The Media Man Reviews: Pokémon Sword and Shield 1/2
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
There's no doubt about it, I. LOVE. POKEMON!!!
When I was a kid, Pokémon was one of my biggest obsessions. I remember playing the original Pokémon Gold and Pokemon Yellow on an emulator on my PC, I remember getting the original Pokémon Sapphire for the GameBoy Advanced for Christmas one year, I remember watching the first movie on VHS over and over and me and my brothers would always catch the anime whenever it was on TV. Seriously, my young self couldn't get enough of Pokémon back then! But then things changed after the third generation. After they changed voice actors for the anime, me and my brothers stopped watching and I didn't play anymore of the games either. For years, I went out of this franchise until one day, a friend of mine brought in the Pokémon Battle Revolution Wii Game to play. I was hooked and that reignited my lost passion for this franchise. I bought a DS and Pokémon Platinum during the 2019 London Film and Comic Con and from here on out, I'd go on to catch up on pretty much every game I'd missed after the Gen 1 remakes came out back in 2004. I honestly have no idea why I ever got out of Pokémon in the first place.
I'm such a Poké-dork that I even drew this comic to celebrate its 25th anniversary last year!
Nice way to celebrate 25 years of Pokémon, isn't it?
For this blog post, I'll be reviewing one of the mainline Pokémon games. But which pair? None other than the hit Pokémon games from 2019, Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Despite being released to a mixed reaction from fans due to cutting the National Dex and leaving out some Pokémon, meh graphics and low difficulty, Pokémon Sword and Shield went on to become financial juggernauts amongst the Pokémon franchise, selling over 21.10 million copies worldwide after their initial release, making them the third best selling games in the franchise after Pokémon Red and Blue back in 1996 and Pokémon Gold and Silver back in 1999. They're unique entries for the Pokémon franchise for they're the first EVER games in the mainline Pokémon series to have DLC with the Isle of Armour and Crown Tundra expansion packs being made available in June and October of 2020 respectively. People have many mixed opinions of these games but one can't deny that Pokémon Sword and Shield have left an impact on the Pokémon franchise that may lead to interesting things in the future.
Oh and before anyone asks "Why are you reviewing Sword and Shield instead of Legends Arceus? THAT'S the big new Pokémon game so talk about that!" Don't worry, that'll come soon enough as I've nearly completed the game so a Legends Arceus review will be coming shortly. Also this review was written well in advance so may as well upload it now while I have it.
So what's my stance on these games? Do I side with the fans or the non-fans in regards to their quality? Let's dive in and find out...
Section 1: The Story
The story is your standard Pokémon fare: You're a kid prodigy from a small town environment who gets given their first Pokémon and gets to go on a life-changing journey through the region, collecting Gym Badges and earning your way to becoming the Champion while also foiling bad guys along the way.
HOWEVER...Sword and Shield does have a few changes to the standard Pokémon formula that makes it stand out a little from the previous games. First of all, we know who the Champion is right from the start and we get to interact with him for a large portion of the game. I liked that is for a change, we get to know Leon as a person and who he is outside of being the Champion. Not only does he serve as a goal for us to reach, but he also plays a mentor role for us too, carrying out the catching tutorial, endorsing us for the Gym Challenge and even asking us to be a "real rival" to Hop to motivate him on his own journey.
Another change for the story here is that we don't catch the mascot legendary before we face the Champion. Instead, we get the traditional "third legendary" and the mascot legendary is saved for the post-game. I know, that's more a change in the gameplay than the plot but you get what I mean. I do like this change in the formula as it gives the third legendary a time to shine and also comes off as a neat little surprise as Eternatus wasn't heavily marketed like Zacian and Zamazenta were, so we didn't see it coming.
But one of the biggest changes in the formula for these games is that the game doesn't really have a straight-up villain, more of a misguided individual who has good intentions but goes about them the wrong way. That's never been done in any of the games before so that was a welcome change to make Sword and Shield stand out from the crowd. I'll talk more about this in the characters section.
One of the best parts of the story for me is the game's worldbuilding. Pokémon has always excelled at worldbuilding and Sword and Shield is no exception. Galar has a lot of history that we uncover throughout the game, be it dialogue talking about the old steam industry to learning about the history of the Darkest Day from ancient times and even learning a little about the towns we visit. One of the big plot-points is even uncovering the truth about Galar's ancient hero (or heroes should I say) and one of the features in the game includes collecting League Cards, each with their own little bios about the various characters you meet in the game. It makes the Galar region feel like this big immersive world that has its own history and culture, which makes the gameplaying experience more immersive as a result. Every time I play Sword and Shield, I find myself enjoying exploring this place and learning all I can about it. Probably helps that I'm British and Galar is a UK-inspired region so naturally I'll take an interest in it. XD
The DLC also adds more to the world building by introduction whole new locations for us to visit, The Isle of Armour and The Crown Tundra. Both those places also have their own history and are fascinating places to explore with vastly different locations than mainland Galar. Pokémon always gives us fascinating worlds to explore and Sword and Shield are no different in that regard.
Sadly, great world-building won't save a weak story and Sword and Shield definitely has a pretty thin plot, even by Pokémon standards. First of all, your rivals outside of Hop all feel very underdeveloped and mostly superfluous to the overall story. Bede basically vanishes from the plot after he's given his undeserved promotion to Fairy Gym Leader and Marnie doesn't show up anywhere near enough in the game, which stinks because she's by far the most interesting rival in the game with the most sympathetic motive behind becoming Champion. Marnie's entire plot could've been a whole subplot by itself but instead, it's all surface level and the game ends with nothing really changing aside from her becoming the next Gym Leader. I would've kicked Bede out the plot entirely and expanded Marnie's role if I'd been the writer. Her plot could've been done more justice if she wasn't stuck sharing screen time with him.
Also, as many people have criticized this game for, the story spends most of its time sending you from Point A to Point B, thus locking the player out of the more interesting parts of the story. We, the player, don't really get involved in the plot until Sonia needs someone to talk to or when the Darkest Day happens. I personally see it as Galar having what many regions before it lack: adults that actually know what they're doing and don't leave things in the hands of kids. XD But I do think this criticism is very justified regardless because yeah, this does end up playing against the story in some ways as stuff such as the Eternatus plot feels very underdeveloped as a result. They could've at least let the player get more involved to truly flesh the plot out some more.
Also, and this might just be a problem with me specifically, but this game has a bad habit of being unable to properly punish its characters for their actions. We have Bede who wrecks a mural and gets his just deserts by rightfully being disqualified for vandalizing a historical monument...and then the game undermines that punishment by having Opal promote him to the next Fairy Gym Leader and by the end, he's still a jerk so he learns NOTHING. It especially feels insulting because Opal promotes him...because he wears pink. No, I'm serious. Now some might say "But he's still suffering, because he's humiliated by his position and wanted to get away from Opal!" Yeah...no, he grows to like his new position and after we defeat him for the fourth time in the story, he gives up trying to get away from Opal and embraces his new role whole-heartedly. Bede didn't get the punishment he deserved and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth every time I get to this part.
And then there's Sordward and Shielbert, the villains we encounter in the post-game plot. They carry out this elaborate plot in where they want to corrupt Zacian and Zamazenta and have them go on a rampage just so they can look like destructive monsters instead of the heroes they are...and their punishment is that they have to go on an "apology tour" to make up for their actions. It just feels like they got off WAAAAAAAAAAAY too easily and their "punishment" amounts to a slap on the wrist. I mean even Chairman Rose took responsibility for his actions and turned himself in for nearly dooming Galar. Why couldn't Sordward and Shielbert get arrested too?
It took until the Isle of Armour for a jerk character to actually get proper punishment, which says a lot about the plot's priorities when guys like Bede and the brothers commit worse atrocities than trying to cheat in a Pokémon match and they don't get punished but the rival character in the Isle of Armour does. Is the game trying to tell me that cheating in a Pokémon battle is a worse crime than destroying monuments and attempting to destroy Galar by corrupting Legendary Pokémon? I think these games need a new moral compass, because the directions on it are all over the place!
The DLC doesn't improve much in terms of plot either. The "stories" are essentially a series of fetch-quests with a loose plot tying them together and the most we get is just extra world-building and lore to uncover. The Crown Tundra's plot is a little stronger what with the presence of Legendary Pokémon and the back story of Calyrex but it's still not much.
And don't get me started on that ridiculous moment where we have to break into Rose Tower because Leon's late for dinner. There's excuse plots and then there's "making stuff happen for no reason"!
I know story has never been Pokémon's strongest point, but Sword and Shield could easily be considered one of the weakest plots the games have ever churned out. But most people don't play Pokémon games for the plot so this won't bother them, me especially as my main priority when playing a Pokémon game is raising my team and having fun. A weak story won't matter to me as long as the game's still enjoyable after all...
Section 2: The Characters
It's weird how despite a thin story, this game has some of Pokémon's most memorable characters, be they the new rivals, the new Champion or the new Gym Leaders.
Let's start with our rivals. There's at least five of them overall with two of them being version exclusive. We have Hop, who is the only rival in the games who feels like he has a complete arc. He starts off as the cocky young brother of Leon, the regional Champion, who hopes to be his successor. He's brash, reckless and very hyperactive but after an encounter with Bede that ends with him losing, there's a very noticeable change in his behaviour. He becomes less reckless over time, changes his party up to show he's experimenting with different Pokémon and trying to figure out what will work for him and in the end, he comes to decide that becoming Champion is no longer his goal and he chooses to become a Pokémon Professor instead. As bare bones as the plot of Sword and Shield is, they really did a great job on developing Hop and following the example of previous games that gave their rivals more depth, be they Bianca and Cheren from Black and White, Hugh from Black2 and White2 or Gladion from the Sun and Moon series.
Then there's Bede and Marnie. Bede is a waste of space and shouldn't have been created. Not only is he a complete jerk for no reason, but he never develops over the course of the game as detailed in the story section, he gets rightfully punished for wrecking a historical mural and then it gets undermined by Opal making him the next Gym Leader, which to me came off as rewarding him for his jerkish behaviour. By the end of the game, he's still a jerk so as I said, he learns nothing.
Marnie on the other hand is someone who deserved way more screen time than what she got. Not only is she way more likeable than Bede by being a pretty nice girl despite her aloof nature (as well as adorable at times, particularly her practicing smiling moment) but she has the most sympathetic motive behind competing in the Gym Challenge to become the Champion. She lives in Spikemuth Town, a rundown area that is in dire straits due to the town lacking a power spot that maxes Dynamaxing possible. Unlike Bede where he just wants to become Champion...because, Marnie has a real reason to want to claim that title and this backstory adds so many layers that has me wondering why Bede was created in the first place. All he does is take away screen time that should've been spent developing Marnie more because she's the most interesting rival in the games.
For the DLC, we have Klara and Avery as our rivals for the Isle of Armour with Klara exclusive to Sword and Avery exclusive to Shield. These two characters are completely interchangeable as they have the exact same arc of competing with the player character on the island to try and complete Mustard's trials. It really annoys me that they're this interchangeable because it feels lazy on GameFreak's behalf and like it doesn't matter which game you play because you essentially get the same rival. The only differences are that Klara is a Poison-type trainer and Avery is a Psychic-type trainer and that Avery is slightly more of a jerk than Klara is. Unlike Bede, at least they actually get a proper punishment for their actions and have some kind of development as by the end of the game, they're a little nicer.
And then we have Leon, the Champion of Galar that we have to defeat. Leon is great, both as a character and as a boss battle. He's full of personality and gets to have an expanded role compared to most Champions as he's actively involved in the plot, something we haven't seen since Lance from the Gen 2 games. He mentors the player from time-to-time and he's fun to be around whenever he's onscreen. It is a pity that it's because of him that we're locked out of the game's more interesting parts but at least it shows he's a Champion that takes his position seriously and actively goes out of his way to defend Galar. It would be nice if he didn't big his Charizard up so much but that's another story. As a boss fight, he has a strong team consisting of Aegislash, Haxorus, Dragapult, Charizard and the last two slots depend on who your starter is with him picking the starter that's strong against yours and another Pokémon that your starter is strong against (seems pretty counter intuitive, doesn't it?). I've never found him particularly hard due to my usual strategy of over-levelling before I fight anyone but Leon's no pushover regardless. He's a Champion that will make you work for that title!
We also have Sonia, granddaughter of Professor Magnolia and possibly one of my biggest Pokémon crushes out there. Like Hop, Sonia also gets an actual arc in which she's encouraged to make something with her life and thus looks into the legends of the Darkest Day. It's through her that we uncover the mystery behind Galar's heroes and her hard work is paid off with a promotion to Professor at the end of the game. You really feel she's earned her gran's lab coat and I always feel happy for her when I reach that part. You really earned it, Sonia.
And of course, there's our main villain of the game, Chairman Rose. Calling him a villain is a bit of a stretch though as he's not even particularly evil. He's a man who wants to ensure Galar's safety and he's worried about a future energy crisis that's 1'000 years away from actually becoming a problem. His impatience leads to him unleashing Eternatus in a well-meaning, but misguided approach to solving the problem. The only time Rose does anything particularly villainous for me is when he battles the player for no real reason while Leon's trying to stop the Darkest Day. It just felt unnecessary for him to do this as we're only trying to help too and that it's just there because we need a boss fight with the villain as it's a tradition in Pokémon games. Despite that, I give GameFreak credit for being more creative with their villains and giving us a villain that is more a well-intentioned extremist than straight up evil for a change.
For our resident evil team, we have Team Yell. Like Chairman Rose, they're not actually evil, just well-intentioned extremists who want to help Marnie win but pretty much act like overbeating toxic fanboys that are more a nuisance than anything. They're the weakest evil team in any Pokémon game as they have very little bearing on the plot and merely serve as an accessory to Marnie's story. They should've been thrown out and never used as they're pretty useless to the story. What a letdown they are compared to the great teams of Team Rocket, Team Galactic, Team Plasma and the Magma and Aqua teams...
In terms of really evil villains, we have Sordward and Shielbert in the post-game plot. They both suck. I do not wish to delve any deeper than that.
We also have our usual Gym Leaders, but this time we get ten of them as we have four Gym Leaders that are version exclusive. We have Milo, Nessa, Kabu, Opal, Piers and Raihan for both versions while Sword players get Bea and Gordie and Shield players get Allister and Melony. Each Gym Leader has their own personality, typing and gimmick with what kind of mini-game you have to play to get to them, like previous Gym Leaders, but what makes these Gym Leaders stand out is how they're depicted in-universe. They're portrayed akin to real-life sports celebrities, complete with there being collector cards you can get of them that tells you a bit about who they are as people. I like this feature as it makes sense that Pokémon Gym Leaders would be on the level of sports personalities and it adds a little extra depth to them by including these cards that can tell you more about them. My personal favourite of the bunch is Bea, which is probably why Sword is my favourite one to play out of the two games. XD
The DLC have other characters they introduce too such as Mustard, Leon's old mentor and the man in charge of the Master Dojo on the Isle of Armour, and his wife Honey, who weirdly enough looks young enough to be his daughter. Mustard's fun in that usual "Quirky Mentor" way and provides a great boss fight at the end of the Isle of Armour in where his Urshifu will wreck you hard if you're not careful. Honey ends up being a secret boss fight, which was neat and really made me think twice about underestimating her, let me tell you. XD It's especially gobsmacking watching he Gigantamax her Pokémon, literally throwing that Dynamaxed Pokémon into the air one-handed with no effort! I think I see why Mustard married this woman...
For the Crown Tundra, we have Peony and his daughter Peonia. Peony has an interesting back story as the brother of Chairman Rose and is one heck of a ball of fun. He's so corny and goofy that he's a riot and I love him, even if I'm glad he's not my dad. XD Peonia on the other hand has no reason to exist other than as an occasional battle partner in Max Raids. She has no bearing on the Tundra's plot and unlike Honey, she is NOT a secret boss battle, which really sucks as it would've been awesome if she was. The weird thing is that data-mining shows she could've been a boss fight but I guess GameFreak changed their minds and just left her with nothing. Talk about a waste...
While the game's weak plot doesn't do them much favours, the characters at least are a memorable bunch and I guarantee that you'll walk away with a favourite or two. Pokémon has always been great at creating memorable characters and Sword and Shield keeps up this tradition.
Continued in Part 2...