Pokemon Sword and Shield are fine. They’re not terrible, as some would have you believe, but neither are they outstanding. Game Freak has made a lot of quality of life improvements to the Pokemon formula, though none of these add up to an experience that’s as charming or clever as many other titles I played this year. And alongside the improvements, they’ve made some truly baffling changes to series staples that didn’t really need them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s climactic championship battles.
Pretty much every Pokemon game follows the same basic formula: you travel around a region, beat Gym Leaders, get their badges, and eventually gain the right to challenge the Elite Four and current reigning Champion. What made that last part of the game so tense and difficult in most Pokemon titles is the fact that it was a gauntlet. You walk into that room, and you’re not coming out until you win or your Pokemon have all fainted and you’ve got to try again.
It’s one of the few real challenges for players who know what they’re doing in Pokemon games. Yes, you can still breeze your way through with tricky strategies, but the gauntlet format put pressure on your resources — not just your Pokemon’s HP, but their PP, which governs how many times a specific move can be used. You can stock up on Potions and Revives, sure, but most games don’t let you buy any PP-restoring items.
- A Tale of Two Trainers, Chapter One: Galarian Psycho
- Pokemon Sword and Shield Breeding Guide
- The Five Pokemon You Meet in Hell Because I Sent Them There
Pokemon Sword and Shield changes all this. Instead of an Elite Four, it presents you with the Gym Challenge Finals. Bizarre structure of the whole thing aside (Why are the Gym Leaders there? Am I really the only one who finished the Gym Challenge? What is even happening?) it removes the gauntlet aspect of the final battles. Instead, after each opponent your Pokemon are automatically restored to pristine condition — you don’t even have a say in the matter.
As a result, the finals were a total joke. My Konmo-o, Perfect Tom, tore through every opponent like wet paper, with my Obstagoon, Feral Karen, doing cleanup. Had this been under the old Elite Four model, I would have been hampered by the fact that powerful moves like Konmo-o’s Close Combat have a small amount of PP. But since my Pokemon were fully healed between each battle, it didn’t matter.
At this point, you might be thinking that I’m running up against the basic problem of Pokemon — they’re fundamentally games for children. Which, sure. Maybe the old Elite Four system was too frustrating for most players, or maybe Game Freak just wanted to streamline the whole experience. That’s fine, I guess, but in a game that was already pretty breezy, it stuck out as the last of a number of odd design decisions that, to me, speak to a series caught between the weight of its history and an uncertain future.