Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire
I’ve loved this series from a very early age, I probably always will. My house is littered with little figures, plushies and merchandise surrounding the game. So, I am biased to fall in love with any mainline entries, however, I have tried to remain fair in my assessment here, to be honest, it may have come off a little harsher than expected.
Also worth nothing that I do actually get involved with the competitive side of Pokémon battling too. I think it is a smart and intricate game of numbers and prediction. This never really gets chance to shine in the main story and I won’t really be focussing on it too much for this review. What I will say is that it seems more accessible than ever to get involved, you might need to still watch some YouTube videos to help bolster your knowledge, but all the pieces are laid out in front of you, for the most part. Also, I don’t like to analyse this part of the game until a consistent meta has been established. We do already have the most accessible version of Pokémon available too in the form of Pokémon Showdown, this is how I got started and it is a ton of fun to create and battle teams with no consequence or time input.
Eyup Galar, Son
Being a proper British lad, seeing a Pokémon region based on my home turf was so much more exciting than I expected it to be. I didn’t know I actually wanted this until now. I enjoyed exploring the Hawaiian inspired Alola, Japan inspired Johto, etc. I didn’t think we had enough interesting stuff here to personalise an entire fictional world. But we do.
The Galar region has loads of British staples such as rolling hills, an abundance of farms, fields and Wooloo (sheep basically – Google them, they’re proper cute). It really did remind me of the Yorkshire Dales in places, and seeing landmarks such as huge Big Ben-like clock towers and small fishing towns made me feel more patriotic than any Bo Jo speech ever could.
The similarities to my homeland are more than just landmarks however. The British transport service is also well represented, with the train being delayed the second you step on it due to something being on the tracks and blocking the way. Sadly, there was no replacement bus service, Game Freak need to do more research. The British climate is also present in full force with the wild shifts in climate occurring as you explore the expansive “Wild Area”. In my first journey through here the weather went from hailing, to a thunderstorm before finally clearing up for some “harsh sunlight”. It’s obvious this is just so that you can find different Pokémon, but damn if it doesn’t represent a British Summer. On top of all this, the Pokemon League format now also reflects that of the Premier League (football), with the final battles taking place in what is basically Wembley Stadium. Also, the public don’t shut up about the League, which further makes it feel true to the British inspiration.
Also, the Budew Inn looks just like a Holiday Inn, and that is amazing.
The English influence also bleeds into the writing. Whilst the writing in Pokémon games has never been anything fantastic, I do notice that our colloquialisms are being dropped in for me to appreciate. It is the little things like your rival saying things like “keep up, mate. I’m cream crackered” or the new gang Team Yell telling you to “jog on”. It’s pretty sweet, I wonder if this had always been happening with the dialogue and I just never really noticed.
Not so Good on the Ol’ Mince Pies
Wowzers if the graphics and presentation isn’t a mixed bag here. Sometimes it looks great, sometimes the tree looks like it was from The Forbidden Wood on Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (yes, you’ve seen the screenshot I’m talking about). As I have mentioned in my previous reviews, this doesn’t bother me so much, the art direction and setting is always more important to me than graphical fidelity. So yes, some of the textures are a little rough, the draw distance isn’t great, and the frame rate can be choppy when there are a lot of things on screen. None of that got to me like it seems to be other people on the internet. I still enjoyed exploring this place, despite the wasted potential of having this run on the Switch staring me in the face. It doesn’t look like it is running on the same console as Mario Odyssey or Luigi’s Mansion 3. It is a shame, but not a deal breaker for me.
The animations are also kinda stiff. Again, this bothers some people more than it bothers me. Maybe I have just been conditioned to accept this kind of stuff from Game Freak, similar to how everyone looks upon dodgy Bethesda games as “lovably broken”. I think this might be the case. At least the Pokémon models themselves look great, bright, colourful and not detailed juuuuuuust enough to not be nightmarish and creepy like the latest Cats movie.
The music is still awesome, I particularly love the gym battle theme, and the fact that Toby Fox created the Battle Tower theme is just great to me, that man knows how to write an earworm. With Undertale being one of my favourite soundtracks ever, I was beyond hyped to see that he has started working with Game Freak regularly. How the tunes stack up against previous entries however remains to be seen, I just hope a couple of the tracks get added to Smash Bros Ultimate.
A Moor Open World Experience
I guess we need to speak about the latest addition to the Pokémon franchise and it is easily one of my favourite things about the latest title, and I do hope that they build and expand upon this idea in the games to come. In Sword and Shield however, the Wild Area certainly falls short of the potential and lofty promises.
This is basically a semi-open world, with a fully controllable camera (welcome to 2019 Game Freak). I would be hesitant to call it fully open world, it isn’t that expansive, it’s more like an open meadow, or the field just across the main road that your mum said you weren’t allowed to go in because it was across a main road. It looks big from when you were a child, but really it is full of dead mice and cigarette butts. Okay, so that is an exaggeration, but the idea definitely tops the execution.
You can get out of this area what you put in I suppose. Loving Pokémon from an early age, I dreamt about a feature like this in my games and it is sometimes amazing to be running away from a pack of Vulpix to see a Gyarados emerge from the lake beside you. That rules. However, after a while, that child-like wonder melts away. What you are left with is a world which is still fun to explore, yet still feels a little hollow, in need of much more personality. It does make searching for certain Pokémon much less of a grind, as you can see them in the overworld, which is great.
This latest entry also included the addition of “dynamaxing”, which is not dissimilar from Rita Repulsa in the Power Rangers series when she screams “make my monster growwwwww”. It allows you to enlarge your partner Pokémon to a ludicrous size, with improved damage and over the top moves to boot. It’s cool, but it isn’t going to set the world on fire. You can’t use it in every battle so that makes it feel a little more special and exciting when you can, something that Z Moves and Mega Evolution lacked.
Is “Dexit” a Deal Breaker?
The new Pokémon here are…. Good? Sometimes, I think. Alright, there are definitely some duds here and I don’t hate the teapot Pokémon as much as everyone else does, I think it is kind of neat how it incorporates into the British theme of the game. I do have a problem with some of the “overdesign” of a few critters. There is just so much going on and some of them just look ugly, not cute or cool. All Pokémon should be cute or cool in some way. The starters are especially disappointing to me, why do they all look so gross? To be honest, it looks like they were designed especially for Rule 34 purposes. They haven’t been up to scratch for the past few generations, not since Black and White really.
With regards to the cut monsters from the game, I can see this as a positive from a competitive standpoint, although they could have just restricted more in the format if they wanted to make the meta fresh again. It does suck that my favourite, Dragonite, will not be making the roster in this generation, but it does allow me to want to experiment more with Pokémon which I wouldn’t have used otherwise, so that is a plus. The game definitely encourages this too, being easier than ever to level up your new members to be inline with your mainstays through the use of EXP Candy.
Is Seaking really better than Dragonite though? Really Game Freak?
No Need for that Stiff Upper Lip
All of this is to say that Pokémon is a game for children. I am under no illusion of that fact. However, I think that some serious work needs to be done with the difficulty curve, or more extensive difficulty options to make some of the battles feel weighty and meaningful. When I played through Pokémon Crystal, besting Whitney and her Miltank was a real challenge, you had to find a way to stop the momentum of her rollout move otherwise it would bury your whole team. Sword and Shield don’t have anything like this, neither have the most recent entries in the series. It is fine being easy and just playing for the enjoyment of exploring the world, and there is certainly fun to be had here, but those looking for more of a challenge won’t find it in the main story.
The Wild Area also seems counter-intuitive to this levelling of gym battles and rival trainers. The game wants you to explore this place, catching lots of new critters to fill out your squad, gaining experience as you go. However, this means that if you spend any considerable amount of time doing this, you are severely over-levelled when you return to the main quest. What you are left with is a choice, have a more challenging and rewarding experience going through the main story and avoid the Wild Are until the post-game, or, catch as many Pokémon as you can and just walk through the campaign. Again, this is for children, so I’ll give it a pass, but I do think that this could’ve benefited from some level scaling. Even as an opt-in system, the ability to up the levels of rival Pokémon to scale with your own, or even have more difficult team combinations would’ve been a great addition. Children wouldn’t have to use it, and it’d still keep Pokémon as engaging to me as I remember from when I was a kid.
The Old-Fashioned Way
So, if it isn’t obvious by now, this entry into the series isn’t the huge leap forward that some people seem to be praising it as. The gameplay loop remains the same as it was back in 1995 and the fact that it still holds up being as fun and addicting as it is, that is really quite amazing. The story is as simple and innocent as ever too, “go and become the champion”. It’s all still charming, fun, moreish and like any good RPG, you must succeed with the power of friendship.
Maybe Pokémon needs to evolve and create a different battle system, just adding in an extra dimension would add so much to the experience. Whether that’s positioning being more important like in Darkest Dungeon, or a party-based battle system much like in the earlier Final Fantasy games. When I think back to my favourite RPGs of recent years, they all had some X factor to their battles, whether it is the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon, Persona or Child of Light, there is a lot that could change here and maybe for the better. It seems odd that something published by Nintendo, a core franchise, hasn’t grown in line with its peers, unlike Zelda or Mario. I don’t know how Game Freak could do this without alienating their current audience, and perhaps this is the barrier, but I would respect them for trying.
I still want to be the very best, like no one ever was
All this being said, I still had a blast with Pokémon Sword, I could hardly put it down. Being able to explore a new region based on my home country was wicked and even though it is a little dated when looking at modern counterparts, it is still fun. It’s still Pokémon, and that is fine with me. It is just like a big plate of Turkey Dinosaurs, you know that technically it isn’t the best, but damn if it doesn’t bring back memories and just help you calm down after a rubbish day at work. I’d rather have it than “goujons”, or whatever chicken nuggets for adults are called anyway sometimes.