Thursday, August 27, 2020

Pokémon Sword

 Pokemon Sword (US)

I Got to Buy It, I Got to Buy It

In Japan in 1996, Nintendo released the first pair of debut titles of the Game Freak-developed Pocket Monsters franchise, called Pokémon overseas, for the Game Boy, with their success spawning a mega-franchise. The series would continue on Nintendo’s future portable systems, with their hybrid system the Switch the latest recipient of Pokémon titles starting with the Let’s Go! games. The franchise would continue its evolution with Pokémon Sword and Shield, sporting stylistic changes and improvements from its precursors that make them somewhat more accessible to newcomers, but do they make the games worth playing?

Sword features more or less the same story as its predecessors, with the player controlling a random nobody that goes on a trip to catch Pokémon and become a champion. The protagonist’s main rival is Hop, and while there is okay backstory, much of it rips off Final Fantasy VII, and the narrative never reaches excellence. The translation is good, although much of the dialogue sounds unnatural, and some of the name choices for characters, such as the aforementioned Hop, and others such as Rose for a male character, are unusual. Regardless, the franchise has never been about story, and Sword is no exception.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and luckily, Sword fares somewhat better in this area than the franchise’s predecessors. The player first selects one of three starting Pokémon, with others ripe for capture visible on fields between towns and in dungeons, where contact naturally begins a battle. Sword ditches the capture system of the Let’s Go! duology in favor of fights starting with the frontline Pokémon summoned. The player has a variety of Pokéballs to capture enemy Pokémon, with a higher success rate against adversaries whose HP the player has lowered to critical.

Battles generally follow the same rules as prior entries, with one-on-one, occasionally two-on-two, fights between player and opponent Pokémon, with each being of one or two different types that dictate resistance and weakness to moves of different types. Each Pokémon has up to four abilities with a fixed number of uses that the player can recover at healing facilities, with one major improvement over prior games being that the game shows whether or not an attack will do any good against the opponent. The player can further glimpse, when deciding to switch the current Pokémon (up to six usable in battle at a time), whether other units’ moves will do any good against the enemy.

However, as with previous entries of the series, switching the player’s current Pokémon wastes their turn and leaves the one brought in vulnerable for one turn to the opponent’s attack, a step down from the vastly-superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy XBreath of Fire IV, and Wild Arms 2. Moreover, while defeating the opponent Pokémon, in battles against NPCs that reward money for successful termination of all their Pokémon, gives the player a chance to switch their current one, they can’t view the type(s) of the one the opponent is preparing to bring in, requiring memorization of specific monsters’ elements.

The player can use money to purchase various healing items, monster-capturing balls and new moves for their Pokémon at shops, although money can be hard to come across since the player can’t rematch previous opponents until post-game, and thus, items can be in finite supply, with the potential to waste them in tough battles. The game’s difficulty can also vary wildly, with many opponents oftentimes having cheap moves that can OHKO the player’s Pokémon, and there are points where the player can get stuck in a cycle of healing fainted Pokémon while the current one becomes a punching bag.

The game mechanics in general definitely have plenty of good ideas, with the elemental strengths and weaknesses of different Pokémon adding a layer of strategy present in the game’s predecessors, and capturing as many as possible can be fun, with the fact that all living Pokémon in the player’s party gain experience after capture and defeat of enemies making grinding easier. However, the game doesn’t seem to encourage even leveling of all the player’s monsters, but rather keeping certain ones dedicated, and things like evolutions and finding certain Pokémon can be hard without a guide. Ultimately, the battle system doesn’t always work as well as it could have.

Control fares somewhat better, with the save-anywhere feature present in the game’s predecessors present in Sword, alongside clear direction on how to advance the main storyline and a fast-travel option becoming available early on. However, while the player can view a map of the overworld, detailed maps for areas in between towns and dungeons are unavailable, making exploration of every corner a crapshoot. There’s also occasional poor placement of healing opportunities, and the menus barrage players with unnecessary flash and pizazz. Overall, this particular generation of Pokémon doesn’t interact as well with players as it could have, but things could have been worse.

Sword’s soundtrack is stylistically similar to that of preceding generations, with some decent tracks at times, though much of the music is generally unmemorable, and actually sounds more like noise at times. The sound effects are good, with most Pokémon having unique cries, but the lack of endearing tunes is nonetheless a detriment to the aurals.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the game is its visual presentation, with character models containing good anatomy, cel-shading, and believable animation and emotions. The dozens of Pokémon types, with nary a reskin, also look great and have cel-shading as well, and the environments are pretty and colorful. Granted, there is a bit of popup with regards to NPC character models, and occasional fuzziness of distant objects, but otherwise, the game is a visual treat.

Finally, total playtime with a straightforward playthrough can range from one or two days, with plenty of lasting appeal in the post-game content and capturing all monsters, though one can find it difficult to do so without a guide.

In the end, Pokémon Sword is a decent evolution of the fabled franchise, given the enjoyment of capturing all monsters, the save-anywhere feature, the pretty visuals, and plenty reasons to come back for more. However, the sometimes-grindy nature of the game mechanics are sure to be off-putting to those who are virgins to the franchise, the menus are a bit clunky, the storytelling and translation are weak, the soundtrack doesn’t have a whole lot of memorable tunes. Regardless, I definitely don’t regret my time with the game, and would be willing to play its companion game, not to mention future entries of the franchise to see how things improve.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Catching ‘em all can be fun.
+Save-anywhere feature.
+Nice graphics.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-A little grindy.
-Menus a little clunky.
-Weak storytelling and translation.
-Unmemorable soundtrack.

The Bottom Line:
A step forward for the franchise.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 2.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Unbalanced
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 7.0/10

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