WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Pokémon Sword & Shield and Pokémon Sun & Moon. If you care about being spoiled on Pokémon stories, like some kind of nerd, this warning is for you. Thank you.
I’m worried about the Pokémon Uncanny Valley.
As of writing this article, Pokémon Sword/Shield has been on the shelves for a couple months. In that time, there have been many different opinions tossed around regarding the game(s). Chief among them is that, after the tour de force that was Pokémon Sun/Moon, Pokémon Sword/Shield has the “worst” story in the franchise. And it’s hard not to agree with that assessment! Pokémon SS (that’s some unfortunate abbreviating) has a story that is barely there, and plays as little more than a sports documentary until the absolute finale. Here’s the challenger, here is their rival, and watch as they climb the ranks and triumph over some 50 year old dude that somehow only has acollection of four level 20 fire type pokémon. It’s pretty tiresome, and your only supporting cast is a collection of other challengers with paper-thin personalities. Yes, we all love Marnie, but that’s mostly because she was perfectly calibrated to appeal to Pokémon fans (her signature ‘mon is a goth pikachu, for Arceus’ sake!). Other than that, it’s a sports story, and, for people that play videogames, that’s about as forgettable as Pokémon #775 (it’s the sleepy koala).
But when Pokémon SS decides to care about its story, it does so very well. … Wait, actually, that’s completely wrong. Pokémon SS’s story rears its ugly head during its climax, and, well, it ain’t great. It’s… confusing? There’s a Pokémon that was apparently powering the area, and it’s going to fail in a century, so there’s this dude that wants to do something about that right now, but it’s opposite the Super Bowl, so one thing leads to another, and apparently the world is in mortal danger because some unspeakable Pokémon has escaped confinement. And, frankly, that’s the end of nearly every Pokémon game, right? It might be a little muddled, but there seems to be a constant theme of trying to chain “nature” running back to the experimentation on Mewtwo, and all it ever takes for Groudon or whatever to be settled is a well-meaning preteen that happens to own a Master Ball. These things happen all the time in the Pokémon universe.
But it isn’t what happens at the end of Pokémon Sun/Moon. Yes, let’s take a step back one generation and look at the finale of the first game featuring the madness of Lusamine. Lusamine is, long story short, one of those scientist/billionaire crazy people that has a propensity toward designing self-driving cars and seeking immortality. To this end, she researches “Ultra Beasts”, Pokémon that exist in another dimension. In the process, she terrorizes her children, the protagonist, and nearly the entire world when she tears a whole in time and space to hang out with a beast Pokémon. This plan ultimately climaxes with Lusamine merging with a Nihilego, a poisonous beast Pokémon. Lusamine thus becomes a creature unknown to man and science. She is part woman, part interdimensional Pokémon. This is not Mewtwo. This is not even a mythical Pokémon. This is a whole new monster never before seen in the franchise (give or take a teleporter accident). This is not a problem that is going to be solved with a pokéball, and it is the first encounter with such a creature within the franchise. How will your humble trainer triumph over this abomination of hubris and science?
And then Monster Lusamine just tosses out her usual collection of six Pokémon in a typical trainer battle. Each of the Pokémon have boosted stats… but that’s about the only difference between this “final battle against an unknown enemy” and a skirmish with a kid that really likes shorts. The big bad pinnacle for the entire story is a tussle with a friggen’ Clefable.
And while Pokémon Moon/Sun 2 (Ultra!) replaced this fight with a battle against an alien ‘mon in another dimension, it wound up being even more lackluster (this is a very specific pun no one will acknowledge, and I am noting it for posterity), as said alien had very little relation to the overall plot and characters (or, put another way, it might be menacing Nebby, but Necrozma ain’t your best friend’s abusive mom), and it wound up as just another Mewtwo battle. All versions of Pokémon Sun/Moon were (unusually) amazing in the storytelling department, but it seemed there was no way to make the gameplay match the drama inherent in climatic battles.
The producers of Pokémon Sword/Shield took that as a challenge. The finale of Pokémon SS is very confusing (again, I have no idea what the [human] villain was actually trying to do, and this is me talking), but its initial setup is thrilling. The undefeated Champion of the Pokémon League, a standup dude that always wears a cape and has been supporting you from the beginning (yes, he’s Lando), attempts to soothe the savage beast with a pokéball. But it doesn’t work! The literal monster breaks free from the ball, and slices the device in twain. As it is evident a battle is coming, your friend/rival/hanger-on Hop makes it clear he is going to join you in subduing this creature. Hop has helped before (well, “helped”), and his assistance in fighting chubby guys in ill-fitting t-shirts was always… adequate. But wait! Here comes a new challenger! You and Hop are joined by not one, but two legendary Pokémon! They’re fighting as free agents, and, all together, you have four ally Pokémon in play. Your opponent is growing in size and strength (and its HP bar is growing to match), but you’re going to fell this Godzilla with the four-mon army you’ve assembled. It’s a final battle to end all final battles, and, since the basic gameplay is based on the raids you can experience throughout the game, it’s a transition that is as smooth as a jigglypuff. Pokémon gameplay finally matches the weight of its story!
Which is why trying to approach the rest of Pokémon Sword/Shield as a “real” story seems completely insane.
Pokémon Sword/Shield introduces the Wild Area. It is the best thing to happen to the franchise since the invention of the Hypno (he’s such a great lil’ guy). Before you win your first gym battle (hell, before you even see a gym), the Wild Area is available, and it essentially simulates the typical Pokémon post-game hours before becoming a champion. It is a wide-open area with Pokémon there for the catching, and there is no cap or gate that requires you to leave to “progress the story” at any point. You can spend literally days in the Wild Area, and the only downside would be having too many Pokémon. And that’s a pretty good problem! The Wild Area Pokémon level up, too, after all, and, should you actually continue the game, you’ll have 90% of the area unlocked at about the halfway point. After that, you just need an aquatic bike (available at about the 70% completion mark), and the Wild Area is your complete playground. The Wild Area is bigger than anything ever before seen in a Pokémon game, and, more importantly, it offers more freedom than ever before. It’s no wonder the story is generally ignored when something with the scope of an old school MMORPG is readily available.
But the Wild Area has a bit of a problem: there’s different weather every thirty feet. You can bicycle across the whole of the Wild Area and encounter snow, harsh sunlight, sandstorms, and then hit a nip of rain before sailing through clear skies. This, of course, all exists for the benefit of Pokémon hunters, as different creatures come out to play in different weather. It is also an excellent way to cram thirty different critters into the same general space, but still keep things interesting and “random” for those dedicated stalkers (“Sure, you can claim you caught all the Pokémon here, but what happens if you come back to this desert in the rain?”). On the other hand, it means the Galar region is facing an unprecedented climate crisis, and blizzards butting against lightning storms down the street from sunny beaches is… concerning.
Oh, and there are Pokémon as large as skyscrapers randomly popping out of holes in the ground. While the impact this has on the weather is unknown, I can certainly state that it is abundantly obvious why all the towns bordering on the Wild Area appear to possess mile-high walls.
So, at the exact same time the producers of Pokémon discovered exactly how to draw their audience into perfect climatic immersion, they also reminded us all that this is a fantasy world where recurring Mothras flap up localized blizzards. It’s uncertain where the franchise will go from here, whether it will pursue the focused story of Sun/Moon, or more prominently feature the freedom and looseness of Sword/Shield, but one thing is certain: Pokémon will always be a game about a world where electric dinosaurs battle poisonous frogs the size of cars in a world where human beings can apparently survive and maintain a society.
I’ll… just try not to think about it too hard.
FGC #469 Pokémon Sword & Shield
- System: Nintendo Switch! The first “real” Pokémon game on a console! This is a milestone for people that care about the difference between consoles and portables! All six of us are very excited about the implications!
- Number of players: One solo championship career, two players for battling and trading, and up to four friends for raids (or just include that one dick with the solrock if you don’t have enough buddies). Pokémon is a land of players.
- Where’s Every Pokémon: It appears the big controversy over this game is that it does not include every single Pokémon, or the ability to import every single Pokémon. I couldn’t care less. Frankly, I welcome a day when I don’t have to gather 7,000 otherwise useless items to be sure some obscure ghost type evolves. And the way it impacts the battles! Pokémon Go is currently trying to balance the fact that the same fighting type Pokémon have been #1 since the game’s release, and their only hope is futzing around with new moves and other nonsense. And they’re barely up to Generation 5. Try balancing almost 900 Pokémon! This is for your own good, guys!
- This hole was made for me: There is an entire mini-game and “dex” based around making new curry recipes. This means that, finally, someone at GameFreak has been getting my letters. I’m disappointed they didn’t include my recipe, but it was still a noble effort.
- Did you catch ‘em all? You know I did.
If there are Pokémon, I catch ‘em.
- Favorite Galar Pokémon: The Impidimp line is everything I want from a Pokémon. It starts out small and cute… but still vaguely unsettling. Then it becomes emo and nebulously pointy looking. And then it becomes Grimmsnarl, a muscular ball of hair that looks equally built for hugs and bench-presses. And it has a gigantamax form! It’s mostly hair! Leg hair, specifically! I can get behind that! Also, its signature move is some kind of hair fake out. I am all about this Fairy/Dark type.
- Favorite Trainer: Oleana the Battle Secretary has an entire party of “pretty” female Pokémon (like Milotic and Tsareena), but her final (and strongest) Pokémon is Garbodor. Because she’s secretly a garbage person with a garbage-based specialty. That’s some emergent storytelling!
- Did you know: Depending on if you count the fossilized abominations of Arctovish and Dracovish, there is only one new watery “fish” type Pokémon in Pokémon Sword/Shield: Arrokuda/Barraskewda. There are usually a lot more water-dwellers introduced each generation, but I guess this is what happens when you nix surf. I’m totally okay with this outcome.
- Would I play again: Short answer is yes. Long answer is oh God why can’t I stop playing Pokémon games please Lord I have other things to do okay fine back to raising this Flapple. … I think I have a condition.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong! The original! Wow! We’re going to get it on like some manner of overly large simian! Please look forward to it!