4 Reviews liked by BiggestLeaf
The story for this game is actually quite amazing. It's not the strongest it's ever been but it's pretty damn good in comparison to the Pokemon standard. All the characters were very charming and full of life and I became attached to them, and the final boss was super rad. I also loved a LOT of the new Pokemon designs. But after doing everything the game had to offer, I feel very dissatisfied with the amount of content. Don't get me wrong, the main journey was fun (albeit clunky, and don't forget the performance issues I won't touch on because everybody already has) but it kind of just... ended. I tried to milk as much content as I could- I did all the classes, the post game, got my main team up to level 100, hunted shinies- and even then it was over so suddenly. This game suffers from a genuine lack of stuff to do, even with the three quest lines there's nothing to do aside from hard-targeting the next main-story mission and maybe filling in your dex on the way. Hopefully the DLC will give me more to do, but that's just another $30 to support yet another rushed game.
It's a prequel to the goofy shovel throwback platformer WHY DOES THE WRITING GO SO HARD
Heads up, this review may have a different feel than others I’ve done recently - I got the idea to write it while procrastinating and wrote it all in one pass out of sheer frustration.
The best way I can describe Pokémon Sword and Shield is that they’re games that fight against your ability to have fun with the solid Pokémon mechanics that are there. It was after I watched my roommate try and fail to enjoy their time with Alpha Sapphire, that I realized the crucial issue Pokémon's gameplay formula has always had: Its entirely built on game knowledge. If you know the opponent’s Pokémon, know the strengths of your own Pokémon, know what moves your opponent’s Pokémon may do and how to counter it, and know which Pokémon are worth raising versus which have no potential, the series’ groundwork is one of the most flexible, deep and experimental RPGs ever made, highlighted even further when you add self-imposed challenge rules such as the famous Nuzlocke on top to truly make the experience rewarding.
The problem is that the games have never been good at conveying that knowledge, and rather than work to fix it, have worked increasingly hard to provide bullshit workarounds to let you survive the game.
Because each player’s team and game knowledge is going to vary wildly, the bar of difficulty is lowered to ankle height, with gym leaders never sporting more than 3 Pokémon, often with only 3 moves each as to not overwhelm and surprise. Because players may not be able to remember what attacks are good against what types, or remember what types some Pokémon are, you’re told by the game which moves are super effective once you’ve met the opponent’s Pokémon even once - not even captured them, just if you’ve even one time encountered them in any context. Because not every Pokémon is good or viable (despite the fact that they seemingly cut the National Dex for the sake of “balancing”), there are a plethora of options given to the player to let them win through brute-forcing, such as Affection. And crucially, because every player doesn’t feel like committing to raising Pokémon they have no idea will be worth doing so with, the EXP Share is turned on at all times and exponentially raises the amount of EXP handed out to you across the game, leaving you with a thoroughly overleveled team if you don’t deliberately switch teammates in and out and keep an eye on what level you’re “supposed” to be at. When Game Freak presents players with a square piece to fit in a square hole, rather than trying to teach them how to rotate the piece to fit in the hole, they hand the player a collection of power tools to drill their own bigger hole.
This feeling of being forced to play a way you don’t want to extends beyond excessive handholding, all of which I was somewhat able to work around. The game’s big feature is the Wild Area, which is a rather nice inclusion in that it lets you find a bunch of different Pokémon in a new way - which was especially fun with the rules of my Nuzlocke giving me two new area catches from every gym. That’s all well and good, but it couldn’t just be left as a neat oddity to be explored at the player’s own pace: Through the Raid Battles and the purchasable rewards you get from participating in them, Game Freak is essentially forcing you to spend more time in the Wild Area than you would otherwise want to. What makes this system differ from optional challenge areas such as the Battle Maison is that the rewards are things that have historically always been obtainable throughout the core campaigns and were crucial in making the most out of your teams - good attacks. TMs are still in the game, but have gone from a big toolbox of interesting moves to housing some of the most gimmicky, garbage attacks in the series - Rock Tomb, Whirlpool, Electroweb, Mega Punch, Charm, and so on. Several Pokémon I’ve consistently loved using were left sitting on the bench because I simply wasn’t able to provide them with the moves they’d otherwise thrive with using, because those moves were locked behind a gimmicky new game mode - and are also single-use, meaning that you’ll need to grind this game mode FURTHER in order to actually get several uses of those good attacks.
Despite the widespread notion that the EXP Share is great for keeping grinding out of the game, this shows that it was not in Game Freak’s interest to minimize grinding in the game in general, but to just force you to play the game their way instead. With each game, more “quality of life” is added that just pushes the series further and further away from the stellar core mechanics and gameplay loop that it should be highlighting, to promote the most sandpapered and inoffensive “look at the flashy colors” experience possible. People had issue with getting stuck in routes, and finding HMs annoying? Let’s not think of a smart way to solve this, and instead just make every route a complete straight-shot from start to finish with zero engaging design. People found going back to the Pokémon Center to heal tedious? Nevermind the fact that its crucial to conveying the narrative difference between safe-space towns and the great unknown of the wilderness - now the player just has complete access to their entire PC of Pokémon at all times, meaning that if anyone gets hurt, they can just tag out without any issue. For the first time in the entire series there is no Elite Four OR Victory Road - the endgame challenge is effectively just one trainer battle at a time. Nothing is added to substitute for the loss in engagement that comes from sandpapering these rough edges: They may have been double-edged swords, but now there’s no blade in either direction.
What really stings about all this is that there is a genuine attempt behind it all to keep Pokémon going as a fresh experience lying in the background. Player models are all gorgeous in their lighting, modeling, shading, and animation, the environments not part of the Wild Area are almost all absolutely gorgeous in their framing and environmental design, the new creature designs and several of the new attacks are top-notch design ideas with unique playstyles, the pool of available Pokémon is plenty varied much like it was in Kalos, and the atmosphere of gym battles truly is unmatched in the series. The earlygame’s theming really is somewhat unique for the series, as after four games straight of over the top storylines about preventing the end of the world the focus is finally brought back on the interesting back-and-forth that can be brought from just wanting to be the strongest. You have Leon, the strongest trainer who rose to fame from nothing, contrasted with Chairman Rose, the well-liked millionaire with just as much influence yet far less earnestness in how they got there and what they do with that power. You’ve got Hop, Bede, Marnie and yourself, all with different goals, a group rivalry that echoes the best parts of Black and White’s Cheren and Bianca. And with each gym battle, you’ve got a stadium of adoring fans, watching the new generation of Pokémon battlers rise their way to the top with genuine awe, showing that anyone can become adored through sheer force of will.
And then the game still turns into a save-the-world plot by the end, and Chairman Rose was actually just an irredeemably evil man.
Pokémon Sword and Shield want to commit to new ideas, yet don’t know how to. They want to make the game more inviting to new players, yet can’t do so without encouraging them to just not pay attention to the game’s mechanics. They want to make a truly stunning first impression on HD hardware, yet still have tedious individual textboxes display the names of attacks not during - but before - the attack actually happens, still with ridiculously long animations to match. They want to be open world games, yet can’t be assed to make it a substantial enough part of the game to make players want to explore it without holding essential items hostage behind it. And they wanted to write a story about a group of new generation trainers clashing ideals to learn more about themselves, but couldn’t resist diverting far too much attention toward a forced disaster story that ends on the moral that you in particular are actually far greater of a trainer than everyone else because you stopped the end of the world. I’ve played through this game twice and I still don’t fucking know what Marnie’s personality is supposed to be, but I sure do know every individual detail of the Darkest Day now. Thanks, Game Freak.
[Playtime: 80 Hours]
[Key Word: Noncommittal]
[Key Word: Noncommittal]
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