The debut of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017 opened the door for Nintendo to walk into a more modern stage. It gave the company an opportunity to reimagine or retool their classic IPs in a new way for a different audience beyond the diehard fans.
Breath of the Wild was Zelda’s turn, and it was a smashing success.
Mario fans received Super Mario Odyssey, a modern collectathon that managed to reinvent the formula in a unique way — all while feeling like a throwback to Mario’s debut on the Nintendo 64. Titles like Super Mario Maker 2, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Splatoon 2 all brought modern touches to ideas that were launched prior to the current generation.
Pokémon, though, was a different story. While it was a charming nostalgic throwback with interesting ideas, Pokémon: Let’s Go Eevee and Let’s Go Pikachu weren’t the same game-changing entries that Odyssey and Breath of the Wild represented for their respective series.
Simply put, Game Freak played it safe.
Now, though, among the cries of “Dexit” and the exposure of 3DS models being used for new entries, the Japanese studio couldn’t afford to simply phone in another entry.
It’s a good thing that they didn’t, too.
Perhaps the worry was overblown. Perhaps, through the controversy and the cursing on social media, everyone should have remembered that Game Freak is pretty good at this whole video game thing.
Pokémon Shield is a game that plays to the strengths of the series, while also abandoning most of the missteps that have plagues the recent entries.
Gone is the requirement to use a single joycon while the game is docked to a television. Gone are many of the cutscenes that made Pokémon: Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon such a chore to replay. Gone is the over-reliance on legendary Pokémon.
In a way, Game Freak has brought the series back to its roots after a Gen 7 that was focused on reinventing a formula that wasn’t especially broken.
That said, the studio has kept ideas that worked from past entries as well. Borrowed from Let’s Go, the PC is now portable, and may be accessed at any time. Borrowed from Sun and Moon, the type matchups are now on-screen when you’re opposing a Pokémon you’ve already caught. The new Pokémon Camp feature borrows from Pokémon-Amie from X and Y.
Most importantly to the formula, Pokémon still walk in the overworld for the most part, removing the random encounters. It’s a godsend for those who wish to complete the Pokédex without it being a tedious chore like it was in the 3DS entries.
They’ve also made it more convenient to switch the movesets for your party members, rename them, and gain experience from in-game “jobs,” all inside the Pokémon Centre. This is the most streamlined game in the series.
The battles have also seen an improvement with the jump to a console. Unlike the later 3DS entries (or the GameCube-era console games), they’re speedy, with damage being applied as quickly as it was in X and Y. There’s no more lag to worry about, thanks to the excellent optimization on the Switch. The Max Raid battles have seen clear inspiration from the Persona series, especially visually.
“Dynamaxing” is also an interesting addition to the game’s strategy, rather than a gimmick like “Mega Evolution” or “Z-Moves.” In fact, this is the strongest game in the series when it comes to strategy. If you’re playing at a normal pace, gym battles and important narrative battles feel important and difficult, while also never spiking in difficulty. It’s really a brilliant job they’ve done with the foes, and the gym leaders tend to use potions and factor in type matchups like never before. It’s a lot like going on Showdown and facing a real human.
Speaking of the story and narrative elements, it’s one of the stronger ones in the series, and is around 24 hours long. Gym battles are now much more visually similar to how they’ve been portrayed in the anime, and the NPCs feel real and have a lot of thought put behind them. The “evil team” cliche is mostly absent in favour of more three-dimensional characters, and it’s easy to get invested in the story of your rivals.
It’s not all roses, though. While it doesn’t get to the irritating levels of the 3DS entries, your main rival does pop into the story far too often than one feels he should, and it actually breaks the pace of the game a little too much. Cutscenes aren’t a huge problem in the game, and late-game ones work wonderfully, but Pokémon hasn’t quite perfected their early-game cutscene-to-gameplay ratio quite yet.
That said, Game Freak’s design-team brought their top game to this entry and it’s wonderful as a result. The towns are varied and unique, and they maintain the style of the series while adapting wonderfully to a main console. The new Pokémon designs are a delight, and a consistent strong point of the series even in its lower quality games. The designs for the characters are on point as well, and character customization’s welcome return doesn’t disappoint.
Let’s Go looked fine from a design standpoint, but it was very familiar. Shield excels.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t excel everywhere visually. In an effort to keep things smooth and consistent visually, the draw distance is very poor for a modern game on a console that ran Super Mario Odyssey flawlessly. One one hand, that’s a bit apples-and oranges, but on the other, Shield should probably be looking a little bit more polished than it does at times.
Animations are well done, and better then you might believe looking at the trailers and posts from irritated fans, but there’s still the clunky one here or there. They’re a solid step up from the 3DS game animations overall, even if they still lack the personality of the ones from the older console entries or even the DS-era sprites.
The wild area is also slightly disappointing. Pokémon of any level can spawn there, and it’s fine overall, but it feels slightly generic as a whole and underutilized in the story. The addition of a fully controllable camera is nice, though, and this could eventually be the starting blueprint of a whole game like this.
On a brighter note, the soundtrack is genuinely excellent. Unlike the nostalgia-based tunes from Let’s Go, this OST feels fresh and exciting. It’s one that absolutely deserves attention on YouTube.
The Dexit-focused Pokémon fans will argue that Sword and Shield needed more time to bake, so that all the cut Pokémon could make it into the first real entry on Nintendo Switch. Perhaps that’s true. But Game Freak has done a lot right with this one, and it’d be a shame to ignore that because of frustration toward one element of the game.
It’s not Pokémon’s Breath of the Wild. But with a good story, excellent AI/difficulty balancing, great music, and the best battles of the series, Pokémon Shield (or Sword) is a lot of fun and doesn’t disappoint.