A Disappointing Entry in a Series Going the Wrong Way
With the recent release of the Crown Tundra in Pokémon Sword and Shield, all of the DLC is now out. Given the occasion, it’s time I compiled my thoughts on the games as a whole. I’ll start with what I like about them. This won’t take long, as Sword and Shield left a lot to be desired.
Most of the pros of Sword and Shield come from things that returned from previous entries in the franchise. Some of these features were things removed in Sun and Moon, and some are things from Sun and Moon themselves.
The first standout for me is the return of the bike. The bike was a series staple from the very beginning and its exclusion of it from Sun, Moon, and the Let’s Go games was a huge disappointment. These games did have the unique feature of rideable Pokémon, but those had their own issues. The return of the bike was a welcome feature of Sword and Shield and one that had me excited from the moment I saw it in trailers.
The added boost the bike has is also a nice bonus that makes things just a little more convenient. The bike also allows you to ride out onto water. This takes away the clunky nature of “surf” sections and makes them much more enjoyable. The ability to ride directly from shore to water and back to shore again makes things way more bearable. It sure beats having to mount and dismount your Pokémon several times just to explore the sea and its small islands.
So the bike is a very good return, even if it makes you wear a stupid-looking outfit while riding (like unto the riding Pokémon in Sun and Moon). Speaking of outfits, the character customization from X, Y, Sun, and Moon makes a return as well. While this feature is nice, it is only marginally better than the previous installments’. The biggest place this feature shines in Sword and Shield is in the hair. While the clothes still lack good variety in some areas (especially with bag choices), the hair styles provided are varied enough to make you feel like you’re your own character. Although, I did end up keeping the default hair style and color throughout the game, only changing it when the Isle of Armor DLC came out.
Another returning staple I enjoyed was the gym system. While the island challenge in Sun and Moon was a nice change of pace, it’s nice to have a series staple return; however, that is about all I can say about it on the positive side of things.
The one new feature I really enjoyed was the wild area. This, along with Let’s Go-style visible, wild Pokémon, is a welcome addition. While I do wish the wild area was bigger and navigation was a bit more streamlined, it really is a great idea that feels right at home on the series’ mainline debut on home consoles. The wide-open space with the free camera controls is something the series sorely needed, and, as an idea, it does not disappoint.
Unfortunately, this is where the problems start. Though the wild area is a really great addition on paper, its execution is poor. The biggest problem I noticed cemented itself when I was playing the new Crown Tundra DLC. While exploring, I saw a wild Milotic. Now, if you’re not familiar with the series and this particular Pokémon, let me explain. Milotic is a Pokémon that evolves from the extraordinarily rare Feebas. In every game previous to Sword and Shield, Feebas’ encounter rate was ridiculously low and it only appeared in very specific spots.
Add that to the fact that Feebas and Milotic were very rarely, if ever, seen being used by other trainers. They were bragging rights Pokémon, their existence purely for the thrill of the catch. This is the major problem with Sword and Shield.
Beyond the fact that the Pokémon series is a series of JRPGs (we’ll get to this later), the main draw of Pokémon has always been the catching and collecting of Pokémon. There’s a reason the series’ tagline was “Gotta catch ‘em all!” from its inception. The whole idea was that there was a large catalog of fun creatures to collect and see, some of which you would only see if you got them yourself. No other trainers in the game would have them. The game wouldn’t even tell you about all of them, but that was part of the fun. It was fun to see a new Pokémon or to add one to your collection. Some of the evolutions were tricky to figure out and you’d have to figure out how to get your Nidorino to evolve into a Nidoking. It was exciting and fun to show your friends which Pokémon you had and what you were able to find and catch.
Admittedly, this was greatly diminished with the mass mystery gift distributions of rare Pokémon in previous installments; however, this always felt like an optional, side thing. What Sword and Shield do is take away every middle man. The wild area is chock full of fully-evolved and previously rare Pokémon. Yes, you can’t catch them at first because they out-level you too much, but just seeing them is a problem. The fact that you can come back later and catch them destroys the point of having a team and raising them. It ruins the fun of the hunt. Finding something that was once regarded as rare or hard to catch is no longer thrilling. What Pokémon had as far as the fun of collecting Pokémon, is now gone.
Getting a rare evolution item is no longer exciting, because you likely already have the Pokémon it’s needed for anyway. There is no reward for “catching them all” and it makes the game feel that much more uninspired.
This leads us into the next giant issue. This is an issue the games have suffered from since X and Y. Pokémon has gotten way too easy. Sword and Shield are no exceptions. While I will not argue for a return to form with inconvenient leveling methods and unfair battle mechanics and moves that plagued the older games, the direction the series has gone is not the right one.
There have been a number of very good features introduced in the series that are not necessarily a bad thing, such as a the EXP Share and TMs not breaking; however, it’s the handling of these things that causes problems. It has become a series norm to be aggressively over-leveled very shortly into the game. It doesn’t take long until you are essentially mashing the A button through battles and not having to pay attention at all. While yes, Pokémon is aimed at younger audiences, it does not mean the games need to be braindead. Kids can handle a whole lot more than we give them credit for.
Many 90s kids look back fondly at the early Pokémon series for a reason. While the games were never extraordinarily difficult by any means, they weren’t the mindless cakewalk they are today. Something Game Freak needs to figure out is the balance between modern gaming convenience and compelling gameplay.
For a good comparison, one need not look further than Persona 5 Royal. I have been playing this phenomenal game recently and it is a perfect example of the kind of thing Pokémon needs to be. While yes, Persona is obviously for an older audience, so the mature themes and such don’t apply; however, it is a game of the very same genre as Pokémon, and a very similar one at that.
Beyond its unique elements, Persona 5 Royal offers a very compelling experience. The gameplay is engaging and the combat requires thought. While Pokémon doesn’t need to be as difficult as Persona, it does need to consider some of the things brought to the table by the latter. Playing through Persona has brought out some of the more frustrating issues with Pokémon.
Persona’s characters and story also offer more where Pokémon leaves a lot to be desired. The utter lack of voice-acting in a AAA Switch title is shocking. The change from a Japan-based team to a UK-based team shows as well, as the series takes on a flavor that does not do Pokémon any favors. While Persona’s characters are well-rounded and likeable, many of the characters in Sword and Shield are actively off-putting. Whether this is a result of the UK team or just the direction of the series as a whole, I don’t know, but regardless, it’s not a good thing.
Beyond gameplay and narrative, Persona shines a light on a major problem with Pokémon. Both Persona 5 Royal and Pokémon Sword retail for the same amount; however, Persona 5 Royal offers an astounding amount of content and enjoyment for its base version. After purchasing the DLC and paying for a Pokémon Home subscription, in addition to the base game, Pokémon Sword still pales in comparison in both amount of content, quality of gameplay, and overall polish.
You might argue that Persona 5 Royal is PS4 exclusive, developed with the PS4 Pro in mind, and Pokémon Sword is a Switch game. Then look no further than any other first-party Switch game. Luigi’s Mansion 3, Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario Party even. All of these games have a level of polish to them that Pokémon Sword sorely lacks.
At best, Pokémon Sword looks like an uprezzed 3DS game. This is something Let’s Go did not have an issue with. Pokémon Sword does not use, let alone push the Switch hardware by any means, yet the performance is poor.
Upon connecting to the internet, the framerate drops like a rock. Though the game is clearly not pushing any boundaries graphically, it is very poorly optimized. This is something that first-party Nintendo games do not have a reputation for. Generally, Nintendo has quite the opposite reputation. While the Switch is significantly less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One, it does fine because of Nintendo’s excellent optimization; however, Game Freak only shows that they do not have the chops for something like this.
This lack of polish and an overall lack of innovation does not justify the extreme cutting of the Pokémon roster, something that severely cripples this game as well.
If anything, Game Freak has shown that as of late, they lack the ability to create quality, AAA titles. Upon comparison with Persona 5 Royal, you can see many similarities. Both games are made by major developers, published by major publishers, and are console exclusives; however one has AAA polish and is well-optimized for its system, and the other is not.
It would be an interesting thing to see the Pokémon Company make a shift to Nintendo-only ownership and a developer like Atlus brought in for the series. Game Freak has proven that they do not have what it takes, and that is disappointing.
It’s a sad thing when a beloved series that used to be exciting and innovative is now left to lackluster and even poor experiences in a generation of much better games, but nothing lasts forever.