“Pokémon Sword and Shield”, the new pokemon games for the Nintendo Switch, just came out amidst a whole heaping of controversy (though by modern standards of “controversy” admittedly tame). As a result a fascinating dichotomy formed between critic reviews and user reviews. On Metacritic, the critics gave it an 81 of 100; with users it’s stagnated around 4 of 10.
This, of course, is not unique, but what makes it fascinating is that, unlike in other cases where one would simply put more stock in the user score, we have good reason to believe neither score is giving us a particularly accurate reflection of the game’s overall quality. To figure out why, and review it properly, we need to take a look at the unusual circumstances surrounding the games’ release. I, as a huge and unashamed fan of the pokemon franchise, will of course be happy to take on the challenge.
First we have “dexit”, the term given to denote the 400 or so odd pokemon cut out of the game. It is the first time since generation three that not every single pokemon was transferrable to the next generation.
There’s also Gamefreak’s unusual PR surrounding the issue. When pressed as to why, Gamefreak gave a few reasons – better animations, remade models, improved graphics, and the sheer amount of time, effort, and space it would take to get all of the pokemon in. They also cited an attempt at balancing the game more properly for competitive play.
Then the game came out, and it became clear the models (at least most of them in most circumstances) were reused, many of the animations were the same (some were improved and some of the new ones do look great, but not all of them), and there’s about 6 GB of free space on the cartridge left over just begging to be filled by pokemon, an option Gamefreak has repeatedly shot down.
The models especially really annoyed people, since it explicitly stated by the head of Gamefreak, Masuda, that they were going to be remade. As a result of this, just before release (after data miners released the dirt they had on the models) #Gamefreaklied started trending on Twitter.
Now, do *I* think “Gamefreak lied? No, I don’t. That’s a long issue, but suffice to say that I do believe some models were remade and some animations were updated – but people expected more and didn’t get it. And that pissed people off.
The news that the exp share was going to be automatically left on also made people annoyed; even I criticized the exp all in Ultra Sun and the lack of an option to turn it off did not appeal.
Suffice to say, popular sentiment was already strongly against the games before release.
And then they came out.
And reviews started dropping in.
Long story short: 81 on Metacritic. 93 of 100 by IGN, with the critic even calling it the best pokemon game. Multiple 9+ of 10s by other outlets. Even one perfect score.
Perhaps you can see why angry users decided to flood Metacritic – and everywhere else people were getting reviews – with 0’s to 3’s.
Well, I had been looking forward to this game for months. Trailers looked great, I loved the visual aesthetic, and the first pokemon game on the big screen was something I was simply not going to pass up. So I got Sword. I finished in around forty-five to fifty hours, and can confirm a few things.
The infamous 9.3 of 10 IGN score got a LOT of flak, and on one hand it’s easy to see why. The game’s big setpiece, the “Wild Area”, a massive hub that can be entered at any time teeming with a huge variety of pokemon, lags and has lackluster textures on close up objects. It is also relatively bare. Outside of the pokemon and dens where you can conduct “Max Raid” battles with other players – another nifty addition to the game where you team up with three other players to take on a super-charged wild pokemon – there isn’t much to see.
The graphics are hit and miss. Cities look gorgeous, and the aesthetic is bright and fun, but routes are mostly bare bones (albeit with some beautiful looking panorama views in places). Battle animations are another mixed bag: Sometimes they look fantastic, and sometimes they look embarrassingly bad (I’m looking at you, double kick).
The characters and character animations are maybe a hair above average, nothing special. The story is extremely straightforward and linear; there’s little exploration to be had of the region itself – the game expects you to explore the wild area. “Pop ins” are a hilarious problem as well, with pokemon literally appearing out of thin air and disappearing again depending on which direction you step. And as beautiful as the towns look there is rarely a whole lot to them and they really need more people to fill them out.
Now, all of this probably leads you to believe I’m going to give the game a bad review, right? Not so. I loved it. And not for subjective reasons either; there are legitimate reasons to love this game.
Let’s rewind back to that infamous IGN review: I actually think it makes quite a lot of sense. Here’s the thing: Sword and Shield is a pokemon game. It uses the standard pokemon formula – you are a player starting on a journey to become the new Pokémon League Champion. To do that you need to beat the leaders of 8 gyms (or 7 to 8 trials in the case of gen 7) specializing in various pokemon types. These gyms are spread throughout the region. Battles will get progressively harder as the game goes on, culminating in a final battle with the Champion for the title. Along the way you’ll have run ins with an evil team and since the Crystal version will tend to get wrapped up in a larger story involving the game’s mascot legendary.
Sword and Shield uses this formula, and it executes it well. So there’s step 1. Step 2: Does Galar have enough personality as a region, new pokemon included, to justify setting a game there? Having played for about forty hours now, I can say that the answer is most definitely yes. Galar can have more going on but there’s no denying that it’s a really fun place with a lot of personality and cool stuff to look at. So there’s another check.
Step 3: Does it improve anything from previous games?
Oh HELL yes. The wild area, for all of the flaws I mentioned earlier, is fantastic to actually play in, an absolute blast to explore and look for new and interesting pokemon. Not to mention, it’s big – big enough that Gamefreak can be proud of it anyway. Teaming up with other players in max raid battles is a ton of fun.
There is also a noticeably lower barrier of entry into the competitive scene, with effort values and individual values able to be altered relatively easily to create a competition-viable pokemon. This is something Gamefreak specifically focused on and by all accounts they seemed to be
The graphics are only sometimes up to snuff with other Switch titles but are a definite step up from previous pokemon games, and the visual aesthetic is terrific. Animations, again, could be better but some, at least, are an undeniable improvement.
The soundtrack is incredible. I mean it is legitimately one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard in a game. It may be the best soundtrack in a franchise famous for having great music.
The small quality of life upgrades – a PC with you at all times, the move relearner, deleter, and name rater found in every pokemon center, the ability to turn off cutscenes, no HMs – are all great. None are unique to Sword and Shield but even so it deserves credit for bringing them all together in once place. I have never played Let’s Go so I can honestly say that having pokemon appear in the overworld is something I never knew I needed. It’s such a massive improvement, and adds so much life to the environments, that it spoils me when I go back to play previous games.
My favorite improvement, though, is the gym battles. Holy crap are gym battles cool. The soundtrack changes as the battle progresses, a huge crowd cheers along to the music, and dynamaxing – a mechanic that supersizes your pokemon for three turns for a power boost – seemed gimmicky in trailers but turns out to be insanely cool. The battles aren’t the hardest in the world but they’re the main reason the game justifies itself for the Switch.
So essentially we have a standard pokemon game but with better graphics, (some) better animations, an open world area full of dozens – maybe hundreds – of pokemon and special co-op battles, cooler gym battles, a lower barrier of entry into competitive battling, an incredible soundtrack, and tons of quality of life improvements. In that sense there is a very real way this can be legitimately called the best pokemon game.
It is also a game with little exploration outside of the wild area, noticeable glitches and bugs, graphics and animation that don’t take full advantage of the Switch, a fairly easy difficulty curve (though I would argue not nearly as easy as gen 7, at least until the Ultra games), and half of the pokedex unable to be transferred into the game.
And, incidentally, while a lot of the characters are fun and memorable the story is borderline nonsensical, easily the worst in a pokemon game. Now the appeal of pokemon games is NOT and never was the story – if anything it’s the least important aspect – but after the pretty good story of Ultra Sun it was at least a little disappointing. The fun characters make up for it to an extent, but not entirely.
In THAT sense there is a very real way this can be legitimately called the worst pokemon game.
What do I think?
I see repeatedly that I need to analyze it “as if it wasn’t a pokemon game” and I don’t understand this at all. It IS a pokemon game. That’s a major part of its appeal, as it should be. It executes the standard pokemon formula well.
If I had to give my recommendations, here goes:
Would I recommend it to someone who just doesn’t like pokemon with an eye to converting them? No, definitely not. If you don’t already like the series this won’t convince you.
Would I recommend it to somebody interested in trying a pokemon game for the first time? Absolutely! It’s a ton of fun and I think it would turn a first time player into a fan of the franchise unless they just don’t like pokemon’s standard gameplay style, in which case none of the pokemon games are going to do it for you.
So tell it to me straight, Senpai: Would you recommend it to long time fans of the series?
It’s hard for me to answer that question. All I can say is if you’re looking for a standard pokemon game but with better graphics, animations, and a cool open world area specifically designed for catching pokemon, you’ll love it; I certainly do. If you’re looking for a significant upgrade now that Game Freak is finally on a home console or something with more content, or if you’re mad about dexit, you’ll be disappointed. Draw your own conclusions.
A note: In case you’re wondering why I think most of the negative reviews are review bombs as opposed to actually negative reviews, it’s because I read them. Many of them spread blatantly false information: No, the game is not only 14 hours unless you speed your way through. No, the game is not absurdly easy; it’s about as easy as Sun/Moon, meaning, too easy for my taste but certainly playable, especially if you’re focused on building a large team (I lost battles more than one time even when seriously trying to win). No, the game is not incredibly laggy throughout or full of glitches that ruin the game, and yes, there is music in the legendary fight. No, there is absolutely NOT a bug that deletes all of the save files on the Switch. There is not “almost no postgame”, but about the average amount of postgame content as the majority of games in the series outside of Gen 2, Emerald, and Heartgold/Soulsilver.
A lot of this false information came from people watching pirated streams on hacked systems played by people who specifically wanted the game to fail. People who didn’t play the game shouldn’t be allowed to give reviews, folks. And no, NOT all bad reviews are review bombs; only a lot.
In short: I loved it, you might or might not, it is not a poorly designed game but it doesn’t take the series to the next level like a lot of people hoped. Score: Blergle out of 10, would play again even if other people wouldn’t. Play at your own risk.