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Pokémon Spoilers Topic (Current Info Leaks: Sword & Shield)

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I finally completed Sword for myself a few days ago, and have been letting it stew before I write down my final thoughts.  The short version (the long version is really long, I'm afraid) is: The game is better than I was expecting, but obviously flawed and unfinished.

A big part of that is that, of all the things they nailed, they got the Pokemon right.  This might just be one of my favourite batches perhaps even since Gen IV, perhaps helped by the fact that we see a more diverse revisit to the idea of regional forms and the triumphant return of cross-region evolutions.  It's amazing that there are, technically, fewer new Pokemon here than in Gen VII - and yet somehow there feel like a lot more; perhaps because there isn't quite such an overabundance of legendaries and quasi-legendaries squatting at the end of the dex.  The complaint overleaf that a lot of Pokemon feel more like individual characters now than plausible animals isn't unfair, mind, and given that there are some frankly weird Pokemon this gen (Stonjourner, Eiscue) then a few more at the more normal end of things perhaps wouldn't hurt.  With that said, count me as fully in favour of the new fossils; not just a nod to early paleontology, but a fun mix-and-match game that fantastically subverts the traditional fossil process and makes it even a bit difficult to look back.  In the final analysis, I think that GameFreak's less revealing PR campaign really helped SwSh's set of Pokemon; it was amazing to finally have that sense of discovery again, to keep on encountering new creatures I had no idea about.  The only downside is the inane insistence on locking some Pokemon behind sub-5% encounter rates, and some of the more bizarre strategy-guide evolution methods (it's unacceptable that the arch that evolves Galarian Yamask has nothing tying it to the Pokemon at all).

With that said... Dynamax is a bit undercooked.  The range of Max Moves is pitiful and not at all comparable to the seeming plethora of Z-moves (...I think; I never used a single Z-move in two games), the power boost having a cap means that all moves end up looking very similar, and a lot of the additional effects spend a lot of time not doing much.  Gigantamax forms mostly look good (though a few give the lie to the idea that it's all that different from Mega Evolution - G-Max Machamp is thoroughly uninventive), but the fact that they're functionally barely different from regular Dynamaxes makes them fairly superficial and uninteresting.  And this isn't touching on how increasingly slow and clunky the current game engine looks, taking multiple text boxes every single time to say what could be said in one or even zero.  And for all that vaunted talk of HD-ready models back in the day, a lot of the HD models actually don't look that great - specifically when it comes to features like faces and other details just being textured on rather than present in the model.  Ferrothorn looks particularly pathetic, for a Pokemon that's clearly meant to be grooved and recessed.  Ironically, GameFreak really would be better off tossing a lot of them out and redoing them from scratch.

I did like the Wild Area a lot more than I thought I would, though.  In the early game especially, there was something very satisfying about wheeling around checking out the new raids and occasionally going up against Pokemon that wouldn't naturally show up until much later in the game.  It's not a system without flaws, however; when every patch of grass in an area spawns the same thing, without the corridor structure of routes, it's tempting to think that all that space is just a bit redundant - and as a long-time fan it's hard to get too excited at the sheer quantity of same-old-same-old wandering around (I do appreciate that Dexiters will feel very differently).  It was a bold move of GameFreak to rush the player to this area so quickly, but at the same time, I wonder if it might've done with being pushed back just a little, as it's easy to get overlevelled in the early game... and in general; I had to make a clear decision never to use experience candies on my team, which actually led to the game being a lot more balanced than I expected.  I'd be happy to see something like the Wild Area return - but with a bit more structure to it, rather than two big circles joined by a corridor.

And with that mention of "corridors," we get to the big flaw and the point in which the game is clearly rushed and unfinished: World design.  Oh, there are a couple of decent routes - but even those have nothing like the depth we've had in previous games, and some routes are barely-embellished straight lines, mere transitional areas.  The triumphant return of gyms turns out to be the triumphant return of maybe three gyms, four tops if you're being really generous, with the final two gyms effectively not existing at all.  Dungeons disappear completely toward the end of the game, with not one but two obvious final boss lairs reduced to elevator rides; and the various plot-revealing tapestries and statues would be well-served by being hidden at the end of dungeons, too.

The lack of dungeons and lacking world design overall are an obvious symptom of a rushed game, and it feeds into the story, too - but I want to take a moment here to praise the characters, actually.  Okay, there are some weak links; Hop spends too much of the game having his dreams crushed into the dirt by you and could use some of his post-game development bringing way forward, and Sonia's journey is badly undermined by the superficial nature of her research and the fact that she makes all the big discoveries, as I recall it, off-screen in foreign texts right at the end of the game.  Bede and Marnie, though, I thought were quite effective.  Bede is a good return to form for the jerk rival and has a decent arc which would only really be served by another appearance or two, particularly in his long period of downtime over the latter gyms.  Marnie, meanwhile, is not what I expected, fundamentally a nice but perhaps standoffish kid with a lot on her shoulders that she doesn't really view as her responsibility; and again she would be served by another appearance or two to flesh her and her motivations out - which would frankly help the insubstantial and barely-relevant Team Yell, too.  The real success story, though, are the gym leaders.  Putting them all together in the opening ceremony near the start of the game was a masterstroke that made them feel so much more like real people with a place in the world, and this is helped by the fact that most put in more appearances outside their gyms later as well, with Opal and Piers playing fairly significant roles.  Their League Cards and the postgame quest help bring them to life, too; and overall they're a really good mix of designs.  The only ones which don't have quite as much going on are the game-exclusive ones - and frankly, that's probably exactly why they're game-exclusives, and it's a shame that Bea and Allister don't perhaps have something like the link between Gordie and Melony to bring them to life.  It's for this reason that I'm actually quite happy that this game has no Elite Four, as they're usually the very worst when it comes to existing only to sit around in a room.  However, I think the game missed a bit of a trick there; when I started the Champion Cup, I assumed that the "Elite Four" of the game would be me and my three rivals and maybe someone else thrown in for good measure, but... no, it's much more fragmentary.  Frankly the Champion Cup would've been much improved the way I suggest; as indeed might the final confrontation with Eternatus, or maybe that's just me.

But that brings us to the plot, and oh boy.  While I appreciate that they actually did a Black/White and left the climax of the story until the actual end of the game, the result is that the pacing overall is atrocious, with long stretches of the game where you the player just jump through the hoops set out for you - while, insultingly, the other characters take care of interesting-sounding events off-screen.  It was difficult to believe that they actually unironically wrote "Let the adults take care of this" - how tone-deaf, for a Pokemon game!  But as it's entirely conceivable that there were events scripted which were just killed off by the game being rushed, perhaps it's simply a terrible excuse.  Where it's far, far worse is in the execution of that finale, though.  Eternatus comes out of absolutely nowhere, Chairman Rose acting like a supervillain makes no sense with his stated motivations, and overall the plot is weirdly third-versionesque, with the legendaries putting in some distinctly last-second appearances in which your character has minimal agency.  I have to presume that a lot of this is simply because they didn't have time to insert the context; they just had to throw in what they had.

There's something I want to talk about.  GameFreak have said that the theme of the game is, I think, "ambition"; but I disagree.  It seems pretty clear that the actual theme of the game is "passing the torch."  Magnolia passing her professorship to Sonia; Opal, her gym leadership to Bede; Leon, his championship to you...  The game is about a generation of adults finding young people who can live up to their goals.  I almost wonder if something like that was meant to be the case with Rose; that, in despair at the upcoming energy crisis, he released Eternatus to provoke a state of crisis in which the best young trainers would have to step up, in which he might be able to find someone capable of taking on his legacy as the man who made Galar.  Because he sure seems happy about being defeated, doesn't he?  Add on top of that a very obvious and practically already written fossil fuel metaphor to Eternatus - sinister glowing engine to which we manically feed more and more ore until eventually it destroys us all...  Sure reads a whole lot better than the game's current unbelievably poor final message, "it's crazy to make sacrifices now in order to avert an energy crisis in the future."  What an appalling look in 2019.

I have some more detailed thoughts about how you could rejig the game's pacing and plot, but honestly, I think we'll probably end up with some of them anyway.  This is a game which absolutely needed another year in the oven, and unless they do an X and Y on us, it probably will get that, in the end... assuming they actually devote any real resources to it, something they clearly didn't do for Ultra Sun/Moon.  The crunch has finally caught up with GameFreak and produced in Sword/Shield a very obviously rushed title, and it makes me deeply ambivalent both about the prospect of a remake of my favourite generation (even more so than the conservative and ungenerous ORAS did) but also about the prospect of paying again in a year or two for the game this should've been the first time around.  I don't regret buying Sword, but it's clear that in future I am going to have to wait for the reviews.  Mostly, they still have the necessary imagination to make a Pokemon game; but somehow, the most profitable franchise in the world somehow hasn't the time.  It feels weird to be saying this, but: The longer we have to wait for the next game, the better.

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