Pokemon Sword: A Double-Edged Experience

Pokemon Sword and Shield are JRPGs developed by GameFreak and published by Nintendo. They released on November 15, 2019, cost $60 each, and are Nintendo Switch exclusives. I played Pokemon Sword. As a warning, I’ll be covering some minor story spoilers.

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Ever since Pokemon Sword and Shield were revealed at E3, I’ve deliberated on whether or not I should talk about the Dexit / animation controversy. I’d write few paragraphs, only to delete them later. I have a spectrum of feelings about this Generation’s development cycle — there’s disappointment as well as understanding. But in the end, I’ve decided to set GameFreak’s development and PR problems aside and just talk about Pokemon Sword for what it is.

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I play Pokemon for several reasons: 1) to experience the story, 2) to enjoy the Pokemon designs and have a pet simulator, 3) to battle competitively, 4) to shiny hunt, and 5) to replay for Nuzlocke or other challenge runs. In fact, this first playthrough with Sword was a blind Nuzlocke (I know, I’m crazy). As a hardcore fan who comes to Pokemon for a variety of reasons, I think Sword is overall a fun game. However, like many Pokemon games, Pokemon Sword has plenty of missed potential. I have mixed feelings over almost every aspect of the game. This won’t be an easy review…

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Let’s start with the visuals. That won’t be controversial at all, won’t it? In many of the smaller areas, Pokemon Sword is downright gorgeous. I was amazed at Ballonlea with its magical village and fluorescent mushrooms, the Galar Mines with starry crystals in the cave walls, and Route 4 with its sweeping golden fields. There are moments where Pokemon Sword feels exactly like the graphical jump that the series deserves. But then other places feel like just an upscaled Sun and Moon. Many other routes are straightforward and bland. And the Wild Area, for being an exciting open place to explore, isn’t exactly pretty to look at. Distant views are fine, but the up-close environments are rather jagged. The N64 trees are very real. Even in the beautiful areas, many of them were so small and linear that the joy of exploring the area quickly faded. I wanted to get lost in the caves, dungeons, and towns, but most areas were clear highways with occasional cul-de-sacs.

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The animations are also a mixed bag. Most of the new Pokemon got expressive moves — Wooloo with its roll, Cinderace with its fireball soccer kick, and Yamper with its cute shuffling feet. But for as many charming and unique animations, there are just as many stock animations borrowed from the 3DS. I’m particularly disappointed with the outdated moves where the Pokemon just hops around. The character animations follow a similar pattern — fresh animations are mixed in with stale ones.

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I love 90% of the Pokemon designs. Sinistea, Falinks, and Stonjourner all feel creative and appealing, while Hatterene or Grimsnarl make me grimace. Obviously Sobble is the best starter, and his evolutions confused me, but I eventually came around to them. Galarian Farfetch’d, Dragapult, and Mr. Rime all went through similar processes. The Pokemon models look better (even though the wireframes are exactly the same), thanks to better lighting and shadowing effects. Pokemon designs is the one thing that GameFreak has consistently been improving with across the generations, and this one is no exception.

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Nothing could have prepared me for how cute Mum was.

The character designs have also been improving with each game. Sonia has this carefree bright green whimsy with a ridiculously wide coat. Opal is the perfect frail yet eccentric old lady that I want to know in real life. And I can’t talk about Marnie without feeling outrageous — how could a character be so edgy yet so cute at the same time?!

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Cool story, Bede. How about you let me actually see the battle next time, so I could decide for myself how good you are? Why does everything interesting happen offscreen??

The characters themselves, however, all feel rather two-dimensional. Most of the gym leaders all are entertaining when you meet them, but then they never contribute much to the story. The writers certainly attempted to have story arcs for several of the main characters, but since 80% of their development was off screen, I didn’t feel invested when they did have their moments. For example: when my rival, Hop, had his existential crisis for losing to Bede, I wanted to feel more for him than I actually did. Bede started out promising, and I liked the different direction that he ended up in, but again, his absence deflated the entire process. Marnie was probably my favorite of the bunch, and had a cute arc with Piers.

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I think GameFreak took the criticism of Sun and Moon — that it held your hand too much and had too many cutscenes — and overcorrected with it. I don’t think they understood what the roots of those problems were. Sun and Moon had satisfying character arcs for Lillie and Gladion. Their mother was an intriguing villain, and the themes of natural Pokemon vs. invasive species, and tradition vs. technology, were complex enough for my adult taste to love. Sun and Moon’s problem was that the beginning had too many tutorials, and the cutscenes were poorly paced. Instead of just cutting the fat, GameFreak barely put any meat on Sword and Shield’s bare-bones story. The introduction to the game started out promising enough — I enjoyed the sports theme and my character’s rise to fame. But the villain was severely underdeveloped and the climax was sloppy. It felt as if the writers ran out of time and rushed a quick ending to it all.

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I enjoyed this little detail. Once you earn several badges, you actually get fans cheering you on.

Design-wise, the Pokemon formula of collecting monsters, acquiring badges, and becoming a champion is just as compelling as ever. On top of that formula I really enjoyed the other gameplay additions. As a big fan of Amie in Pokemon X and playing with Eevee in Let’s Go Eevee, I adored camping with my Pokemon in Sword. Adding in a progression system with the Curry Dex and giving different toy rewards for completing it made it an enjoyable mechanic. I loved talking to my Pokemon, using different toys with them, and seeing them waddle around and interact with each other. Talk about adorable. The Wild Area was exactly what the series needed as well. It needed a big open area to explore with Pokemon walking all over the place, including super overpowered monsters that chase you around (that definitely gave me Xenoblade flashbacks). Overall the Wild Area is not quite a leap like other big Switch games, but I still haven’t gotten tired of exploring it.

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The raid battles are very fun. It’s a natural evolution of the Totem Pokemon boss battles from Sun and Moon. I enjoyed the postgame feedback loop of finding a den, beating the Pokemon, and earning goodies for competitive battles. It’s chump change compared to the postgame content of Gens 2, 4, and 5, but it’s better than Sun and Moon’s postgame.

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Speaking of, GameFreak’s streamlined approach to competitive Pokemon is the right way to go. I particularly like that in the Battle Tower you can rent a team of Pokemon and jump into basic competitive strategies right away. The best thing of all, though, is that any Pokemon I have can, with the right items, be used competitively online. We’ve come a long way from nature and IV breeding, though those options are still available. I missed the Shiny Hunting options from the 3DS games, but Sword’s method works as well.

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Overall, Pokemon Sword and Shield is simultaneously GameFreak’s most ambitious and the most unpolished of any Pokemon game (save the First Generation). The games definitely needed more time in the oven. It’s a shame that The Pokemon Company has their strict deadlines to put Scorbunny plushies on store shelves this holiday season. That being said, I’m impressed that GameFreak did so much with their limited time and resources to make their first mainline HD console game. I hope this allows GameFreak an opportunity to take a step back, get even more staff hired, and polish things up for the next generation.

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