'Pokémon Sword & Shield' Review: Great Ideas Let Down By An Empty World
Pokémon Sword & Shield are an odd, incredibly frustrating, often genuinely disappointing pair of games. In some ways, Pokémon Shield is one of the finest Pokémon games I've played in years. There's a fantastic selection of new and old monsters, and a ton of smart and incredibly welcome tweaks to the franchise's decades-old formula.
And yet, the whole experience feels oddly unfinished in so many places, with a disturbing lack of polish for a Nintendo exclusive. There are so many baffling decisions. So many virtually empty locations, and literal steps backwards. It's honestly hard not to feel slightly crushed by the whole thing.
The Galar region - Game Freak's take on the UK - is absolutely gorgeous for the most part, and it's clear that this a land steeped in history. As your custom trainer picks up their starter Pokémon, says goodbye to mum (not mom), and has an early encounter with a legendary critter, you really do get the sense that you're about to embark on the most fantastical Pokémon adventure yet.
Unfortunately, what sets itself up as a wild hike through the Peak District quickly reveals itself to be a swift walk round the local park. It was around the time I'd bested the sixth gym that I started to realise that Game Freak had no intention of taking me on a particularly grand adventure.
There are numerous mentions to some kind of ancient calamity involving the game's legendary Pokémon, but Game Freak makes no effort to thread this story through your adventure. In most Pokémon games you'll often travel between towns collecting Gym Badges while also doing battle with some evil group or other, putting the kibosh on their world-ending plans in the process.
It's exciting, and helps keep the story interesting and break up the potential monotony of simply trudging from town to town to get badges. It also historically makes for some of the best battles, puzzles, and set pieces in the franchise. Storming a Team Rocket or Magma base and dealing with the traps and goons in there was always a highlight, right?
Well, there's none of that business in Sword & Shield. For the vast majority of the game, you're told about the more interesting world-endy half of the plot by other characters who are off looking into it on your behalf. At one point, before you can go investigate an earthquake, a character literally tells you not to worry about it and to head on to the next gym
I didn't want to head to the next gym. I wanted to investigate the earthquake and uncover a potentially ancient secret. No dice. Your role in that side of the story is heavily reduced. Your place in events is relegated to a few small segments towards the end of the game, as if Game Freak forgot you might actually want to be involved and hastily added the player in.
Often it seems that Sword & Shield promise depth and deliver frustratingly little. Many of the game's towns feature some truly massive, gorgeous landmarks... that you can't actually interact with in any way. There's a lovely-looking cathedral in a town around the mid-point of the game that might as well be a cardboard cutout, for example.
A lot of the routes - especially after the first three gyms - also feel really sparse, both in terms of length and what you find there. Caves too, are severely lacking, while there's one genuinely gorgeous forest that could have been a game highlight, if only it didn't throw you out the other side mere minutes after entering.
This stings, because the Galar region really is a beautiful and inviting land. I loved exploring some of the routes earlier in the game, chasing around the visible wild Pokémon as the camera angle swooped upwards to reveal the rolling green countryside. Yes, there's the occasional pop-in and slightly dodgy texture, but these do nothing to impede on gameplay.
Believe me, much of the criticism around the way the game looks has been blown way out of proportion. For the most part routes and towns, as well as characters and the Pokémon themselves, are a sight to behold, and battles have never looked better.
On the subject of the actual Pokémon, let's talk about the lack of a National Dex, because I don't think I'm legally allowed to do a review of these games without bringing it up. Yes, a lot of Pokémon have been cut. Yes, some of your personal favourites might be gone. No, it doesn't actually make much difference in the grand scheme of things.
There are plenty of great old monsters, as well as a good mix of hilarious new creatures that reference various aspects of British culture and history. I won't dive into specifics, because part of the fun of a new Pokémon adventure is finding all the new critters for yourself. There is unfortunately no monster that runs up and down the high street at 11am in a tracksuit necking cans of Stella, so Game Freak loses a point for accuracy there.
As for the old monsters - I think die-hard purists will still be happy. My team for example, ended up consisting entirely of some of my most-loved Pokémon from the first two generations. So if you really want to sack off the new guys, there are more than enough classic 'mon to help make that happen.
The lack of a National Dex itself isn't much of an issue then. A lot of Pokémon were cut, according to Game Freak, because the studio wanted to include all kinds of new features. Fair enough. The issue is that these new features just aren't that great.
Take the Wild Area, for example. The first time you head to this massive, open world-style area is genuinely jaw dropping. This is what Pokémon should be in 2019: wild monsters roaming wide-open spaces, the player free from the constraints of a fixed camera or restricted path. Watching monsters dash towards you - some of which are capable of wiping out your team - is exhilarating.
Sadly, the Wild Area ultimately reveals itself to be a disappointingly flat experience. After a few hours running around it and catching Pokémon, the novelty wears off and you'll probably realise that there's really not that much to it. It's by far the worst looking area of the game, and doesn't feel like an organic part of the world.
Instead, it's simply a gated area that you'll return to occasionally to do some grinding in between the more traditional (and linear) routes and roads. It's 2019, and the Switch is home to games like Breath of the Wild, Skyrim, and The Witcher 3. Pokémon arguably doesn't need to go fully open world, but the Wild Area should have been so much more than what it is, which is a glorified Safari Zone.
Other new features, such as camping, cooking, and Dynamaxing are also desperately shallow. Dynamaxing is nothing more than a less interesting version of Mega Evolution that adds little to gym battles. Camping, meanwhile, is just another feature that feels cute, but doesn't really offer anything substantial beyond the thrill of seeing your favourite monsters enjoying a curry.
As for the post-game content? Game Freak continues its long streak of disappointing fans with a fairly basic selection of things to do. You can challenge the gyms again and get up to a few other fun diversions like a Battle Tower, but there's to match the excitement of a surprise return to a previous region.
Unfortunately, online features probably won't keep you that entertained for long either. Game Freak and Nintendo have somehow managed to take another step back, giving players access to a service that is inexplicably not as good as it was on the DS and 3DS. Good thing Nintendo don't charge us to use the Switch online features, right? Oops.
I'm aware I've been pretty down on Pokémon Sword & Shield in this review. That's only because I've been really disappointed by the experience. I wanted to fall in love this new generation, and instead I just... like it. In spite of my many reservations and criticisms, I should stress that they're still genuinely good games packed with charm. If you love Pokémon, you will obviously get something out of these titles.
I still had a blast exploring, meeting new monsters, and engaging in gym battles and their varied, exciting missions. I'm still working to finish my Pokédex, and though it won't hold my attention for much longer, I'm still enjoying the Dynamax Raids.
In short, the games still work in the reliable way that Pokémon games have always worked. When I'm playing it, I don't really feel the problems so much. It's when I take a step back and think about the experience as a whole that I start to feel the disappointment creep in.
All the pieces were in place for Game Freak to make a truly stunning and ambitious new entry in gaming's biggest franchise. Tragically, it clearly wasn't given enough time to realise that ambition. Pokémon Sword & Shield aren't bad games - not even close - but they fall far short of what they might have been: the biggest and best Pokémon games in years, and the evolution the series needed.
Pokémon Shield was reviewed using code supplied by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo