Pokemon Sword and Shield became sports games, and lost their character in the process
Pokemon Sword and Shield was the most daring attempt at the Pokemon formula yet. The legendary Game Freak series made changes never seen before and altered the series as a whole.
They controversially removed the National Dex, making some Pokemon unavailable in a main series game for the first time ever. Wild Pokemon were visible in the overworld for the first time, and instead of the trainer having to seek them out, they may run up to you for battle. The wild area added a whole new dimension to the experience.
The story itself felt significantly different from the usual Pokemon story as well. In previous games, you were a youngster heading out for an adventure. You would either be given a Pokemon as a signal of your entrance into young adulthood or by accident when you attempt to save your town's professor in some way.
In Sword and Shield your Pokemon adventure starts in a similar fashion to how the career mode in NBA 2k or Madden begin. You are an unseasoned athlete, beginning your journey, hoping to one day win a championship and become and legend in your sport.
This shift from “adventure” to “sports game career mode” exists throughout the game, and it leads to some weird, awkward interactions.
The “rival” role has been an important one in previous Pokemon games. In the first generation, Blue, is the grandson of the professor. He often berates you throughout the game, you have many battles (including one where you kill one of his Pokemon), and then you are met with the ultimate twist at the end as he is the champion awaiting you after the Elite 4.
Other rivals like Silver, a mysterious figure who steals a Pokemon from the professor, and wants to prove himself as stronger than the Team Rocket grunts that failed his father, Giovanni. There is a clear character arc, and a clear reason for him to prove to be your adversary.
Hop is only your rival in Sword and Shield because he has to have one. It even is straight-up stated to you early on, that since you are a trainer, you need a rival. Rivals in previous games had reasons to rival you. Hop is just your rival because he feels like he needs to be.
The other rivals in the game, Bede and Marnie, are more interesting, but undeveloped. Bede is similar to Silver in some ways, but he barely appears after he is kicked out of the gym challenge early in the game. His true motivations are also unknown.
Marnie is the most interesting of the three. She comes from what appears to be the poorest town in the Galar region, Spikemuth. Her brother is the towns gym leaders, but instead of the gigantic, multi-tiered stadium, other leaders have, the Spikemuth gym is on a concrete court outside. You can not dynamax, the crowd is just a few local onlookers.
She becomes a hometown hero of some sort, just like many athletes from poorer, forgotten cities are. People from her town follow her around the region to cheer her on, calling themselves “Team Yell.”. Marnie has a very real interesting backstory that I would love to have seen more of. A girl from a poor city, getting a chance to be the next big star. Her neighbors have been galvanized around her, hoping she can represent them on the national stage.
Bede and Marnie both spend the entire game in the shadow of Hop, though. The worst rival with the least interesting possible story and motivations gets all of the screentime. While sports teams and athletes have rivals because of their epic battles and fiercely contested games, Hop is just your rival because the game needs you to have one.
There are other smaller, parts of the game that add to its appeal as a sports game too. While the ability to change what Pokemon are in your party on the fly streamlines the experience, it makes the Pokemon themselves feel more expendable.
You can place Pokemon on the bench (in the PC) or place them in your starting lineup (your party) with ease. Instead of having to find PC and transfer them there, you can do it in a matter of seconds from anywhere. If you are in the wild area and see a fire type and do not have any water types in your party? Just make a quick change before heading into battle.
The always on xp share feels the same. Your Pokemon can level up and get stronger without even entering battle. While this makes the team as a whole better whenever you win, your link to each individual Pokemon feels weaker. In previous games, you would often have to cycle out which Pokemon was at the front of your party in order to train them and make sure they keep pace with the rest of the group. This assures that every member of your team is used at some point. Each has their chance in the spotlight. Each one has to be used by the trainer for a good period of time.
It also made it harder to make changes to your party Pokemon. If you caught a Pokemon at level 5 and then trained them all the way to level 30, you were much less likely to box them for a level 34 wild Pokemon. Doing so would waste all the effort you put into training them, and you would have less of a bond with the slightly stronger Pokemon.
The xp candies that you find during raid battles add to this. The Pokemon does not even need to be in your party anymore to be quickly leveled up. Any Pokemon can suddenly gain thousands of xp in an instant. Again, this streamlines the process and makes things easier, but it also makes it so you have less of a bond with your Pokemon.
You feel less like a guy going on an adventure with your friend, and instead like the general manager of a sports team, constantly making personnel and lineup changes to win different games on your schedule.
Many other smaller changes throughout hurt the character and sense of adventure in the game as well. The lack of an Elite 4 makes your championship feel hollow, as it is a yearly trophy like a Super Bowl instead of a grand honor only very few trainers reach. The main team of “villains”, Team Yell, are actually just enthusiastic fans rather than people with some sort of real motivation. Enough has already been said on Twitter about how terrible the Pokemon look in 3D, and how they are now just emotionless figurines. Having no HM’s, or other real-world interactions with your Pokemon in using them fly, surf, climb mountains etc. again removes the Pokemon themselves from the equation. It is all about you.
The story is an absolute mess, as well. There is no real conflict, just characters babbling on about dynamaxing for some reason. At the end (I would give a spoiler alert but the plot sucks who cares), the champion is kidnapped by the chairman (kind of) and you and Hop (who’s the champions brother) are forced to go save him. The reasons for the kidnapping are murky at best, though. It feels like Game Freak realized that their game had no real conflict in its plot and needed to lob one in there at the end.
This is not all to say the game is bad, though, it just does not feel like a Pokemon game. The plot is bad, but it seems like the creators wanted to make the plot a side act to the sports narrative — kind of like how NBA 2k has those little cutscenes where you talk to your agent and the media. It is not really that important, but it’s there.
Sword and Shield do not really feel like Pokemon games, though. It is up to you to decide whether you think that’s for the better.