Game Freak has just brought us a new generation of Pokemon in a pair of Switch games that can best be described as adequate.
It's becoming hard for a few of us aging millennials to imagine but the Pokémon franchise has been around for nearly 25 years. In that time, it has released 35 main installments and more spin-offs than I care to count. The characters have been featured in other video games, a massive trading card game, a long-running animated series, numerous animated films, a modestly successful live action adaptation, and even the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. At the heart of it all, however, has been a relatively straightforward RPG series that hasn't actually changed all that much over the past 2 decades.
If you've played any Pokémon game then you should have a pretty good idea as to what to expect from Pokémon Shield. You play as an aspiring Pokémon trainer from a small town who obtains a starter Pokémon. The story mostly centers on your character capturing and training new Pokémon and battling the region's 8 gym leaders before taking on its champion. Along the way, you have to deter a plot by a sinister organization, prove yourself superior to your rival, and take on legendary Pokémon that you sometimes encounter by chance. Pokémon Shield follows this formula to a tee but in many ways, it feels dumbed down when compared to previous installments.
The basic formula is intact and it's as fun as you remember it. The entire campaign is essentially one big rock-paper-scissors game between the various Pokémon types and you'll also try to figure out the best possible team before taking on other trainers. That being said, things seem to be significantly easier this time around as the Pokémon appear to do far more damage with their attacks thus wrapping up battles far quicker than in previous games. Even if your Pokémon are far out-leveled by your opponent, you can still have the upper-hand on anyone as long as you choose a Pokémon whose type isn't your opponent's direct weakness. This is a franchise that was made for kids but it almost feels like the difficulty factor of the older games was completely stripped away to make way for something that is a little too easy for anyone to thoroughly enjoy. This is something that sadly spreads to almost every facet of Pokémon Shield.
The best example of this dumbing down comes in how Pokémon Shield handles its legendary Pokémon when compared to the older games. In Generation 2, for example, capturing Ho-Oh and Lugia was a massive undertaking. You first had to get a feather of one of these Pokémon from an NPC before making your way through a particularly frustrating labyrinth. In Ho-Oh's case, you had to go through a maze that lead to the top of a tower and in Lugia's case, he was hiding in one of a number of seemingly interchangeable islands blocked by whirlpools full of wild Pokémon that you had to explore in order to hunt him down. Likewise, in Generation 1, the legendary birds were found in random places while exploring every corner of the map.
In this current generation of Pokémon, the legendary are simply given to you in a linear fashion. You encounter one at the start of the story and it heavily implies that it will be a major part of the plot before you're flat-out forced to capture a completely different one later on. It's spoon-fed to you and lacks the challenge and exploration encouragement that the previous games had in spades.
This isn't to say that everything Pokémon Shield does is bad. Specifically, the most substantial new feature involves something called Dynamaxing which basically turns your Pokémon into giants. In Pokémon Sword and Shield, Dynamaxing has 2 primary in-game functions: the first involves gym battles as you are allowed to Dynamax one of your Pokémon in order to give you an edge in the fight and it serves as raising the stakes in said battle while the second is that you can participate in raids against wild Pokémon who have Dynamaxed with other players which then act like online mini-boss fights and can be quite enjoyable.
It also must be said that the characters this time around feel more earnest. Previous games would sometimes give you a rival who was leaning on the evil side. Here, you're given 3 primary rivals and none of them are outright psychopaths like they were in Blue and Silver in the first 2 generations. They all have their own redeemable quirks and by the time the campaign ends, you'll feel like all these rivals will be lifelong friends. It's a nice change that continues to reinforce the themes of friendship and comradery that Pokémon games have always been about. It's a shame that the rest of the game's quality isn't on par with Dynamaxing and these themes of friendship.
In the end, Pokémon Shield isn't a bad game but it certainly feels like one of the lazier entries in the long-running series. It still has the core things that make Pokémon great but it comes up short in a few too many areas. I didn't feel like my time was wasted but once I reached the end, I had no desire to turn it back on again which marks the first time a Pokémon game has made me feel this way.
- + Pokemon battles are as great as ever
- + Reinforces themes of friendship
- + Dynamax system adds a new variable to the classic formula
- - Battles are far less challenging
- - Legendary Pokemon are spoon-fed to you
- - Feels dumbed down and less challenging compared to the older games