Overall Verdict: 7/10
I am very conflicted about this game. I want to hate everything about it on paper, from the dialogue, to the low-res graphics and inconsistent rendering, but at the end of the day, it gets a decent score because it’s just fun; 28 hours in, I still feel like running around like a crazy person and chucking pokeballs at new Pokémon, some of which have never been able to be caught in the overworld. Overall, I love the direction that they’re taking the games, and with a taste of what we have in Arceus, I hope this is the trend for all Pokémon games going forward. That being said, below acts as a wishlist for my thoughts.
This review will be full of Breath of the Wild comparisons, as it honestly feels like they’ve taken the entire engine, down the sound, and ported the game poorly into a Pokémon world. From the sounds your character makes, to the sounds of the UI and the chimes, it very much feels like they forked the code to start this Pokémon game.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Let’s break down this score:
I think the engine they are running this game on did not get any graphical enhancements from US/UM. At the least, it did not improve from Sword/Shield. It’s not just me. People have been complaining about the graphics significantly. It’s a mess; the texture is not good, the texture resolution is mixed and matched, and it does not feel cohesive. There are shadow bugs, and it felt like much of the IP’s budget really went towards the other mechanics or resolving tech debt.
The world-building in this game is a lot better than previous generations in that the behavior of the different Pokemon actually alters based on the Pokemon. Instead of a chance value, instead the Pokemon will run away vs fighting you. Some Pokemon are curious, and when you throw an item at them, they won’t immediately fight or flee. Others will get angry at any sight of you and will attempt to attack you. This characteristic makes it a bit more dynamic and really helps instill the fact that each type of Pokemon is unique. As well, seeing the Pokémon live in family groups, or alone, was really neat. Even in later areas, when you have the territorial Electabuzz, you’d also have a Elekid, 20 levels down, walking around near the loosely-packed group of Electabuzz. By contrast, you can see a bunch of Hippopotas with a few Hippowdon. Finally, you can see Carnivines or Zoruas wandering around alone, with Zorua being somewhat sad and Carnivine being very aggressive. Blissey, a nurse-caretaker Pokémon, will not even attack you if you are injured.
As well, based on the requests system (mini-quests), you start to slowly accumulate Pokemon in the village by giving away those you caught. While most of the quests themselves are not particularly strong, some of them offer a small slice of humor or character development. I liked the quest where you get someone a Wurmple, as they get very excited about a beautiful Beautifly that they will get later. As the audience, we observe a bit of dramatic irony when we see the cascoon standing next to him. Based on the story of people learning to live alongside Pokémon, this development feels natural. It was also refreshing to see people argue over stuff like “which is really a Burmy” and “can you give me a Pokémon to help me till the land”?
The environments at each setting feel fairly unique, and having just played Shining Pearl, I feel as though the callbacks (Lakes, Snowpoint Temple) were tastefully done. I will say that some of the environments lacked more unique mechanics. The marsh could have had quicksand that you got stuck in and forced you to fight Pokémon chasing after you. The ice level could have made you freeze unless you walked around with a fire Pokémon. It did break immersion a bit when I was able to sprint around as a canonically 15-year-old kid in shorts and old-timey Balenciaga sock shoes, and there was a obvious opportunity for the developers to require a fire-type or fairy-type Pokémon to protect you from the elements. For a game that told the story about how people learned to live with Pokémon, you only really seem to use them to smash rocks or ride around on during the exploration modes.
The core gameplay loop is extremely attractive, if repetitive. In contrast to my Shining Pearl playthrough, where I felt that all battles were a huge waste of time, save for Gym Battles, the battles with Alpha Pokémon and even Time-Space Distortions were well-warranted. Sometimes, even in exploration, I would get ambushed and have to take on 2 or more opponents. This dynamic kept battles exciting, as I was able to think about what I should do. In addition, I liked the addition of Agile and Strong Styles, as these added a RPG element to an otherwise “who is faster via Googling stats on Smogon”. As well, it does feel like the AI is smarter in this game, with the AI having priority on moves that hit super-effective or neutral.
I also liked the removal of IVs and the systematizing of EVs into consumable items. While it’s definitely more tedious to manage, there was nothing worse than getting that elusive shiny you wanted, only for it to be of poor stats and wrong nature. In the past, there was nothing you could do. In recent generations, you could give it a nature mint (time-consuming to grind) and bottle caps (even more time-consuming to grind, as the Pokémon had to be Level 100). Now, you can simply get the mint and some grit, and you’re off on your way using Shinys or Alphas. This reduces the hunt by 100s of hours, which for a more casual Pokémon player like me, is time that I otherwise would have just had a worse time. Maybe the hardcore players would think this is too easy, but they are likely in the minority. After all, Pokémon, for better or for worse, is geared for a younger audience, and I definitely would have loved to have this experience as a kid.
The new Pokédex was a pleasure to work through, as it made sense in the context of the story that you needed to explore and fill out entries about new Pokémon. I enjoy that there’s variance in the types of activities that will give you progress, and even pockets of 15 minutes during lunch can be made making a bit of progress. The change of the focal point to catching, as well, facilitated this. For the most part, it did feel by US/UM that there were two games: the RPG and the Pokédex completion. This is a major step in the right direction to unite the two, and between the introduction of this style of Pokédex and the exploration focus brings the core “catch ’em all” experience back into the spotlight.
Balance-wise, due to experience sharing, the game’s leveling system requires revision. I felt as though I was over-leveled for the battles, but each time I entered a new area, I was ~5 levels under-leveled. I was able to then cheese the alpha Pokémon from the previous zone and successfully get more alpha Pokémon from the new area. The boss fights also felt very easy, and I think the culmination was actually something I was disappointed by.
I also felt like there was something lost about not having enough nooks and crannies. The implementation of the Koroks in Breath of the Wild felt like a small bite puzzle that was at least interesting enough for you to pause whatever you were doing to try to solve. The wisps, by contrast, glow very bright, and you can basically book it around on braviary and hope to collect them.
I though the story had some strong elements where I really wished to see fleshed out, but the game fell short on a ton of missed opportunities. The team introduces numerous, potentially interesting characters, mechanics, and secrets.
For the first and second sections, it didn’t feel like there was anything happening. The story basically acted as a vehicle for a straight-forward go here, do this. In the third section, there was a bit of a budding romance between the wardens of the opposite clans, as well as the rivalry between Irida and Palina, but it didn’t seem to pan out. Then, we get the delinquent Miss Fortunes clan and their hatred of the clans, but why? Is there lore logs of why they hate the clans? Were they betrayed? Perhaps there were some additional story bits that I could have found, but there wasn’t anything in my 28 hours of play-time.
As the story reached its climax, I thought that begging the Lake spirits to help you was slightly deus ex machina. Cogita, who was definitely a callback to Cynthia, could have definitely been introduced earlier in the story. This would have been a cool foil, akin to how Cynthia came into play with Shining Pearl as a side character, only for you to realize who she really was in the Elite Four.