If you know anything about video games, then you absolutely know that Pokemon is one of the most storied and beloved franchises in all of gaming. For the past two decades, fans have been setting out on adventures, exploring new worlds, finding new pokemon, and becoming the champion. We are entering a new generation in pokemon; generation eight, Pokemon Sword and Shield. Usually, a new mainline entry to the series is cause for fanfare from the fanbase. However, controversy has broken out after a number of empty promises and failed expectations. Because of all that, the fanbase is split; some are buying the game before judgment, others are boycotting. With all that being said, does Pokemon Sword and Shield live up to mountainous expectations fans always have? Or does the controversy swallow it whole?
If you have not been following along over the past few months, here is a quick overview. Back at E3 in June, it was revealed that the longstanding tradition of being able to either capture or transfer all 800+ pokemon into the incoming generation would be coming to an end. Naturally, fans were immediately worried that their favorites would be left out. Developer Game Freak went on to say that this decision is due to the extra time and effort needed to create new graphics and animations for the new game. Fans were still unhappy but satiated for the time being.
However, it has recently come out that Game Freak has largely used the same character figures as well as no major changes to battle move animations. Fans are now very upset with this revelation, and the hashtags “#gamefreaklied” and “#thankyougamefreak” are trending all over social media. This, mixed with other unhappy revelations such as easier gameplay, unwanted new mechanics and an unwarranted price increase, many fans are at wit’s end on what to do. As mentioned before, many fans are boycotting the game and will not be buying it, while others are taking the risk and seeing what the game has to offer. Now that we are all caught up… let’s move on
After roughly 8 hours of gameplay, I feel like I have seen enough to come to a conclusion. Pokemon Sword and Shield are a rousing success and should be celebrated for the various new additions to the franchise. While Game Freak and The Pokemon Company should certainly not be let off the hook for their handling of this pre-release mess, they still put out a product that is a joy to play. The upgraded graphics, super smooth gameplay, and numerous quality-of-life additions to the game really make this a refreshing entry to the franchise. I would even go so far as to say that without the butchering they did upon themselves before release, Pokemon Sword and Shield very well might be the best entries into the franchise.
The new region for generation 8 is the Galar region. Continuing along with the tradition of modeling the regions after actual places (generation 5 was New York, generation 6 was Paris, and Generation 7 was Hawaii), Galar is modeled after London and the British Isles. There is a “post-industrial” vibe to the region, with steam-powered cities, vast train systems and coal-powered pokemon that give the region a ton of charm. I have only been able to explore three different cities thus far, but each one has been a joy to look at, and they do really feel much larger than ever before, even if that is not actually the case.
Outside of the cities in Galar, adventures weave their way along various routes in the region, which is nothing new for the franchise. When you first start out, however, the first significant change already presents itself. One of the common gripes about the franchise is that with each new entry, longtime fans are still forced to go through the tutorial of learning what a Pokemon is, how to find them, and how to catch them. In Sword and Shield, these tutorials were cleverly hidden behind two questions that a non-player character asks you. If you answer “yes” to both of those questions, you skip the tutorial entirely and are already on your way.
Continuing on this trend, numerous other changes can be immediately felt as soon as you are off on your adventure. One of the more tedious things in the Pokemon franchises is walking through tall grass. For those that do not know, this is where wild Pokemon are hidden. Up until now, you had no way of knowing what you would find; if you simply wanted to walk through without being interrupted, you couldn’t unless you had a specific item with you (a repel). Now, wild Pokemon can be seen right away running, flying, or even hiding in the grass long before you approach the area. Players can actually see the Pokemon, and choose to approach them or go around them. It is a much-needed layer of immersion for the game that makes you feel truly in the world, while also cutting down on some of the monotony.
Branching off of that, we come to the first major change that the Galar region has for players. Aptly named “Wild Areas” are sprawling wide-open natural habitats that players can explore for hours on end, with many different things to do inside. They are a place to find many different kinds of Pokemon roaming around freely, sometimes even much higher leveled ones that players should be wary of approaching. Additionally, other characters are running around offering battles and items, among other things. The “Wild Areas” are a fantastic feature for the new generation, and they definitely add even more immersion to the games. However, like any 1st edition of new releases, they aren’t quite perfect. Occasional frame drops, Pokemon imbalances, and other small issues can be found throughout. Overall though, I do applaud the initial effort and hope to see more in the future.
The other major addition for Sword and Shield is the mechanic of Dynamaxing. To “Dynamax” a Pokemon is to make it grow to a massive size for a few turns in the middle of battle. Additionally, players can fight raid battles against wild Dynamax Pokemon. This new feature is not too unlike previous features like mega-evolutions and Z-moves. Dynamaxing is a new way to turn the tide of battle, and quite frankly it feels like a mashup of mega-evolutions and z-moves. It all makes sense too, to have larger than life Pokemon doing battle in giant stadiums. It is entertaining to see it in battle, but the raid battles are where the feature truly shines; there is nothing like battling along with your friends. For some, Dynamaxing feels like a rushed and-or lazy gimmick that is a mega-evolution knock-off. I, for one, like “Wild Areas,” applaud the initial effort and hope to see more from it before I can really fall in love with it.
The new Pokemon of the Galar region are also a ton of fun to be around so far. Obviously, I have not explored all the Pokemon that Galar has to offer, but what I have seen so far has left me very impressed. The designs feel fresh, and I don’t honestly dislike any of what I have seen so far. Now that we don’t have the whole national Pokedex to play with anymore, I would expect Game Freak to deliver some great new Pokemon, and they really did. As said before, not having a full Pokedex is a game-killer for some. For me, I truly do not miss it. Sure, I will miss some of my favorites at one point or another. But my time will predominantly be Galar-region Pokemon anyway. For my style of play, I could not be happier with how the Pokemon has turned out thus far.
The game as a whole is really something to look at as well. To be completely honest, the Pokemon series has never been easy on the eyes. Having been on handheld consoles for so long has meant that Game Freak could get away with lesser character models and animations. Now that this is the first main series game on the big screen, expectations were very high. And luckily, the gameplay is very smooth, and the characters and animations look great on a household TV. The main problem is, many fans expected more to justify the 20 dollar price increase of the game. If you go into Sword and Shield expecting it to look like any other Pokemon game, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. However, if you go in expecting it to look something like Final Fantasy or The Elder Scrolls, you will likely be let down.
One of the more stagnant parts of the Pokemon franchise over the years has been the storyline. Over and over again, players set out on an adventure, but are at some point stopped by a nefarious gang of people that either want to rule the Pokemon, rule the world, or destroy it. Not much has changed with this formula over the years, so I did not expect much from the Galar baddies I would be facing. For generation 8, the bad guys are called “Team Yell”, and they are a rowdy group of fans for one of the challengers in the game, and their main goal is simply to get in your way. While it may not be the deepest story a Pokemon entry has seen, it is not the worst either. I have given a few laughs, and the game knows not to take itself to seriously this time around. Overall, an improvement from stories in the past few entries for sure, but nothing to write home about.
After making it through the first two gyms and a solid number of trainer battles, I do have one gripe about the game. It does seem like generation 8 will be a bit too easy for seasoned players. As I went through the game, I did not feel like I was ever in any danger of losing a battle. The gym battles, while not a cakewalk, also did not leave me feeling like I was in trouble. I was challenged a few times, but that may have been due to my own ineptitude rather. I feel like if Game Freak could tweak their character balancing just a little, it would really feel near-perfect. As I play farther through the game, this opinion is the most likely to change. If I continue to level up quickly and breeze through any trainer I meet, I will feel more strongly about this. But for now, I am cautiously optimistic that I will meet a good challenge here and there, and that just might be enough.
Overall, Pokemon Sword and Shield have been an absolute blast to playthrough. I am enjoying the new pokemon I meet, I am not experiencing many hiccups of gameplay, if at all, and I keep wanting to play more every time I turn the game off. While the pre-release was mired in controversy, the end result should leave the fans who do buy the game feeling very satisfied, if not downright impressed. Game Freak absolutely has some thinking to do before the next entry is to come out, but Galar is nothing to sneeze at here. Generation 8 is looking to be one of the better Pokemon releases of the last decade, and I cannot wait to see what else is in store for me.