Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild area
Another iteration of Pokémon is upon us, and now it’s time for everyone to get really joyous or mad while cute creatures frolic on-screen.
With the exception of the second generation (which many still herald as the best to date), each entry has provided its own twists and turns while mostly sticking to the same formula that so many have grown out of. I’ve been playing Pokémon since I picked up my copy of Red in 1998 at Toys “R”Us (RIP), and I’ve seen it all before.
Sword and Shield may take more than it gives, but it still manages to provide some of us a reason to come back: even if this generation might not have that same lasting appeal.
[Read our review of Pokémon Sword here.]
Pokémon Shield (Switch)
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokémon Company
Release: November 18, 2019
Since CJ already covered a lot of the housekeeping elements with his expansive review, I’m going to talk about some of the bits that stood out the most to me in this new generation.
My first thought: “Wow this game is beautiful.” Despite the misgivings with the framerate, or the “copied and pasted character models,” the environments and Game Freak’s vision of the Galar region blew me away at times. It’s so weird to pop that little Switch into docked mode and play Pokémon on the TV! Even if the narrative is one of the weakest in years, portions like the cheering crowd in stadium gym battles bring real gravitas to the world, as do the bits and pieces of English folklore (that aren’t really committed to). It finally feels like you’re part of the world the anime built up decades ago.
The lack of a full National ‘Dex — as much as it pains me in theory as a living ‘Dex trainer for over two decades (I have them all!) — was not as much of a bother as I thought it would be, nor is the reduction of moves, many of which are now redundant. Game Freak made some great picks when it comes to the regional Galar ‘Dex, to the point where each area feels fresh. The new Wild Zone, which is basically like a mini-sandbox with a full control camera, allows Galar to breathe and feel more alive than some of the other entries when it comes to creature diversity. Right now Sword and Shield‘s isolated creature offerings feel large in scope, though the lack of DLC additions and the lack of Pokémon Home may hurt it over time. There isn’t that sense of something big to look forward to and give the games a second wind.
Though, I think the quality of life upgrades help Sword and Shield‘s case more than any other aspect of the new generation. You can fly pretty much everywhere instantly near the start of the adventure. Surfing just…happens when you walk on water. If you get bored of a zone you can instantly head to the Wild Area, catch some exotic creatures you’ve never seen before, then zip back to the critical story path. You can move creatures from box to box out in the wild (!). The “shortcut/favorite” system returns where you can just throw a Poke Ball with the press of a button outside of menus. Seeing creatures out and about (pulled from Let’s Go) is a huge upgrade, as is witnessing a sight like an Eldegoss float across the screen on a breeze.
What I do mind — and I mean really mind — is the lack of the Global Trade System (GTS). Hands-down it was one of my favorite aspects of the series when it was added in Generation IV. After a number of years a lot of my local Pokémon group members moved away or grew apart, and it was a perfect way to enjoy light social interactions by way of an expansive online trading service. The new Y-Comm system is a downgrade in every sense of the phrase, substituting useful features for fluff like an in-universe Twitter feed system. I’m sure someone thought it was cute, but it doesn’t make up for the removal of the GTS or the gutting of online functionality in general.
Select portions of the game are missing a lot of emotion and soul. Unlike Sun and Moon, I wasn’t invested in the story as a whole or the new faction, “Team Yell.” Team Skull absolutely stomps on them in terms of memorability and impact, and I felt nothing when Sword and Shield‘s narrative came to a close. Going further: why don’t the Pokémon talk yet? Now is the time to really break new ground on Switch, not use muffled scratchy noises for most of the cast. There was a lot of potential here and Game Freak only managed to tap into some of it, most of which ended up as Galar aesthetics.
The Wild Area, while fun in a vacuum, doesn’t do enough to push long-term play forward in its current state. The idea is that it functions as an MMO-like zone where other people are wandering around, doing co-op raid battles to reap big rewards. It’s a great place to go back to daily and an even better place to blow off some steam in if you have a few minutes to play. But as CJ mentioned in his review of Sword, practically none of the actual social elements work, as player characters are constantly dropped or glitched off-screen, and getting non-bots to raid is an utter pain. I want to see the next Pokémon extend the Wild Area concept to the entire game world, but Game Freak will need to really step it up.
Pokémon has always literally been give and take since the second generation. Some give more than others, and Sword and Shield has taken away quite a bit. But in the end, I was smiling on most of my journey throughout the Galar region, and 21 years later, I still have a desire to catch them all. “All of the Galar region” will do nicely for the time being, even if it feels more fleeting than past generations.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]