Gene Park: I’ve been dreaming of a home console Pokémon release since the Generation 1 days. Back then, we only had the blocky Nintendo 64 graphics with Pokémon Stadium and Snap to help us imagine what that might look like. After more than two decades, this game has elements of this dream Pokémon game. The open Wild Areas epitomizes this. I can’t overstate how seeing Pokémon roam the open hills contributes to this feeling that you’re on the grandest adventure yet. Let’s Go had visible Pokémon in the field, but the openess of the field as a setting makes the difference. But really, most of the game is still a fairly traditional experience, funneling you between towns and gyms as you battle trainers and catch monsters along the way. What did you think, Elise?
Elise Favis: Sword and Shield both evolve the Pokémon series further, but I agree they’re still entrenched in familiarity. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s more like comfort food than a zesty new dish. Everything feels bigger: You have the expansive Wild Area that brings an open-world feel to Pokémon for the first time (along with its own ecosystems, varying weather and a day/night cycle) and the ability to turn your Pokémon from pocket-size monsters to behemoths in battle. Then, from my point of view, there’s an unexpectedly involved story, especially in the last quarter of the game. I don’t think I was looking for anything revolutionary with this new Pokémon title; for me, it delivered on a lot of what I was looking for. How about you?
Gene: Once I saw what the battles looked like, I figured this was still going to be more iterative than people hoped, but for anyone who’s missed out on the last few generations, or several, this game is going to feel like a revolution.
Thinking about differences between the titles, it seems like we battled slightly different Pokémon gyms. My fourth one was a fighting type. But otherwise it sounds like our journeys were pretty much the same. It doesn’t seem like Game Freak broke from tradition to make owning both games an absolute requirement. But I am tempted to pick up Shield someday, just to have an excuse to revisit the game. The beauty of Pokémon games is that they offer so much variety thanks to how different teams can be shaped.
Elise: Yeah, aside from a handful of exclusive Pokémon and the occasional different gym, it sounds like we had similar experiences. I can only imagine that two completely different games launching at the same time would pull at Game Freak’s resources, though.
I enjoyed how each gym had varying puzzles and missions to get through before the main battle. Some of my favorites were a giant pinball machine where you’re controlling the direction of a circular cart that bounces around inside, and another where I navigated icy terrain that was filled with invisible traps. It brought versatility to each gym beyond just battles, more so than I’ve experienced in past Pokémon titles.
Gym battles themselves offer some of the best moments in Sword and Shield. Dynamaxing and gigantamaxing bring an added layer of strategy, since you (or your opponent) can only use it once per battle for a few turns. The same can be said for weather, which can be advantageous to you or your foe. For example, my Intelleon eventually learned Rain Dance, which triggered a downpour when activated. This would give me a boost in battle and make me more powerful.
What were some of your favorite gyms?
Gene: There was one gym that basically pits you against other AI trainers to catch the most Pokémon. Like most of the gym missions, it was a surprisingly lore-friendly activity that added another dynamic to monster catching, akin to the multiplayer, which we didn’t get a chance to try out in its early release stage. I’m looking forward to it, and what we saw in the main campaign, including the Wild Area Raid battles, is some pretty exciting stuff.
Elise: The gym battles are a lot of fun, and they were one of my main motivations in my journey: What challenge would I face next? Another motivator was visiting one new town to the next, because I loved the architecture and feel of each. Some had a rural, countryside vibe, while another late in the game is reminiscent of London. They were surprisingly large, too, with secrets, hidden items to find, and mini side quests.
And of course there’s the huge Wild Area.
Gene: I actually didn’t engage much in the Wild Area camping and cooking. It was helpful in a pinch a few times when I needed to heal up during a few grueling treks in between towns. But thanks to invisible random battles being removed, it was always easy enough to move through the Wild Area. Plus, the game’s fast travel is incredibly generous. I’m sure the camping and cooking would play a factor more in the difficult postgame areas, where better friendships with my team would give me an edge, but I wasn’t worried about it during the main story.
Elise: Yeah, the Wild Area was teased as one of the main hooks for this new title and I didn’t come away all that impressed. Like you, I spent little time there, and I was able to grind efficiently just by following the main path. The Max Raid Battles (4 vs 1 fights with NPCs or online with friends against a Dynamaxed Pokémon), were similarly disappointing. Unlike gym battles, I was able to brute force my way through most of these without worrying much about strategy. The only redeeming quality are the rewards that you receive from completing them, like candy that boosts the level or experience of your Pokémon. Still, I never felt compelled enough to return to these on a regular basis; it’s just the same experience over and over.
Gene, do you have any favorite Pokémon from this new generation?
Gene: I love most of the new designs. They’re goofy. Some are just horrendous, but Pokémon has always been like that. I was stuck with the Generation 6 Diggersby for more than I’d like. But the Pokémon I enjoyed seeing the most were the Corgi-like Yampers. I even like saying “Yamper” out loud.
Elise: Yampers are so cute! Other generation 8 Pokémon didn’t evolve in exciting ways that I hoped they would, like Wooloo, but there are plenty of other designs that I loved. I grew really fond of my starter Sobble. Their transformation all the way up to their final form ended up being really satisfying because the evolving design gave the impression that it was aging from child, to angsty teenager, to adult. It was actually a cool and satisfying experience.
Gene: As cute as it all is, what surprised me about this game — which is in a franchise that has a reputation for being easy — is that it wrecked me quite a few times. The game starts off super easy, but about halfway through the gyms, the trainers started to use strategies that would leave my Pokémon team backed into a corner, casting status effects that’d throw me off guard, and wielding dual-type Pokémon that kept me guessing. But that said, I enjoyed the challenge, it was never overwhelming, and I never needed to grind out levels. During a few battles, we’d both be down to our last Pokémon, each one turn away from losing. I wouldn’t say this is the Dark Souls of Pokémon, but the wins felt almost as great. I think my mistake was not playing the Raid battles much; they weren’t that interesting to me, but they probably could’ve helped me level more.
Elise: I’ve never picked up a Pokémon game for the story, and I didn’t go into this new entry thinking there would be much of one. I came away surprised: many of the characters had more of an arc than I expected, like your best friend Hop’s wavering self-esteem and an antagonistic group that ends up being there for you when you need them most. I wouldn’t say there’s a significant rise in storytelling prowess here, but I enjoyed the lore, the taste of culture surrounding child athletes, and the big twist nearing the end. I grew more fond of the Galar region than I thought I would.
Gene: Let’s talk about the National Dex controversy: I couldn’t care less. It’s unfortunate, but I can deal with the situation. I wonder if it’ll start a new Smash Bros.-like hype cycle over which monsters make the cut in the next installments. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t see the Pokémon community staying up in arms about this, as heated as the controversy got in the last several months.
Elise: I think it’s unfortunate for veteran players who have transferred their beloved Pokémon from one entry to the next, but I’m not one of those people. Pokémon has been a series I have come back to on and off, and I think the core experience here is entertaining in its own right. It stands on its own, and I think even hardcore fans will find something to love in Sword and Shield.
Gene: On the other hand, I do agree that it’s disappointing Game Freak made the cuts with promises of improved graphics and animations. The new Pokémon and trainers are animated beautifully, so maybe that took up the bulk of their focus. Even still, the game has noticeable aliasing, with a few frames skipping during high grass areas. The textures are rough, although some of the game’s towns, as you mentioned, are pretty stunning. It’s the design and vibrant color choices that eventually won me over.
All in all, Sword and Shield will feel like a revelation to anyone who’s missed out on the last few Pokémon cycles. It’ll feel like upgrading from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 11 Pro Max. Game Freak’s first attempt on a home console is a worthy entry to the franchise, despite it adhering closely to its mobile game roots. But Game Freak needs to know that expectations will be even higher for its next game now that it’s playing with the big, or Gigantamax’ed, kids.