…we’re still gonna play them, though.
The veil has finally been lifted on the eighth generation of Pokémon games, dubbed Pokémon Sword and Shield. The reveal was a big moment for the series, as it marks the first time a mainline Pokémon title has appeared on the Switch. The promise of a new region to explore, new Pokémon to find, and new mysteries to unravel is more than enough to get us excited, even this early on. Fans are already pouring over the new starter characters and deciding what allegiances they’ll be making, designing fan art, and coming up with memes and jokes as they indulge in all the new details the trailer revealed to us.
As the Nintendo Direct showed us the games in action, they were clearly every bit the Pokémon we know and love. But are they too familiar? While it’s too early to tell just how unique a mainline Pokémon experience Sword and Shield will be on a current generation Nintendo console, especially after just one short trailer, some of the more critical sentiments online bring up a few good points.
Across social media, amidst fans rejoicing over the reveal, some reactions have been hesitant. The most common concern online has to do with general perception over a lack of innovation: the visual design (while still pretty and seemingly full of diverse landscapes) look mostly on the same level as the last iteration in Sun and Moon, they operate with the familiar fixed camera view, and it doesn’t appear that some of the welcome advancements Let’s Go made (de-emphasizing random encounters, for instance) made their way over into this new chapter in the mainline series. All of these concerns are certainly not off-base.
With some visually impressive, modern-looking games already available on the Switch, it’s not unreasonable for fans to expect something new of the Pokémon series, and based on what we saw in the Pokémon direct, the core gameplay and visual style of Sword and Shield looks like it will closely resemble that of the series’ debut on the Game Boy back in 1996.
The series has continued to borrow conventions from JRPGs of that same time period, and that strategy has largely worked. Without a real miss in the mainline Pokémon franchise history, it’s easy to see why Game Freak would want to take that formula and effectively make it bigger in Sword and Shield. It’s immediately recognizable — even from just a second’s glance — and for a first showing, maybe that’s enough.
Sword and Shield look like they’re continuing the trend of Pokémon’s familiar polygonal anime art style, debuted in 2013, with the same fixed camera that sits just far enough away from the player character to give you a wide view of the surrounding area. Several complaints online pointed to the remarkable similarities between Sun and Moon and Sword and Shield, with sentiments wondering why decades of technological and artistic advancement haven’t translated over to the series — at least not yet.
The new region we get to explore, Galar, is by far Pokémon Sword and Shield’s most interesting debut. It seems to be based on the UK, and it’s one of the most visually distinct settings in the franchise’s history. The trailer also gave us a brief glimpse at a possible soccer mode, with the player character donning a traditional soccer jersey and cleats before walking out onto the pitch in what appeared to be a massive stadium. Most Pokémon games have at least one new element in them, from Gold and Silver’s day/night cycle to Sun and Moon’s photo mode. Whatever this new feature ends up being, it certainly looks like something distinct that’s coming to the Pokémon franchise. (The three starter Pokémon – Scorbunny, Sobble, and Grookey – are already celebrated designs, and there will no doubt be more new Pokémon revealed as we get closer to the games’ late 2019 release window.)
The map, which was also shown during the presentation, looks huge, too. The structure of the map also suggests that Sword and Shield will follow the series’ staple of a linear structure in which you’re mostly guided from point to point on the map through the games’ respective stories. It depicts a seemingly vast world to explore, but if the new games stick to those same series conventions, it’s likely certain paths will be closed off to you until your Pokémon level up and gain new abilities (like Surf or Cut), which have traditionally let you reach areas that were previously inaccessible.
The Pokémon Let’s Go Wish List
Last year’s Let’s Go titles introduced a stunning new art style and some quality of life changes the Pokémon series was in desperate need of. It was also Game Freak’s first outing on the Switch, and so it would stand to reason that that same aesthetic could have made its way into a mainline, modern Pokémon chapter. Pokémon’s appeal to younger gamers is no secret; the franchise has enjoyed success with players of all ages since its inception, but the anime and merchandise helped further popularize the series with a younger crowd. Retaining the simpler art style the series is known for will likely help continue to speak to this demographic of younger players and parents looking for a kid-friendly title this holiday season.
There were other aspects to Let’s Go’s world that helped it feel more lively. In Let’s Go, you can see exactly which Pokémon are hiding in the tall grass and choose which ones to catch. This overworld encounter mechanic was well received — particularly because it helped people avoid random encounters if they wanted. It also contributed to a world that was filled with activity and felt less sparse than some predecessors.
Another item that is on nearly every outspoken Pokémon fan’s list is the ability to choose your favorite pocket monster and have it follow you around the world. Game Freak has often toyed with the idea of adding the feature to the mainline series. In Pokémon Yellow, the player’s Pikachu would follow you and, in Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, any pokémon could follow the player, similar to how they do so in the Let’s Go games.
However, the feature hasn’t yet reappeared in a mainline game. It seems some at Game Freak was toying with the idea — data-miners found walking and running animations for every pokémon in Pokémon Sun and Moon’s files — but it hasn’t been officially announced in Sword and Shield. It’s possible it may be added or revealed as the games near their launch.
The Breath of the Wild Argument
A different thread on the Pokémon subreddit is full of arguments for and against bringing major changes to the Pokemon franchise, as Breath of the Wild did to the Zelda series. Despite an overall consensus of the excitement of the Pokémon Sword and Shield reveal, many still felt it’s time for something fresh in the series after 23 years.
There’s certainly a prevalence of fans who want to see the series’ conventions change. “The entry cost to this game is much higher and it’ll be 60 bucks rather than 40. What’s wrong with expecting something better if I’m paying even more,” wrote throwaway_5256. Redditor -goob cited several other franchises that made big, formulaic changes to great success like God of War, Spider-Man, Assassin’s Creed, and Monster Hunter. “People aren’t asking for Pokemon to be a grandeous [sic] BOTW-style epic. People are asking for something new,” they wrote.
Others are quick to point out (and accurately so) that we don’t know enough about these new entries to determine how they’ll play just yet. As Reddit user Arpet explains, “It looks like the starting three towns or so are linear, but once you get to that big city in the center youll [sic] be able to go to one of four or five other areas. If they design the game like that, it’ll be akin to how you have to finish the tutorial before being thrown into an expanded world, like BOTW.” There’s also the counterpoint that a linear structure inherently speaks to Pokémon’s design: “A Pokemon game is necessarily linear because of the way leveling works. It would not be interesting to go back to an alternative route that is lower level than what you’re currently at,” wrote lesubreddit.
Pokémon games essentially print money, with nearly guaranteed sales potential, but if Nintendo has taught us one thing with Breath of the Wild, it’s that throwing out the rulebook can occasionally lead a franchise to untold success. That game not only introduced a freshness to the series, but it was also one of the most successful games in Zelda’s history. It’s easy to see why Pokémon fans would want the same level of evolutionary treatment.
But a drastic change to the Pokémon franchise is unlikely. This is the first mainline game in the series on Switch, and the development team is likely still adapting to the newer hardware after so many years on the 3DS. But, after 23 years, the series is long overdue for some structural changes.
For the majority of Pokémon fans, the arrival of Pokémon Sword and Shield is, overall, a joyful affair. But these concerns aren’t unwarranted. Fortunately, we have much more to learn about these modern entries in the Pokémon series. Regardless of what changes they do — or don’t — bring, we can’t wait to see more.
Steve Bowling is a freelance games journalist and YouTuber. When he isn’t busy making videos on GameXplain, you can catch him yelling at clouds on Twitter at @SteveMBowling. The rest of the time he can be found peacefully sleeping in a Snorlax bean bag chair.