Loved it as much as I hated it
Playtime: 190 hours
- Fun: 17/20
- Stimulation/Engagement: 12/15
- Innovation/Ingenuity: 6/15
- Storytelling/Writing: 2/10
- Immersion/World Building: 7/10
- Control/Systems: 9/10
- Graphics/Presentation: 3/5
- Art Style: 2/5
- Sound Design: 3/5
- Score: 2/5
- Online Capabilities/Multiplayer: 5/10
Few other things in the peculiar and confusing world of gaming are as peculiar and confusing as the way Pokémon games are published. Every mainline Pokémon game since the IP’s launch in 1996 has been released as two games. The two games, such as Pokémon Red/Blue or Sword/Shield, are always 99% identical but are sold separately. For some reason, Nintendo decided that Pokémon games would always be split into two different versions—typically the main difference between the two is a very small amount of Pokémon that are exclusive to each—and published as two games essentially independent of each other. For some reason, the public decided that this is acceptable, and this has gone on for almost 30 years.
I think the main reason we decide to be okay with this publishing style is that the games are so incredibly fun. For many Pokémon fans, our obsession with the franchise began with the anime TV series, which introduced us to the extremely alluring fantasy world of Pokémon. The Pokémon anime follows Ash, a young teenager from Kanto (a fictional continent/country largely based on Japan) who sets out on a daring journey to become the region’s champion pokémon trainer. Pokémon, short for pocket monsters, were mystical creatures with magical powers that were both adorable and dangerous and essentially substituted wild animals in this universe. The show launched one year after Pokémon games were first released in Japan, and paired well with the youthful desire for both adventure and cute pets held by its fans. The video games became a way for us to live that life of adventure and mastery within our Gameboys.
24 years later Pokémon has become the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, and Nintendo released its latest installment Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield in November 2019 for the Nintendo Switch. This time around, I went with Pokémon Sword. The game…these games—for the sake of brevity and consistency I will refer to the Pokémon Sword/Shield pair as one game—the game was released to a great deal of controversy. Many fans complained about the loss of hundreds of pokémon that were not included in this edition, about the lackluster art style, and about the lack of graphical improvement and innovation in general. And yet, Nintendo has sold close to 20 million copies to date. I personally agree with the many criticisms of this game—many of which were voiced before this game was even released—and yet I bought the game, loved it as much as I hated it, and played it 200 hours and counting. Why? Let’s find out:
It’s Pokémon! Pokémon games are very fun, and this game does very little to take away from the tried and true Pokémon formula: you are a young, up-start pokémon trainer who has just been given their first pokémon by Professor So-And-So and set on an adventurous and mystical journey to become the champion. There is very little grind in this game, what with party exp-share, exp-candies (which are earned from sufficiently entertaining max-raid battles), and the champion tournament. But the ease of the single player experience, as well as other minuses that come from other categories in this review, sometimes make this game boring and even frustrating. Battling other players online is very enticing and can be great fun, but once you realize how terribly unbalanced it is—and how wrought it is with Nintendo’s never-ending inability to “do online right”—that luster fades.
There is SO MUCH to do in this game. Sure, the main campaign is very easy and can be downright boring, but once you beat that first part of the game, you realize you’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Once you become the champion you unlock the Battle Tower, where the game throws intensely difficult single player battles at you that make you realize just how much better you can make your pokémon team, and the game gives you a nice variety of ways to improve your pokémon and does fairly well to streamline them this time around. Breeding is simple enough to get into and complex enough to keep the player engaged. Max raid battles are a cool addition and offer a plethora of useful rewards. The Hammerlocke University is a clever innovation that allows you to improve your pokémon even while you are away from your Switch. The one major flaw with all this engaging content is that once you take your meticulously crafted pokémon team online to battle other trainers, you may often find the online scene to be flooded with certain pokémon that are simply over-powered: the meta. What is the point of having so many pokémon in this game when there’s only maybe 20-30 that are viable competitively?? Knowing how terribly balanced online play is detracts a lot from the stimulation and engagement of the game’s content.
It’s really quite amazing how little each mainline installment of the hardcore Pokémon RPG innovates upon the last, and Pokémon Sword/Shield is no exception. The player catches pokémon, trains them, becomes the pokémon champion. The graphical improvements are really as minimal as possible when moving to a newer system. This is the first mainline Pokémon game on a home console, and it does not show. Pokémon models, now in HD and fully 3-D, for whatever reason still make tiny, stiff movements to represent attacks or special moves. Minute information text bubbles—such as “Blah-Blah is buffeted by hail”—still annoyingly take up way too much time as they are announced EVERY. FUCKING. TURN. There is plenty about the Pokémon formula that is the same as always in this game and absolutely should be the same because it’s what makes Pokémon fun, but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to be easy on it in this section of the greatness score.
There are however, a few very welcome improvements. The wild area is a wondrous place and something pokémon fans have wanted since the IP was launched: pokémon and the player roam a wilderness freely, with a full range of motion and 3600 camera control available to the player. It’s a great leap forward in the direction of what I and most fans believe to be the original dream for Pokémon video games. Mid-battle access to important information like pokémon types, and super-effects/weaknesses is a fantastic addition and very well-integrated. Dynamaxing is also pretty cool, but after a while it becomes rather washed and feels pretty gimmicky.
The story gets pretty good with a cool twist towards the end, and there’s a good amount of interesting characters, and…um, that’s it. The story and writing in this game are otherwise terrible. I mean down right awful, even for a game geared for kids. The dialogue is unbelievably basic and the story is extremely linear and cliché. Aside from the first few games, I have not come to expect much from storytelling in Pokémon games, but Pokémon SS brings it down to a whole new low. When I realized there was more story to play through after the main campaign, I shit you not I was actually disappointed, I just wanted it to end. They got two points for a dramatic climax and some really good characters, but yeah, beyond that: superbly boring and half-assed.
Immersion/World Building: 7/10
Again, the wild area is a fantastic innovation for Pokémon and it brings a great deal of immersion to the game. The region of Galar is based on the United Kingdom and the British-ness of the region and its inhabitants is very well done: people say things like “Av a spot-uh-tea” or “had a great row about it”. The world’s culture and society feel pretty well-built and fleshed out: characters constantly reference the pop-culture pokémon gym challenge and various characters around the world often talk about characters from other towns that they know. In one town you are able to go into an old lady’s house and she’ll give you a letter to give to her long-lost pal who you may randomly find in a late-game town. There are pokémon visible and active all over the overworld, and towns and shops are lively and unique. These things are small but go a long way to building the world of this game and making it immersive. There are however, too many seams in the open world (areas that are right next to each other on the map but separated by arbitrary restrictions or loading screens). Many areas are too small and seem rushed, thus taking away a lot from player immersion. The many different areas of the game, while unique, often seem out of place and pasted together.
The controls are very simple but very well developed. The menus are mostly great, with a very few hiccups and headaches. Controls while biking are surprisingly irritating; if you fast travel somewhere while on the bike and intend to immediately turn around go inside the building, do yourself a favor and get off the bike first. It’s like they wanted to piss people off with the way they made bikes turn around. Controls for a Pokémon game are pretty easy to get right so thankfully that’s my only real complaint.
It’s definitely the best looking pokémon game ever, but it’s definitely not as good as it could look on the Switch. Some attacks are incredibly awesome graphically (like some higher-level moves and dynamax moves), but most are totally copy-and-pasted from older games and boring as hell. It’s almost like they wanted most moves to look bad. Pokémon Coliseum from 2003 had an overall cooler set of animations. Dynamaxing is definitely the graphical gem of this game: explosions, dramatic weather effects; just an overall awesome presentation every time. Cut-scenes are laughably bad. At one point, in the climax of the game’s story, something—I’m avoiding spoilers, even for this terribly lame story line—something really crazy happens, something that would have made for a really cool cut-scene. But instead of showing it to the player, the game instead shows you other characters just standing there looking at it, pointing at it, and reacting to it: “Look at what’s happening over there! Wow, I can’t believe it!”, Why, just why…
Art Style: 2/5
The Pokémon are really beautifully drawn, as they always are, but the game overall really lacks a lot of creativity and beauty in its art style. I find most scenes and menus overall pleasing, but there’s very little detail and work in the art style. Many areas are cool, well drawn, others seem rushed and half-assed, especially the wild area, which is just a mess of ugly trees, ugly rocks, and ugly everything. Sometimes it truly just hurts to look at.
Sound Design: 3/5
I love the sounds in this game but most are lazily copied from previous games. Attacks sound good, and I love the sound the game makes when I run into a wall on my bike. But why don’t I hear rain when it is raining in a battle. There’s no howling wind in a hail storm, and no thunder when there’s lightning. The menus are where this game really picks up a couple points here, where the sounds are crisp, responsive, and very pleasing. I love pulling up the main menu or the pokédex or just flipping around the pokémon boxes.
Out of all the great music the British have given us throughout history, the game developers decided to have this game’s score revolve around the British affinity for EDM. WHY?!? There are a couple nice tunes, but most are god awful. The score is also played too loud and is way too distracting in most situations, and actually works to hurt immersion. The Pokémon center music once again saves the day.
Online Capabilities/Multiplayer: 5/10
Trading is a mess, communication is terrible, balancing is laughable, menus and systems are a headache… and yet, the ability to play Pokémon online at all is quite a blessing. Even while I’m getting destroyed by some asshole’s incredibly well-trained shiny legendary from Gen 4 or whatever, I really enjoy the ability to sit on my couch and battle other Pokémon players from around the world.
Pokémon Sword will likely go down as one of my worst reviews ever, and is yet a shining example of one of the most incredible qualities about video games: games can have poor graphics, half-assed writing, and even induce severe headaches; all the while keeping us engaged in fun for hundreds of hours. I mean, how is it even possible that I played a game that I gave a 61 for almost 200 hours in only 3 months? Because Pokémon is amazing, gamers are amazing, and VIDEO GAMES WILL NEVER DIE.
Long live games, long live gamers, and long live the GGoat Project,