If last year’s Pokémon Let’s Go felt like one of the biggest franchises ever making its transition from handheld to home console, Pokemon Sword and Shield should surely be the real deal.
I mean, not only does it have brand new species of Pokémon to meet and train, but it also has vast open 3D environments to explore in the beautiful UK-inspired Galar region.
But while my brief hands-on demo did showcase new Pokémon, there was no chance to explore the brave new world; I was restricted to the Water Gym – and what I was able to play didn’t really demonstrate a series that’s meaningfully evolved.
It probably doesn’t help that the recent Detective Pikachu movie got to show us what Pokémon might look like in real-life, but even before then we’ve had fans creating impressive Unreal Engine 4 renders of their favourite critters. So to find that Sword and Shield‘s visuals look barely different to Let’s Go or indeed its 3DS counterparts is disappointing.
It would be easy to excuse this on the fact that Pokémon Sword and Shield adopts an anime cel-shaded art style – but then it’s incredibly at odds with how Nintendo’s in-house studios have been making the use of Switch hardware to improve their visuals. It’s hard to make any comparison to, say, Breath of the Wild, or the detailed moustache and clothing textures for the upcoming cartoony Luigi’s Mansion 3.
Nonetheless, even if Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t look like the next-gen Pokémon that fans are hoping for, it’s hard to complain about the actual creature designs themselves. Of course, this demo isn’t representative of the final game, as not only was everyone set at Level 50, but all three starter Pokémon – Grookey, Scorbunny and Sobble – were in my party. They were joined by fellow newcomers like like lovable sheep Wooloo, flowery Gossifleur, and probably the coolest looking one of all, armoured crow Corviknight.
Another highlight was meeting and doing battle with Gym Leader Nessa who, much like Nintendo’s own Twintelle (ARMS) and Marina (Splatoon 2), seems to have been designed to sate thirsty fans. No wonder it’s a water gym.
But before I reached this encounter, I had to also navigate some extremely rudimentary puzzle-solving in an area where all I needed to do was press switches to clear routes otherwise blocked by waterfalls, as well as bump into some mandatory battles with other trainers.
It’s about here when I realised that if Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s visuals haven’t had much of an upgrade, then neither have is battles. They remain the same slow rock-paper-scissor turn-based gameplay that the mainline series has sported since the beginning. While I’m a fan of the tactical nature of turn-based RPGs, it’s hard not to watch Pokémon unleashing its attack, cut to the same animation of its opponent taking damage followed by text indicating whether or not it’s ‘super effective’ and feel that on Switch hardware there ought to be just a little more flourish in the presentation.
The one new addition on display, however, is Dynamaxing, a skill which allows your Pokémon to transform into ginormous versions of themselves with enhanced abilities called Max Moves. Only one Pokémon can be granted this ability, which lasts three turns. It replaces the Z-move ability from Pokémon Sun and Moon, although I do have to wonder if the competitive community will adopt it, seeing as it feels a bit too strong a modifier. I learned this the hard way: Nessa’s Dynamaxed water/rock-type Drednaw ended up demolishing most of my party. But while Dynamaxing might justify the size of gyms now being the size of football stadiums, having your Pokémon float above your head 20 times bigger is more awkward than it is awesome.
I’d be cautious of citing Sword and Shield‘s “same old” presentation as laziness on Game Freak’s part. But based on what I’ve seen so far, it just doesn’t look like the developer has either the resources or expertise of the platform to realise Pokémon’s full potential on Switch. It’s worth mentioning that past big-screen outings have often been handled by other developers like HAL Laboratory (Pokémon Snap) and Bandai Namco (Pokken Tournament).
Pokémon Sword and Shield should easily be Nintendo’s biggest holiday release of the year, but this demo has rather dampened my expectations. Adding to the fan backlash over the controversial decision to drop the National Pokedex going forward, it might even be in danger of becoming its biggest disappointment. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Pokémon Sword and Shield releases on Nintendo Switch on 15th November.