Published on November 28th, 2019 | by Ignis
REVIEW: Pokemon Shield
Pokemon is one of Nintendo’s premiere flagship titles along with Mario and Zelda. Since the release of Pokemon Red/Blue (Green if you’re in Japan), it has been beloved and in high demand for almost 20 years and the level of quality has overall been quite high given the sheer number of titles Gamefreak have pushed out.
Generation 8’s Sword and Shield is Gamefreak’s first foray into the home console space, expectations were high coming into the title and overall the game is… Good if you look past all the controversy, though my personal expectations were a little high coming into it.
Concept/Story: The concept is simple as always. Set in the region of Galar, you’re an up and coming trainer who gets their first Pokemon and goes on their journey to become the Pokemon Champion. As much as I would love to say the story is more than that, there really isn’t too much more to it than that as it’s the same tried and true method they’ve followed since the original Gameboy.
The one thing that makes this Generation of Pokemon games different to the others is the Gym Challenge that takes place, where trainers from all over Galar gather in droves to push through all 8 Gym Leaders with the hopes of eventually taking down the undefeated Champion, Leon. This Gym Challenge isn’t just something a few trainers interested in battling might do, it is more or less a national sport for them and I love the idea of your battles being broadcasted all across Galar, you becoming peoples favourite Trainer, becoming a household name and people watching your journey (Gym Leaders and Trainers even have their own collectible trading cards which only cements how huge a deal they are in Galar, which is a little touch I love). I’d always assumed throughout my playthroughs of all the different Pokemon games that various trainers were attempting and battling through or failing the various Gym’s throughout the games, but it’s wonderful to see it finally given some context and watching the trainers steadily fall off as you get more and more badges is a wonderful touch – I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to go down this route. I only wish that they spent more time on it, it’s the single coolest thing Pokemon has done with it’s storytelling and they treat it as though it’s just another run-of-the-mill Pokemon game especially toward the end where they clearly ran out of development time as it feels quite rushed and uneven compared to the rest of the game.
Your rival Hop is the little brother of the Champion, Leon and he’s… Okay. This trend of friendly rivals has never been something I’ve enjoyed too much about newer Pokemon games where everyone is friends with each other and just want everyone to get along and be better as a collective. Team Yell is by far the most disappointing ‘bad guy’ team of any series so far, being relegated to a minor nuisance. Which is a shame because there was some real potential there to be REALLY annoying given their whole shtick is cheering on one of the other Gym Challengers. On top of this, the game lacks any true ‘villain’ and uses the end goal of becoming the Champion to push you through the game which wouldn’t be so bad if they fleshed out the Gym Challenge and the leaders behind it to make them more central characters, instead you almost feel… purposeless throughout your journey being pushed on for little reason than “you need to get the next Gym badge!” which I suppose is nothing too new for the series, but without something to replace the Giovanni, Cyrus or Ghetsis of the game, it really does feel like something is missing.
Overall, incredible potential with the idea of the Gym Challenge that is wasted on not being fleshed out with a rushed finale and missing and is kinda bare bones, with the main story taking anywhere from 10 – 20 hours depending on how much you’ve played it in the past. I really hope this is something they run with and expand on in future games, I’d love to see it go ‘global’ across all the regions of Pokemon and see worlds collide with a global ranking of where trainers across all the regions stack up to each other.
Graphics: Shield looks good overall but there is a caveat to this, the game looks great compared to the rest of the games in the franchise. Going from 3DS to Switch you can see a difference between the games, the fidelity is quite an improvement and for a Pokemon game you could definitely argue it’s pretty good… … Compared to most other games though, the game is overall lacking from a graphical perspective. There is a lot of detail missing from the environments & characters and while the Pokemon look the best they’ve ever looked outside of the sprites (Sprites will always be the winners to me, nothing looks quite as good) they can’t hold a candle to something like Monster Hunter Iceborne that features incredibly detailed monsters (though Monster Hunter World/Iceborne also suffers from reducing the number of monsters in exchange for making them look much better, at least I can say they look REALLY good). “But this isn’t a blockbuster PS4 title pushing hardware to it’s limits, the Switch is just not as powerful as the other consoles and that’s never been Nintendo’s thing” I hear you say, and that is true and possibly an unfair comparison – but one I feel holds weight. Most Nintendo titles haven’t focused graphics since the NES/SNES days and is worth mentioning it’s not going to hold a candle to most other AAA titles on other consoles.
Compared to other Nintendo titles though, the cartoon-y style works well and is a great looking game on the Switch whether hand-held or docked (though there can be some pretty significant slow-down when hand-held).
Animations have been a pretty controversial topic for Generation 8, with Junichi Masuda one of the directors of Gamefreak commenting on them cutting out a portion of Pokemon out of the game to improve animations and it’s… Only somewhat justified. In-game animations in general have improved, Pokemon move a lot more when attacking and the moves themselves have been ramped up to take advantage of the Switch’s power (over the 3DS) and I’d argue it’s the best the series has ever looked. Dynamaxed Pokemon look awesome and the G-Max moves that accompany them really do look excellent – on par with most modern JRPG’s of the like, although attacking these Gigantic monsters is the definition of disappointment with barely any movement or animation at all. Pokemon models look great on the Switch, watching them idle in-between attacks with their own personality is certainly something and while there is more than half the Pokemon I wish got this treatment, what we have do look good (Though not good enough to lose 407 Pokemon mind you) and with them appearing on the overworld much like Let’s Go Eevee! and Pikachu! it really is getting close to the fantasy all kids had when playing Pokemon Red/Blue.
Character designs range from pretty good (Nessa, Chairman Rose, Sonia) to… Why? (Leon, why does he wear a cap, a cape and shorts with tights underneath? I’m no fashionista, but even I know it doesn’t go together and you look silly) though one of the biggest changes comes in the form of cosmetics for your player character, of which there are a pretty good range of them for both boys and girls. Various hats, tops, jackets, shoes and the ability to change hair colour and style, it’s nice to see them finally expand on what has been pretty underwhelming customisation and while it’s not where I’d like it to be and I wish there were more options, it’s a welcome improvement and a good sign for games moving forward.
Sword and Shield looks good. Especially in regards to the rest of the franchise and most games on the Switch, though don’t expect it to be winning any awards graphically compared to other titles released this year.
Gameplay: What Pokemon has been known for and is a big win as always. The gameplay is very similar as it’s always been: you level your Pokemon, evolve them into cooler looking monsters and give them a set of sweet moves to obliterate everyone around you. It’s a recipe for success and there’s a reason why it’s hardly changed over the years; it works, and it works well. Every Pokemon has 4 moves that are super effective, neutral, not very effective depending on what Pokemon you’re up against and while there are some neat new dual-types (Bug/Psychic, Grass/Dragon, Electric/Poison to name a few) there isn’t a new type to throw into the mix like the introduction of Fairy in Gen 6 which keeps things kinda the same as it’s been since Gen 7, with the exception a huge chunk of the Pokemon roster is missing. Though the gameplay loop is as good as it’s ever been.
On that, I’d like to mention that while I was disappointed to hear that more than half the roster would not be returning for Sword and Shield and as an avid player from both a casual and competitive perspective, I’ve definitely noticed that they’re not there. However, for the most part I don’t miss a lot of the Pokemon when I’m in the moment, when I’m playing the game it’s pretty rare that I think to myself “Man, I really wish there was an X Pokemon in this grass.” and while I would like them all to be in the game and hope that Gamefreak approaches it in a manner, I don’t believe them not being in the game directly impacts the game itself. From a competitive perspective (and I won’t go into this too much for those who don’t care about that side, but I know there are those that do) I’ve definitely noticed them missing and I can already notice there are some very big problem Pokemon (Excadrill, Toxapex and Tyranitar are a few that immediately come to mind) that have had many of their counters completely removed from the game and while it’s too early to talk about how it’s going to affect the game long term, it is worrying for the future of the competitive scene what the meta will evolve into with such a large number of ‘Mons missing. One other note is that the removal of HIdden Power, Return and Pursuit are VERY noticeable among other things and many Pokemon are much weaker without those 3 moves in the meta.
Gigantamax/Dynamax is the new gimmick in Sword and Shield, gone are Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves and instead you make your Pokemon… Really big. No, I mean REALLY big (also watch out for your ears headphone users, those Pokemon roars are unusually loud compared to the rest of the game and make me wince sometimes) and sometimes they even look different. When a Pokemon Dynamaxes, their moves change to bigger versions with pretty crazy new animations to boot and some wild affects that accompany these big move variants including reducing opponents stats, improving your stats, casting rain/hail/sun, etc. which is nice, though there is a distinct lack of variety, with each ‘type’ of move only having 1 move (1 Rock move, 1 Grass move, 1 Dark move, etc.) with select Pokemon being able to Gigantamax (Dynamax, but their appearance changes) who get access to a signature move unique to them. Dynamaxing your Pokemon increases their health-pool substantially though the cost to that is they stay in that form for 3 turns, it’s a neat comeback mechanic that can swing things in your favour pretty rapidly though the increased health combined with increased base power and additional functionality of the moves can be overwhelming at times. On it’s own, the new mechanic is pretty cool though made less cool from needing to lose Mega Evolutions to get it.
One of the biggest new additions to the franchise is the introduction of ‘Max Raids’ where 4 players (You and 3 AI companions or other players) take on a permanently Dynamaxed Pokemon and must defeat it within 10 turns, you fail if you exceed these turns or 4 Pokemon faint and while initially I was pretty skeptical of it in practice it’s an awesome feature that has enough appeal to both casual and competitive players alike to ensure people continue to engage with them Teaming up with 3 other players, picking your Pokemon (1 Pokemon each, if you faint you wait a turn and then revive) and building teams that most efficiently take your opponent out is surprisingly a lot of fun and the Raid Pokemon have enough difficulty to them that most players won’t be able to blow through the highest level with no trouble at all, which is relieving. It’s an awesome feature and some of the most fun I’ve had playing the franchise in quite a while.
Sword and Shield doesn’t change the formula up too much and while a little more change would have been preferred, it’s still fresh enough even after all these years to keep me engaged and it’s as good as it’s ever been (With the exception of Heal Order being removed, I’m sorry Vespiquen. You weren’t good to begin with and now you’re ever worse because you can’t get Roost either), the few changes that it adds to the game bring enough of a new dynamic to the game to be taken on it’s own merits.
Sound: From a Pokemon perspective there isn’t too much to talk about, cries sound very similar to how they’ve sounded in recent years (New Pokemon cries are mostly good) and the moves themselves sound about what you would expect from a Pokemon game which is to say good.
Now the thing that I always love Pokemon for is the soundtrack because when they do it right, the tunes in this series are unforgettable and there is some really good stuff here. In particular I’d like to point out the Boutique Theme and a certain female’s theme as being two of the best pieces of music to come out of a Pokemon game since Gen 4 back in 2007 and many of the town themes being pretty catchy with a nice variety of the more electronic (which they’ve been slowly moving toward over the years, but have departed from a little in Sword and Shield, which I appreciate) sound we know Pokemon for in recent years and more stripped back organic tunes being peppered throughout the game.
My god the second part of the Gym Battle theme is incredibly obnoxious after a while though, the crowd cheering on is insufferable especially after you’ve heard it a few times and are heading toward the end of the game but is something I can live with all things considered.
Awesomeness: There is one very specific part about this that made me very excited for the future of Pokemon, the Wild Area a rather expansive area found quite early on in the game. The Wild Area the closest thing we have to a ‘multiplayer hub’ I suppose, in this part of Galar you can see other players walking around, you can engage with them primarily in max raids but you can also camp with them as well. While that’s a cool aspect of the area, what really sells it for me is the advent of Pokemon freely moving around the area. No longer is it tied to tall grass, you’ll see Pokemon flying in the sky and walking around and it really helps to make the world feel a little more ‘alive’ rather than when you usually walk around and find the Trainer who has been standing looking straight ahead at that tree for probably 3 days waiting for an opportunity to battle someone who walked past. It makes me excited for the future of the game, and I’m hoping this is Gamefreak testing the waters to implement something that could make Pokemon feel a lot more alive. Players have wanted a ‘Pokemon MMO’ or ‘Online Pokemon’ experience for the better part of a decade+ and I feel they’re finally hearing us and could be the beginning of something very cool. It’s not perfect, but it is damn cool.
Differences between Shield and Sword – The thing that has always determined what version of the game you get has always been the Pokemon that are included. Typically there are a pretty large number of Pokemon that are relegated to each game, and you either need to trade with someone who has the other game or buy both of them to have access to all the Pokemon. Sword and Shield is no different, though the number of Pokemon unique to each game is drastically reduced with 14 in Sword and 13 in Shield (Excluding evolutions since it kinda just boosts the number and of course including the 1 Legendary unique to each game, which is always the cover Pokemon), 1 Pokemon with game specific evolutions (An item exclusive to each game that evolves it, requiring both games to get both forms) and and each game having certain Max Raid Pokemon more likely to show up. On top of this, there are 2 Gym Leaders that are unique to each game which seems neat in theory though their impact on the overall game itself is quite small.
If you’ve been wondering which game to buy because you don’t want to miss out too much, this is going to be one of the easier decisions for you. With only a small number of unique evolutions to each game and you don’t mind spoiling it, find yourself a list of the version exclusive Pokemon and pick the ones you like the most. The 2 Gym difference is a cool difference, though an entirely different set of Gyms would REALLY entice me to playthrough the other version and with 18 types I’m surprised they haven’t done it yet.
Final Word: With a main Pokemon game released 16 of the past 20 years (only missing 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2015 spread out across 8 generations) you’d think the formula was super stale by this point. Surprisingly Pokemon feels good just like it always has and while I’d like them to try and do more to mix it up, more of a good thing isn’t bad even if it is a little safe.
A mostly admirable first home console attempt, Pokemon Shield introduces enough to the series to give it a pass for another year but the most exciting thing about SwSh is what it may mean for the future of Pokemon. There are some attempts at new stuff in here, and while I wish they tried a little harder and doubled down it feels like they’re clearly testing the waters for the future of Pokemon and what’s new and experimental here is actually pretty good.
In some ways, it’s the same old Pokemon we’ve come to know and in other ways it’s some of the most experimental Gamefreak has been with the series which is good and I hope they keep it up in the future, if they had left it in the oven to cook a little longer I feel it could have been something truly great but the game feels rushed especially toward the end which is unfortunate though it is another solid Pokemon game.
Out of 5 Bugs!