Dated (Re)Review - Pokemon Shield

Dated (Re)Review - Pokemon Shield

When I first set out to write this blog, I said that this blog was only really for me to project my stream of consciousness out to the world. In a lot of ways, that is still true. I'm not arrogant enough to believe that I have influence over trends in video gaming - or influence over my friends' purchasing decisions.

But I believe I have a duty to be honest to the few people that read this blog (myself included, when I ego trip) and be fair and measured in any assessment I write. Mostly. If I had to say what I thought my greatest weakness was in creative writing, it's becoming emotional and letting my personal love for a franchise or intellecual property convince me that a video game deserves more praise than it should, in all fairness, recieve.

So - Pokemon Shield.

When I first wrote the review for Pokemon Shield, I wrote it whilst I still had the needle hanging out of my arm. I was staying up late, burning myself out - it was like a drug. I'm sure there was a measure of escapism mixed into that potent cocktail as well. As a result, I claimed it took the "next bold step" for the Pokemon franchise.

I wasn't 'wrong', because opinions on video games are just that - entirely subjective and riddled with personal bias. But I certainly gave the game a very broad tick of approval whilst minimising it's sins. I did this because I enjoyed my time with it and extracted pretty close to maximum fun value out of the title. Once I had done everything there was to do in the game, up to and including breeding a team to play with friends over the internet, I had clocked up 120 hours.

I bought the game at $80 - so that averages out to 66 cents per hour. As someone who plays Warhammer 40k and lies to himself every day that he can "quit whenever he likes" - that is pretty close to maximum value for a predominately single-player title.

I'm still not prepared to put the sword (heh) through the franchise for the sins it committed along the way. I think it was rushed, under-developed and the excuses proffered to fans were delusional at best and disingenuous at worst. Nintendo is the king of platform holders, but they're not above getting a smack on the wrist when they screw up. I 'let' Nintendo and Game Freak off the hook because of my own personal enjoyment of the game.

That's quite an arrogant statement to make, so let's dial it back a bit. What did Pokemon Shield (and Sword, I guess) get right?

Lots, as it turns out. The wild area was a smash hit, offering lots of different ecosystems swarming with pokemon to explore, whilst catching and battling along the way. It is by far the largest, deepest and richest part of the new title. It still has some weaknesses, once the end of the game is reached it becomes less exciting, knowing that you've likely caught all the pokemon you want. But the initial euphoria of seeing this wide-open area full of pokemon for the first time - well it's pretty great.

There's also the reworked encounter system. Pokemon can be hidden in tall grass, but can also be wandering about in the overworld. This aids immersion by letting you see pokemon as they would exist outside the battling phase. You'll see aquatic Pokemon swimming in the lake, flying pokemon actually flying about and a certain tiny mole pokemon popping up when you least expect it. But this system also lets players (mostly) go about exploring or progressing through the game as they wish. Want to avoid as many pokemon as you can? You can do that now. Want to catch a particular pokemon? Well you can either look for it, or hope to get lucky in the tall grass (not figuratively of course, you are only ten years old.)

There's the quality of life improvements to pokemon box management. Very early on, the player obtains a tool which allows them to access their pokemon boxes from anywhere. No more does the gameplay have to come to a screeching halt so you can find a pokemon centre to re-arrange your pokemon luggage. This also helps in trying out new pokemon, developing new teams and breeding (more on that later.) Anecdotally, I tried three or four different team combinations over my playthrough - it made the game more exciting that at any point in the game, I could stop and swap in pokemon. It sounds like a minor change, but the difference between this system and older titles' reliance on PCs - it's night and day.

The online features are more convenient, if less secure. You do lose the GTS, which has moved to pokemon home (editor's note: at time of the original printing, it was not known if the GTS would be making a return.) I did a lot of trading with the good people of r/pokemontrades on reddit and had a great time trading with close family and friends. You can use the online features anywhere, anytime in-game - which means that your gameplay doesn't slow down whilst you go to an online plaza or lobby to access the features - they're right there. It is important to note that you need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, so they are not free. Even at $30 (or going through the much more economical family plan) - it's steep if you only want to use it for pokemon.

On the online features, I argued with a friend of mine who was incensed that I said that the online features were 'improved'. I still stand by that statement, and here's why.

The reason is convenience. Previous generations had you stop everything you were doing - either to go to the online plaza (Gen 8) or a Pokemon Centre. I know I stated it above, but this is a very powerful set of tools that has been designed with accessibility in mind. On that premise alone, do I hold firm in my belief that the online features are improved from previous titles.

Last stop before the pain train goes downhill is the quality of life changes to breeding. This is niche, but to the right people, these changes represent more steps in the right direction for Nintendo and Pokemon. They're a silent acknowledgement that people do really like playing Pokemon online. These changes come in the form of the box system, letting you check pokemon on the fly. You can adjust a pokemon's nature with mints - something previously impossible - and a removal of the 10 cap on vitamins. There are also effort value (EV) Pokejobs, if you are so inclined - though they can take time unless you're prepared to fudge the console. Which I have done. Naughty boy.

But as I waxed lyrical at the start, it's not all good. Now we reach the part of the feature presentation that was lacking from last time.

Let's start with the obvious one. Pokemon has not grown with the audience - and it hasn't adjusted its target audience. As a seven year old, I was never able to defeat Gary's mighty level 50 Venusaur, but that was twenty years ago. The experience share mechanics mean it's easy to powerlevel your entire time out of sight so every fight becomes that scene from Robbie the Reindeer where he's set the treadmill in "downhill mode." I didn't lose a battle until I was in the postgame - even then I only had one pokemon on my team.

A popular counter-argument to this is that Pokemon is for children. In an ideal world, yes - pokemon is for children and only children. But the kids of the 90s grew up on pokemon. It has a special place in their hearts. We have stats from Pokemon Go that demonstrate that the playerbase carrying the torch for Pokemon go are those in late Gen Y - Early Millenial. As below:

Hate it or love it, the attitude toward game difficulty from Nintendo and Game Freak means more people who grew up loving pokemon have outgrown it. Clearly it doesn't matter, because it'll sell no matter what. Except it does - Games Workshop learned this lesson in the early 2010s. They ended up sacking their CEO and learned a very painful lesson. There's only so much your core audience will endure before they throw up their hands in disgust and move on. In my little circle, Generation 8 and Sword and Shield has been that breaking point.

As with a crack in a wall, the more you look at Pokemon Shield, the worse it gets. There is a criminal lack of polish here. There are low resolution textures everywhere - and whilst the game is bright and colorful, it doesn't cover up the fact that there is a lot of visual rubbish. The wild area is particularly bad for this - apparently Game Freak thought kids wouldn't check the trees. They were wrong:

This was initially dismissed as 'beta' footage. No - the game really does look like this.

This isn't an isolated example either - there are all sorts of textures in the wild area and the rest of the game that look exactly like this example. You don't need to look particularly hard. This isn't a deal breaker for me, but this isn't Pokemon Stadium anymore. This is the ultra modern Nintendo Switch - there's so much more room here to make Pokemon look nice. But that's only the start of the visual issues.

Game Freak's design department didn't have the time or couldn't be bothered to animate their pokemon properly. I really hope it's the former. There are several cutscenes in the game where Human and Pokemon models don't move and rotate properly. The one chief example is late in the story - it's immediately obvious when you see it and it's a damming indictment on the development team for not even trying to animate their pokemon models correctly. There are even some outlier pokemon moves that are also lazily animated at best (looking at you, Double Kick).

Then there's the fact they removed more than 400 pokemon from the pokedex without a great explanation. This personally didn't faze me, but it is important to note for historical context. Taking half your established pokemon and banishing them into a black hole (editor's note: or to be put into DLC...) and then weakly trying to explain why you did such a thing was always doomed to be a PR nightmare. Make your own mind up on if this mattered to you, but it's not nothing.

My biggest criticism of the game is how paper thin Pokemon Shield's world is. In a franchise with a core theme of exploring a big world with lots of Pokemon, this is my greatest disappointment. With the exception of the wild area, there are no huge, winding routes to explore, no multi-level caves and no big cities. That's Pokemon's bread and butter! If you didn't care about the experience points and factored out mandatory encounters, there isn't an area ni the game that takes more than a minute to clear. Previous titles have used abstraction to give the players huge areas to enter and explore - there's nothing like that here. There are no areas in the game that have any depth greater than a puddle. I would say that I expected more, but I didn't get anything.

I wish to make my personal bias clear; despite the flaws, I enjoyed my time with Pokemon Shield. But partly that was my desire for a proper Pokemon title on the Switch and partly my long-standing love of the franchise. I didn't evaluate the game fairly and I've often thought about giving my 'review' a rewrite. So, here I am.

The cold truth is that Sword and Shield are, for all their improvements, not very good. In some areas, they're downright miserable failures. The game's development was underfunded and rushed and it stands out like a sore thumb. Deep down, it's incredibly disappointing. It is not impossible to recommend to someone, but I wouldn't be demanding they play it, like I would a title like Persona 5 - which is an ultra-modern, shining example of turn based combat done right in a big expansive, character and story-rich world.

I sincerely hope that with the pressure to get the first core title onto the Switch now lifted, Game Freak is able to take the proper amount of time with the right funding and make a better core title. But I'd also like the Raiders to win another premiership some day - and asking for two miracles in one lifetime is probably too much of an ask.

I'm still playing through the DLC currently, so I'll reserve my opinion on the changes until next Friday. I hope to see you there.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

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Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.