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Editor’s Note: This review is based on Pokémon Shield.
I think Pokémon likely needs no introduction at this point and has, both through its original craze in the nineties as well as recent phenomena like Pokémon GO, become a household name for gamers of every age and experience level. It has also likely been a starting point for the turn-based, traditional JRPG format for many new gamers throughout the last 20 years. Pokémon Sword and Shield are the latest in the main Pokémon series and, in a landmark that was perhaps a long time coming, the first on a home console when all previous iterations were housed on handhelds (though admittedly the Switch has blurred the line here). This brought impressive graphical updates and an overall scope that helps ratchet up immersion levels. Unfortunately, from a gameplay perspective, it seems that the series has stagnated a bit and the story is delivered clumsily. This leads to an adequate Pokémon experience, but perhaps not the revolution one would expect with a shift to a new generation and console.
Pokémon games may not center on story in the same way that Final Fantasy or Persona may rely heavily on character interactions and deep themes to leave an impression, but main series Pokémon games have generally seen an uptick in story complexity over the years. Sadly, Pokémon Shield seems to reverse this a bit. You begin, as in the other games, as a young person with aspirations of being a Pokémon trainer. This is primarily driven by your friend and rival Hop, whose brother is the current champion. Almost immediately, you are thrust into the adventure, given a starter Pokémon from the usual choice of three, and told to challenge the region’s eight gyms to eventually get a shot at the championship. This requires exploring the Galar region, which in the usual tradition of Pokémon regions being inspired by real life locations is based on England, and going from town to town challenging each Gym. While this may sound fairly standard to anyone who has played the other Pokémon games, there is a certain rushed feeling to the way it is done in Sword and Shield that makes the adventure seem short (I completed it in around 15 hours). I will talk specifically about the difficulty level later, but suffice to say from a story perspective there is very little sense of adversity. It feels like you are given everything and can basically surpass everyone with no particular trouble. Your various rivals throughout the game all take losing exceedingly well, even the one the game sets up to be arrogant. This was a bit disappointing to me, as when I think back to previous games like the originals, or even the last one I reviewed — Pokémon White — they were able to generate more of a sense of struggle that made winning feel that much better.
Also, as in previous games, the story includes saving the world from preordained trouble involving the lore of the region and legendary Pokémon. I think this part of the story was actually the most poorly executed for a few reasons: the first being how clumsily the exposition is dumped on you. Basically, as you are being pushed from gym to gym, you occasionally run into one particular character that will just tell you the next piece of the story and then you go on to the next gym. Contrast this with some of the other games where the player character has repeated run-ins with villainous organizations throughout the game, usually with escalating involvement and stakes. This prior presentation method not only broke up the gym-to-gym monotony that makes up a large part of the game, but also gave you a sense of greater participation in the world’s events. In Shield, on the other hand, things seem to happen around you for most of the game until the end when there is a transparent villain reveal which is resolved remarkably quickly (probably in one hour of game time or so). For example, there’s a part in the game where there’s an explosion that occurs that seems linked to other game lore. Rather than going to check it out, the player is told to just continue their journey while other characters investigate it. This is certainly more realistic than a ten year old taking down a criminal organization as in previous games, but doesn’t lend Shield much weight from an RPG story perspective. Overall the entire story had a sense of little to no tension and even the eventual villains do not seem to care much about their own schemes. One of the big climactic battles is more or less cinematic, with other Pokémon fighting on your behalf while your contribution is minimal. And while there is post-game content providing some additional conflict, the story was a disappointment for me; I was hoping to see something slightly deeper to match the more immersive audiovisual experience the Switch provides.
As far as the gameplay in Shield, it has all of the main hallmarks of a Pokémon game. This includes using your Pokémon to fight in turn-based battles with other Pokémon encountered in the wild or controlled by other trainers. Your Pokémon level up and learn new moves, and you are encouraged to catch new Pokémon and create the perfect team by taking into account elemental affinities or weaknesses. The general course of the battles is more or less the same as previous generations, though of course new Pokémon from the Galar region have been added, as well as new abilities. The biggest (literally) new addition is the ability to “Dynamax” Pokémon under certain conditions, usually gym battles, which allows you to make a Pokémon grow and use powerful new abilities. While this does look awesome and makes battles into something closer to kaiju fights, there is a very limited moveset for these Dynamax versions. For example, if you have a water Pokémon with two different water moves they will both be changed to a water move called “Max Geyser” in Dynamax mode. Thus, while huge Pokémon lead to more climactic battles, they do not really add a new tactical dimension. The gyms themselves are structured like previous installments, with little puzzles or challenges to navigate before fighting the gym leader, but even these got a bit lazy, as the last two of them were basically just a series of battles with no need to navigate anything.
Another thing that should be noted is that Pokémon Shield seemed to take a step down in difficulty from the previous games. Of course Pokémon was never Dark Souls or anything like that, but the games at least usually had one or two areas that could be challenging if you had been avoiding battles or not keeping track of your team. In Pokémon Shield I found that, without going out of my way to level even once, I was leagues ahead of the competition (usually 4-5 levels up on their Pokémon) except for a few fights near the end. Now, your entire team does get some experience for each battle and Pokémon caught, which is good for avoiding pointless switching just to get the right Pokémon in for a bit of experience. Aside from that, I felt the enemy trainers simply didn’t have much to offer, even when I wasn’t particularly targeting their weakness. The main issue, I think, wasn’t even the difficulty in and of itself — that the game “should be” easy or hard (and I get that not everyone wants to grind) — but rather that without challenging parts I wasn’t as incentivized to explore and experiment with new Pokémon. It also contributed to the game’s relatively short length as I breezed through most areas. And honestly, there were not all that many more areas to explore than in a portable Pokémon game of the past.
The game does introduce the new “Wild Area,” though, which is basically a large open area for exploration and Pokémon-catching. In addition, it has some larger, tougher Pokémon wandering around that are best avoided in the early game unless you have a specific strategy. I should note at this point that wild Pokémon encounters in general are not blindly random but rather can be seen in the grass. This makes it easier to avoid battles if you want, and also to target specific Pokémon you want to catch. In the Wild Area there are also spots where you can team up with other trainers (computer controlled or players via the network) to fight Dynamax Pokémon, which is a neat feature. You can even set up camp and play with your monster friends, which builds trust and can have an effect in battle. Or you can discover curry making by experimenting with different berries for a variety of effects. These were all fine features, but require a bit more individual exploration because you are only required to go to the Wild Area maybe once or twice and, as mentioned before, the relative ease of the game means you may not go there to grind.
All that said (and I know I’ve leveraged comparisons to past games a lot), one area where Pokémon Shield really excels is graphically. The beautiful HD renditions the Switch can provide makes one feel like this is the next evolution of the series. The graphics seem to be even a step up from the recent Let’s Go titles, which felt constrained by being upgrades to their older Game Boy predecessors. The colors of the Pokémon, the weather, and even the buildings really pop and help immerse you in the Galar region. There is also a sense of scale not seen before in the series. As you wander through the Wild Area or other routes in Galar, you see vast backgrounds of mountains, walk past large bodies of water, and generally get a sense of a wider world. The world seems fairly populated with people walking around the towns, along with Pokémon themselves, which gives a better sense than previous games of how a society in this world might work. Beyond that, the gym battles are a sight to behold, taking place in large arenas clearly inspired by soccer stadiums (uh…I mean football), with cheering crowds waving banners and even advertisements on the walls (not real ones, thankfully). This elevates the gym battles into the kind of spectacle one would expect as opposed to before, where graphical limitations left two trainers fighting essentially alone in a gym building.
The sounds of Pokémon Shield aren’t as revolutionary for the series as the graphics, but they are certainly solid and there are many music tracks to enjoy. I personally enjoyed the gym leader battle theme and the wild Pokémon battle theme the most, with the former being high energy and progressing to include crowd chanting sound effects which grew on me. The game does a great job with this kind of thing, utilizing the setting and making gym battles feel like a real sporting event, especially when combined with little pauses during the battle where your opponent may taunt or praise you. The other tracks were average: I didn’t find myself humming them as much after a play session, but what the game lacks in any quality there it makes up for in quantity, as there are quite a few battle themes and some have variations. All that said, aside from the music, there is not much to speak of from a sound perspective as the game dialogue is text-only like its predecessors.
All in all, Shield was a bit disappointing if only because expectations for me were high. The game delivered quite strongly in its presentation in a way that sets the stage for the franchise to continue into future generations, but at the same time the lack of real gameplay and story innovation could endanger some of that staying power, especially among longtime fans. And that is without mentioning the removal of the “national dex,” which sparked outcry amongst experienced fans and does represent a quite significant content cut. Pokémon Shield still has all the trappings of a traditional Pokémon game, of course, and I found it overall inoffensive. I couldn’t help but think it was average or perhaps below average in some respects. The clumsy story and lowered difficulty had me thinking that it might not capture new players in the same way each generation has before. That said, Shield has some things to do beyond the main story to keep players interested, like online versus play (which was quite smooth when I tried it), challenging consecutive bouts in the Battle Tower, and of course catching ’em all, so I would still recommend it as a purchase for those even somewhat into the series. Just don’t expect the game to take the brand to new heights like the presentation may lead you to believe.