Saturday, November 30, 2019

Pokémon Sword and Shield Review

Pokémon Sun and Moon were the Skyward Sword of Pokémon games. They were the culmination of years of adding more and more tutorials, handholdy intros, and putting more and more focus on wacky stories with terrible characters. The series needed a change. And while Pokémon Sword and Shield are not the Breath of the Wild of Pokémon games, they’re a big step in the right direction.

Pokémon Sword and Shield needed to put the focus back on the journey to becoming the Pokémon Champion, and I think it does a pretty good job at that. There is still a wacky story about the origins of Dynamaxing, the Galar Region, and the legendary wolves, but it’s a secondary story, and it doesn't really rear its ugly head until the very last part of the game. Most of the game is about the Galar Gym Challenge, you and your rival trainers, and the Gym Leaders. There is no Team Rocket or Lillie hogging the spotlight in Sword and Shield, and that’s a good thing in my book.

There is no Elite Four or Pokémon League as we’ve come to know it in the Galar Region. Instead, the eight Gym Leaders, and the current champion, are in constant battle for the number one spot. These Gym Leaders play a much bigger role in the story than those in past games. They’re celebrities in Galar. They show up multiple times during the story, they have fans, rivalries, relationships with your rival trainers, and a lot more personality than pretty much every Gym Leader or member of the Elite Four in past games. They’re more like superstar athletes than the head of some dojo, and it fits perfectly with the themes of the game.

Your rivals are also a big step up from recent rivals, like Hau. Hop, your main rival, is your childhood friend and neighbor, and the little brother of the undefeated Pokémon Champion of the region, Leon. No pressure! Unlike Hau, he actually cares about winning and losing and doesn’t just take Ls with a smile and go back to eating malasadas. Hop changes his strategies and Pokémon to counter you, he grows as a trainer and as a person, and by the end of the game, he’s a different character. How about that? They wrote a story about personal growth and the spirit of competition and it turned out a million times better than anything about saving the world, wacky scientists, or interdimensional Pokémon. More Hops, less Lillies, please.

Gyms are actually huge stadiums in this region, and each gym challenge is like a Soccer game, chanting crowds and all. It’s a lot like in the anime, and exactly what I’d imagine gym battles would really look like in the world of Pokémon. The trainers who embark on journeys to beat the Gym Leaders and collect the eight badges (like you) are treated like up-and-coming athletes. They even have uniforms and sponsors. All of this is clearly inspired by the Soccer scene in the UK, but I don’t watch Soccer. What it really reminds me of is real world Pokémon Esports.

Sword and Shield’s campaign is still that same linear, Dragon Quest on rails type of RPG, and it still has an NPC talking to you every 10 steps you take during the intro, but they’ve definitely dialed back the hand holding a bit from Sun and Moon. The whole game is not like the intro. You get a lot more chances to explore on your own in this game, and the routes don’t all feel like straight shots to the next town. After around the 2 hour mark, you’re free to explore the Wild area and get your Pokémon KOed by an Onyx, and then you can explore one of the big cities after that. You still talk to the professor or a rival trainer after you do anything in the story, but I didn’t feel like I was constantly being funneled down a path, even though I still kind of was.

I really enjoyed the campaign. It could have used some side dungeons, though. Since there is no evil organization in the game, and the story about the origin of Dynamaxing is left for the very last part of the game, there isn’t anything like a Lavender Pokémon Tower or Team Rocket hideout. But I guess if the focus of the story is on the trainers, giant office buildings full of bad guys don’t make a lot of sense. There also aren’t a bunch of legendary Pokémon waiting for you in the post game. There is an epilogue, but it’s maybe 2 hours long, and the only legendary you get out of that is your cover Pokémon. There is nothing like a Mewtwo, Celebi, or the legendary birds, but I wouldn’t say this game lacks endgame content. There is still a Battle Tower, and the Wild Area is full of stuff to do, and you can only get the most out of it after you’ve beaten the game.

The name might evoke thoughts of Breath of the Wild, but the Wild Area is nothing like Zelda. There are no story scenes or quests in the Wild Area, and it is not the Hyrule field of Sword and Shield, even though some people think one of the trees looks like it’s from OOT. You don’t actually have to do anything in the Wild Area during the story except run across it to get to another town, and not all towns are connected by it. The Wild Area is actually an open-ended buffet of Pokémon and item farming. It’s also the only area in the game with a controllable camera. As if they needed to ease players into videogame cameras. I think the closest thing I could compare the Wild Area to is endgame zones in World of Warcraft, like the Timeless Isle in Mists of Pandaria, or maybe Adventure Mode in Diablo III and Patrols in Destiny. The Wild Area is full of all kinds of Pokémon and endlessly repeatable multiplayer and single player PVE content. Different Pokémon will appear in certain areas depending on the weather, and since there are no random encounters, you can see them everywhere you go. There’s a huge Onyx just roaming around, Gyarados and Lapras swimming in the lakes, Butterfrees flying around, and Zigzagoons scurrying around in the tall grass. It’s like a Pokémon wildlife reserve. This is the place to go if you want to catch ‘em all. There’s even a Daycare there.

The Wild Area also introduces raids to the main series. Raids are single or multiplayer PVE encounters pitting 4 trainers and 1 of their their Pokémon against a Dynamaxed or Gigantamaxed Pokémon. Raids are found in Pokémon “Dens” all over the zone. They look like a bunch of pink stones around a rabbit hole. If there’s a Pokémon in them, a big ray of pink light will be shooting out of it, like a piece of loot in Diablo III. Raid battles are kind of like double battles in that you work as a team and some moves, like Surf and Earthquake, can hit your teammates, so they require different strategies from regular trainer battles. You can do raid battles on your own along with 3 CPU controlled trainers, or do them with other players online or through local wireless. The Pokémon you fight against is Dynamaxed for the whole battle, but only 1 trainer can Dynamax for 3 turns during the battle. Once you KO the raid Pokémon, you have one chance to catch it with a Pokéball. These Pokémon are guaranteed to have some perfect IVs and have a good chance to have Hidden Abilities, so they’re usually worth catching. Raid battles don’t award Exp, but regardless of whether you catch the Pokémon or not, you’re rewarded with all sorts of goodies, like Rare Candy, Exp Candy, gold nuggets, TRs (1 use TMs), and berries, so they’re a great way to get stuff to raise Pokémon with.

Sword and Shield have made it easier than ever to take any Pokémon from zero to hero in a short amount of time. Time to break out that shiny Adamant Ghastly I caught in Let’s Go Pikachu and make it a superstar! Not only are you showered with Exp Candy and TRs after raid battles, but all that stuff you could do in the Poké Pelago to level up and EV train is back with Pokéjobs, Hyper Training to max out IVs is still in, ability capsules are back, and new ways to customize Pokémon have been introduced, too. You can now forget and remember moves for free at a Pokémon Center. No more Heart Scales. You can now pass along Egg Moves without breeding a new Pokémon by simply leaving a Pokémon in the Daycare with a Pokémon that has the move, there are new items called “Mints” which can change a Pokémon’s Nature, and there is no longer a limit to the amount of Vitamins you can give to a Pokémon before maxing out their EVs. You can customize a Pokémon in any way you want short of giving it a Hidden Ability and making it Shiny. You’d still need to breed for those. Where’s my Shiny Mint, Game Freak?

There are two big things carried over from the Let’s Go games that really change how the game plays, and thankfully, neither of them is motion control Pokéball throwing. Sword and Shield has no random encounters and you can access your Pokémon Box from anywhere. You can now see Pokémon in the wild, just like in Let’s Go. There are no random encounters at all. Not in caves, water, or in tall grass. Sometimes a Pokémon will hide in the tall grass, and you might accidentally run into them if you’re going too fast, but there are no invisible Pokémon. Having the Pokémon Box available to you nearly anywhere means less trips to the Pokémon Center, of course. You can easily switch out Pokémon to counter a trainer, avoid evolving your Eevee into Umbreon instead of Espeon, switch out KOed Pokémon, or whatever you need to do.

The new Pokémon Camp kind of goes hand in hand with the easily accessible Pokémon Box. You can camp in a lot of places, it’s not just for the outdoors. At a campsite, you can cook curry and play with your Pokémon. It’s not quite Pokémon-Amie, but you can raise an Eevee’s friendship level and give it enough Exp to evolve it into an Espeon from level 1 in just one stay at a campsite by playing with it and cooking some curry. Curry can also revive and fully heal your Pokémon, and even refill their move’s PP, so you don’t even have to go to the Pokémon Center to heal up if you can camp. It’s all about doing less running around and more of what you want to be doing, and I like that.

Sadly, the online component in Sword and Shield is worse than it’s ever been. Having to use friend codes to trade with friends was never great, but the system they’ve implemented in Sword and Shield is probably worse. Sword and Shield uses a 4 digit “Link Code” to create a meeting room to trade or battle with friends. The problem is that there’s thousands of people doing this, so it’s very likely that someone else is trying to use the same 4 numbers at the same time as you. I’ve gotten 2 or 3 random strangers in a room before I got the person I was actually trying to meet up with on more than a few occasions. Random online battling and surprise trades are still in, but the GTS is totally gone, so you can’t just leave a Pokémon up for trade and check back on it later. You can connect online in the Wild Area and see other trainers running around, but they don’t do much besides adding a bunch of lag to your game. The multiplayer feels more like it’s designed for Japanese players who gather in cafes than people who play online all over the world. All this stuff can also be done locally, just like in past games, and I’m guessing it works much better when it doesn’t involve the Internet.

The UI has gotten a really nice redesign with cleaner and more readable graphics and a few customizable elements, like being able to skip the nickname question and being able to automatically send Pokémon to a box, but this is obviously just another iteration of the same UI that’s been in these games for years. You still can’t automatically sort Pokémon alphabetically or by Pokédex number in your boxes, the search function doesn’t do anything but highlight the Pokémon you search for, and you still need to have Pokémon in your party to use items on them. And most puzzling of all, this game has no touchscreen support. Seriously!? I appreciate the improvements, but this UI still needs a lot of work.

The graphics also look like they were made with the same tech as the 3DS and Let’s Go games. This is the best looking Pokémon game so far by default, but it pales in comparison to games from Nintendo’s other teams. This game could probably be done on Wii U. The game still has that same great Pokémon art style, though. Even though everything is low poly and the textures are low res, it still looks like Pokémon. The framerate is better than it’s ever been, too. The game is 30fps, with some drops here and there, but it runs much better than the Let’s Go games, and it’s far from the slideshow that the 3DS games were in battles.

The best part of the presentation is definitely the music. It kind of stands out because of how good it is. I love the new version of the Pokémon Center theme, the Turffield theme with the organs, and the Wild Area theme with the bagpipes most of all. The sound effects and Pokémon cries still sound the same, though, which is disappointing. There’s also still no voice acting for anyone except the 2 most popular and important characters, Eevee and Pikachu.

Pokémon Sword and Shield is not the huge shakeup I was hoping it would be, but it’s a great game and I’ve been hopelessly addicted to it for the past 2 weeks. I love the story and characters, the music is awesome, raids are a ton of fun, and I love how battles don’t run at 5fps. I just want the series to move forward at a faster pace. I don’t understand why they feel they need to ease players into something like a controllable 3D camera when Super Mario 64 came out in the same year as the first Pokémon. That was 23 years ago. Every gamer knows how to control a game camera. It’s kind of sad that even the most old-school of old-school RPGs, Dragon Quest, has left the Pokémon series in the dust.