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‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’ Review: The Weakest Entry to Date

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It’s been long-awaited. For months, the Pokémon fandom had been teased with trailers and new pokémon additions in the run-up to the launch of Pokémon Sword and Shield. With the ability to play a mainline Pokémon game on the big screen for the first time since using the Game Boy transfer pak on a copy of Pokémon Stadium, Sword and Shield were going to pioneer a new adventure for the Pokémon series, and they have to some extent. The problem is, for all their wholesome charm and stunning graphics, Pokémon Sword and Shield are the weakest entries into the series to date.

There’s no denying that Pokémon Sword and Shield are full of personality. The English inspiration behind this generation has been interwoven beautifully, from the way the NPCs talk, to the red letterboxes in Wyndon. The whole journey is bright, gorgeous, and full of detail never seen in a Pokémon game before. It’s all rather wholesome, but lacks the animosity that drove previous entries, such as Team Rocket murdering the Marowak, or the genocidal ambitions of Lysandre. Indeed, the most that happens is a rather unfortunate power cut.

Since Pokémon X and Y, Game Freak has tried endlessly to add new mechanics to pokémon battles, a part of the game that didn’t need modifying.

This might seem overly critical of a series that relies more on the post-game pokédex completion and multiplayer battles, but in previous entries, there has always been substance to the story writing. Pokémon Sword and Shield lack what previous entries had in abundance: a worthwhile antagonist. Where there were once Team Aqua and Team Magma fighting for world domination, there is now Team Yell, who has been relegated to cheerleading one of your “rivals.” Where there was once Giovanni creating a pokémon of mass destruction, there is now a chairman wearing Hawaiian shorts. The game wants to merely rush you through the eight badges without much of a roadblock in the way.

Obviously, a Pokémon game isn’t just about the story, and the gameplay is terrific. Catching pokémon has never been better, with random encounters for the most part gone, utilizing the success that Pokémon Let’s Go had with roaming pokémon in real-time. This certainly helps to avoid the nonsense of Zubat after Golbat after Geodude in caves, helping the trainer choose which wild pokémon they wish to encounter. That said, it isn’t always easy, and the personality of every pokémon is shown in the tall grass. A Liepard will chase you and likely catch up if you don’t have your wits about you, while a Shuckle will barely move at all. Even the battles have improved, with much more vibrant animations and interesting new moves that keep them fresh.

Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing, however, feel like they’ve been added for the sake of new content. Neither adds anything meaningful to the gameplay, with both becoming more of a frivolous finale rather than a tactical decision to be made by the player. Since Pokémon X and Y, Game Freak has tried endlessly to add new mechanics to pokémon battles, a part of the game that didn’t need modifying. Mega Evolution in X and Y at least had some tactical substance that complimented the gameplay, but Z-Moves in Sun and Moon and Dynamax in Sword and Shield have both been obstructions to the gameplay rather than welcomed additions.

The issue is that the wild area in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which is a fantastic region in the center of Galar that is full of powerful pokémon, relies on the Dynamax, and subsequently the Gigantamax, concept. The addition of Dynamax raids as a new multiplayer function is an admirable attempt to introduce new multiplayer content for players, but ultimately it barely feels like a Pokémon game at all. A Dynamax raid allows a group of four players to battle a Dynamaxed pokémon, with the hope of catching the almighty beast. The gameplay itself feels like a boss battle from the Zelda series, which becomes a novelty that wears off before the first raid finishes. Unfortunately, it becomes a tiresome feature that didn’t need to exist at all.

And here lies another problem with the storyline, and consequently, the gym battles: Pokémon Sword and Shield are built around a mechanic that is, for the most part, boring. Every gym leader has a Dynamax band, and will use it on their last pokémon; the Champion’s cup and any battle with an important NPC suffer the same repetitive routine. However, the difficulty curve has improved, with gym leaders and other trainers providing a much sterner battle than before. Admittedly, not Whitney’s Miltank difficulty, but enough of a challenge to ensure that the player isn’t just going through the motions.

From the ice cube head penguin Eiscue to Grimmsnarl who looks like he was dancing with David Bowie in the Labyrinth, so many of these designs have been inept.

This is where the strength of the wild area also blossoms. It’s entirely uncompromising, and a delight to see. The game forces the player to travel through the area twice during the story, and it’s entirely possible to encounter a pokémon twenty levels above your own, ensuring your demise is swift. There are a lot of rare pokémon there too — usually from previous games, which is terrific, because the new pokémon designs range from lackluster to downright disastrous.

It’s often asked whether Pokémon has run out of ideas when it comes to designing pokémon. X and Y made it easy to argue against that idea, as there were so many amazing designs; likewise with Sun and Moon. Unfortunately, after Pokémon Sword and Shield, the drop in the quality has been a complete freefall. From the ice cube-headed penguin Eiscue to Grimmsnarl, who looks like he was dancing with David Bowie in the Labyrinth, so many of these designs seem inept. There’s even a Mr. Mime evolution called Mr. Rime, who looks like he was taken from a Pringles’ tube and given a pimp cane. The pokémon additions in Sword and Shield have been beyond woeful, and it doesn’t end there.

This includes the starter pokémon, whose final evolutions are easily the worst in the series. While Rillaboom has limited redeeming features, the Sobble evolutionary lineage is a parody of an emo rock band, while Cinderace looks like its powered by a Duracell battery. Usually, there’s a standout starter that you can expect to be the focal point of the animé, such as Froakie from X and Y or Chimchar from Diamond and Pearl, but in Pokémon Sword and Shield, you’d count yourself fortunate if you remember any of their names.

Pokémon Sword and Shield aren’t bad games; they just don’t live up to the expectations that are now demanded from Pokémon.

Customization of your character is back, which is always a nice addition. While it’s never going to be a game changer, personalization is always encouraging, particularly with the multiplayer capabilities of the Pokémon games. Much like in X and Y, you can splash some of your hard-fought money on some clothes or a nice, new trim. Each town offers new clothes and accessories too, so exploring the world of Galar really opens up new opportunities to customize your character.

Pokémon Sword and Shield do suffer from occasional lag when moving around some of the more clustered areas. It doesn’t affect the game too much, but it can become more frequent when the servers themselves are overloaded. You’ll know when the servers are overloading when the online functions won’t load, including Mystery Gift. This can be a problem for long periods (up to 24 hours in some cases), which means sometimes playing the game will be impossible.

This is unfortunate, as for the most part, Pokémon Sword and Shield aren’t bad games; they just don’t live up to the expectations that are now demanded from Pokémon. They are enjoyable enough, but for the most part, employ functions that have been staples since Red and Blue. What’s new in Sword and Shield is genuinely lackluster, unexciting, or utterly forgettable, and it’s a shame because they had all the ingredients to be truly spectacular.

Lost his ticket on the 'Number 9' Luxury Express Train to the Ninth Underworld. Has been left to write articles and reviews about games to write off his debt until the 'powers that be' feel it is sufficiently paid.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

PAX South

Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Animated GIF

Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

PAX South

Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

Animated GIF

However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

PAX South

It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode

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Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
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