The Best & Worst of Pokémon: Generation VIII

Games/Expansions
Pokémon Sword
Pokémon Shield
The Isle of Armor
The Crown Tundra

Platform
Switch

Region
Galar

New Pokemon
89

+7. Into the slipstream

If you had to summarise the entire legacy – the highs and the lows – of the main eighth generation Pokemon games in just one word, “streamlined” would be pretty close to bang-on. Just about everything Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield did for the series seemed hell-bent on trimming fat, tucking in corners and straightening out paths. This post will come back to this theme repeatedly, but we start with all the miscellaneous quality of life improvements that make going back to older generation games just a little bit tougher after playing Sword or Shield.

The headlining improvement in this area was surely the ability to access the player’s boxes from almost anywhere in the game world, swapping a Pokemon out from storage into the party with a couple of button presses on the clean new user interface. A one-button save shortcut, the entirely fresh autosave option, non-intrusive activities to allow boxed Pokemon to grow (goodbye Festival Plaza and good riddance), combining the Affection and Friendship stats into one mechanic, wild Pokemon models visible in the overworld (a welcome feature brought over from the Let’s Go spin-offs), a proper audio balance menu, bikes that can surf, and the consolidation of several useful features traditionally locked to specific cities into the most useful Pokemon Centers in history all add up to a smoother moment-to-moment experience than ever before.

+6. It lives! And lives

I wrote an entire article inspired by this and other major Nintendo Switch games a couple of years ago, but Sword and Shield really did embrace the modern world of post-launch support comfortably more than any previous games bearing the Pokemon name. Despite the introduction of far fewer mythical Pokemon than the last few generations (just the one, Zarude) for post-launch release, I have opened and re-opened Pokemon Shield more than any other Pokemon game in my post-competitive-play life; whether it was the tweaking of rare Pokemon spawn rates appearing in Dynamax raid dens, a new promo item to collect, or a fresh set of rules for a new mini-season of battles, for years after launch there was just always something new to check out in the game. I’m not optimistic this attitude to active support will continue in future generations, but it sure worked for Gen 8.

Speaking of which…

+5. Expanding horizons

Few will ever truly know how much of an impact world events truly had on this landmark decision, but Sword and Shield were the first Pokemon games to opt for a downloadable expansion model over the decades-strong (and hugely profitable) alternative of re-releasing the games that launch each generation with slight additions/tweaks here and there. As a result, Game Freak put themselves into an unfamiliar position that seemed to bring out hidden strengths in their game design potential: there’s a clear through-line of improvement in visual detail, landscape orientation and even raw performance from the base game’s Wild Area through the Isle of Armor and then the Crown Tundra.

Traditional “third version” features like new Pokemon forms and wider movepools were added in without the usual repetitive fluff in the way, but plenty of fresh ground was also broken in the form of entirely new (metagame-defining) moves – and returning Pokemon – patched retroactively into the base game by association thanks to battle compatibility needs. Some of the most cinematic – and challenging – moments of the entire Sword and Shield experience came from these expansions, as did a handful of the coolest bits of rewarding exploration (Sharpedo and Wailord, anyone?) The Crown Tundra, in particular, achieved the unthinkable by bringing the mystique and the challenge back into catching legendary Pokemon! An updated precedent has now been set for mid-gen game releases and the Pokemon Company may struggle to justify a return to the old model in the future.

+4. Good roster innit

It’s still no less subjective to make this claim than it was in the late 1990s, but the Galar region’s suite of new Pokemon designs carries on the superb work of its predecessor Alola. The Sun and Moon region is still in my opinion the peak of the series’ individual designs working in concert with region lore, but Galar almost matches it, delivering a constant stream of varied Pokemon with exciting quirks and recognisable thematic ties to the Britain-inspired locale.

A mix of brand new creatures and truly inspired regional variants of older Pokemon – some now packing the ability to evolve into entirely unprecedented beasts – enhance the region’s character immensely: there’s a Dickensian grunge to the likes of Corviknight, Coalossal, and the Galarian forms of Weezing and Stunfisk; a whimsical Enid Blyton bent to Greedent, Alcremie, Hatterene and Boltund; a strangely compelling combination of both with Grimmsnarl, Stonjourner and Polteageist. Runerigus and Cursola bring the patented Pokemon ‘dex entry horror, Snom brings the memetic adorability, Barraskewda is endearingly goofy and insanely fun to use in battle, but my personal favourite thematic line is the glam Brit-rock stylings seen through Rillaboom, Toxtricity and my boy Obstagoon. Cracking stuff.

+3. On the pace

This one may be tricky to explain without a look back at the seven other posts I’ve done in this style (click at the very bottom of this page if you fancy a look backward), but I sure will try.

Sword and Shield may barely make the top half of the series’ story rankings on a good day, but I firmly believe the pacing of that story is among the very best in a Pokemon game. Thanks largely to the design motto of streamlining gameplay flow, plot beats unfold at a rhythm that matches up neatly with new location discoveries and gives (most) character arcs proper room to breathe: Marnie, Bede and Sonia are undoubtedly the three highlights of the piece as a result, each with their own tale of ascension to a traditional Pokemon authority role. The curve of wild Pokemon reveals is also fantastic, starting with a decent variety of potential team additions that accelerates and decelerates at all the right moments to allow for a final stretch that is still rich with fresh wild encounters – more than can be said for many past games.

The choice to go with an “always-on EXP Share” allows the difficulty curve to stay with the player’s team growth better than any game before, virtually eliminating any grinding requirements along the way. The legendary presence in the story starts far earlier than normal too, setting the stage with a tasty foreboding mismatch that pays off nicely at the end. Even the groundbreaking Wild Area, gigantic and open as it is, unlocks its two halves at near-perfect moments in the story progression so as to give respite from the linearity for those who want it. The end result is a game that makes some controversial mechanical choices, but in doing so manages to avoid the sudden level spikes and new ‘mon spread of Gen 2, the early-game monotony and general malaise of Gen 4, the ridiculous marathon badge break of Gen 6, and the heavy over-commitment to cutscenes of Gen 7, among other hurdles.

+2. Multiplayer roars back

After Sun and Moon stuck a giant wedge in the path the main series Pokemon games were following towards a competitive play utopia, Sword and Shield thrilled budding eSports competitors all over the world by course-correcting in a major way. Not only did the eighth generation further reduce the time it takes to breed – or even just straight-up catch – and train up a fully battle-ready Pokemon at the time of the games’ launch, it shortened that time even more with the DLC expansions. But arguably even better, in a truly massive move that seemed like nothing less than a direct acknowledgement of the decade-strong online battle simulator community (with a side nod to Pokemon Stadium), Sword and Shield let players upload their fully-stacked competitive teams for use by anyone with a simple code – no hours of egg-hatching required.

Add to that a new combat gimmick in Dynamax that – for doubles at least – represented a balanced and unpredictable new element empowering almost every Pokemon with mind-game potential; then a feature that allowed players to compete in regular tournaments with actual useful rewards on offer, all from the comfort of the main menu. Oh yeah, also Dynamax Raid Battles and their final form Dynamax Adventures – the best co-op the main series has ever offered. Sure, the always-on Y-Comm system built to matchmake this co-op may have been wildly unreliable – the Nintendo Switch is not built for passive connections like the 3DS was – but the attempt spoke volumes for Game Freak’s refreshed series vision: these games blew the cursed memory of the Festival Plaza into smithereens and set about building a proper spiritual successor to X and Y‘s stellar multiplayer. And I’m always going to rate that highly.

+1. Gym gains

There’s something so poetically satisfying about the fact that a generation after attempting to remove the need for Pokemon Gyms entirely, game director Shigeru Ohmori helped engineer what I believe to be the single best use of the trope in the 25 year history of the series. The gym leader experience has never been more spectacular, better value or more fun than it is in Galar. Buoyed by distinctly British visual sensibilities, Sword and Shield lean heavily into the raucous sporting traditions of the EPL and other competitions by setting every badge showdown inside a cavernous, roaring stadium teeming with fans. Only the battles need to take place in these cauldrons, so any relevant minigames or challenges the story requires of you beforehand have a bit more freedom and flexibility; then the real business kicks off with a wide-eyed entry cutscene, some tight camera cuts and a filthy electronic battle theme that makes X and Y‘s similar dance number seem like elevator music in comparison.

Each battle culminates in a unique Gigantamax Pokemon form you invariably have not yet seen at that point in the game as the music changes to incorporate rhythmic crowd chants. Even the badge presentation animation stands out from previous generations, each one interlocking like a tangram puzzle to complete a satisfying whole. And once that whole is complete, the most ingenious part of the sports-style format is revealed: Galar’s equivalent of an Elite Four, the Champion Cup, takes the form of a three-round elimination tournament bracket that is always random, meaning successive runs are quicker and more varied than any previous generation’s offering. Did I mention Sword and Shield each have their own pair of exclusive gym leaders? Or that they share the honour of the first-ever Dark type badge? There may not have been any kind of Electric-type representation amongst the in-game cream-of-the-crop trainers this time around, but the atmosphere they produce brings just that.

-3. Team Yawn

The Pokemon series doesn’t exactly have a long track record of brilliantly-written bad guys. What it can boast, however, is several of the most iconic camp villain designs in the history of gaming; from Team Rocket and Giovanni all the way through the lovably daft Team Skull and their surprisingly layered leader Guzma, the antagonists of Pokemon games are usually at least good fun when they show up (yes, even Team Flare, who I gave a rough go back in the Gen VI post). But this really is not the case for Sword/Shield’s Team Yell, a group of discount football hooligans who start noisy and annoying and never really evolve beyond that.

The loosely punk-styled fans-gone-wrong hang around as weirdly disconnected window dressing to Marnie’s arc before meekly giving way to arguably the worst-handled twist villain in the history of Pokemon games – main series or spin-off – in the form of Chairman Rose. Somehow simultaneously predictable and entirely devoid of crucial foreshadowing, the sharply-dressed charm vacuum ends the game as a boring by-the-numbers tyrant lodged squarely in the shadow of every single boss cameo at the end of Ultra Sun/Moon. Come to think of it, with the exception of one phenomenal battle against besieged assistant Oleanna, the eighth attempt at a main series Pokemon story really doesn’t offer up much in the way of memorable human opposition. Considering its other achievements, that kinda sucks.

-2. The Great Diorama Tour

Perhaps as a direct result of the enthusiastic application of the positives covered on this page, the way the player explores much of the Galar region throughout the story leaves an awful lot to be desired. The streamlining mission statement within the games’ development has an adverse effect on the wonder of discovery that has left plenty of pundits with a sour taste in their mouths over the years since release. If every Pokemon Center in the game is stocked with all the formerly NPC-locked busywork you could ever want, there ain’t an awful lot of room left to fill the town tourist brochures with reasons to return; but the slight hollowness to Galar’s urban geography goes far beyond that. If connecting routes could be accused of virtual corridor status in games past, they are little more than themed processions here – the removal of HMs translates into the near-complete removal of side paths, as if the openness of the Wild Area negates all expectations that curiosity might arise on a linear road. The regrettable end product is a game sprinkled with artistically beautiful locales that need only be experienced once, then forgotten.

-1. Don’t got the look

This is probably the one point where I agree with the “greater discourse” online around Sword/Shield release time – no, I don’t have a gigantic problem with the removal of the National Pokedex; it had to happen eventually. What does get to me is a set of technical choices made by Sword and Shield‘s developers that combine to produce less-than-appealing visuals in its most important areas – especially in light of how other Pokemon titles on the Nintendo Switch released before and after the Gen 8 headliners circumvented those issues. To be fair, the games do start with an impressive level of polish, and the appropriate pops of colour and (sometimes) depth continue along plenty of the game’s pleasant pathways.

But the Wild Area – which, lets not forget, holds so much of the game’s meatiest content – manages a clean zero from five in the big videogame visual categories: the resolution plummets without a shred of post-processing to make up for it, the colour palette is muted at best, there’s little to no texture detail or even shadows to be seen, the variety is ultimately deflating given the area’s scope, and the frame rate starts jittering offline, turning into a near-slideshow at times if you attempt to connect to the internet (how dare you). Pokemon animations in battle can be real awkward too, but I won’t harp on that when so many have done so elsewhere. Given how much I’ve ultimately come to enjoy about Gen 8’s legacy – and how well the Pokemon spin-offs on Switch successfully stay within the limitations of the hardware to look good in their own ways – I have to chalk this ugliness up to over-ambition; but when so many older games in the series retain a flavour of visual charm to this day, it’s a bummer that this will be the dirty lens through which I remember Sword and Shield.

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