between looked bad even from the trailers and announcements. So, how does this latest edition of Pokemon stand up against the competition? Read on, but beware - it gets a bit long.

GRAPHICS:
I'm not a big graphics critic, and so the only graphical complaints I have are when characters randomly pop in and out, and poor scaling of some of the larger Pokemon (Wailord being the most obvious example.) Otherwise, character models are smoother and less jagged than on the 3DS games, characters show more expressions and personality (for better or for worse depending on the character), and the game looks pleasant. Not groundbreaking, but pleasant.

My complaints with the graphics are few, and overall the game looks nice enough for a Pokemon game. 7/10.

SOUND:

Inoffensive but unimpressive, like most Pokemon games. I know Pokemon has never had voice acting but the lack of it makes several cutscenes with "silent" moving lips (including the chairman's introduction to the game and Piers' singing scene) seem awkward as a result.

Fire up your music collection and listen to your personal favorite songs. The music/sound isn't bad, isn't great, it's just sort of... there. 7/10.

GAMEPLAY/FEATURES:

The basic turn-based battle format of Pokemon hasn't changed. While not innovative, it is instantly familiar and comfortable, even for someone like me who hasn't played a new Pokemon game since Y.

The clothing and character customization options are one of the game's highlights, with an extensive selection of clothes, as well as hair and makeup options that go far beyond previous games' options.

It's too bad that both the major gym battles and riding the bike force you into ugly uniforms instead. Much of the hype and excitement that the gym battles try to create goes away when you're forced to wear the equivalent of prison inmate uniforms mandated by the government. I mean, these are the most important battles that take place in the region, not a sentencing hearing. Why does the game not let us wear the outfits we so carefully picked out for our characters? Major blunder there.

Permanent Exp Share isn't a problem for me. Other RPG's use a similar system but don't call it that - all characters gain experience but battle participants earn more. It's not exactly a new concept in general. And you'll still have to do a fair amount of level grinding if you want to stay comfortably ahead of the levels of trainers and Gym Leaders.

The Wild Area is a good concept, but under-developed. There's not much to do there besides capturing Pokemon and "watts" and doing raid battles. There's only one "once a day" trainer who appears in a random spot, and her party always consists of the three starters and their evolutions, so no variety.

Overworld wild Pokemon are a mixed bag. You can specifically target Pokemon that you want and (try to) avoid those you don't, but things get difficult when you're looking for a specific species and everything but that Pokemon spawns constantly and tries to chase you down. And no, Repel doesn't keep the overworld Pokemon away.

The Escape Rope has finally become a Key Item, in a game that hardly needs it. There are a grand total of two cave/dungeon areas. While not completely linear, branching paths are simply dead-ends with items, there is only one level in both caves, and they're hardly lengthy or complex to navigate. At least they have pretty multicolored minerals/jewels on the walls, I suppose?

HM moves are gone. While overall this is a good thing, six generations of Pokemon have caused me to instinctively go to the "Pokemon" menu when I need to fly somewhere, instead of the "Town Map" where you actually need to go. I'm still not totally used to that change.

I hate the bike, for the reason that it's another thing where the game forces you out of your trainer's outfit to wear some ugly uniform. Unfortunately, since you use the bike to SURF now (which still makes absolutely no sense to me), its use is unavoidable so you HAVE to see the ugly bike tracksuit while traversing water. I mean X/Y was able to animate your custom outfit while riding the bike, but not these newer games on a more powerful system? Also, bikes? In 2019? When will we graduate to being able to drive large V-8 powered luxury cars in these games?

In general, I've never been a fan of the whole "super form" Pokemon that began appearing in 6th gen, and that hasn't changed. This time around, the Pokemon simply become giant, red-tinted versions of themselves that resemble balloons or those inflatable yard Santas. It looks as ridiculous as I've described it. I made it through the entire game without utilizing it once, only using it for some post-game Max Raid Battles with friends.

Speaking of which, Max Raid Battles pit four trainers against one of the supersized balloon Pokemon. I've tried some of these solo (with CPU allies) and with friends at a recent anime club meetup, and these raid battles are definitely more fun when cooperating with other human players. The CPU trainers are known for doing stupid moves.

"Camping" is another new gimmick that these games didn't need. With the existence of major hotel chains like Quality Inn, Hampton Inn, and Embassy Suites, I'm not sure why camping still exists in the real world. That, combined with horrible camping experiences growing up, guarantees that I will never utilize this gimmick in-game.

What the hell happened to online? The Player Search System in X/Y was close to the perfect online interface. The new Y-Comm is nothing in comparison. How's this for poor design? Even if you have a friend's Friend Code registered, you STILL have to share a 4 digit code to trade/battle with them, despite the fact that there are millions of these games sold and god knows how many other people might be using the same 4-digit code at the same time. Oh yeah, and no more GTS for specific requests or being able to search the other player's boxes, so unless you specifically arrange a trade (and either do it locally or get lucky with the 4-digit code thing) trading is essentially a gamble. Getting in on online Max Raids is also difficult, a combination of unreliable online play and an exploitable "glitch" regarding respawning raid Pokemon.

Post-game tools for competitive play, like nature and IV modifiers are helpful for competitive battlers. Too bad the Y-Comm makes finding battles to test out their teams needlessly difficult.

And I'm going to keep saying this until it's reinstated: VS SEEKER IS WHERE?

It's the basic Pokemon formula that works well, and there's some great customization options. But of course, that's offset by questionable gameplay choices, more gimmicky "super forms," and a needlessly complicated and stripped-down online interface that makes trading and battling online more difficult. 7/10.

CHARACTERS:

The most important character, the girl playable character, is well-designed right out of the gate, and a bevy of customization options are better than past entries. Still no full length evening gowns, or frilly floral "Sunday Best" dresses, but I was able to put together a nice enough outfit.

Best characters in the game, however, are obviously the NPC Lass trainers. They literally have the look of "Serena in an elite private boarding school (that may or may not specialize in magic and wizardry)" and that's high praise coming from me.

Bede and Marnie are the two "secondary" rivals who, honestly, should have been the only rivals in the game since they do a pretty good job in the role by themselves, and are most certainly better characters than the "primary rival." Bede fulfills the "arrogant jerk" rival role surprisingly well, his major weakness being that the plot essentially writes him out of the game for a good portion of the second half of it. Marnie, on the other hand, does have aspirations to be the best trainer, but also has other motivations that make sense. Her character has some good interactions with others, and she never comes across as annoying.

Gym leaders really didn't stick out to me one way or another. Opal had some amusing scenes, and Piers and I share a similar disdain for the whole Pokemon growth gimmick and refuse to use it.

Sonia isn't... bad... but she does tend to interrupt things by telling you this and that about ancient legendary Pokemon lore which you may or may not care about (I personally didn't; I was more focused on dethroning the champion and claiming the title for myself.) Her tales supposedly relate to the mess of a plot at the end, but since it was a mess, I'm still not sure?

Oleana and Chairman Rose are characters who seem interesting, but the game badly mishandles them. The game paints them in a certain light that the player might not agree with, but is forced to accept because of the direction the plot forces them to take.

All that wouldn't be too bad, but now we get to the brothers from hell. Leon and Hop (what kind of stupid name is that?) are supposed to be key characters (champion and primary "rival") but are such awful characters that I can't bring myself to care about them in the slightest. Both are unattractive in their own way. Both are also immature, obnoxious, and annoying. Hop is even worse because of how frequently he appears to annoy you (and yes, he also runs interference in forced double battles with him, something which a real rival wouldn't be caught dead doing.) It took less than an hour for me to want to perform a Mortal Kombat-style Fatality move on Hop to permanently put him out of his misery.

Because these two characters are so poorly written, it was impossible to care about them, even when I was "supposed" to (i.e., Hoppy's supposed "character development (lol) or the "Leon is late, we need to look for him" that drives the end-game. So yeah, poor characters do negatively affect the storyline as a whole.

An attractive female player character, robust customization, and cute Lass NPC trainers are nice, but can't compensate for other characters who range from forgettable to downright despicable, including another in a long stream of terribly-written "rivals" who utterly fail at fulfilling that role. 3/10.

STORY:


The basic premise of the main series Pokemon games, the quest to rise from obscurity and become the best trainer in the land, is honestly one of the things that still draws me to them. It's the whole "zero to hero" factor that I find appealing.

In that way, these games can be considered the strongest of the series. The gym challenge circuit takes center stage, with key battles taking place in giant stadiums packed with spectators. It has all the makings of some of the most epic battles in Pokemon, at least in terms of atmosphere...

..at least it COULD have been, if we could WEAR OUR OWN CLOTHES instead of dumb government-issued uniforms... Yeah, that stupid decision alone makes these battles much more mundane and less impressive.

However, the semi-final and finals tournaments represent wasted potential. It's set up as a tournament, but your opponents are all familar faces. The decision to re-battle the gym leaders in the "finals" tournament is especially baffling - why not introduce an Elite Four equivalent, who would specialize in types not covered by the Gym Leaders, for this? And why not have a new set of challengers in the semifinal rounds, instead of two "rivals" we've beaten before on multiple occasions? Leave it to Game Freak to create a tournament setup that results in LESS trainer variety than the old Elite Four configuration.

Let's talk teams, and ponder, for a moment, the fact that we've gone from mafia agents in Gen 1 to... ugly, glorified cheerleaders in Gen 8. My, how the mighty have fallen.

Team Yell is a waste, basically. The only remotely evil thing they do is try to steal a bike. Twice. Well, their fashion sense is criminal, too. Otherwise, they block paths and cause minor nuisances for other people. Yeah, that's it. Really, what's even the point of these guys? They're far from being anything close to actual antagonists.

But the obligatory "end-game legendary crisis" storyline is a hot mess. It has the feeling of something tacked on at the last minute, with practically no-lead in due to the game's decision to handwave prior events (basically stuff happens in the background, but NPC's take care of it off-screen). It's driven forward by an extremely flimsy motivation. And it would have been completely preventable if two key characters would have shown a shred of common sense, or if the game would have allowed the player the choice of which of the two to side with. On top of that, it's extremely bare-bones and involves the franchise's most infuriating battle concept, as well as the game's most infuriating character.

The game fails to have any sort of real conflict, and no satisfaction from thwarting the plans of a truly evil organization, since there isn't one. At that rate, it would have done better to do away with the whole "legendary/end boss" scenario altogether rather than go with the haphazardly-conceived one they tacked on. At least the Gym challenge scenario was fairly well executed, even if the tournaments at the end were a mess AND THE UNIFORMS DEAR LORD THE GODAWFUL UNIFORMS.

The post-game story scenario is hindered by more unlikeable characters, backtracking (no new locations), and more of having to deal with the game's worst character. Other than that, there's a severely dumbed down Battle Tower and multiplayer, and that's about it. X/Y's Looker/Emma scenario was short and didn't involve new territory either, but at least it was entertaining, involved decent-to-good characters and didn't involve that game's terrible rivals, unlike this game's post-game scenario. And X/Y had a better post-game battle facility too, along with a far superior online interface.

A few good ideas with making gym battles a big deal can't compensate for poor execution, a poorly done legendary subplot, and a lack of any real conflict or sense of satisfaction. The post-game "story" scenario was also lacking. 3/10.

OUTSIDE FACTORS

No video game exists in a vacuum. Especially with a big-name title as this, it's impossible to review the game without comparing it to both past Pokemon games, as well as other games on the Nintendo Switch. The fact that Game Freak is doing a console game for the first time and has access to much more powerful hardware must be considered.

Compared to other Pokemon games, Sword and Shield have the best graphics and trainer customization, but fall flat in terms of story and character. In that sense, they share the strengths and weaknesses of X/Y, except maginified. They can't match the overall excellence of 4th gen (especially Platinum) or the Orre region GameCube games (Colosseum/XD). FR/LG might have a "simple" plot, but it at least involves an actually evil organization who don't suddenly pop up and throw everything they have at you at the last minute. They also iron out the glitches of 1st gen and add extra features and content (Sevii Islands and the dearly-missed Vs Seeker.)

5th gen had a better story to tell, but had other gameplay/graphical issues. 2nd gen didn't age well, and their remakes added features (and didn't add others) that somehow made them worse than the originals. 3rd gen was a wet, soaking mess and their remakes were so bad I couldn't be bothered to play them. Same with 7th gen dumpster fires and the Let's Go garbage.

Pokemon has long been an exercise in <number> steps forward and <number> steps back, and enjoyment is largely based on the number of "steps" in either direction, and how much weight you put on those "steps." These games made significant forward steps when compared to the dreadful 7th gen, remade 3rd gen, and Let's Go games, so they ended my 6-year Pokemon drought. But compare them to the franchise's best, and you can see where some of their best features and attributes are missing here. So, in the end, Sword and Shield are merely average among Pokemon games. Not the worst, but certainly not the best.

What about the competition on the Switch? The graphics might be the best that Pokemon has seen, but they're far from being the best on the Switch hardware. It's easy to compare it to other popular Nintendo franchises like Mario and Zelda that stepped up their game for the Switch, but consider this: In May, I bought Atelier Lulua for the system. Atelier is a much less popular franchise developed by a small studio (Gust), and that game looks better than Sword and Shield while still retaining the anime-stylized look and feel.

Some graphical elements of Fire Emblem: Three Houses are worse than Pokemon (particularly characters cutting in or delayed rendering, and being able to pass through doors while they're still opening), however the battle animations in Three Houses are far superior. In addition, Three Houses added many robust gameplay mechanics such as classroom training for units' weapon proficiency, time management for free day activities, meaningful in-game decisions that alter the story, and revamped the support system to account for the school/monastery setting. That's in addition to Fire Emblem's traditional advantages over Pokeemon, like character relationships, a grid-based battle system, and better-written plots.

All that to say, there are games that much better utilize the Switch's power and capability, in terms of not only graphics, but gameplay variety as well. And since Pokemon is the world's highest-earning media franchise, it's not a stretch at all to say that these other games are literally doing more with less. I just said Pokemon Sword and Shield are roughly mid-pack as far as Pokemon game quality. This shouldn't be the case. These should have been the BEST with the resources available.

Even if you don't consider that half the Pokemon and their models were cut from the game, and that many models (Pokemon and trainers) are reused assets from prior games, these games should look and run more smoothly. There shouldn't be slow-downs, bad textures, characters randomly appearing in front of you, and I've had no fewer than two game crashes already. But there they are.

Now consider the fact that half the Pokemon models were cut (not merely a "Dex" cut.) The justification from Game Freak was that they couldn't fit in all the models and deliver a quality game experience. Look at the final product. Cleaner and smoother? Yes. Breathtaking? No. Introducing a bunch of new innovative mechanics? No, giant Pokemon and curry don't match the improvements other games have made. Free of graphical hiccups? No. All new character models made from scratch? No. Was the memory saved from not including those Pokemon put to good use? Not really.

Mind you, I wouldn't have minded the Pokemon cuts if it actually went toward making the game a better, smoother, more attractive experience. But it didn't. The game pales in comparison with others, from much less profitable franchises and some indie games, in terms of both graphics and gameplay/features. Which makes one wonder what the hell that extra memory saved by the cuts was used for.

And of course, as demonstrated with Leon, Hop, and the 'legendary crisis' plot mess, all the hardware power and capability in the world doesn't mean squat if the story and character writers don't know what they're doing.

Pokemon is the highest-earning media franchise and the Switch is the most powerful system a Pokemon game's been on to date. That should have added up to a quality, robust gaming experience with fine graphics. But Sword and Shield are merely average among Pokemon games and pale in comparison to other games on the Switch from much smaller franchises/development teams. That's ridiculous.

Overall, I enjoyed Sword and Shield, well, whenever Hop wasn't around annoying me. But for a Pokemon game on the Switch, it ends up not living up to expectations - or potential. Yeah, it's decent enough, but not as good as it could have - or should have been, all things considered. A bit disappointing, but it least it's a step forward from the other Pokemon games released in the last five years.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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