You’d think that with eight whole generations of Pokemon, that Game Freak would be out of ideas. However, the latest installments, Sword and Shield, might just be the best games yet. I will be covering my impressions of Shield on today’s blog.
So, the premise is a return to form; no more having to “make the Pokemon League” crap (although it was pretty interesting conceptually). In this instance, your rival character, Hop (who, unfortunately, still chooses the Starter with a disadvantage against yours), is the younger brother of the Champion, and said Champion gives you your Starters. You and Hop also have a run-in with some weird Pokemon that is immune to all attacks, and it is most likely a pre-evolution of your game’s titular Legendary. But hey, Gyms are back! Thank Arceus!
Every new Generation feels like it has a billion new mechanics and changes, so it’s overwhelming to talk about stuff… Gah, I guess I’ll just go off of whatever comes to mind first. Let’s talk Pokemon Centers. These things baby you; allowing you to buy each type of healing item other than Full Heals and REVIVES before your first Gym Badge. But other than that, these are the best Pokemon Centers ever because they EACH come with a Name Rater, Move Reminder, AND Move Deleter; no Heart Scales required!
On the field, Gen 8 borrows from Pokemon Let’s Go!, and shows wild Pokemon in the overworld. However, it’s a bit confusing. While some appear visibly on the field, there are still old-school random encounters, except those tend to have completely different Pokemon. Intuitively, the invisible Pokemon are ones that are too small to actually be seen above the grass, which makes sense, but it’s still annoying. Also, the Pokedex yet again does not have the Habitat List from Black and White 2. Instead, the Pokedex tells you what Pokemon you can catch in a given area, but it only shows one area at a time, and in chronological order, meaning that you have to catch EVERYTHING as you go along in order for it to actually show the next place.
Another noticeable thing is that all Pokemon naturally gain battle EXP together from the get-go. Also, there’s the Pokemon Camp ability, which allows you to play with your Pokemon and cook Curry (which is this game’s version of the crap you make with Berries in past games, and it’s just as convoluted as ever). This gives them even more EXP and increases their affinity towards you. So far, it seems that they at least got rid of the EXP boost from affinity, but kept the more luck-based perks. I’m sure you’re looking at this and thinking, “Oh my God the game’s even EASIER than ever! 0/10!” I thought that too, but this game’s actually proven to be reasonably difficult so far. You really need to know your stuff (fortunately, they still have the Battle Info button for noobs). Even with the bonus EXP from catching Pokemon (which I’ve been doing pretty liberally), fighting Trainers, and using the Camp, I’ve been cutting it close, with major bosses being the exact same level as my strongest Pokemon. They finally designed those Pokemon-helping mechanics around the actual challenge factor (as long as you don’t grind). Speaking of Pokemon-helping mechanics, you also have PokeJobs. These are accessible from the PC and are basically Merc Missions from Xenoblade 2. You send out boxed Pokemon for a set period of time, and they come back with a chunk of EXP (with bonuses for the Types specified on the request). This will be important for breeding tons of Pokemon at once. You can also farm new EXP Candies, which do exactly what they sound like. They are much more powerful than they look; only 5 or 6 of the smallest units can level up a Pokemon early game.
Overwhelmed yet? Well, there’s also the addition of Wild Areas. These are where Pokemon becomes a true JRPG; they are vast, open, and have tons of Pokemon of wildly varying levels and draw points to get items from. The most important materials are Watts, which are obtained by visiting glowing red Pokemon Dens and pressing A on them. These can be exchanged for items, such as the new/old TR items. TRs are like TMs of old, use it once and they break. They are much more common, and generally contain better moves (seriously, most of the TMs are going out of their way to give you crap moves), plus they can be obtained multiple times, such as from Pokemon Dens…
…which segues into the BIGGEST (pun intended) change made in Gen 8, Dynamax Pokemon. Inside some Pokemon Dens are Dynamax Pokemon, giant versions of regular Pokemon who are much stronger than regular ones; so strong, that four Trainers need to band together to take one down. So that means that you have to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online and connect to the Internet and fight them alongside some randos, right? Fortunately, no; you can play offline and you’ll be joined by some fairly competent A.I. trainers. When fighting against Dynamax Pokemon, you’ll be able to Dynamax the Pokemon you chose to fight in these battles, turning them gigantic as well. Dynamax is basically a fusion of Mega Evolution and Z-Powers. When your Pokemon are Dynamaxed, they get a big stat boost, and their moves are modified. Offensive moves become a much stronger move of the same type, and leave a free effect like a multi-target stat buff on your team, a multi-targeting debuff on the enemy team, or a Weather effect, and Status moves just become a stronger version of Protect. Dynamaxing lasts for three turns (and I assume you can only use it once per battle?), so coming out swinging isn’t always the best. A lot of battles were decided by me timing my Dynamax so that the opponent’s would run out while mine was still going. Overall, Dynamaxing is by far the most gimmicky and least necessary mechanic in the game, but they made a good decision in restricting it to Pokemon Dens and Gym Battles.
Hey, another segue! Gyms are back and, well, the same, really. They build up Gyms as this whole extravagant thing, just for them to be the same. The problem with this is that you basically have to go through a whole extra step for no reason. When you enter a Gym, you now have to go to some receptionist and change into a tokusatsu uniform before actually starting the Gym in earnest. Also, when you actually get to the boss, the cutscene leading up to the fight is really long. But hey, I’d take this over those stupid Trials in Gen 7.
But unfortunately, the Gym Leaders have taken a downgrade again. In Gen 8, they’re once again one-note characters that you talk to a single time outside of the Gym, then fight back inside the Gym. And it doesn’t end there; the whole cast is as one-note as ever. Hop shows that they gave up at making the rival anything more than free EXP. They tried to give him a defined character arc by making him edgier later, but it feels very cliche and contrived. Meanwhile, the cloud-headed Bede is a return of the obnoxious rival of old, but this guy is at least obnoxious as part of his job, working for Chairman Rose, the guy in charge of Galar’s biggest source of energy. Rose is at least kind of funny, as he comes of as this business-y guy, but spends more time wearing summer casual clothes than taking his job seriously (*cough* totally not the bad guy *cough*). Team Yell is our new mischief-making group this time around. Despite their similarities to Best Team Skull, they seem pretty unremarkable, and only seem to serve as justifying the game walling you with NPCs at the exits of towns (which seriously needs a new approach; it’s getting old).
Let’s discuss cutscenes next. These have been a replay-killer in Pokemon for a while, and it was OBNOXIOUS in Gen 7. In Gen 8, it’s at least been far better than Gen 7, but still kind of bad. The Poke Ball tutorial is still forced, but they at least not bother telling you to weaken it first. However, to be honest, the cutscenes here aren’t actually terrible. With the more cinematic camera angles and more expressive character models, the cutscenes have a lot more personality. For example, the cutscene that introduced the Starters might be overly long, but it gives off a subtle visual cue of their Type matchups, to save from people actually having to tell you in a forced tutorial. Also, to make the game more anime, bosses offer comments during battle. While they are cool and will no doubt give later fights much more emotion, you can’t skip them, and are onscreen for what feels like ten whole seconds. Curiously, there is a setting to skip cutscenes. However, it is a toggle to automatically skip all cutscenes, not a button prompt to skip them, which is kind of stupid. Most modern JRPGs at least give you a button prompt… I guess in Gen 9, then.
Next, I’ll give my impressions on the new Pokemon. Thankfully, they actually made them pretty common out in the wild, unlike Gens 6 and 7, where you’d be hard-pressed to find actual NEW Pokemon. Regional Variants return, but this time it’s not limited to Gen 1. The best one I’ve found is a Ground-Steel version of my boy Stunfisk, and it’s freakin’ great. But as far as the new-new Pokemon, I’ll say that I’m not screaming “WTF?!” as consistently as I was in Gen 7, but overall Game Freak’s still got it. The starters seem to continue the trend of being unremarkable until their final form, which in my case is my water Starter that ended up evolving into Michael Phelps the Pokemon. I have a Pokemon that I really like, design-wise, but it only knows Withdraw and Astonish. This is a sign that it will evolve into something amazing, but when and how? What if it’s a trade evolution?
Speaking of trading, the fact that this game is on the Switch has a down side for me. As someone who is uncomfortable around people, I just used two DSs to exploit trading in the past. Since I believe that Gen 8 is the first game in a LONG time to let you ACTUALLY complete the Pokedex, I’d like to be able to do that. The problem is of course, the other two starters, trade evolutions, and the opposite game’s titular Legendary. While I do have a copy of Sword that I would love to play in the future (any%, of course), I only have one Switch. I have no idea if you can trade between save files. But if I can’t, I’d have to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online, and see if randos are willing to give up a Legendary just so someone else’s Pokedex can be completed. You can also use Link codes to trade with a specific someone, but that requires real, human friends.
Lastly, I will discuss the visuals. The Switch has made Pokemon look like a true JRPG, or to be more specific, those new-fangled “animu” JRPGs, with cel-shaded anime kids, vibrant colors, and amazing lighting effects. This is definitely the best-looking that Pokemon has ever been.
But despite how glowing this review has been, I do have some concerns. According to the Map, there only seems to be two Wild Areas in the game, which feels like a vat of wasted potential (maybe they’ll abolish Routes entirely in Gen 9). Also, I didn’t notice a Victory Road AT ALL on the Map, which is really bad, especially since the lack of one in Gen 7 sucked ass. And if that wasn’t enough, Gen 8 could have the worst postgame yet, since the Map doesn’t show anything interesting past what I assume is the Pokemon League. The only thing of note is a mysterious dot adjacent to the foggy area that you couldn’t do much in at the beginning, but that would make it even more miserable than vanilla Gen 7, which would be quite impressive in of itself. But alas, these are just concerns formed just by looking ahead at the Map.
Current Verdict: 9.25/10
Despite the alarming possibility of a weak postgame, Sword and Shield are looking to be the quintessential Pokemon games. They’re not perfect, obviously, but like Disney Parks, perfection would mean no more strives for further improvement. The game’s options for different Pokemon you can use are a bit overwhelming, so I’d still recommend noobs start with Gen 7 (or Gen 5’s sequel, Black and White 2, if you don’t mind those stupid HMs). But seriously… Pokemon Sword and Shield is lit.