On it's surface, Pokemon is simple. A brightly colored world filled with adventure and tiny, cutsey creatures to discover, catch, battle and trade. This simple formula has evolved over time into the highest grossing entertainment franchise in human history. Imagine any group of people that have ever ran a business doing anything anyone has ever liked. More people have spent money on Pikachu than any of that. With that, main line games come with a ton of expectations. Game fandom can be a grueling landscape, and Pokemon is arguably the most popular game series of all time. Amid a sea of controversy, Pokemon Sword and Shield dropped at the beginning of November. One of the biggest issues many had with this iteration of the main line of games was the now infamous removal of the National Pokedex. Being a man of science, I understand that the mixing of volitile elements can cause violent reaction. Being a nerd, I am naturally aware that the recipe for “Complete Internet Shitstorm” is to choose a side in a video game controversy and apply it to a public written forum, so I will forego that entirely. If I may be so daring as to come close to making a statement, I will say this: I am enjoying the new Pokemon. It's not perfect, but it has that Nintendo magic. That weird polish that only comes from the world's weirdest business superpower. To really get into what I feel makes this one of the better generations of Pokemon, we'll break down whats changed, improved, or disappeared in that weird thing they do every game where they remove a good feature for no real reason.
Being an old-school homage to Dragon Quest at its core, Pokemon has always had somewhat of a story, from the incredibly dark and out of left field, to almost mystic levels of vague. We've fought a man who wanted to destroy pokemon with an ancient weapon; ending their lives to free them from servitude...which is, a lot for one of these games. In other's we are literally 10 year old transients who are allowed to wander the world, catching animals, digging through the homes of anyone they encounter, beating up other peoples pets and never sleeping or eating. So it's a mixed bag. This time, they went with sort of a streamlined approach to the idea of battling pokemon as a sport. The story is centered around you and your rival's rise to pokemon greatness. Some shenanigans between you, the titular shank and plank and the dogs from the box. No real villian sidequest as have been the custom for so long. I'm not going to spoil it for you but, for example, there are times where something crazy is happening. Now, if this were any other pokemon game this would be where your Gym challenge takes a backseat for a dungeon and some storyline. More than once, you are told not to worry about it and continue challenging gyms. Others rush off to simply have you carry on as you were. It's only a slight bummer, and definitely not a deal breaker, but a jarringly odd sudden left turn in what many have come to expect. The game makes these different choices often, and often it is a good thing. That brings us to the competitive meta parts of pokemon and the big, angry, geeky elephant in the room...
Pokemon has always had a lot more under the hood than most give it credit for at first glance. What looks like silly little cartoon characters fighting it out with colorful moves is actually a strategically deep game of whits, planning and skill. With that said, if one were to imagine a fighting game with 900+ characters, balancing each character fairly so that any one can be used viably would be an impossible task. Pokemon, from a metagame standpoint, is a far more interesting game than it was a generation ago. Some overused pokemon who had ruled the tournament scene for years were not included in the Galar regional dex, and it's shaken things up. Some pokemon who have never found themselves on a competetive team are getting their moment in the limelight, and with the new moves and expanded movelists, they're bringing interesting new strategies to battle. Many people have differing opinions on the decision to limit the Galar Pokedex, but that is one of the positive outcomes of it all. We can leave the "Dexit" talk at that.
One of the most impressive additions is the Wild Area. In what appears to be Nintendo dipping a little Pikachu tail into the idea of going full Breath of the Wild on Pokemon, the Wild Area is a large open world area. From the first moment you enter the Wild Area, you get a sense of finally experiencing what the series has tried to convey from the beginning. It rains, it snows, the harsh sunshine at night thing that happens. Pokemon scamper, fly or swim around in their natural habitats. It feels like a concept realized.
There are things to discover in the Wild Area of the Galar Region, pokemon to find, Max Raid battles to do (I'll get to that). This is where the magic of pokemon lies. The sense of discovery. They nail it with the Wild Area. My only complaint is that we just didn't get enough of it. It would have been nice to get just one more area. A feature I wasn't very excited for was Dynamax pokemon. It's a feature where in certain pokemon battles, one can grow their pokemon to enormous proportions with all the bonuses that come with being a huge bastard. Moves become super moves, you get the idea. Where the pokemon stamp sits on this is with Gigantimax pokemon. These pokemon have special forms when Dynamaxed, such as a gargantuan Snorlax with a tiny hill for a tummy, complete with a tree growing from his belly button. So, stuff to spend hours upon hours collecting. Some are even tied to limited release and events, which gives folks a reason to come back and keeps the game relevant.
Overall, I was impressed on how it was implemented, even if it was just this generation's Mega Evolution or Z-Move style gimmick. Aside from the two marquee features, there's plenty of the trimmings that usually come with a new Pokemon game. Secret vendors selling rare items, changes in weather bringing out rare pokemon in specific areas, the little unexplained mysteries present throughout the series...there's enough to do to keep you playing for a while. One omission that I was sad to see is tied to my statement earlier about being ushered away from cool side mission type stuff. Most of the routes, caves, forests and other dungeons are pretty linear and most are really short. Gone are the days of finding a hidden, maze like cave filled with treasure and possibly a legendary pokemon. Simplifying the dungeons and reducing their number and size only serves to give the game a slight “on rails” feeling, and makes the game world feel smaller and less intricate. Gripes aside, it has lots to do, the battle system is deep and fun, the Wild Area will have you coming back for rare catches and movement, thanks to the Rotom bike, is fast and fluid once you have the upgrades. Its not the amazing “Ride a Pokemon” feature strangely missing from the last games, but it works. If you enjoy Pokemon games or want to enjoy your first one, these games are a decent way to get your Pokemon on. Not too shabby looking either.
Pokemon is not going to graphically blow minds. It's never set out to, nor does it need to. It has it's own art style, they've quaintly kept 8 bit sfx for the cries of earlier pokemon, some of its little systems are archaic out of tradition. It's all Pokemon. As far as this series goes, this is the best looking one yet. It looks like what one would expect of a series moving from the 3DS to the Switch. One thing that surprised me was the sound direction. Specifically on directional sound. When playing with headphones, the sound is deeply immersive. Cries of pokemon reflect their position in the actual game world. The cry of an Evee off in the distance signifies you on which direction to go. Streams trickle next to you, wind blows through the grass. It's moments like this where an unnoticed design aspect can really create magic for the player. This actually blew me away a little. Other high points in the audio go to the battle themes. They are energetic, but some standouts are during some of the games bigger battles. The music breaks down in anticipation of pokemon Dynamaxing, resulting in a crescendo of crowd chants. It really gets you in the mood to kick poke-ass. It helps deliver on the feeling that you would watch pokemon battles on TV like sports in this world. Overall, it's the new Pokemon on the Switch, and while it's not the earth-shattering reshaping that Zelda got, it's not a bad looking Pokemon game.
I'm glad I decided to give this generation of Pokemon a chance. Initially, I was kind of on the fence, but eventually the Galar Dex butthurt faded, and I decided to really delve into this one. I really was pleasantly surprised. If you want a good reminder of why you got into Pokemon to begin with, this game might have some of those moments for you. It did for me. If you're a Go player and want to see what the fuss is about, this is as good a place as any to jump in. I don't have a rating system. If you're still reading, you don't need one anyway. Pokemon Sword and Shield are good entries into the series, and if you dig Pokemon, you'll probably enjoy your time with them. With a little open-mindedness, you'll find there’s a lot to like about these games.
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