PREFACE: Due to this being an update of a first impressions post, some content will be similar to the original post. There are also some spoilers.
You’d think that with eight whole generations of Pokemon, Game Freak would be out of ideas. However, the latest installments, Sword and Shield, prove that Pokemon still has a fire going, even if it isn’t necessarily blazing white-hot.
So, the premise of both Sword and Shield 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 promptly shrug it off before the two of you head off on your adventure. 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 (and sometimes, Pokemon that are larger than the player still somehow manage to hide themselves in there). 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, meaning that you have to catch EVERYTHING as you go along in order for it to actually show the next place. Furthermore, it only shows Pokemon that you’ve encountered once before, so it doesn’t help when you’re looking for that last Pokemon in the Pokedex.
Another noticeable thing is that all party 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. 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 done pretty liberally), fighting most Trainers, and using the Camp, I’ve been cutting it close. Even when I ended up getting overleveled by around the seventh Gym, and having my team catch Pokerus, it still proved to be a worthy adversary. 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 Poke-Jobs. 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.
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, their HP gets a big 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 before it has to recharge, 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.
There are two big problems with this mechanic. One is that the fights against Wild Dynamax Pokemon get ridiculous later on in the game. After 3-Star difficulty, they get shields that need to be broken by hitting it X number of times. Fortunately, breaking it lowers their Def and Sp Def by 2 levels, so it makes the rest of the fight easy. Unfortunately, the later Dynamax Pokemon also get up to 3 turns in a single round, and can wipeout your entire motley crew as a result. What’s worse is that the 5-Star ones get TWO shield phases. The problem is that battles have to be won in ten turns, and two shields guarantees at least four turns wasted. The whole thing ends up boiling down to your Pokemon’s levels and the type advantage, unless you can actually get humans to help you. The other issue is the Gigantimax gimmick. This is an ability that specific Pokemon can have to get new forms and unique move effects upon Dynamaxing. The problem is that you have to know which Pokemon can do it, and then you have to catch them in a Dynamax battle. Yup, it’s not good enough to catch the Pokemon itself. I even had two Pokemon with Gigantimax forms, but since they were normal catches, I couldn’t do anything about them. It’s a really dumb mechanic, and the unique moves don’t even have interesting animations, unlike the unique Z-Moves of Gen 7.
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. Fortunately, the Gym Missions are among some of the best in a while. Gym 3 revolves around catching wild Pokemon, Gym 5 puts a fun twist on a normally aggravating type of challenge, and Gym 8 is the first Double Battle Gym since Hoenn, with battles revolving around the power of weather effects.
In addition to the Gyms, the way they handled the Pokemon League is probably the best in the series. In Gen 8, it’s the Championship Cup. This tournament format makes it so that you fight characters that you’ve encountered regularly; characters who’ve been through the same trial as you. It really is a gauntlet, because after that they make you fight three of the Gym leaders a second time. It really showcases how much you’ve grown as a trainer, especially for me, who found myself able to one-shot Dynamax Pokemon that I previously had trouble with.
But unfortunately, the Gym Leaders themselves have taken a downgrade again. In Gen 8, most of them are once again one-note characters that you talk to a single time outside of the Gym, then fight back inside the Gym. Out of all of them, two are interesting: Opal, who is just really funny and creepy, and the 7th Gym Leader, whom we’ll discuss in a bit.
In my first impressions, I- for lack of a better word- “shat” on the cast of characters in Gen 8. However, I take that back now. While all the characters, like your rival Hop, privileged pimp Bede, and Professor assistant Sonia, start off as the typical one-note, uninteresting characters that have been peppering the series as of late, they become some of the best we’ve had in a long while. Each of the aforementioned characters go through big changes during the story and their arcs, and by the postgame, you’re like, “Sh**, these are like completely different folks now.” I really hope that the next Gen 8 game is a sequel, like Black and White 2 are for Gen 5, so that you can see how far they’ve come.
Team Yell is our new mischief-making group this time around. Despite their similarities to Best Team Skull, they’re 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). But if they have any saving grace, it’s their boss, Piers. For the first time since Gen 1, the leader of the designated group of thugs is also a gym leader. But unlike Giovanni, Piers becomes a straight-up protagonist after you beat him, which is really cool.
With Piers being the Piccolo of the game, the role of the main antagonist lies elsewhere. And unfortunately, this person is probably my least favorite character in the game. WARNING. This next part is the most spoilery in this whole review! If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the next paragraph, but even then it’s not a big spoiler, because if you’ve played ANY RECENT Pokemon game, you already know who the main antagonist is. The big bad is Chairman Rose, the guy in charge of Galar’s whole power grid. This makes the third generation in a row, from Gen 6 onward, where the big bad is someone with high political influence in the world and are in charge of some big R&D department. He’s at least more subtle this time, versus Lysandre’s “humans should die” schtick at the beginning of Gen 6, or the OPENING CUTSCENE of Gen 7 clearly painting Aether as suspicious, but the pattern itself is what tipped me off for Rose, and it’ll probably tip you off too (if I didn’t just spoil it for you).
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 (which sounds like a rude beginner’s trap in hindsight). 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 is a bit 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, a lot of them are really cool. Unfortunately, the Starters are a downgrade. While they have great designs and are still powerful, they are marred by all being single-types. To be fair, it helps so that you don’t have to worry about finding something cool with a matching type as much, but it still bugs me. Gen 7’s Starters are still my favorite for now. Meanwhile, the Legendaries look like recolored Gen 2 dogs, but they’re not terrible.
The most stressful thing is trying to build a team of Pokemon I haven’t seen before when I don’t know what they’re going to evolve into, and the thing with Gen 8 seems to be that the Pokemon either have super reasonable or super BS evolution conditions. Most new Pokemon evolve on level up, and the game seems to be designed so that they would evolve right when they’re about to fall behind on your team if you were to use them as an official team member. However, there’s things like the new Yamask (screw that thing). Despite how easy it is to farm evolutionary stones, there’s almost nothing- at least not new Pokemon- that require them. It’s better than Gen 5’s “nothing evolves until you reach the Pokemon League,” but it doesn’t help that my bag has a bunch of useless stones in it.
My biggest complaint in the game is probably Galar itself. This is no doubt the smallest region in the series thus far. I admit I’m spoiled on Xenoblade’s big, grandiose worlds. But in addition to the small size of Galar, it also lacks substance. Routes are short and lack personality, and towns are so small that Tales of Vesperia’s towns seem huge by comparison, which sucks because the towns actually have the most charisma out of anywhere in Galar. The dungeons have also taken a hit as well. Despite them giving you an infinite-use Escape Rope, the dungeons can be gone through in less than twenty minutes each. They’re also small in quantity too. There’s NO VICTORY ROAD either, and the Route 10 that’s there instead is nothing like Gen 5’s, that’s for sure. In addition to all that, they still haven’t fixed the recent issue of NPC dialogue never changing; I’m still having people wishing me luck on my Gym Challenge even after I’ve already become Champion.
The soundtrack is a downgrade from Gen 7. A lot of it felt kind of underwhelming. There wasn’t a single time where I stopped to soak in the atmosphere of a given area. Gen 7 still has the supreme soundtrack of the series in my opinion, with Gen 5 in second. If there are any good tracks, it’s the major boss themes; the themes of actual characters that you fight, like Bede and Team Yell’s loli mascot, Marnie. They also bring back Gen 5’s “music change when the Gym Leader has one Pokemon left,” and it really sells the intensity of those battles.
As for 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.
Lastly, let’s discuss the thing I’ve been concerned about the most: postgame. For some reason, they haven’t gotten it right from Gen 6 onward, and it still seems to be the case here. Other than the designated Game Freak superboss, the postgame give you a single sidequest, like most recent games have done. In this quest, you spend the whole time going back to older areas and fighting whatever’s there, and your prize is the Legendary that’s on the box of the game you’re playing. Although the villains of the quest are funny, there are no new areas that open up, and even worse, THERE IS NO LOOKER. Looker has been a staple since Gen 4, and he’s one of the best characters in all of Pokemon! AND HE’S NOT HERE FUUUUUUUU-
Anyways, finishing this sidequest opens up the “Designated BS Competitive Battle Area Where That You Challenge Out of Curiosity, Lose in 5 Seconds, and Realize that the Team that’s been with you Through Thick and Thin Sucks,” and it’s actually the easiest in the series. The battles aren’t just easier; it’s also easy to grind because you rank up by winning a total number of battle, instead of consecutive battles. I’m still not a fan of competitive, but hey, it’s there for those who want it.
You know what, for the sake of completion, I should touch on Gen 8’s competitive battle scene. The following information is all from an associate of mine who follows the competitive scene of Pokemon very closely. First off, Hidden Power and Toxic TMs don’t exist, which greatly limit what you can do to round out your Pokemon. Also, battles are apparently timed, with animations not pausing to run down the clock. Also, the lack of National Dex makes it so that you’re stuck with whatever’s in Galar, and that could make certain Pokemon significantly more dangerous than before. I also read an article saying that Dynamaxing is banned in competitive (which I would believe given how whiggety-whack it is), but I don’t know if it’s true. But hey… none of this is my problem!
As for the rest of postgame, you basically get to rechallenge the Champion Cup at Wyndon as many times as you want. In it, you merely fight random Gym Leaders and get a reward after winning; you don’t even refight Leon at the end. It’s good for grinding, at least, making it a big improvement over Gen 7’s NOTHING.
Final Verdict: 8.8/10
They seem to be continuing the path they tread in Gen 7: amazing gameplay, user-friendly mechanics, and great difficulty, but a poorly built region. I feel like they’re either on the cusp of making Pokemon a tried-and-true JRPG series and not just “kiddy crap”, or completely ruining it once and for all. I guess we’ll have to see what happens then. But in the meantime, Pokemon Sword and Shield are nonetheless a wildly good set of games.