For what started out as some of the year’s most anticipated games, Pokémon Sword and Shield are hands-down the most divisive entries in the series to date. The main franchises’ first leap to home consoles (barring 2018’s Let’s Go games) brought with it endless possibilities for fully realizing the large-scale Pokémon adventure so many had dreamed of. Instead, the rollout for the games became marred by cut content, divisive technical quality, and the worst developer-fanbase fallout since Fallout 76.
Once the dust settled and the titles were finally released, though, most of these stumbles leading up to launch quickly dropped to the wayside. Players fell in love with the new Pokémon designs, the iffy visual fidelity was gradually accepted, and the launch weekend for Sword and Shield became the most successful in franchise history.
As players were making their way to the endgame and diving into the depths of competitive team-building and online play, shiny hunting, and more, however, one niggling imperfection still remained: the lack of a compelling, story-driven main campaign.
Pokémon Sword and Shield don’t have very much in the way of narrative depth. This might seem like a silly complaint since Pokémon has rarely been known for having a strong story (save for Black and White/Black and White 2), but this is truly as streamlined as the franchise has ever been. Players need only follow a single clearly-indicated path to finish the majority of the game. Conversations with NPCs are largely hollow, there’s never much to do in town, and every Gym Challenge ends with a quick story sequence hurrying the player on to the next beat.
The most disappointing part of it all is that there are hints of great world-building and unique gameplay possibilities everywhere in Sword and Shield; they’re just seemingly abandoned for the sake of accessibility. Though the quality of the story’s final act can be debated, what happens for the dozens of hours before that is much more cut and dried.
From the start, Pokémon has always been a series steeped in a grand sense of adventure. Putting the influence of Ash’s escapades in the anime aside, traveling around Kanto in the original games felt exciting and wondrous. Unique events like sailing around on the S.S. Anne and stumbling upon a Team Rocket hideout underneath a casino went a long way in making that first Pokémon journey dynamic and surprising. The introduction of secret bases in later generations added a welcome sense of ownership and personalization to their respective regions. Even being able to have different NPCs temporarily join the party and travel through select areas together made the treks between towns that much more engrossing.
Pokémon Sword and Shield have all the trappings of a fully realized adventure without being fleshed out enough to reach their true potential. Things start out promising; players are treated to homey cutscenes with Hop’s family that help ground the friendship with Hop (a fun-filled family BBQ) and scenes that spark the excitement of travel (racing away from the village with Hop in the train). Once the opening ceremony of the Gym Challenge is over, however, there are very few opportunities to ever feel like a true inhabitant of the Galar region.
JRPGs have thrived by immersing players in their worlds for decades–heck, even other modern titles on Switch like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Dragon Quest XI S have gone the extra mile to get players invested. Unlike those much-beloved games, however, the world of Sword and Shield can quickly start to feel rather hollow for those who aren’t interested in racing to the endgame.
For instance: Players get to visit restaurants and hotels throughout their journey, but the game never shows any eating or resting to make these places feel real; even being able to order a stat-boosting dish for the Pokémon would’ve been a nice option. Towns as a whole simply feel like pretty cardboard cutouts because of how little there is to do in each. When the only options are clothes shopping, finding that one NPC to trade with, and sightseeing, it can be easy to forget that this is a living, breathing game world. Gorgeous towns like Ballonlea feel wasted because there’s nothing but a few houses, a Pokémon Center, and a Gym to keep players coming back.
The few times a good bit of story content pops up, it simply leaves one wanting more. The surprise Sherlock Holmes spoof in Circhester is a delight despite its shallowness, and the Applin-related love story in Hammerlocke is adorable. As brief as these side quests are by typical JRPG standards, they nonetheless highlight the diversity of stories that can be told in the Pokémon universe. Instead, whenever an interesting story thread starts to bubble up, the player is simply urged to continue along the Gym Challenge and essentially “let the grown-ups handle it.”
Beauty That’s Only Skin-Deep
Pokémon Sword and Shield have some of the best character and town designs in franchise history. Fan-favorite Gym Leaders Nessa and Raihan spring to life during their matches, and beautifully detailed locales like the snow-covered winter wonderland Circhester are true delights to take in. Unfortunately, even the most charismatic of characters and most beautiful of towns suffer from the same core issue here: one-dimensionality.
Unlike previous generations where Gym Leaders can be seen in various roles throughout the course of the game, the Gym Leaders in Galar are largely stagnant. All of them hold celebrity-like status and are vital to their respective towns, but only snippets of who they are, come from the townspeople or them themselves; it’s the biographies on the trainer cards that often do the heavy lifting. These bits of lore are great treats that do tons to help flesh out these genuinely interesting personalities that get so little time to shine. That said, it’d be even better to actually see posters from Nessa’s modeling career or witness Allister interacting with Ghost-type Pokémon.
To its credit, Sword and Shield does boast one of the most nuanced rivals in some time. Hop undergoes a surprisingly heartfelt journey of self-discovery as he wrestles with his worth as a trainer and the brother of the regional champion. All along the way he constantly changes up his party as he tries to find the perfect composition for his needs, making his character progression that much authentic. If every character was treated with the same level of care and depth as Hop, Sword and Shield would be that much more memorable as a whole.
The latest Pokémon entries are positively bursting with potential. Hop is a strong, dynamic rival, the games have wonderful character designs, and the Pokémon roster is quite strong despite its smaller size. However, there simply aren’t enough strong characters or fun activities outside of the core gameplay loop to satiate those who don’t care for the endgame grind. One can only hope that the next mainline entry (or the third version of Gen VIII) gives a bit more shine to the solo players of the world.