The New Bark Codex
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The New Bark Codex

Poké-Tours: Pokémon Sword

Inconsistent and controversial, but loaded with fun and charm

I. Introduction

Pokémon Sword is one of the two recent titles released for the Nintendo Switch. Excluding the Let’s Go series, this game is the first Pokémon main series game to be featured on a proper home console rather than a handheld. This means that for the first time, Pokémon games are being powered by powerful hardware that compromise little for mobility. This should mean that as players, we can expect way more new features and better graphics from the Generation 8 games.

The game is set in the Galar region, which is inspired by the geography, architecture, and culture of the United Kingdoms. The base game contains 400 species of Pokémon from the Galar Dex, including 87 new species that are native to Galar, with the rest being familiar faces from previous generations. However, many of the Pokémon absent are not only simply absent from the games, but are not even coded into the game’s engine to begin with. For the first time ever, some of my favorites, such as Porygon, Sceptile, and Ampharos to name a few, are not even allowed to exist in the game.

II. Narrative

The trainer culture in Galar is very different from what we have seen in previous games. The Gym Challenge is formalized as an official tournament very much like the presentation of Pokemon Leagues in the anime. Every Gym is a massive stadium with spectators cheering on, creating an atmospheric effect not presumably not unlike football culture in the UK. Every Gym is a ‘Power Spot’, an area filled with Galar particles that enable Pokemon to Dynamax (or Gigantamax), allowing them to transform into humongous sizes.

You begin as a new trainer from Postwick, a small charming town with Wooloo roaming the grasslands and Butterfree perching on roofs. The regional Champion Leon is also from this town, and his little brother, Hop, happens to be your neighbor! The story begins with him inviting you to meet his Champion of a brother, who presents each of you with one out of three adorable starter Pokemon. Later on, both of you are to partake in the Gym Challenge, with the Champion’s own endorsement after witnessing your battles. This journey is also joined with by Sonia, who is a researcher rediscovering her passion towards her career and decides to specialize in Galar’s history.

Without giving away too much, the story simply revolves around the Gym Challenge that is sponsored organized by a corporate leader to maintain Galar’s proud culture of extravagant battles involving Dynamaxing. You form rivalries with several characters along the way:

  1. Hop. Your overly enthuastic and airhead of a neighbor with an delusional fixation on being Champion, and is always being served reality checks from (spoilers alert) you.
  2. Bede. A raving egomaniac that happens to be a decent Psychic-Fairy type battler obsessed with collecting Wishing Stones (crucial for Dynamaxing) for the Chairman.
  3. Marnie. A courteous Dark type user with goth cute styling, and a cute Morpeko companying her. What is not cute and courteous is her rowdy and absolutely obnoxious group of cheerleaders that is Team Yell, who are determined to create unnecessary obstacles for every other Gym Challengers and pave a smooth path for Marnie.

Most of the narrative is very much tied with your rivalries with these characters, who are mostly uninteresting. Hop mostly rambles on about his Champion ambition, but also checks in with your battling skills all the time and offers unsolicited coaching advice, despite getting his ass handed non-stop. Bede never misses an opportunity to put you down with uncalled for snarky remarks. Marnie seems to mostly exist for fanservice (?), but at this rate I am grateful to actually have a rival that is psychologically well. The better parts of the story actually lies in the interaction with Sonia, who is actively studying the legends of the landmarks and trying to weave everything into a coherent history. The delivery of this is not impressive with rather predictable plot, but accompanying Sonia as she constructs this history is the most promising aspect of the game’s plot.

The Gym Challenge (and the occasionally strolling into the Wild Area) occupies the player for most of the gameplay. The pacing starts off slow due to the intrusive and compulsory tutorials, but the pace picks up once the gym fights begin. In fact, the early parts can be quite exciting as the players are introduced to some pretty fresh scenarios and quality of life upgrades. Players can actually access and use the storage system remotely. Wild Pokemon now mostly show up in the overworld and rustling grass. There are both unlimited use TMs and limited use TRs. Pokemon Centers now have a ‘psychologist’ that serves as Name Rater, Move Relearner, and Move Deleter at once. You are also introduced to the promising open world that is the Wild Area. So while the plot is slow, the introduction of the new features very well justify the pace.

Despite signs of catastrophic trouble brewing related with the energies of Dynamax and Galar’s history, the players somehow never got to be part of it until very late. There were hints of action happening behind the scenes, but the players were always told to just go on as usual with their Gym Challenge and eventually the Champion’s Cup. Instead of feeling like a hero on a rich journey, the player just feels like a regular challenger who happens to be the Champion’s brother’s friend, being at the right place and the right time to pick up the ball which others dropped.

All in all, there was no real sense of a story being played out and lived out, but a story being told to you as you progress and pick up at a couple of critical points. Also, that story is underwhelming at best, and terrible at its worst.

III. Explorability

While the narrative was underwhelming, the game world is actually fairly interesting and promising at first glance! Most locations (if not all of them) in the game are beautifully crafted, with vibrant effects and colors alongside some interesting nook and crannies to peek into.

The small towns are simple, but the landmarks and decorations really light them up well. Hulbury has ocean view, fishing spots, and markets. Turffield has hills with lush grasslands and mysterious standing stones. Ballonlea is flat out gorgeous with its dreamy landscape, with towering trees right from fairy tales and glowing mushrooms. Even Postwick, which is very likely the smallest and simplest town in existence, is breathtaking to view and lively with Wooloo, Budew, and Butterfree.

Meanwhile the larger cities are impressive and breathtaking. Motostoke and Hammerlocke are impressive castles, one integrating the advancements of engineering, while the other preserves the rich history of the land. Circhester feels like a never ending Christmas festival with its hotels, hot springs, and snow, while Wyndon simply feels like a grand capital city.

Other landmarks were also impressive. The Galar mines are littered with colorful gems, and sometimes bait by Stunfisks. The Glimwood Tangle is one of the most memorable regions in this game, with its interact-able glowing colorful mushrooms brightening up the paths. The Slumbering Weald feels pretty mundane at first, but a gorgeous lake view waits at its end.

However, despite these vividly illustrated and designed locations, they had very little content. There is some semblance of care and love being given into the crafting of these areas, but few towns in and it became obvious that this is a rushed product. Yes, there are places to explore in this game. There are paths and hidden items that are less obvious, but not a whole lot especially compared to most past games. There are also very little special features in most of these towns, making the towns unmemorable aside from their physical features. This is strange as the game starts off promising, with a Berry Vendor, boutique, and rail station in the first town, leading to Cafes, a different boutique, hairdresser, hotel, and random shops in the next. The next city had an interesting puzzle, followed by some specialty shops and restaurants that actually serve no function. It would seem that these areas are added to increase immersion into the world, but then plans were dropped and rushed. Unlike more well-made modern JRPGs like Persona 5 Royale, Pokemon Sword failed to turn these locations into actual features. Some of these places (such as the hotel in Wyndon and the Circhester restaurant) looked as if some content was going to happen there, but nothing actually happens aside from random irrelevant conversations and the occasional item reward. As far as exploration goes, players are to venture into houses and hotel rooms and engage in mostly meaningless dialogue.

That being said, exploring is not a chore. The revamped encounter system made this game generally a blast to explore, as the players have more choice in terms they want to engage in battles or avoid them. Some encounters will still happen from Pokemon that aggressively swarm towards you or just triggering random encounters, but the annoyance is only a fraction compared to what they used to be.

IV. Features, activities, and side quests

I have to admit, I was initially not sold on this. I personally liked the concept of Mega Evolutions and was able to accept the concept of Z-Powers, so when the news came that both of these do not exist and some dumb notion of upsizing your Pokemon for three turns replaces it instead I was upset. But now, I consider Dynamaxing to be a more clever mix of the prior two. Its exclusivity to Power Spots makes this only an option in more important battles such as Gym fights, boss fights, and raid battles, and enhances the emotional significance of these fights. Meanwhile, you sidestep the issue of having these power-ups on regular trainer battles and wild encounters at no cost, cheapening your upgrades and your interactions with them.

Old school one-use TMs make a return as TRs. While this looks like a few more backward steps in terms of quality of life, it does spice up gameplay a bit with the added limitations. The days of having to plan carefully for usage of your TRs are back! There is some debate to be had about what kind of moves are better suited as TMs (such as gym rewards), and what kind of moves are better suited as TRs. But TRs returning is generally a great thing that goes underappreciated.

Pokemon Centers are more convenient than ever, now serving as one stop shops for almost everything regarding team setup. On top of merging Nurse and Mart features (and getting rid of the almost useless Cafe from Alola), this game adds a NPC (some kind of ‘psychologist’ perhaps?) that can serves as a combination of Name Rater, Move Relearner, and Move Deleter at the same time. I would have liked it even better if he too serves as the Happiness Checker as ell, so that players don’t have to travel to a dedicated NPC in some otherwise obscure area as well.

I think this is the first time in a while that I genuinely found Gym Challenges exciting. This game might have the best take ever on the main game challenge, making every gym an unique experience that concludes in a Stadium battle, instead of glorified normal battles. Gym missions are more formalized in this game, which often involve solving puzzles and battling trainers along the way. Some battles even have additional rules that carry on into the final battle. The Dynamax battles with the Gym leader feels pretty significant too.

A somewhat interesting feature introduced through the PC at the Centers. You can now transfer your Pokemon and have them undergo certain off-screen tasks for EXP, rewards, and EV boosts. While not game-changing by most measures, it is a hassle-free ‘investment’ feature that you can do on the side without being distracted from your main adventure.

A better and sensible version of the Poke Amie/Refresh that actually fits in the game world nicely, which has relationship building, playing, and recovery at the same time. The features are actually pretty limited in its current iteration (its lacking the touch features from the 3DS games), with some of the animations being rather awkward and janky. I also did not understand the logic behind cooking Curry out of berries, but I can get behind this as a ‘cooking’ activity that rewards relationships. I also like the opportunity to interact with Pokemon in more than just battling, and observe their social dynamics. There are even NPCs that camp, which the player is invited along to join.

This is THE feature of Generation 8. A relatively open world full of wild Pokemon of all levels, raid battles, unpredictable weather, and rare items, all for you to freely explore. Now this is not exactly a rich open world experience, you only get to walk and cycle (later on water) and the landscapes get pretty repetitive and stale quickly, especially once the unique non-random content is explored. The full potential of this content deserves another writing on its own, for now I can only applaud the sense of wonder it inspires.

You can now access your Pokemon storage without having to go to a PC! This is the most radical quality of life improvement in the game so far. Now as long as you are not in a official fight (such as in the middle of Gym Challenges), you can choose to modify your team anywhere. This allows for accessible rotations to be made almost at a whim, allowing training to be more seamless. As long as potential exploits are accounted for, this is proving to be a generally healthy quality of life improvement that does not compromise the difficulty of the game.

I hope this stays forever. I love the minimal random encounters and greater emphasis of the player being able to decide how they want to spend time in the route. Players can decide if they want to explore and hunt for more species or avoid needless battles. Instead of wandering aimlessly in a grass patch, players can now see on the over-world for new species they haven’t seen, tiptoe to get the jump on timid species, or just whistle to attract them.

V. Pokémon Availability and Quality

‘Dexit’ is obviously controversial, and controversial enough to deserve its own article. Yet if I were to put that aside, this game actually still has enough Pokemon variety to make a good and interesting looking team, and keep you occupied filling out your PokeDex (without actually missing those that were ‘purged’ from existence). Pokemon variety is actually nothing short of rich, with nothing less than approximately five different wild Pokemon every route, and very little repeats aside those who stay in Berry trees. If anything, I found that the species in this game are generally very well-balanced with minimal ‘power-creeping’ from the previous games. Aside from a couple of early game critters, most Pokemon are actually pretty rewarding to train in the game environment.

I personally enjoyed using Corviknight, Polteageist, Toxtricity, and the evolutions of most Galarian forms. The Galarian forms with the new evolutions are brilliant refreshers and improvements upon their Kanto counterparts, although it does beg the question if regional forms are a satisfying resolution to existing ‘weak’ Pokemon.

An actual problem comes when you are trying to construct a Galar only team. There are about 87 (out of the 400 total available Pokemon) species that are entirely new in this generation. There is a surprising lack of Pokemon of certain types such as Fire, Grass, and Rock. This isn’t particularly challenging, but it does make for lesser variations of team building playing using new Pokemon.

Ultimately, despite Dexit, I really liked the game’s presentation of available Pokemon, and the list can get longer with the DLCs.

VI. Difficulty

For the most part, this game is easy, occasionally insultingly so. First note of concern is the EXP share being active throughout the entire game. There is no turning it off, so players lose the autonomy of wanting to be underleveled. In fact, unless you actively store the Pokemon you want to play in a future battle with in the Box, you are guaranteed to be about the same level with any battle you will encounter. Many regular trainers actually have Pokemon that are slightly lower leveled than the wild Pokemon, with boss battles being barely two or three levels higher than the wild species. It takes a special eye to find real challenge in this game on its own.

There is a lot of handholding that happens throughout the whole game. After the tutorials in the early parts, the game still feels like a major cutscene, with Hop and Sonia constantly showing up as checkpoints, congratulating you for minor achievements and telling you where to go for the next minor achievement. While I do not find it as intrusive as it was in the previous games, I do think the game should really lax on this a lot more considering that there isn’t much of a plot to hang on to.

That being said, some of the battles are actually pretty challenging. While spending some extra time on grinding can easily allow anyone to plow through the important battles with minimal resistance, if you are not familiar with strengths and resistances, some of the enemy rosters can catch you by surprise. In particular, I personally find Leon to be one of the more powerful Champions so far due to his variety of well rounded battling Pokemon.

VII. Postgame

The main ‘postgame’ is more of an extended campaign, which basically involves you stopping two descendants of the royal family from provoking the two legendary poster Pokemon and eliciting more wild Dynamax. Gym Leaders also get more screen time here as we work together with them tackling the amok Dynamaxed Pokemon. While the idea is generally not bad, this extended plot would have made much more sense if it was written directly into the main game. The two new characters are not best written ones, but they would have added a lot to the main story and still be equally impactful as postgame content. The way this plot was presented was also rather underwhelming with pretty much no new content. It definitely does felt like a rushed work with the writers forcing the title legendary Pokemon to be unavailable until this part of game, so that the postgame can deliver any sort of impact.

A classic implementation of the battle facility that never gets old. The player can choose to partake in Single and Double battles with every Pokemon level 50 and above set to 50, with basically no bans. Victories here grant the player BPs, which can be exchanged for all sorts of exclusive items that are crucial to build actually competitive teams. These include nature-altering Mints, Ability Capsules that can modify your Pokemon abilities, TMs, and powerful held items. This will be one of the main post-game features that keep players in the game, as they build their ideal teams and test them in the battles here. If building a team is not your thing, you can always get your hands on some of the battle-ready rental Pokemon here too!

As the official Champion of the Galar League, you are now the trainer that the rest of the League sets out to beat. You can go back to Wyndon Stadium and defend your Championship against the rest to grind for money and experience. Unlike your regular Elite Four repeats, every single tournament will be of a different structure as every run the brackets of opponents are decided by random (with one person you can specifically invite, but he/she might not even make it to a battle with you). By far the most interesting take on the Pokemon League rematches.

Lastly, you have the Wild Areas and the Isle of Armor…and so on. One of the most promising parts of Pokemon Sword and Shield is that there are virtually infinite avenues for ‘patches’ and expansions through using Expansion Passes. That aside, Wild Areas still have some avenues for explorations such as more Raid Battles and generally higher level wild Pokemon available for capturing. There is definitely room for replay-ability that can keep a player hooked for some time. But as you can see, I am running out of things to genuinely praise in terms of content.

VIII. Player experience summary (how it treats the players)

The player experience can be summed up in one word: confusing and inconsistent. The game seems promising at the beginning, promising epic battles, a tournament rat-race experience, potential for a great plot and vast world, and somewhat interesting characters. Until the game ends, then players can come to realize that these were generally empty promises. The excitement roused was treated to shallow, half-assed answers.

The new approach to wild Pokemon and refreshed Gym experience are great and players can feel the care given to craft the experience. But as the game progresses, the care for experience seems to deteriorate. The major characters started out with some semblance of a personality, but never seems to properly develop throughout the rest of the game. The game seems to offer you a sense of freedom and choice, but the cut-scenes and the handholding always get in the way of making this game feel truly fluid.

The graphics and scenery are vibrant and pretty, but you can’t help but notice inconsistent and sloppy work left and right in animations and textures. There seems to be a pretty significant and exciting plot foreshadowed at the earlier parts of the game which keeps you looking forward, and till the end it anticlimactically struck you that the show is over. This game can somehow fail at giving players a sense of adventure and have a story at the same time, where all this while it was thought to be a generally inevitable dichotomy of game design. The promise for further content was also exciting at first, but the actual play-through can make players question why they even cared to begin with.

There are some genuine high points in the game that was pretty much non-existent in most other games. The exploration of the vast Wild Area can really keep the player going, but at the same time the player also slowly learns that it is basically just a vast piece of barren content devoid of any plot significance not unlike what failed No Mans Sky. Discovery of the Surfing bike is was pretty exciting too, when the player experiences the seamless transition from land to water! But aside from a handful of routes and Wild Area it dawns on the player that there was not a lot of water present in this game anyways. That is if you don’t invest in an Expansion Pass.

All in all there was a promising big picture that was…delivered, but the actual experience was lacking. I was looking forward to something greater that seems promised which didn’t come, but I can’t complain about being lied to as the tickboxes were arguably ticked. Yet, why was I in this state of hoping for more and glad that it ended. This feeling of lack feels even more exaggerated if you compare to other games on Switch and the charm of past Pokemon games at their peak.

So at the end of the day, Pokemon Sword and Shield is great visually, but poor even as a visual novel. It still doesn’t play out a like a game on the Switch, even though the core experience can be enough reason to keep players. It is outstanding as a platform for competitive players to manage their team own, so that is pretty good for the competitive scene.

IX: Area of improvements

It is clear that the game holds having a good story as its priorities, but somehow it seems to just drop the ball when it comes to execution. For a game that has this much cutscenes, please improve the writing and allow the player to be much more involved.

This might be fixed with DLCs, but the way it is now there is not a lot of reason to continue playing the game once it is done. The battling facility is good, but there is a general lack of innovation overall. There are basically no new areas to explore after the main campaign, and almost no new exciting legendary or mythical Pokemon to go after. I would have liked to see the classic frustrating roaming legendary to be implemented with the new encounter mechanics!

Without the spoiling the game, it is still pretty safe to say that Team Yell has been the most pointless and insignificant antagonist so far, and that is accounting for Team Skull. Please invest more time in actually constructing a competent villain.

X: Summary

A overall rundown if this game is worth spending time on. Maybe even a verdict on a 10 point scale.

It’s faults aside, this game is testament to how the same old formula can be charming. Despite technically having went through the same rotation of collecting gyms, beating evil teams, capturing some world-threatening legendary, and beating the league for decades, I still got hooked to this. This felt even better by implementation of stadiums as venues for Gyms and tournaments. Even as a veteran who likes his share of nostalgia, there was nothing I sorely missed from the previous games.

With its new encounter mechanics and refreshing approach to Gyms, Pokemon Sword and Shield can be an extremely charming game that is inviting and can easily make you forget the flaws, but once you put down the game you can’t help but feel a certain emptiness. Good thing is the flaws generally cluster onto a couple of problems: rushed and poor writing. The game would have felt generally much more better if there was better plot that can make the player feel significant, with provocative themes, or if there was a real villain worth taking on, or if the major characters had even an extra inch of depth. A quick glance at the Pokemon Twilight Wings series on YouTube is proof that how much writing can elevate a game world.

Maybe Pokemon games don’t need to be pushed out every year?



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JY Tan

Psychology enthusiast, trainee counsellor, washed up scientist, struggling writer. Sometimes reviews games and books, but mostly rants about life’s left hooks.