Rivals in Pokemon games are mostly there for you to destroy. They seal that fate moments after after you pick your starting Pokemon, choosing whatever Pokemon is left that also happens to be a creature with a significant type disadvantage to your new best friend. The hours that follow are you obliterating your rival’s Pokemon, often with a single shot.
When these games first started in Pokemon Red and Blue, your rival was a complete jerk. In the years since that dickish behavior has softened to the point of Pokemon Sword and Shield, in which other characters intend to be your asshole rival while your real rival, Hop, is someone you basically worry about the entire game.
There were a number of times while playing Pokemon Shield that I thought I gave my Nintendo Switch had the wrong language settings. Once I figured out the Galar region was basically supposed to be the United Kingdom, I stopped worrying about being in Poke-Scotland and the obsession with curry and just started to worry about my rival, Hop, instead.
More than any of my Pokemon, I felt concern about the person I was supposed to beat with said creatures. Because I did beat him. A lot. Again and again and again, and each time it happened he seemed to take it worse. At times it seemed manic. One encounter he was sure he’ll beat his “unbeatable” brother and become champion. The next he was doubting his ability to even train Pokemon and second-guessing his tactics, all while continuing to send a literal electric sheep to the slaughter against my team.
The other characters you encounter during your heroic journey seem much more level-headed than the entirely uncertain, meandering foil you keep bumping into on your way to pocket monster glory. There’s Sonia, doing research and wearing sporty jackets around Galar. Team Yell is annoying but at least Marnie has a decent team together by the time you interact. And then there’s Hop, doomed to see his prized leaf monkey get one-shotted over and over again by my rad soccer-playing bunny. By game’s end I’d never seen his starting Pokemon execute an attack. He had a drum or something. Maybe he was in a band?
“But I can’t even manage to beat you, so what sort of help could I ever be?” Hop asks at one point after giving me a large sum of money to wipe out his lineup and send him back, once more, to the Pokemon Center for healing.
His struggles in the gym challenge were so vivid that I started to think he was making a pretty decent point. And not to spoil anything but everything does work out fine for him, as it does your other overconfident rivals who don’t have existential crises on your way to becoming champion of Galar in a game that carries all the hallmarks of what you’ve come to expect from Pokemon Shield. Every crisis is solveable in the Pokemon universe and most things work out for the better, even if climate havoc does play a major role here. No matter the stakes, a teen with some Pokemon will save the day.
Here’s the actual review part of this piece: I liked Pokemon Shield a lot. It’s good. Great in some ways, and certainly reminiscent of the classics. But like Hop’s own journey through the game, it swings wildly in some directions that are, well, best left ignored. The beauty of a game like this you can get through the main story with plenty to do once it’s finished. The problem with that is going through the hero’s journey of the game can be done by largely ignoring the rest of the game’s objectives.
Sending Pokemon off to do day labor? Pass. Breeding and checking back in for eggs? Eh, maybe later. The same can be said for grinding down and later leveling up wild Pokemon to fill out a PokeDex, which you can’t complete in full anyway. That’s something that’s made a lot of longtime Pokemon fans angry, but at this point in the Pokemon universe it’s more ceremonial to finish a Full Dex than practical. You can’t truly catch ’em all in Sword or Shield, but times change.
Other issues found with the game may be the short draw ratio for some objects, which makes some Pokemon and trainers appear out of nowhere as you wander the Wild Area and other locales. There is some weird phasing with objects like trees, and many fans have been extremely critical of the animation effects, not all of which are unique to individual creatures. But if that stuff doesn’t matter to you, much like Hop’s crisis of confidence, you can push past it and focus on the task at hand. Which is rewarding and worth the time you ultimately put into it.
I’m a Pokemon gym leader from the early part of the game. I have two Pokemon, both level 15 or below, neither of them evolved. My job is to get the shit kicked out of me by children on a daily basis. I’m the most respected person in town.
— curating timeline in case Lorne reads it (@boring_as_heck) November 18, 2019
That length of time is basically determined entirely by your own tendency to meander and how much of a completionist you are. The path of these games is well-worn by now, but it’s still extremely fun to take a team of six Pokemon and beat everyone else in the world with them, even if you’re beating some rubes along the way. Whether you use the same team throughout or abandon some early friends once the matchups dictate tinkering, though, is up to you.
A console Pokemon game is also satisfying in all the ways you’d imagine on the Switch. Seeing Dynamax battles on a big screen and then taking the device on the go for a more familiar Pokemon experience was easy and kept me playing despite other obligations and activities, just like the first time I played Pokemon on a teal Game Boy Color long ago. It was that feeling that made me much more forgiving about the graphics and Dex and other more unnecessary features I gladly neglected on my way to becoming a champion once more.
In a lot of ways the games are like Hop, obsessed with adding “another page to his legend,” whatever that means. Sword and Shield aren’t the best pages of the story, but they’re certainly worthy of the tale.