Pokémon Sword and Shield Doesn’t Seem Like Quite the Evolution it Could Have Been

Ever since Pokémon Red and Blue were released 23 years ago, budding champions-in-the-making have been anticipating this moment: a full Pokémon RPG on a home console.

Yesterday, that very thing was revealed: the 8th generation of Pokémon is hitting Nintendo Switch later this year in the form of Pokémon Sword and Shield. Is it everything I hoped it could have been? Not quite. But it does seem like a notable improvement for the franchise many of us know as well as the stroll down Victory Road.

Revealed on a short, special edition of Nintendo Direct, Pokémon Sword and Shield is set in a new region named Galar: a location that involves a mountain range, deep and eerie forests, beautiful countryside and built-up urban areas. Currently, the locations do look quite sparse, with no other NPCs to be seen, but you can expect these to be shown off later this year.

The trailer made the setting the star of the show. Apart from the three new starters (Grookey FTW), no other creatures were even displayed; it seems clear that this Nintendo Direct was there to highlight the new map. And it does look beautiful. Unsurprisingly, developer Game Freak has continued with the cel-shaded style, which looks dazzling. Pokémon Sword and Shield looks set to be the most beautiful Pokemon game in the franchise.

The direct also showed off a lot of exploring: the silent protagonist (who it seems can either be male or female) was shown crossing bridges, searching caves, and standing beside a gorgeous lake. It’s great to see a variety of locations; that’s something that Sun and Moon really could have used.

However, the gameplay sadly does look like it may be all too familiar.

We’ve become accustomed to linear Pokémon games, and the debut on the Switch could have been the perfect opportunity to shake this style up. One of Nintendo’s other big first party franchises, The Legend of Zelda, did this so well with Breath of the Wild. Okay, expecting an evolution on the scale of something as grand as Breath of the Wild might sound crazy, but hoping for a change to the well-trodden formula is far from it.

The Switch boasts some brilliant open world games: the aforementioned Breath of the Wild, Elder Scrolls V and Super Mario Odyssey, just to name a few. And there’s the highly anticipated Dragon Quest XI making its way to the console alter this year. All of these worlds are very non-linear; they allow the player to do what they want, when they want. Granted, our glimpse of Galar in yesterday’s Nintendo Direct was brief, but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that it looked like progression was very much on a set path. Even the map is shaped to look like the player has to progress in a linear fashion to the next city.

Pokémon RPG games have always been about becoming the very best, like no one ever was. About building your own legacy and becoming a champion. It’s a great formula, but it’s not one that has to be achieved through such a linear style. Is the idea of having a full open world with wild Pokémon everywhere really too much to ask? It’s certainly very possible, in the terms of technology, but it seems like Game Freak doesn’t want to break the trend set by previous Pokémon games.

Undoubtedly 2019 is going to be a huge year for the Nintendo Switch, and there’s already no doubt that Pokémon Sword and Shield will be a great success. Sure, it already looks like it ticks all the boxes for a great Pokémon RPG, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s a missed opportunity to truly evolve the series. Yeah, it’s going to be good, but will it be the very best? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.