MMO Burnout: Pokemon Sword and Shield is fun but not innovative

    
10
pokemonswordandshield

I have a vivid memory from when I was younger – about 12 or so – of walking through the local Walmart with my mom to get this game that I had heard about that I just had to have. I couldn’t tell you exactly how I had heard of it, but I remember being convinced well before I actually got the game that I was going to love it.

Surprisingly, I was right. I remember beaming as I walked out of the store with my copy of Pokemon Blue to play on my new Game Boy Pocket. Despite getting Pokemon Blue, I went with Charmander as my starter pokemon (waaaaay before Charizard was cool). And it amazes that 24 years later, I can still remember the very first pokemon I ever battled with and am still enamored of this weird little franchise called Pokémon. I have played every single generation since then. I think I still have copies of at least one game from every generation. I am a softcore Pokefreak — a badge I wear with pride.

I say all of this to set up just how much I love this franchise so that when I talk about actually playing the newest Pokemon Shield in this edition of MOP’s MMO Burnout column, you know where I am coming from.

The newest core installment of Pokemon Shield leaves the Game Boy family of systems for the first time in its 24-year history and makes the monumental leap to… the 3DS’ successor if we don’t put too fine a point on it. (Technically, Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu came out first, but they aren’t considered “core” games by those who decide these things.)

Regardless, Pokemon Sword and Shield being released on the Switch is a big deal. With better hardware, Gamefreak, the developer behind the Pokemon franchise, had the potential to really expand the scope of the Pokemon universe. And it kinda did, in the same way a drop of water expands a swimming pool. I mean, technically, it made a change, but it wasn’t enough to really mean anything in the grand scheme. That’s the theme I found throughout the game. I loved playing it, but overall it felt too safe.

pretty wintry pokemon town

Seriously, where’s my dad?

You start out in a scene that we’ve seen play out in every single Pokemon game. You are an ambiguously aged child setting off an amazing journey with your Pokemon pal, supported by a professor who apparently employs child labor by sending kids into dangerous battles in the name of Poke-science. Your mom is likewise there to send you off on a perilous journey with a couple bucks and firm handshake and not much else. As has become a weird staple in these games, the protagonist’s father is totally absent and only vaguely referenced. Paternity questions unanswered, you march off into the wilderness.

The world is pretty. From beautiful vistas to detailed dark forest paths, it’s a beautiful game. There’s one area in particular where you are traveling through a dark forest with brightly colored glowing mushrooms. The contrast between the so-dark-it’s-hard-to-see and the paste-colored mushroom is striking. It’s one of my favorite places in the game. My only regret is that I didn’t have control over the camera, so I was stuck as I wandered through looking wherever the camera wanted me to be looking. It was pretty, but limiting.

Most of your travels you don’t have control over the camera and the camera follows a locked, preset path. That means that all the scenes you see are gorgeous and painstakingly laid out, but also incredibly limited. That is, until you get to the Wild Area.

Why isn’t the whole game like the Wild Area?

The Wild Area is one of the best parts of the game. It’s an open-world zone  in the middle of a very on-rails, themepark experience. You wander around in any direction and catch pokemon, collect berries, run away from pokemon that are waaaaay too high level for you to catch. And you can swing the camera around to heart’s content. It’s a wonderful open-world experience that leaves me wondering why the rest of the game isn’t like this. It’s that good.

Its baffling why Gamefreak didn’t make more of the game like the Wild Area. Perhaps the studio was using this to test the waters of what an open-world Pokemon RPG could be like? I’m not sure what it was hoping to achieve because this is what I wanted the whole game to be like. But the majority is single-path on rails. No exploring, just following along with the story. The feeling of being so limited in most of the game is really compounded by how well done the Wild Area is.

Speaking of the story, for a game that is story-driven for progression, the story is merely meh. I didn’t find it very compelling and more contrived than anything. It had moments that I enjoyed, but overall it was very lackluster. That, unfortunately, is also par for the course for Pokemon games. The games’ stories are notorious trite and one-dimensional, so this isn’t really so much of a surprise as a disappointment that the company didn’t take the opportunity to create a more meaningful story.

dynamax gym battle

Who knew battling in front of a virtual crowd would be this much fun?

One change that I absolutely love is the new gym battles. When I was playing on my living room TV, walking into the stadium for the battle against the gym leader with the huge crowds chanting – that was an awesome experience. I found myself turning up the volume for every gym battle and smiling as the crowd reacted to the battle. The experience there is just phenomenal.

The new gimmick for this installment in the series is Dynamaxing. In short, that’s where you can take certain pokemon and super-biggify them and make them grow slightly red for three turns in the battle. As you do so, your pokemon gets more health and stronger moves and generally just looks awesome as it towers over you.

Unfortunately you can perform this super-biggification ritual only in certain places, gym battles being one of them. The other is in raid-style battles in the Wild Area with you and three other people. So while it’s really cool and fun to do, it ultimately doesn’t feel that impactful because not every pokemon can do it, and you can do it very infrequently in the scope of the game. I think I understand what the studio was trying to achieve – making it more awesome through scarcity – but I really think it went too far. I enjoyed it but found myself not really caring about it for the bulk of gameplay.

pokemon camp

I didn’t realize curry was such a big deal

The final major feature for this installment is a new way to interact with your pokemon in your party: through camping. Wherever you are, you can set up camp and hang out and play with your pokemon to boost your mutual friendship (which in turn makes them battle better).

You can also cook curry for your party using berries and other ingredients you find the around the world. Different combinations of berries create different curries, and there’s a whole side game to fill your “curry-dex” through cooking, and there are 151 different possible combinations. The different curries do things like heal your party, cure status effects, grant experience, and make your pokemon like you more.

It’s a novel experience and honestly it’s one I enjoyed. It’s pretty fun to watch your pokemon scamper around camp and play fetch with a ball or bat a feather on a wand. It’s remarkably simple but still very satisfying from a gameplay perspective.

pokemon currydex

The game isn’t without controversy. Pokemon Sword and Shield broke from the rest of the series in one very dramatic way: It’s not possible to get the National Pokedex in the game. For the uninitiated, the national pokedex is every pokemon from every game. In previous generations, even if the pokemon weren’t catchable in the game, you could transfer them and play with them. Some people have pokemon that are probably old enough to order a beer in the US!

However, in Sword and Shield, Gamefreak limited the game to include only 400 total pokemon – a little under half the total available. This really upset some people (r/pokemon is still just a den of angst). But honestly, it didn’t impact me in the game at all. Perhaps I’m playing wrong, but I’ve never even come close to completing a National Pokedex, so the omission wasn’t a big deal for me. But for some people, it was enough for them to swear off the series.

All in all, Pokemon Sword and Shield are fun games and worth the investment. But they are somewhat disappointing in that Gamefreak clearly didn’t capitalize on the franchise’s potential to really make the games something special. I got the sense as I was playing that Gamefreak made safe choices all throughout – the tried and the true. It didn’t really take any risks and didn’t innovate the game or push the envelope in any meaningful way. Pokemon is what it always has been: a game about battling monsters. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room to grow, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Gamefreak looked at all that potential and did fundamentally the exact same thing it’s been doing for the last 24 years.

Are you burned out on MMOs? It happens. But there are plenty of other titles out there with open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, and other MMO stalwarts. Massively OP’s MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems.
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Schmidt.Capela

I believe the biggest cause of unrest with the cut pokemon was because GameFreak claimed it was so they could allocate more resources to the remaining ones in order to make better models and animations — and then the finished game literally reused the high-res models from Gen6 (X/Y/OR/AS) and Gen7 (Sun/Moon/USum/UMoon), as proved by the dataminers, and had animations that seemed on par with the 3DS ones.

What’s more, the high-res models from Gen6 and Gen7 were advertised by GameFreak as a project to future-proof the pokemon models and rigging, allowing the devs to bring older pokemon into newer games with much less effort than before. In other words, the devs had in the past publicly bragged about how they made sure they would never need to cut pokemon out of future games, only to cut them out from the last two big budget games (Let’s Go and SW/SH).

BTW, while I don’t quite need the National Dex to enjoy a Pokémon game, I do need it in order to justify spending extra time with the game after finishing it. Without the National Dex, a Pokémon game is only worth for me roughly half as much enjoyment as it would otherwise be. I’m really miffed also at how transferring pokemon from previous games to this one will now require going online and paying a subscription in order to access Pokemon Home, whereas in every previous Pokemon game I could transfer them completely offline and for free.

Reader
CPTGLORIOUSBEARD

I felt like I wasted like 260 dollars to play this garbage that nostalgia alone made me buy. I got 4 badges then was burned out because it was boring AF and waaaaaaay too easy, and all the gym fights were the same kindergarten easy “puzzles”. And the gym fight music sucked. Forced myself to get the last four badges then never came back to the game.

Dynamax is a stupid gimmick. The overworld is a good idea but making me have to get badges to catch pokemon over a certain level is stupid when they pop up in your face and Chase you down and I can keep going. I haven’t played a game since gold and silver and I won’t ever play one after this. I bought octopath traveler and now I don’t regret my switch lite purchase.

Reader
Zero_1_Zerum

The closest I’ve come to my “ideal” Pokemon game was installing a Pokemon mod into Minecraft. It made the Pokemon just critters in the world, which you could battle and capture. There was also a prebuilt world, which could turn Minecraft into a Pokemon RPG, complete with the basic story of the games, including gym battles. There’s also Pokemon themed multiplayer worlds for Minecraft, where hundreds of people are running around catching Pokemon and having battles.

What I’d love is for GameFreak to make an official Pokemon game that’s a massive open world, in a similar vein to the fan made Minecraft stuff. The Wild Area zone sounds close to that, or at least, a step in the right direction. Sword and Shield sounds like GameFreak was just sticking their toe into what a console version of a core Pokemon game could be. Hopefully, after testing the waters, they’ll dive into the deep end with the next generation of games.

Reader
Fisty

Pixelmon is pretty fun if u have a nice populated server.

Reader
Atryue

The new Wild Area in Sword and Shield has been met with universal praise from practically every review I’ve read. And with good reason, the Wild Area brings a new twist to the cookie-cutter linear world format which has been with the series since Gen 1. While I love the new roaming area, I can’t help but see it as a bittersweet half-step toward what fans have been begging GameFreak for years, a truly open world Pokemon game.

If you allow your imagination to wonder a bit while roaming the lush countryside as you catch those cute little Pocket Monsters, you can almost tangibly see the potential greatness of what a Pokemon game could be… what could be realized if GameFreak was willing to take the big risks and push the franchise in bold new directions. We’re nearing the end of 2019 now. Yet Pokemon fans are still dreaming of an immersive world to adventure in, filled with wonderful collectible creatures.

Reader
CPTGLORIOUSBEARD

They don’t have too because fans will keep buying all the garbage they peddle. They remade red and blue like three times then cut out like 400 Pokemon for some of the worst designs and new monsters outside of an android Korean knockoff.. then added twenty bucks on top of that for good measure.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
TomTurtle

From reading what people picked apart of the game, it really sounds like it was rushed out for a holiday release. It’s still serviceable, but it could have been done better.

Reader
CPTGLORIOUSBEARD

It feels great when you start especially if nostalgia is guiding you…but after that first gym it becomes painfully clear this was a rush job they wanted out the door before Xmas.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Louie

I’m the same as you with the National Pokedex. I don’t want to dismiss those that play the game differently than I do out of hand, but I’ve never quite understood the appeal of bringing Pokemon from the previous entry forward with me anyway. I like starting fresh and catching new Pokemon every time.

If I was waiting for Pokemon to innovate, I would have been waiting since Gen 1 like you said, but I really really wish one of these days they would implement proper co-op. Playing through Pokemon from start to finish with my boyfriend would be a lovely experience.

Reader
CPTGLORIOUSBEARD

If you are gonna do that and remove that many Pokemon just make all new ones.
Boom. Nothing to complain about especially when you can transfer Pokemon over when they make the bank service…Throw out the old ones and do like they were gonna already do remake the the old games and nickel and dime fans to death to bring them to the new games at 5 bucks for the bank service and 60 dollars per game😭