This week’s big reveal of Pokémon Sword and Shield (catch up on all of it on Pokecharms!) feels a lot like the pressure has finally been let out of a bottle of fizz at long last. Last year’s big debut of Pokémon on the Nintendo Switch in Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee was a fun, but awkward, stop-gap and was never going to be representative of what GameFreak could finally do when let loose to make a new Pokémon game from the ground up for home consoles. But, while those games looked great, Sword and Shield already seems to be an exceptional looking leap forward in realising the Pokémon world. It might not be up to Detective Pikachu’s uncannily realistic portrayal, but there really is no question that the Galar region looks set to be the most detailed and most expansive region to date.
However, if you could literally scratch away that pretty surface detail, what you’d find underneath would effectively be the exact same game released 23 years ago. You’ll collect one of three cute starter Pokémon – a Grass, Fire or Water type – and set out on a journey to collect gym badges and defeat an Elite 4 to become champion. All while randomly encountering new Pokémon to catch and meeting new trainers to battle in a turn-based battle system that has barely changed in 20 years. It’s a common complaint with the Pokémon series, but one it seemingly refuses to let get in the way of carrying on with that exact same formula regardless.
It is, though, particularly frustrating that after GameFreak’s recent dalliances in dropping the Gym format in Sun and Moon, or the more radical gameplay changes in Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee that Sword and Shield seem to be sticking – and to a degree, even reverting – to that base formula.
That 1-2 punch of Sun and Moon’s deliberate effort to reframe the Pokémon adventure into a more spiritual coming-of-age ritual and Let’s Go’s replacement of wild random battles with the significantly better system of seeing the wild Pokémon out and about in the world felt an awful lot like a company searching for a new paradigm for a series that’s grown particularly long in the tooth.
It seemed over the past 3 years of Pokémon releases that these small steps into something new could only ultimately lead to an even more radical change in the next major release. So far, though, it doesn’t seem like Sword and Shield really deliver on that promise. Indeed, although we’ve only seen a couple of minutes of the game, the thing that stands out the most is just how much of a Pokémon game it is. There are 8 gyms, the typical starter Pokémon, a world map that looks to potentially be the most linear example of a Pokémon game region so far and a very familiar looking battle system. Meanwhile, gone are the wild Pokémon in the world – a choice that feels at odds with the rest of the heavily-detailed and expansive world in the Galar region by taking that feeling of an actual, living, Pokémon world away from it. Following and rideable Pokémon are also once again absent, despite being top of the list of fan-favourite features.
However, in between the release of the last Pokémon Generation on the 3DS and this new Generation on the Switch we’ve seen what’s arguably Nintendo’s most important release in many, many years: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Like Pokémon, The 3D Legend of Zelda games had found themselves caught in a trap of releasing very similar games time after time. Also, like Pokémon, while the games were individually great and scored appropriately high acclaim, this constant run of very similar experiences drew its own criticism and – as we can now confirm – was ultimately holding the series back. Breath of the Wild’s complete re-formatting of the Zelda experience brought a significant amount of new energy to a series of games that had increasingly felt somewhat like a Lego set of simply shifting around the same base blocks into a new form. All the while, that indescribable feeling of being a Zelda game was maintained, if not outright enhanced by being so distilled into little more than its base components.
This is not an argument for saying that every new game Nintendo publishes in its considerable library of decade-spanning IP should just be an open-world game in the style of Breath of the Wild from now on. But it does absolutely mean that there isn’t much space to hide for Nintendo and their second party partners, such as GameFreak, when delivering a new entry in a series as long-running as Pokémon. Breath of the Wild rightly sets high expectations and desires for seeing a more creative and adventurous output in future releases. Unfortunately, though, that’s not what the latest Pokémon games appear to be offering.
While there’s very little question that Sword and Shield will likely end up being the definitive version of that core Pokémon experience – at least until the next games come along to take their place – their core competence still won’t help wash away that disappointment that they really could have been a lot more. It’s never particularly fair to judge a game for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but in this case it’s a fair critique that it really is time that the Pokémon series took that leap into the dark and sought out a truly new experience.
We’ll still absolutely be there on day one for Sword and Shield and we’ll no doubt have a lot of fun. But, that desire for something more will remain unsatisfied while there’s always something holding this series back from finding its own Breath of the Wild moment and being a true Pokémon evolution.