January 24, 2020
The day I thought would never arrive, did actually arrive: we’ve been given a three dimensional full blown Pokémon adventure. A miracle, no less. Anyone who has played the game since Pokémon Red & Blue and has seen the very first season of the Pokémon anime should be able to relate to this sentiment. It always seemed like such a natural fit for the series: a big 3D world and catching Pokémon. Yet we never got it. Until now.
I have been playing Pokémon Sword for over a month now. I finished the main story, caught over a hundred Pokémon, traded a bunch with my cousin and participated in a couple of max raids. I’ve got a good idea of what the game has to offer. And I’m a bit torn. Pokémon Sword & Shield are both incredibly great products, and also regretfully lazy works of art.
Game Freak, the developer of the games, obviously knows through and through what goes into a Pokémon game. They know why we pick them up, why we enjoy them and why we will buy any Pokémon game they have yet to release. And when I say ‘we’, I’m not just referring to people who often play and buy video games. I’m referring to pretty much every person who has ever come into contact with Pokémon.
They really got it right the very first time they created a Pokémon game, and ever since they showed a near perfect restraint with each next installment in the series. A restraint that not only led to great Pokémon games, but also to frustratingly similar games. Games that felt like they crawled from evolution to evolution, instead of jumping into the future like many of its peers.
A negative, and somewhat justified interpretation of the Pokémon series in the last decades might be one of safe cash grabs. Main games that hardly showed any real change or risk-taking, and side steps that hinted at what could be possible, but were mostly incomplete experiments (Pokémon Snap, Stadium, Go, etc.). A more favorable interpretation of this history is to see it as Game Freak respecting the power of the Pokémon formula and not letting it be tainted by the breakneck speed society and technology often forces us to move with.
How does a series that was birthed in the nineties survive each decade without leaning completely on the nostalgia factor? It apparently does so by moving slow. Or rather, by moving at its own pace. And for Pokémon Sword and Shield the perfect speed might be so slow that it now even moved back in time. To the Industrial Revolution. Apparently that’s where they finally discovered the technology for 3D.
The Galar region, where Sword and Shield are taking place, is inspired on Industrial Revolution era England, with clear nods to the different cities, jobs and dress of those times (factory work, coal mines, high hats). And while we get British Weezing, the occasional ‘mate!’ and nice little cottages, it remains a game rooted in its Japanese heritage. Bubbly characters with aspiring goals and matching dialog are what drive the main quest.
At the heart of it is the Gym Challenge, which includes uniforms, stadiums and fan culture that was very much not a part of 18th century England. Spurred on by your “too good for this world” friend Hop, you set yourself the goal to overcome the challenge and become champion of the Galar region. Thereby defeating Leon, Hop’s brother and current champion.
This all makes for a funky little mix that ranges from quirky, funny and heartwarming, to lazy and downright uninspired. Especially in the city areas the game takes a lot of shortcuts. Repetitiveness and a lack of commitment are what bothered me the most. While I have no problem with reusing character models, Sword and Shield often do it to blatantly high levels.
Combined with very formulaic city areas that especially further into the game lack the liveliness and detail you’d expect of a modern game, you are left behind a little disappointed. There is basically no real reason to ever revisit one of the towns and cities once you’ve defeated the local gym leader.
And that feels like such a missed opportunity. If they’d only committed a bit more into each town to make them not just the same city with a different skin, it would make the Galar region in itself so much more memorable.
Still, I can’t be upset with Pokémon Sword and Shield. For a large part because I’m way too old to be upset at a video game, but also because Game Freak gets it. It knows how to make a game that remains true to the Pokémon we all love; and we all got to know over the last 25 years. It made a great product with the resources they have. It infused charm and energy at the right moments, but left it at that. A fine product decision, but regretful for someone like me who loves those little details. They added many of the Pokémon we love, but not all. And yes that might seem like an oversight, but it also leaves room to add meaningful downloadable content.
In fact, Nintendo has announced downloadable content that will add two new areas to the game. And I caught myself being very excited over it. As if I was twelve. So yes, Sword and Shield are absolutely flawed. But they are flawed in the right places. And now my dream of having a three dimensional Pokémon game is fulfilled, I am already dreaming of a Pokémon game with a lively rich world where I can run and catch Pokémon together with my friends and family in an even more seamless way. And you know what, take your time Game Freak. I’m fine with playing the games for the rest of my life.