It’s January 2020 and I think I’m hooked on a Pokémon game more than I ever have been, which is kind of wild considering I was obsessed with the series when it was all the rage in the late nineties, and from 2013-2017 I played nearly every iteration in the series as part of a “grand ambition” to, literally, catch ‘em all. Pokémon Sword and Shield, the newest entries and the ones I find myself wanting to play every night, are just fantastic. Their foundational mechanics aren’t all that different from previous games in the series (a blessing and a curse) but Game Freak has introduced engaging new features and implemented smart quality of life improvements. The games aren’t perfect; performance and network issues bog down some of the cooler features for instance, but on the whole they’re masterfully refined and endlessly addictive.
Unsurprisingly, the storyline in Sword and Shield is shallow and aimed at a young demographic. My character’s journey was what it always is: to be the best Pokémon trainer in the land! Along the way I made friends, defeated rivals, and stopped a nefarious plot that would’ve sunk Galar into turmoil; so, standard fare for the series. There were some standout moments and characters, but on the whole the plot merely served as a means to an end: a reason to explore this new region, encounter new Pokémon, and get started on catching them all.
Galar, the setting for these games, was based on the United Kingdom. Besides featuring similar geography, the cities were modeled with British regions, eras, and aesthetics in mind. Some residents spoke with accents and slang suggestive of the UK, especially Team Yell, the punk rock/soccer hooligans that supported a rival trainer. Heck, soccer was partially co-opted! The organization my character climbed the ranks of had their main battles in, essentially, massive soccer arenas. Thousands of spectators watched from the stands, singing soccer chants as battles on the pitch heated up. These matches, and the light puzzle solving that preempted them, were a highlight of my avatar’s journey.
British aesthetics even bled over into Pokémon designs. One of my new favorites, Galarian Weezing, looked like a cross between a dapper gentleman and a smokestack reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution. Weezing wasn’t a new Pokémon, and it wasn’t the only “old” one to receive a new regional variant. In addition to more than 80 new creatures, about a dozen older Pokémon received new forms. This practice was introduced in Sun and Moon, the last core entries in the series. Although I found it a little disappointing then (as opposed to perhaps getting more new Pokémon), the concept has grown on me; primarily because the designs of these regional variants is pretty great. In fact, I think the designers knocked it out of the park with most of the new Pokémon.
It’s worth noting however, that every Pokémon didn’t make the journey to Galar. Of the nearly 900 creatures, only 400 are available in these games. This has been a source of controversy for many, and while I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to move every Pokémon I’ve caught into these newest games, I think most of the vocal response has been downright juvenile. Game Freak decided upon this course of action for a variety of reasons, and that’s their right. I sympathize with the arguments against it (because I truly do want to catch ‘em all) but whether it’s from a developer workload, game scope, or balancing standpoint, having so many Pokémon in a single entry is getting to be borderline unreasonable. Fortunately, the recent announcement of a pair of expansions is somewhat rectifying the situation. More than 200 pre-existing Pokémon will be made available through their release, even to those who don’t purchase the expansions. Who knows, maybe the remaining missing Pokémon will be included at a later date. Onto happier topics!
Nearly every new generation of Pokémon game has brought about a new battle gimmick, and this one was no different. Recently implemented in the Galar region, and only at certain spots, Pokémon can Dynamax. Doing so causes them to become impossibly large for three turns, and gain access to exclusive moves. I haven’t participated in any competitive matches so I can’t speak to how much of an impact it’s had in that regard, but it’s pretty cool otherwise! Max Raid Battles, no doubt influenced by the multiplayer Raid Battles in Pokémon Go, allow up to four trainers to battle against a Dynamaxed Pokémon for an opportunity to catch it. They generally have much better stats than their brethren caught in the wild, and some even have Gigantamax forms which look different and have access to stronger moves.
Max Raid Battles are often simple affairs, but they’re fun, and worth it for the great Pokémon. At the very least, I’ll see what Max Raid Battles are taking place when I logon, and will almost always join a friend if they’ve started one. When connected to the internet, the Y-Comm (accessible by pressing the Y button) kept me up to date on what friends and strangers alike were doing. Be it raid battles, trading, or even just catching a Pokémon. These notifications continually refreshed on the left-hand side of the screen while I roamed around. It was super cool that I could join Max Raid Battles started by strangers, but in typical Nintendo fashion, the networking was poor.
More often than not, when I actually tried to join a stranger’s Max Raid Battle, I couldn’t. Sometimes I knew it was a rare opportunity and the available slots filled up quickly. That’s understandable. But nine times out of ten, I knew it was because the Y-Comm had pushed out of date notifications to me. At any given point, there are only twenty or so notifications for me to view. I can narrow my selection based on a few criteria so I can get more specific, perhaps current notifications, but I can’t refresh unless the game lets me, which is like every minute or two. Being able to manually refresh would potentially solve this issue, as would displaying more raid battles. Heck, just show a massive server room looking list of joinable raids! The Y-Comm notifications are a solid concept, and totally viable with friends, but a crapshoot with anyone else.
Another culprit of Nintendo’s poor networking was the Wild Area. The Wild Area is a massive open area, home to hundreds of Pokémon, raid battles, and more. This is the first time a mainline Pokémon game has had anything of the sort, although the typical linear routes were also present. No lie, the Wild Area is amazing. It’s my favorite new feature in a core Pokémon game since the introduction of Wonder Trades, in X and Y. But like the Y-Comm, there are pros and cons when connected to the internet. When online, the Wild Area is populated by other trainers… whose presence seems to cause intermittent slowdown issues. Oddly though, there’s nothing to do with them, other than receive an inconsequential cooking item. Seeing other players going about their business gives the game a refreshing sense of life, but in light of the hitches and lack of interactions, maybe it’s not worth it?
One of the aspects that made the Wild Area so enticing was the on-field Pokémon. As in the Let’s Go games, Pokémon could be seen milling about. Because of the Wild Area’s immense size, various climes, and changing weather, there was substantial species diversity. It’s like a childhood dream realized to wander about an area and just see Pokémon, instead of encountering them solely through random battles (which were also present, and I believe necessary for completing the Pokédex). Practically, the on-field Pokémon meant I could avoid them if I wanted to. Thanks to the always-on Experience Share and my tendency to catch one of everything before proceeding, I found the game very easy.
Like the Experience Share change, there were other notable quality of life improvements, specifically targeting the most hardcore players. In the last Pokémon: A Grand Ambition update, I briefly mentioned Individual Values and Effort Values. These are quasi-hidden stats that can have a major impact on the relative strength of a Pokémon. An understanding of them is unnecessary to enjoy the games, but essential to succeed in competitive play. No longer is it an arduous task to divine them! For the most part they’re clearly stated. This change, and a similar change in Pokémon Go, has made me care for IVs and EVs and led me down a rabbit hole where I’m now approaching 200 hours in Pokémon Sword because of my breeding antics. I’m not just breeding for strong Pokémon either.
Also adding to that hour count is the Shiny Charm I unlocked for completing the Pokédex. This item improves the odds of encountering shiny Pokémon, which have alternate color schemes and are super rare. In the more than twenty years I’ve been playing, across thousands of battles, I’ve only come across three shiny Pokémon in the wild. There are further ways to improve the odds, such as breeding Pokémon from different countries, and the ease of this method has fueled my hunt for shiny and perfect IV Pokémon. This is a monotonous task (especially when it takes more than a thousand eggs to hatch a shiny…) but having played these games so long, it’s become second nature, a passive activity I can perform while focusing on something else, like watching television. Like I said, I’m approaching 200 hours and sincerely, there’s no end in sight.
Although my obsession has waxed and waned over the years, Pokémon is an evergreen series for me. I can pick up just about any entry and have a new experience amidst the comforting familiarity. It’s little surprise then that Pokémon Sword and Shield, despite their imperfections, have provided so much enjoyment for me. Besides fun new features, like Dynamaxing, Max Raid Battles, and the Wild Area, smart quality of life improvements have made it easier than ever before for me to take my obsession to the next level. With promising expansion packs on the horizon, and the ability to transfer Pokémon from other games coming soon, I foresee myself playing these entries for a long time to come.