I’ve been a fan of Pokemon since all the way back in the Red and Blue days. I’ve enjoyed just about all the games since then, some more than others (*coughRuby&Sapphirecough*). Every generation has its flaws, but also its strengths and what new freshness it can bring.
Which brings us to the recent release of Generation 8, Pokemon: Sword & Shield. There’s been a lot of fan backlash if you have somehow missed it (though early reviews of the game have been positive regardless), leading to a lot of curious and angry people. I ignored most of the backlash myself, ready to dive into a new region mostly blind.
These are my thoughts on the opening hours I spent with the game. This isn’t meant to be a deep review, but just initial impressions. I have spent four hours in total with the game and stopped after Galar Mine for context about where I am.
Introduction to the World
More often than not in the Pokemon series, there’s never a sense of purpose from the onset (besides catching Pokemon and battling trainers, of course). Although the goal shows itself later sometimes (like with Black or White), usually you’re just kind of along for the ride, doing whatever the Pokemon Professor of the game suggests doing. You always somehow just end up coincidentally saving the world and defeating an evil organization. Sometimes, even the gyms feel more like an afterthought or are just there because they’re always in the games.
Sword & Shield are different in that regard. We’re introduced from the start Galar’s champion: Leon. A powerful trainer, he has never lost a single battle before in his life. He challenges trainers all across the region to come and take on the Gym Challenge, become stronger, and eventually try to defeat him as well. It’s a point that’s very much drilled in with your rival, Hop, who is Leon’s younger brother and wants to follow the family legacy and become the best himself.
Through my time with this region, you see how serious the Gym Challenge is and how much Leon is admired. The challenge is a way of life for some, an ultimate competitive sport on par with soccer/football in real life. There are many people hoping to defeat Leon or bring glory and honor to themselves or their hometowns from what NPCs say. Sponsorships are huge, with endorsements needed to actually compete. There’s whole teams of groupies that follow competitors around to cheer them on. It is the first time that the gyms and facing the champion in this series feels like it matters and is important. It’s similar to the Island Trials of Generation 7, but a bit more all encompassing.
The Little Things that Matter (Or Don’t)
Now, let’s get into the details and nitty gritty. There’s a lot of smaller little points, tweaks, and changes that stuck out with me while playing the game that are nice, not so nice, or just interesting to note.
With the positives, the game feels more streamlined and thoughtful to old and new players. Tutorials are cut down a lot to where you can just skip them or are integrated fairly nicely so they don’t feel intrusive. For instance, the first battle with Hop pits you against two Pokemon and the flow and mechanics of battling. How leveling works, working with type advantages, critical hits and how they aren’t always guaranteed, and so on that are brought up throughout the battle. With Pokemon catching, you are secretly given a few balls ahead of time to where if you catch a few new pals, the catching tutorial is just skipped entirely. It is a great step up from previous generations, especially the last.
There’s other small things that stand out. The base walking speed feels much faster than any other game. Pokemon can be seen both on the overworld but also can be run into in random encounters. There’s an non-intrusive hint system where you open the menu and you get a small direction on where to go. Picking up items or TMs for the first time gives you a quick explanation and that’s the only time they’ll ever do that. Seeing what stat is boosted on certain Pokemon after gaining a level, even if they are not lead, is also back (I never understood why that was dropped). It feels like there’s a bunch of improvements here that are helpful for all kinds of fans.
The Little Things that Bug
On the other hand, there are two elements I’m not a fan of. First is the permanent Exp. Share feature. Starting from X & Y, Exp. Share allowed every Pokemon to gain experience on the team, whether or not they were in the battle at some point. It helped to curve grinding and make sure your team was always doing well. An unintentional side effect though was that it could lead to serious over-leveling and make the experience a bit too easy since the game developers did not properly balance it. However, the issue was easy to overlook since you could just turn it off in the menu.
Sword & Shield does away with the option and now, Exp. Share is always on no matter what. For some, it’s not too much of a problem since it does cut down on grinding and leveling everyone individually. Lots of people had it on when they played, so this doesn’t change things and it respects people’s time. And, to this game’s credit, the game is a lot better balanced with dealing out experience than previous games. However, for some like myself, the removal of the option is frustrating since that’s one less feature we can tweak with to cater the game to what we want. It just doesn’t really make much sense not to grant players the option to turn it off and tailor the game more to their play style.
The other problem, one that doesn’t bother but merely baffles me is the Hi-Tech Earbuds. What this item does is allow people to change and use in-game audio options in the Settings menu. To my knowledge, the previous games never let you tinker too much with the audio settings, so being able to do more now is a nice change. However, these options are locked behind a random item that is given to a non-important NPC. He is not difficult to miss mind you, since you walk past him on the way to your first stadium, but this makes no sense. Why would game designers hid audio options away in an item? It is just a baffling decision that there is just no way to defend or understand.
Roaming the Land and Running for Your Life
Let’s get back to something more positive, the main feature being touted as a big deal: The Wild Area. This is an expansive location in the middle of the Galar region that’s full of various weather conditions, elements, sections, and terrains. In each area is a bunch of Pokemon to capture and Dynamax raid battles to take part in.
My experience here was limited by my own choice, as I chose to spend more time getting going with the story. As such, I did not explore the entire terrain nor did I try out any of the raid battles. However, my brief time there really caught my attention and once I am properly equipped, I do plan to fully explore this land to do some proper hunting.
I like the Wild Area and exploring. While unfortunately barren of any unique landmarks from what I saw, there was plenty of hunting and exploring to do. There are tons of Pokemon all around the grassy sections, wandering and waiting to be caught (or just start chasing you). Larger and very high level Pokemon often roam the land, offering a crazy challenge for those foolish enough to take them on. With the amount of variety offered, if you haven’t decided on a full team by this point, the Wild Area offers plenty of great options to try out.
Littered throughout the areas are several little trinkets. There are the Dynamax Caves where you can fight large Pokemon with other players, said caves offering Wild Area currency in the form of watts. There are plenty of trees to harvest berries off of. There are a few people around offering to sell you TRs (TMs but only usable one time), supplies, and even new equipment for camping set. There’s even small treasures littered around like Stardust and Tiny Mushrooms that you can sell for a decent price back in town.
The Wild Area so far feels like a fascinating place that I just haven’t had the time to really dive into. Hopefully when I play more, I can really get a feel for everything there.
Random Thoughts and Tidbits
So what about all of the other things that make up Generation 8? What are the new bells and whistles here, or what has stayed mostly the same?
For starters (ha, pun), the gameplay is generally the same as always. It is turn based with four moves and an element system of what is stronger or weaker to one another. If you’ve played any of the games before, there’s no new addition on the base level side. The new gimmick of this generation is Dynamaxing, where you can supersize one of your Pokemon for three turns and have them deal out extremely powerful moves. Think Mega Evolutions, but on a time limit and limited to only a few areas, so you can’t just always break it out to curb-stomp enemies. I haven’t really played much with it to really get a feeling for it.
Then there is graphics and animations, the big controversies of the game. Having played some Ultra Sun to warm up before this game came out, it is easy to see a graphical improvement here. Better framerate, higher textures, much better resolution, and prettier environments, like the Sleeping Weald. The animations and poses on the trainers, especially the player character, look better. There’s a lot more personality and expressive looks in the animations, especially when you walk up to someone and they turn to look at you. There is certainly a fair bit of recycling going on in spots, most noticeable with Hop the rival, but it’s not anywhere close to the level of ruination that people make it out to be.
As for other points, I have several different thoughts. The music is fairly solid, capable of pumping out some really jamming tracks, like Team Yell’s battle theme, to rather atmospheric pieces, like Galar Mine. The story is a lot more grounded and less world-ending than previous games, which we haven’t seen since Generation 2. It feels refreshing, oddly enough. I will say some bits of the story come off rushed, like getting the power of Dynamax and the opening ceremony, where when you finally walk out onto the field after being introduced to the gym leaders, you are immediately shoved back into the lobby. The rivals themselves are a mixed bag. I like Bede with him hearkening back to jerk rivals of the past. Marnie is a bit unknown but her presence brings about a toxic influence with Team Yell following her around and harassing people. Hop is sort of a weak link since he doesn’t really stand out as much, outside of his determination to beat his brother.
Just Getting Started
As a whole, in the time I’ve been playing Pokemon: Shield — I have been enjoying it. There’s certainly some spots I need to dig deeper into or that maybe the game could’ve fixed, but I’ve enjoyed the experience.. I love the feel and energy of the Galar region and its heavy focus on the Gym Challenge. The Wild Area is very interesting, the new Pokemon I’ve encountered are mostly wonderful, the music is terrific, and so much more. Its gameplay is familiar as always, but that’s exactly what I enjoy about Pokemon.
Here’s hoping the rest of my and, perhaps, your experience goes well. Time to get back to training and battling!