Pokémon Sword & Shield: The Very Best, Like No Game Ever Was?

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Masahiro Sakurai suffers for his art. He contracted calcific tendinitis while working on Super Smash Bros. for WiiU. During development of Ultimate, when he suffered severe stomach problems and food poisoning, he’d forego trips to the hospital, simply getting an IV drip and working through the pain, often till late at night. But the final products vindicated his efforts. Sakurai promised every single character would return for the fifth instalment of the franchise, and delivered a fighting game with an unheard of roster of over eighty characters and counting. One gets the impression that the higher ups at Game Freak – specifically Sword & Shield director Shigeru Ohmori and producer Junichi Masuda – are not similarly willing to suffer for their art. Masuda mentioned in an interview with Game Informer his reticence to increasing the staff size of the studio, due to his preference for working with small teams. Satisfying this personal preference comes at the cost of the games they make in terms of scope and ambition. Masuda’s art suffers for him. 

The latest example is the eighth generation of mainline Pokémon games, Sword & Shield. Nintendo had demonstrated the ways in which long running franchises could make significant leaps forward thanks to the power and versatility of the Switch during its first year on the market with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. That same year Game Freak released Pokémon Ultra Sun & Moon for the defunt 3DS. Another year into the Switch’s life they finally did put out a Pokémon game, albeit a spinoff title reimagining the Kanto adventure, limited to the first 151, sans abilities even. All this delay only served to heighten the expectations among fans as to what a full-fledged, mainline Pokémon game on consoles would look like. Some speculated that it would have significantly improved animations and textures. Others that it would feature a fully controllable camera. Still others full voice acting and proper side quests. But every fan without fail had more ambitions for the game than Game Freak themselves. 

Sword & Shield are an infinitesimally improved iteration of the classic Pokémon experience, the smallest step forward the franchise has taken, far more minute than the introduction of color in Generation 2, abilities in Generation 3, or the removal of Hidden Machines in Generation 7. As this core experience was always solid, it remains so, and as far below expectations as Sword & Shield fall, they are not bad games per se. Indeed, they rank among the best of the series, and are some of the best games for the Switch. But those are low bars. Given the inherent strength of the concept, the deep nostalgia for the brand, the resources afforded by the profitability of the intellectual property, and the power of the hardware, Sword & Shield should’ve aimed “to be the very best, like no [game] ever was.” They’re like Red, setting off from Pallet Town, brimming with the potential to become Champion, if he’d instead been content to stick to his Starter and only ever fight youngsters on Route 1. 

Speaking of youngsters, that they are so clearly the sole target demographic is the source of much of Sword & Shield’s failings. While the franchise was always and likely will always be aimed at children, and every Pokémon game is someone’s first, Game Freak seemed determined that this be to the exclusion of adults who’ve grown up alongside the franchise, that every game should potentially be their last. Disney and Pixar have proven decisively that content labelled “all-ages” really can appeal to all-ages. Media need not – and ought not – appeal only to those whose unrefined tastes would choose chicken nuggets over a rare-cooked kobe steak. Game Freak seems not to have learned that lesson yet. 

This accounts for the most egregious omission of content from past games that’s been excised from Sword & Shield. No, I’m not talking about Dexit, the infamous absence of a national Pokedex and the ability to catch approximately half the currently known critters. A lot of Pokémon species probably deserved to die, to be hunted to extinction like the Bison. Game Freak did a particularly poor job of picking which species to put of their ark, but sending Aipom and the elemental monkeys the way of the dodo wasn’t the worst idea anyone’s ever had. 

Rather, the real omission is the Global Trade System, which allowed players from around the world to search for specific Pokémon that they need to build a competitive team or complete their Pokedex, or just plain want. Instead, all that remains is the crapshoot of Wonder Trade, which lets you send off an unwanted ‘mon and in turn get an equally unwanted ‘mon, probably with a Japanese name that’s illegible and unchangeable. And Link Trade, which is all well and good if everyone else in your seventh grade homeroom has Sword or Shield, but which for the sizable adult audience poses significant friction. Trading a Pokémon now requires seeking out strangers on the seedy corners of the internet in the vain hopes that they’ll be willing to trade a Solosis for a Sirfetch’d. What once was a breezy process in Sun & Moon has become a complicated ordeal not worth the effort for all but the hardest core of players. 

Likewise with building out a viable competitive team. Though the process actually has been relatively streamlined compared to past generations, it’s still an arduous undertaking amounting to a part time job (as opposed to formally being a full time job). Candies that can change a Pokémon’s nature reduce the need for endless catching and breeding, but those candies cost a prohibitively high amount of Battle Points, which are slowly acquired by grinding out battles in Wyndon’s Battle Tower. Like the games-as-a-service titles which have scourged the industry this past generation, Pokémon presumes itself the only game a player will ever play, and doles out rewards via a slow, slow drip, to keep them engaged for days, weeks, months, and years, despite the actual amount of content not being so substantive. That Pokémon might be the only game played by a child dependent on Christmas and birthdays to receive new releases might indeed be the case, but adult players will not get to experience everything Sword & Shield have to offer before moving on to other titles in their catalogue. 

It particularly pains me that I’ll likely never acquire all the various Gigantimax forms. The Generation 8 designs are on the whole lackluster compared to the series highpoint in the immediately preceding Generation 7. And while no new ‘mons compare in design to Ultra Beasts like Buzzwole, Xurkitree, or Kartana, the Galarian designs which do evidence extra effort and creative genius are all Gigantimax forms like those of Orbeetle and Centiskorch. Unfortunately, not just any specimen of a species can Gigantimax; only some of those those captured in Max Raid Battles can, and those are limited to dens which have a limit of one battle per day, and further limited by an extremely rare spawn rate in those dens. An item called Wishing Stars which spawns an encounter at a den promises to alleviate the wait, but those come at a cost of 3,000 Watts, another currency for which the player must continually grind. 

This artificial scarcity extends to more than just Gigantimax forms. Certain Pokémon only have a one percent spawn rate and only in specific locations and during specific weather conditions, which themselves only change once every 24 hours. This means it could be days until there’s even the opportunity to hunt through the tall grass in the hopes of encountering a Dreepy. Lake of Outrage indeed! But I had my heart set on taking on Leon with the pseudo-legendary dragon/ghost Drakloak, resulting in much frustration. Explorers had an easier time finding the okapi. 

Another compromise Game Freak found acceptable due to the undiscerning tastes of their underage demographic is the lack of voice acting. This was a questionable design choice since such became standard for role playing games nearly two decades ago, but has become all the more jarring as the games have made the transition into high definition. Seeing the opening cutscene with the crowd cheering even as Chairman Rose remains mute and pantomiming is particularly immersion breaking. Even more so is in the lead up to the penultimate Gym Battle, wherein the gym leader Piers is supposed to be singing some Rock & Roll, only the lyrics never leave his mouth, only appearing as written text like the rest of the dialog. At other points the text tries to convey the Britishness of the Galarian accent, but this only serves as a reminder that the voice which the player hears in his mind’s ear is not the voice which properly accompanies the characters as they’re conceived. In an interview with Metro, Shigeru Ohmori blamed the exclusion on the resources it’d take to translate all the voice acting into the various regions, as well as wanting to allow players to imagine the voices for themselves. These excuses hold about as much water as a Carkoal can carry in its coal cart (which, being a fire/rock-type, is none whatsoever).

With respect to the Gym Challenge, it’s certainly the most significant improvement made by Sword & Shield. The absence of gyms wasn’t to the detriment of Sun & Moon, but their depiction in previous entries decreased the verisimilitude of the Pokémon world more than the presence of Pokémon themselves. The anime had rightfully envisioned competitive Pokémon battling as a spectator sport, and, in the apparent absence of football or baseball, a particularly popular one at that. Contra the games, in which the Pokémon League and the Elite Four are sequestered away in a remote location inaccessible to the public and the crowning of the Champion is celebrated in seclusion with zero fanfare. It’d be as if the Super Bowl were played in a remote part of the Rockies without so much as a camera to broadcast it or seats for fans to watch. And if the previous winners were just waiting around all the time for another team to come challenge their title, maybe minutes later, maybe years. It’s bad enough that Leon, as Champion, doesn’t have to compete in the regular season, but at least there’s the implication that this is a legitimate athletic association slightly more organization than a game of backyard two-hand touch. Hopefully future installments continue to emphasize the sports-theme and even further flesh out the Pokémon League. 

Having spectators led to making Gyms proper stadiums, which likely inspired the Dynamax and Gigantimax mechanics. As a replacement for Mega Evolutions and Z-moves, these are a poor substitute, but considered in isolation they do add much needed spectacle and flair. There’s a certain satisfaction that never ceases when one kaju-sized ‘mon finishes off another with an over-the-top G-Max move and the opposing creature explodes as if made entirely of dynamite. Would that every UFC fight end similarly.

The Gym Challenge makes up the bulk of the game’s story, but the most interesting aspect of such is the surprisingly nuanced take on climate change policy the game seems to argue for. Sword & Shield portray a world in which anthropogenic climate change is as real and observable as our own. Galarian Corsola took on a ghost-typing specifically in reference to the coral bleaching which is killing the reefs in our world. And yet it likewise portrays Chairman Rose as the owner of a clean, renewable energy company who is hellbent on securing the long term welfare of the Galar region at the expense of making the present period quite literally the “Darkest Day.” He’s a veritable Greta Thunberg or Alexandria Cortez, albeit instead of bringing about economic devastation far worse that the climate changes they’re aiming to curtail, Rose’s Green New Deal turns Pokémon throughout the region into skyscraper-crushing kaiju. So about as bad. 

I’m not a believer in the adage “vote with your wallet.” There’s a nuanced conversation to be had about the various details, the good and the bad, of every game. For my part, I’m of the opinion that Pokémon Sword & Shield are well worth purchasing. But I’m also of the mind that nearly all of the criticism leveled against Game Freak by the passionate and long-invested fans of the franchise is more than valid, despite not having time or space here to enumerate all the long list of grievances expressed since Sword & Shield were first revealed. Hopefully, Generation 9 actually will strive “to be the very best,” addressing all these critiques, including all the asked-for features, and once again allowing aspiring Pokémon masters “catch ‘em all.” Till then, the meager bowl of curry that is Sword & Shield will somewhat suffice.

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