It’s been almost a week since Pokemon Sword and Shield was released on the Nintendo Switch and in that time, the issues surrounding the game were brought to light by those who played through the game in its entirety. The games were ripe with “controversy” even before release with a lot of questionable decisions being made by the developers, Game Freak.
From the removal of the National Pokedex (now being called Dexit) to lack of quality in animation and visuals, a lot of people have been angry with Game Freak’s decisions in this generation. This anger has been a long time coming accumulation over several years with the decisions to remove some mechanics each later generation and then create one time gimmicks, similar to the Gigantamax we see in generation 8. When the games were first announced back in January to make their huge debut to console, fans rejoiced and were more hyped than ever. For a price increase of $40 to $60 and moving to Nintendo’s most powerful console to date, the expectations were wildly high. Maybe at times it was too high, but there was a lot riding on the success for this series and instead what we get is….well, not worth that $20 increase.
Instead of making a review on what my thoughts were on Sword and Shield, I want to take this time to really dive into this game and analyze what went wrong and what Game Freak could have done to make this experience so much better.
Graphics, Animations and Features
Lets start out with the most controversial element of the game, primarily its skeletal framework and development. With the departure of the National Pokedex, Sword and Shield created a trade off; less Pokemon in return for improved visuals and gameplay. Approximately over 600 were cut from the game to improve on the graphics and overall gameplay. For reference you can check here or if you prefer straight from the source, full disclosure, a translator is needed for that second link.
The issue here is apparent, content was cut and from several sources found here they reveal that there is no improvement on things ranging from graphics and animations. The biggest case and point can be found in the animations for the game. They are a mere copy/paste from previous games along with the modeling for Pokemon animations and scaling.
Now, a lot of people say this is extremely difficult and time consuming and they are half right and half wrong. For starters, this is on console so the expectations for things like this are going to be much higher but also, it’s a company’s responsibility to pour their heart and soul into make every game as good as it can possibly be. Lockstin and Gnoggin made a fantastic video showcasing the animation Game Freak should have done and elaborated how undertaking this process would create perfect models for them to use in future games. The animations he proposes would not have been a time consuming one and done but rather a small investment that the company could use for future titles.
The other glaring issue the games have in this department is their scaling for Pokemon. This issue is apparent when you notice a Pokemon like Wailord is identical to its X and Y models in terms of size. The scaling issue applies to every Pokemon in the game and brings to question, why? Why does this problem exist when the main selling point of the game is to make your Pokemon kaijus?
Overall, the game already has several missing features from the graphical design of the wild area, removal of Pokemon, removal of Pokemon moves and proper Pokemon scaling in battles. This also does not account for the new online system that Sword and Shield utilizes. The days of the PSS (Player Search System) and GTS (Global Trade System) are over with the introduction of the new Stamps system. The way it works is that it updates with other player’s seeking trades, allies for raids or updating on their recent catches. Its a good concept but with poor execution with how slow the stamp system refreshes and the missing GTS feature. The system only allows you to refresh the stamps roughly every 5 minutes, even disconnecting and reconnecting to the wifi doesn’t always solve this problem. This is a crippling issue for the one mechanic that is the major selling point of the game. It is extremely difficult to join other player’s raids unless you are friends which brings up the other issue, the missing GTS feature. Players can no longer set specific parameters of what Pokemon they want in exchange for theirs, there is also no way to communicate with the other player in the trade so more times than not you both disconnect without ever making a trade. If you are looking to trade with a friend then you need to set a 4-digit password that you both use in order to start the trade. It is not a player friendly service at all and is absolutely archaic in its simplistic design and clunky execution.
So, what could Game Freak have done better? For starters, they were rushed in the development of this game but that doesn’t excuse their apparent lack of effort in these titles. Players have recently created a mod as seen here that only took them a couple hours to make all the trees in the wild area have a much better design and higher resolution. A relatively simple fix, modders are able to quickly apply mods or shaders to games to enhance the overall experience, just take a look at what it does for games like Minecraft.
Quick fixes like that could have been easily fixed if Game Freak made better use of their time and resources. The same could also be said to their new online feature that is not user friendly. The only way it has worked for me up to this point is because I use a third party platform to communicate with my friends, it is a terrible game design to not have some sort of communications channel built in or a more efficient way to stay on-top of posted raid battles. This problem could have been patched if it was play tested and if Game Freak spent time to research what their players wanted, the community has lived on the GTS ever since it was introduced so why would they want to go back to an era before it?
Region Size and Plot
Sword and Shield doesn’t only suffer from developmental issues as it becomes apparent that the game was entirely rushed in production down to its plot and the scale of its region. The thing I want to note is that when it comes to creating video games, the story boarding and world design come first alongside the character designs, you have to make the models before you can build the world around them. That said, the plot was completed long before the game started its development, one would think that the story would be good or at the least decent. That is not the case in Sword and Shield.
When I mentioned Game Freak could have made better use of their resources earlier it is known that they developed the their Gears Project game Little Town Hero alongside Sword and Shield. What little staff the company had to develop the game was therefore split and both games suffered greatly. It is great that Game Freak wants to create their own games outside Pokemon but the franchise that brings in the money takes importance. Sword and Shield offers nothing innovative in terms of plot except for a few quick tidbits that I thought were interesting.
The most interesting element in its story was that the Gym Leader Challenge is seen as a massive sport for entertainment that is aired internationally. When you obtain your third gym badge it is noted that many participants do not make it that far. These really small moments offered a bit of intrigue but in the end where never elaborated on or fleshed out. The characters come across as pasted into the story without any build up to their motivations instead of being woven in naturally. Pokemon games are also known to have a conflict with a villainous team and that tradition has come to an end. There is no conflict within the story until the very end where it just feels forced to make an evil team right at the end of the game.
Team Yell hardly makes for an evil team despite having the motivations. It’s a shame to see a group of people that come from a poverty-stricken city that root for the character Marnie because if she were to become champion, their city would flourish again. They clearly have the framework for an evil team to cause mischief and do petty deeds to prevent the other contestants to advance just to better themselves. But that potential is squandered along with the character development in the story. We see characters like Hop at the end of the story quickly become confrontational, Team Yell’s leader become friends with our character and our character develop an extremely close friendship with Marnie. Obviously the framework is there to make us care for the characters but it feels like 90% of the game’s content and story has been cut.
The other selling point on the game was supposed to be the exploration since that is mostly want the franchise is about, exploring the vast world of Pokemon. The moment the game was announced, fans were ecstatic about speculations of what we could possibly see in the world and the size of the region. Sadly, even the size of the region feels smaller than a 3DS title at times. The first route and the final, 10th route, are both extremely small to the size of a standard route in the Ruby and Sapphire. Those games date back to the Game Boy Advance, a system far older than even the 3DS. So why is the world so small when the Switch can handle open world games the size and scale of Breath of the Wild?
Pokemon games also feature moments of backtracking to previously explored areas to advance plot before moving forward. These elements allow for the game to feel more like a journey and in a way add to the size of the region since you cannot just rush to every new area. Sword and Shield has none of these elements, instead you just continue to trek forward and the main exploration element, the wild area, feels empty and small at times. There isn’t much variety in it.
I had extremely high hopes for this title making its debut to the Switch. I strongly believed this was going to be a fantastic game that would easily surpass the other Switch games I currently own. Mostly because I love Pokemon but also because I thought this was going to be a massively innovative step for the franchise. Granted, when a developer tries something new it isn’t always flawless the first time but you can sense the love and passion they poured into the game. In the end, I felt like Pokemon Sword and Shield was devoid of that and felt oddly restrictive with not allowing players to play the game the way they wanted.
With an experience share feature baked into the game that cannot be turned off and critical hit rates seem oddly raised allowing for moves that normally would not land critical hits to break strategies the game is severely lacking in being enjoyable to all. The lack of difficulty options, small interactive features like enjoying the hot springs in one city, battle cafes, and non-linear exploration restrict the players to play only one way and makes the game feel hollow at points. One of the city’s is known for its hot springs and is built around it, other cities feature restaurants that seem to hold importance but are used for very little purpose, they aren’t anything like the battle cafe in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Not being able to interact with these things makes the game feel more like it is in development rather than a finished product.
In the end, I truly believe if Game Freak devoted all of their time and resources into this title and created new models like Lockstin and Gnoggin mentioned, the games could have been a more polished and complete product. I admire Game Freak taking the opportunity to develop their own non-Pokemon titles but there is a time and place for new projects and that isn’t when they need to make a new title in a massive franchise that is making its debut on home console systems. The game may have been rushed to being a yearly release but that is even more reason to why they should not divide their time and resources on other projects. Completing a project with a strict deadline takes priority over one that has a more flexible one. The other thing that would greatly benefit them as a developer going forward is to engage with their fans and listen to their community, know what they are expecting in games. Because at the end of the day the community wants to see more content added into the game instead of the removal of several features that exceeds the amount of new.