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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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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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