Pokémon Shield Review

It’s a brand new world… and it’s a touch rough.

Pokémon Shield Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developers: Game Freak and its many support studios
Publisher: Nintendo

With new technology, hardware, and a period of three years having passed, the Pokémon series has yet again given away to another mainline entry with its much lauded HD and console debut, Pokémon Sword and Shield.  A pair of sister titles that make for a rather straightforward journey wherein the player traverses through a series of linearly laid out routes and miniature dungeons, meeting new and more powerful creatures to battle, befriend, and horde, while indulging in minor divergences as seen in story battles against a trifecta of rivals, along with an ensemble of standard gym battles.  It’s a reliable format that the series has fallen back on since its inception, and serves as a solid foundation for the game to base itself around. 

However, it is a foundation that is not especially toyed around with nor experimented on, amounting to a story that in many ways feel as if it is going through the motions of what is expected of a Pokémon game.  There is a professor researching ancient legendaries, a bunch of rowdy overeager knuckleheads causing unintended mischief, and a renowned individual who indulges in dubious actions to pursue what they perceive to be the greater good.  The region has a simplistic yet poorly documented past centering around lightly detailed legendaries, there are some mystically inclined individuals who seek to control them, and what was an established binary of legendary entities is made more complicated through the introduction of a third entity who receives far less attention.

The most noteworthy trait to set this game apart from its predecessors is a stronger focus on the gyms themselves, turning them into elaborate sports stadiums, but they are little more than a small puzzle or gimmick to string together a small number of potentially optional battles, followed by a formulaic battle against a gym leader.  A battle that is positioned as being more bombastic, taking place in a crowded stadium, and involving Pokémon that grow to the size of kaijus via a process known as Dynamax, but they’re over and done with rather quickly, and serve as small bumps in what is ultimately a very… unimposing affair.

Now, I truly do not have a problem with games being easy, as I openly love breezing my way through a title while enjoying the sights, sounds, and story, but Pokémon Sword and Shield push things a little bit far for the majority of its main story.  The EXP Share of prior games was transformed into the main method of gaining experience, with no option to disable it, wild Pokémon are often the same level as the trainers the player finds in any given route, and assuming the player’s team is moderately stable, you need to deliberately try to not be overleveled for most challenges found during the main story.  At least until the very end, when the game decides to jump from level 47 Pokémon to level 65 during what is intended to be a single narrative sequence. Kind of like the Elite Four from Platinum, but slightly less egregious because you can just leave at any point and grind.  I intimately understand the value of Pokémon games being easy, but this all struck me as a touch unnecessary.  Not helped by how often the game prattles on about how impressive the player is for overcoming each gym battle.

It can feel a bit limited and restrictive, preventing the player much freedom in how challenging the game actually is for them, while gating them down a main path.  A main path filled with routes that depict sweeping vistas and detailed backdrops with a lot of stimulating sights to observe, but not necessarily explore, as there are always barriers limiting the player’s exploration to what feels like a narrow sliver.  Now, this same sentiment applied in earlier games, where routes gated off by rows of trees, mountainous walls, or vague details like the barrel barriers from Red and Blue.  But due to limitations of the camera system in those games, being more overhead than the behind-the-back and side-view perspective seen throughout much of Sword and Shield, they never felt especially gated or restrictive.  It is only when this change is implemented, and most of the world is shown to the player, that this limited exploration begin to truly feel limited.  It shows the player a mountain and instead of saying they can climb it, it deliberately says that no, they cannot climb it, and that they should appreciate the scenery as they go straight and progress with the story.

Now, the go-to retorts for these two points, the linearity and ease, would be the Wild Area, a new addition to the mainline Pokémon formula that… is a bit trickier to unpack than it may seem.  The Wild Area is not really an open world section, like many have claimed, as much as it is a dynamically changing online hub area for people to interact in, play raid battles together, catch a collection of Pokémon that change on a daily basis based on varying weather patterns, gather useful items, and train their existing Pokémon.  It is meant to be an area that elongates the overriding life of the game by giving players a lot of small grindable tasks to indulge in, establishing enough to constitute a daily routine of exploration that could keep some eager players enamoured for weeks as they find rare and useful items and fill in their sizable regional Pokédex.  

Conceptually, I really like it, but as I went through the motions and regularly visited this environment during the main story, I began to find much of its design to be very… perplexing.  The Wild Area offers the player a lot of variety in Pokémon they may catch, with the initial roster of available Pokémon easily eclipsing any other game in the series, and a lot of room for exploration given the size of the environment.  But while the game does allow players to explore most of the map from the get-go, it discourages them to do so by tying the level of wild Pokémon to which of the 16 difficult to differentiate biomes they spawn in. Meaning that the player can go from fighting a level 15 Machop, cross a bridge, and wind up battling a level 38 Bronzor, without any clear warning that they were entering a dangerous new area.  Now, this does allow the player to get in a great deal of grinding in from the onset, but the fact that the gap in levels between these tiers is so severe indicates, to me anyways, that the developers simply do not want players to traverse these areas.

Oh, and then when you do beat the game, every Pokémon’s level is boosted to 60.  A move that, theoretically, is great for grinding and catching Pokémon that are already sufficiently powerful and useful.  In practice however… I’m just glad that I completed catching every Pokémon I fancied, i.e. all the new ones, before beating the region’s champion, because catching Pokémon of higher levels is significantly harder.  They deal more damage, have higher defenses, chip away at your party far more than a level, and are statistically more resistant to being caught, requiring the player to use better Poké Balls if they want to catch anything.  This means that the whole catching Pokémon process takes dramatically longer, becomes more repetitive, and necessitates that the player returns to a Pokémon Center more often, as there is only one designated healer in the entire Wild Area.

Oh, and to exacerbate the fatigue that comes with catching Pokémon, Sword and Shield has this terrible habit of hiding away returning favorites or even heavily promoted new Pokémon behind bizarre encounter restrictions or low encounter rates.  This should have ideally been fixed through the inclusion of roaming Pokémon, but a significant amount of Pokémon can only be found in a single location as a random encounter, with an appearance rate often hovering around 10%, 5%, or even 2% in some preposterous cases.  This means that anybody playing through the game expediently and without investigating every area in extreme detail, or consulting good old Serebii, likely will not encounter these Pokémon, and will potentially end the game wondering where they were supposed to find Ralts, Sableye, Honedge, Sinistea, Galarian Ponyta, Milcery, Eiscue, Duraludon, Applin, Corsola, Galarian Farfetch’d, or Sizzlipede in the wild.

Why do these Pokémon get shafted while others are practically scripted to spawn before the player as they walk along the intended path?  What would be lost by having them spawn in more accessible locations? Why would you even lock Pokémon behind random encounters when you are pushing roaming Pokémon so heavily?  I mean, it’s not like people can just plop onto the Global Trade Station and find rare Pokémon that way because somebody decided to remove that decade old feature from these latest games.  Thank you by the way, I really enjoyed going online and trading with random people. It was like trying to barter with people who didn’t speak the same language as you, and UX for it all was dramatically worse than the trade feature seen in X and Y.  But hey, I wound up getting all the new Pokémon… except for those fossilized affront to nature, and sword dog, so I guess it works.  I just doesn’t work very well.

Discarding the matter of the GTS, a lot of my issues could admittedly be solved through a feature like DexNav from Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, which allowed players to seek out specific Pokémon, and cleanly illustrated what Pokémon could be found in every area so long as the player encountered that species of Pokémon once before.  But, no, there’s nothing like this here other than a Pokedex that does not differentiate between random or roaming encounters. This, combined with the obtuse weather system seen in the Wild Area, make for a game that shrouds players into the unknown, and is practically begging for a resource to clearly explain where players can find certain Pokémon.  But I guess you’re just supposed to find these elusive Pokémon via the multiplayer Max Raid Battles… that I was never able to play with other human players.

Though I’m kind of glad that I never did, because of how laboriously slow these encounters can be, even with battle animations turned off.  The Dynamax sequence, the introduction of the giant Pokémon the player is battling, and the 30 second long capturing sequence all made for encounters that I derogatorily called ‘cutscene battles’ due to how often I would start up the battle, Dynamax my Pokémon, use a move, and then put the game down and do something else before coming back in 30 seconds, press A to do another move or catch the Pokémon, and then do another minor task.  They are a terrible waste of the player’s time in the best case scenario, and during harder encounters, they are an aggravating arrangement, as the AI teammates you are often paired up have this terrible habit of fainting after a single blow, and once four Pokémon in total faint, the battle automatically ends. Max Raid Battles have a lot of problems, but they are admittedly very flashy, net you a powerful Pokémon with good IVs, some neat item drops, and Technical Records, which are… hoo-boy.

One of the hardest hurdles for me to wrap my head around when playing Platinum earlier this year was the fact that Technical Machines in that game were single use disposable items, and I did not want to use them as such, even though I knew I would never use them unless I used them then and there.  Black and White did away with this tradition, made TMs infinite-use items, and it remained that way up to Sword and Shield, which boasts 100 infinite-use TMs, but also 100 single-use TRs.  They’re items I was apprehensive of using, despite the fact that they are handed out generously via Max Raid Battles and that a random assortment can be bought from vendors. 

I simply Do not like the idea of expending something when I didn’t need to before, and goodness do you need to rely on TRs to get a number of essential moves.  Flamethrower, Surf, Dark Pulse, Energy Ball, Thunderbolt, Dazzling Gleam, Earthquake basically every other move that I love, they’re all gated behind single use items.  It is one of many regressions that I find associated with Sword and Shield, as while there are indeed a number of things I think the game does very well, such as making it infinitely easier to relearn moves and change a Pokémon’s nickname, the developers kind of botched certain quality of life features, removing them after doing an admirable job to streamline things in Sun and Moon.  

I am specifically talking about breeding Pokémon and growing berries, two mundane acts that were previously related to the Poké Pelago feature.  There you just waited and checked back on your egg and fruit farms every day or so and harvested the fruits of your labor, but now the player needs to actively move about to hatch eggs, again, and can only get berries by harvesting them from trees scattered about the region.  Oh, and when harvesting from trees, don’t get greedy and get more than a few berries, or else you’ll get jumped by a perverted squirrel or a deformed cherry, who will eat some of your berries. This makes berries harder to acquire, and in turn means that the player is less likely to use them… but the player also needs berries more than ever due to the Pokémon Camp feature.

Pokémon Camp can be seen as a sort of natural evolution of Pokémon Amie and Pokémon Refresh, where the player can play with their entire party of Pokémon, mingle with other players, and join together to make curry from consumable items that exist only for curry, and up to ten of the player’s precious berries.  After selecting the ingredients, the player must partake in a 3-part minigame where they must fan the flames, stir the dish, and do a brief QTE before being greeted with a cutscene of the player character and their partner Pokémon enjoying a delicious dish that restores the health, status, and PP of their Pokémon, while boosting their friendship and affection stats.  On the one hand, this grants the player with the ability to heal their party with relative ease, and is super adorable. Seriously, Pokémon have never been cuter or more endearing, and I loved getting the opportunity to play catch with my precious children. On the other hand, this is a really repetitive motion and becomes mundane after some time, much like the features this is superseding.  Though it does act as a partial substitute for grinding via battles, so… yeah, it gets a pass.

Getting a pass is unfortunately something of a persistent problem with the Pokémon series, as it has been subjected to oh so much criticism over the years, and indications of its lead developers struggling to keep up with the demands of their dedicated audience, put out titles regularly, and provide meaningful innovations that do not destroy this artistically and financially marvelous series.  I went into detail about some of the petulant annoyances and drawbacks of this series last week when I rambled about Pokémon and aired many of my minor and individually insignificant issues with the series.  But after getting deeper into Sword and Shield over the past few days, I have found myself fixating on those even more.  As I inched towards the endgame and started toying with many of the higher level mechanics, I began to wonder what could have been, playing armchair developer with the series, and mentally speaking to myself with a sense of righteous indignation.

I want to love this game, and it did fill me with an immense amount of joy— constantly smiling as I encountered new Pokémon, surpassed challenges, and made progress in my journey with my sweet companions, affectionately calling them my babies.  But it all feels compromised and unoptimized in a myriad of ways. The difficulty should incorporate some sort of scaling and more options for challenges. Healing should not be this jarring mental debate about using items, playing a minigame, or flying back to the Pokémon Center.  The world should not be designed this way in general, if the player is expected to revisit places like the Wild Area extensively.  

It does a lot right.  The fact that moves can be relearned for free, and from an accessible location is utterly wonderful.  I think Poke Jobs are a very cute way of incorporating batch grinding and EV training. I think the UI and general layout of the world is very slick.  I think that the world of Galar is utterly beautiful and represents a fantastic visual leap forward for the series after Sun and Moon.  Even if the trees look a tad rubbish, object pop-in is a persistent problem, and the framerate dips into the single digits when playing online in the Wild Area.  Hell, I consider slowdown that extreme to be a goldarn feature… mostly on account of my weird nostalgia for poor N64 emulation. And every time I saw a new Pokémon roaming in the wild, I thought one of three things: “Oh jeepers, you made it in?  That’s rad!” “Oh my goodness, look at this sweet baby! I wanna make you part of my family!” Or “Woah, look at how big he is! How’d he even get so big? I can’t believe it!”

There is so much inherent joy to be had with Pokémon games, but I, and countless other people, feel that the games are not always capitalizing on this joy, that they are not designed around maximizing the happiness and pleasure of those who grew up with Pokémon, those who consider it to be a persistent part of their life, and those who wish to see it grow from something consistently good to something spectacular.  I think that many people don’t quite understand this desire of theirs, that they latch onto anger and outrage, and act as if something precious and dear to them is being abused.  

While I don’t really care about many of the criticisms levied towards these games, such as the Dexit controversy, which ignores the fact that most players don’t transfer Pokémon into new games, and that for all intents and purposes, every modern Pokémon game launches with a limited Pokedex.  Or the lackluster animations seen in many places, which I turn off anyways because of how slow the combat is otherwise. I still understand where these disgruntled fans are coming from, and can very much sympathize with their desires. 

But let’s not blow things out of proportions and fixate on the discontent, or conflate grievances as being indications that a game is wholly bad.  Because even if its quality is unoptimized and features are a touch limited, Pokémon is still Pokémon, and Pokémon is good, fun, and generally pleasant in a way few other games are.  Pokémon Shield is no exception, and while I do have a nice list of improvements, and could probably whip up a design document of what I think would make for an overall better Pokémon with relative ease, I still had a blast with the game, delighted in its finer moments, and am left with at least some confidence that the innovations and improvements seen here will lead to great things to come.

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