Image courtesy of Gamestop.com
I’ve been a fan of Pokémon for as long as I can remember. I played the games, collected Pokémon cards, watched the anime series; I immersed myself in it. But it many ways, it wasn’t a series that I discovered and enjoyed by myself. Instead I more or less inherited my love of the games from my older sister, with her passing down old Nintendo consoles and Pokémon games to me; one year gifting me the same Pokémon Sapphire game that I had time and again stolen from her room to play while she was at Girl Guides meetings. But, as I got older and my tastes changed, I found myself eventually abandoning the franchise, as I played and developed a taste for more “mature” games, such as Halo, God of War, The Witcher and X-Com. While I still played Pokémon games occasionally, with my last proper encounter with the series being Pokémon X and Y, I didn’t keep up to date with the franchise as keenly as I once did, skipping the last few games altogether.
But two new Pokémon games have been released, kickstarting the eighth generation, and I felt compelled to leap back into the series. I wanted to know if these games could reignite that love of the franchise that I had when I was young, if it could make me care about cartoon fire-dogs and electric-birds as keenly as I did when I was 7. Some of the questions I had were also technical; did the game run well, did it look good, how did it run when the Switch was un-docked? The last question was incredibly important. In a year where the Nintendo Switch has been criticised over text being too small and difficult to read when the console was undocked, especially in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I wondered how Game Freak would address this concern; partially because being able to play this game, in handheld mode while lying on the sofa with the TV blaring in the background, would take me another step closer to reliving my misspent youth.
Luckily, the answers I got to all my questions were positive. The game looks phenomenal, Game Freak sticking with the stylistic graphics that have served them so well over the year, and which Pokémon is at this point synonymous with (outside of the Ryan Reynolds movie, obviously). And the accessibility issue, with words being unreadable on the undocked Switch, is not really an issue! Whether docked or undocked, the texts boxes and icons are all large and easily identifiable. I was able to play for hours with the Switch undocked without my eyes feeling strained at all. But where the game stumbles is in its performance. Pop-in is a problem that recurs throughout the game, with the models of opposing trainers and roaming Pokémon suddenly appearing if you walk in a specific direction long enough. But despite this issue, I don’t find pop-in as offensive as other people.
The gameplay has remained pretty much the same as previous games. You can carry up to six Pokémon with you as part of your team, battles are still turn-based, and the easiest strategy is to use type match-ups to your advantage. There are several new additions, however. One of them is the new “Dynamax” feature, which allows Pokémon to transform into giant forms in certain areas, giving the Pokémon new moves and abilities. Another new feature is the Wild Area. Separate from the various routes that players will be familiar with, the wild area is a fully explorable, semi-open world zone, featuring different weather biomes, and the ability to freely control the camera, which remains in a fixed position in all other areas. Filled with Pokémon, the Wild Area is a joy to explore, feeling like the next logical step for the series. Another gameplay addition I found enjoyable was that Pokémon could now be seen wondering around the overworld, in both the Wild Zone and one the more traditional routes. Introduced in Pokémon: Let’s Go!, I found this feature helpful, as it allowed me to avoid any encounters that I did not feel prepared for, or just didn’t want to complete. During one particular moment of the game, I found myself rushing through the Wild Zone as a snowstorm raged, dodging Pokémon left and right in an attempt to get to a Poké-centre and heal my injured team, an experience that I would have been unable to attain in prior games in the series.
In my first moments with the game, I was struck by how stripped back the story was. While Pokémon has never exactly been Game of Thrones when it comes to narrative complexity, I had heard that a few of the previous games had suffered from overly hard to grasp narratives, featuring ancient wars, immortal beings and parallel universes. Not here, though. Sword and Shield’s premise is this; your best friends’ older brother is the regional champion, collect the badges from every gym so you can challenge him to a Pokémon battle. And there’s also a strange Pokémon hiding in the woods near your house, but you don’t need to worry about that. Just focus on the gyms and battling your rivals. It feels like a nice change of pace. Another positive is how Pokemon Sword and Shield recontextualises the gym challenge; here heavily influenced by football. The gym challenge is a yearly event, and the battles with gym leaders take place in huge stadiums full of roaring crowds. But it isn’t just the gym challenge which has been recontextualised. The enemy team that you have to fight throughout the game, here called Team Yell, is not depicted as a mafia stand in, terrorist organisation or cult; they are football hooligans, an obsessive fan club for one of the other trainers competing in the gym challenge. These changes make the game feel fresh, even if the basic formula is the same as the original games from 1996.
One of the main criticisms of the game is that it does not include the “National Dex”, meaning that not every single Pokémon that featured in prior games are available in Sword and Shield. Despite this, the poke-dex is still massive. I’m about halfway through the game, and I have still managed to encounter almost 300 different species of Pokémon (although that list does contain some considerable gaps). While I understand the disappointment that some fans of the series must feel, I find it difficult to justify the abuse that, what is a vocal minority, has been throwing at Game Freak on social media. And while it is upsetting that Pokémon cannot be transferred from older games to this new one, or that certain species just won’t appear, I can’t help but have a more forgiving view.
Because Pokémon, as a franchise, is primarily aimed at children. The target audience of this game won’t care about graphical fidelity, or whether a Pokémon from a game that was released before they were born is available in this new instalment. What they will care about, what they will want, is the ability to go on an adventure with a team of their favourite Pokémon. And Sword and Shield gives them that chance. And for me? Well, Sword and Shield gives me the opportunity to relive my childhood, giving me a sense of nostalgia that I didn’t know was possible. But it also gives me the opportunity to play a Pokémon game alongside my sister, something that we have never been fortunate to do in the past; and is a gift which I truly thank Game Freak for.
Would I recommend Pokémon Sword and Shield? Absolutely.