By Neil Merrett
Pokemon Shield, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, developed by Game Freak
With Pokemon Sword and Shield – the latest iterations of a videogame series that spans over two decades – there is a huge weight of fan expectation for some revolutionary new experience in a well-established world that is fiercely loved by millions.
The comfortable familiarity of Pokemon may not have changed as much as some players might have hoped, particularly after decades of capturing and battling with Pikachu and his diverse stable mates of dragon creatures, slime monsters, fire ponies and battle donkeys.
Like most velnerable franchises, the Pokemon series has thrived and evolved in slow, gradual iterations. This has seen the introduction of two vs two battles, and strange new creature types that swap out the simple concept of fire, water or electric pokemon with strangely esoteric varieties such as a poison/fairy type.
How such a creature might fare against a dark/dragon creature can take some abstract levels of thought, unless of course you just look on the Pokemon-specific wikipedia .
Never mind that these cutesy, often toyetic creatures are thrown into primal battle to benefit their human overlords, finding themselves battling each other into an unconscious stupor or else being captured and reared as a strange hybrid of pet and crack fighting force.
Never mind that the basic concept of a world overrun by creatures with supernatural abilities and god-like powers should be an existential nightmare about humans being subjected by supreme beings that can manipulate the world around us and our own minds.
There remains comfort in the paper, rock, scissors or hyper beam-style combat mechanics that have been in place largely since the first titles in the series – Pokemon Red and Blue – were released on the original Gameboy in 1996.
You still follow a set path travelling between towns, battling Pokemon in the wilderness that you either capture to build up a roster of your own pets, or battle against to make your whole squad stronger and evolve into more powerful creatures.
The appeal is not only to rear these creatures, but to get the perfect balance of different elemental types so that you can have enough variety and balance to expose the weaknesses of your enemies. Should an opponent be a powerful rock-like ground Pokemon, then it may be best to have raised a creature with water abilities to overpower them.
Elemental benefits are a key part of strategy in Pokemon – a logic that remains the case with Sword and Shield.
Pokemon Sword and Shield clearly have a very similar structure to the original Red and Blue versions. This time around however, there seems to be a kind of Arthurian legend built into the traditional Poekmon story in a tale about two mystical, and highly merchandisable dogs and a great darkness set to end an ancient kingdom.
The beautifully realised setting evokes a picture postcard approach to the UK. There is a sleepy and lush rural village that could just as well be called Poke-shropshire, as well as an industrial British town that quite literally seems to run on steam and clockwork mechanics. It is a setting that seems to mix Wallace and Gromit with the design flair of animator Katsuhiro Otomo.
In short, it all looks wonderful. But is the latest game’s main changes really just about looks?
As an RPG, the Pokemon series’ is always built a main quest where you are required to follow a set path, albeit one with a few exploratory cul-de-sacs, around a world in order to build up your squad of Pokemon. This is done in little wilderness sections between towns and cities where you travel to battle eight gym leaders before a final almighty confrontation.
In essence your weapons and skills are literally those creatures and characters you have met along the way. But Sword and Shield, to show it is a major new entry in the franchise, shows off its next gen credentials with big wilderness made of fields, woods and forests that can be explored, or avoided to the player’s wishes.
The core game’s logic is to ensure that some of the creatures and large Pokemon that exist in these expansive wildlands are too overpowered for you to take on so early in the game. Character’s in the game-world warn you of the need to play a little more of the main game and come back later – for this is a world not meant for a character with only a little fire bunny and a resilient, seemingly useless sheep creature.
But in the classic-style of a Grimm’s Fairy tale-style the game can only warn you of the dangers of the wood ahead and the haunted tower on the hill. It is for the player to decide whether they wish to subject their pokemon to the rigours ahead.
As any astute fan of grisly childhood tales, or legendary musical composers knows, within those warnings is also the promise of real adventure, and the opportunity for that person who enters to find everything they have ever wanted by the time they leave, if they can even get that far.
A call to adventure
And so, there is the game’s real subversive choice. Do you play your traditional, tried and trusted Pokemon adventure battling creatures more or less at your level on the clear path to becoming the story’s hero, or do you go get lost and possibly battered by an unknown, uncaring world in the literal wilderness.
Battling through these early, more open world-style sections, the player may have found themselves having changed a lot more than the Pokemon series in the intervening years between their last poke adventure. For many gamers, in the intervening periods between each new Pokemon game, they will have likely tried to pick up a Dark Souls game, or any similar number of gruelling adventure games rewarding practice, perseverance or out and out stubbornness.
They may also have picked up a Mario or Rayman game that demands precision timing and rewards throwing yourself into all number of obscure nooks and crannies to uncover its numerous shiny secrets. Each new gaming experience, or foray into some strange or even familiar genre, offers some form of experience and lesson in regards to overcoming future challenges.
Somewhere in Pokemon Shield’s ‘wildlands’ is the opportunity to the test these experiences, whether against some gigantic and powerful Rock snake, or a strange supernatural entity in the hope of being ready for whatever the game can throw at you.
The kindness of strangers
Part of Shield’s appeal can be found in bracing for a challenge that may never come, a sort of hardwired response to the current penchant for highly challenging precison-based ‘Souls’ games perhaps, or some natural human need to get stronger and make our lives a little easier.
After-all, a player should not be able to overcome a level 36 monster that is four times the size of its precious level 13 fire bunny. Yet perhaps somewhere in your crew of water turtles, lightning dogs, feline thieves and a sheep is some way through.
At any point, Pokemon Shield allows you to turn back to the relative safety of its main storyline, but if you can get past one monolithic brute, surely you can take one more bridge and a journey into the literal and metaphysical hail.
A not so open world
The game is not really open world in the way mainstream AAA games are supposed to be.
There are clear limits to the wildland areas, and how far you can travel in them. This is true even if you can battle or stumble to the end and find your way back to in-game civilisation and a pokecentre.
After hours of delving into these woods and fields and arable lands, there is no real big denouement or pay-off, other than having played through it and maybe finding yourself with a resilient level 41 sheep that is armed with fighting skills and a psychic headbutt.
Eventually, the player is forced to get back on the simple path and taking up the main quest they should have been on along. Once again you are doing that same old Pokemon thing, albeit a little changed and with a slightly different perspective on the world around you.
In the end, those moments in the woods might just make the whole game that little more bearable, and just a little more satisfying.