Sword & Shield’s Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity

Starting to write about the new Pokemon game feels starting to chip away at an iceberg. Especially this one, with so much drama surrounding the game… with varying degrees of justification. It’s kind of daunting to write something about the game without it being contextualised by that drama.

I’ve just seen the credits roll after “finishing” Pokemon Shield. So based on that time with the game, I actually feel qualified to comment on some of it’s strengths and shortcomings now. I’m not sure how many more posts I’m going to write about the game in the coming weeks, but for now I want to dig into an aspect of the game I felt was a great change I wish they’d invested more time into.

I’ve written at length about my feelings when it comes to iteration of the Pokemon franchise. In fact, iteration, tropes and “tradition” in long running media franchises are something I find myself increasingly frustrated with as my time to consume new media continues to dwindle thanks to the dreaded “real life”.

Sword & Shield's Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity
League cards are a cool addition that adds some more celebrity to the participants in the challenge.

Thus, the more Pokemon adheres to its framework, the more I lament on the choices they could have made in a video game franchise that becomes less and less for me the older I get. Not that I’m genuinely upset about that. It’s just the sad reality of being a man child that loves a franchise he should probably have outgrown.

Anyway, to the point. One of the big changes with Sword and Shield is how they approach the Pokemon League challenge. Historically in these games; a lone trainer seems to leave their home town, visit a bunch of institutions around their country and become the nation’s most powerful trainer, with relatively little fanfare.

This generation, the games take a leaf out of the anime’s book, (as well as the Britain’s cultural obsession with sport) and turn the Pokemon League challenge into something of a spectator event. As it probably would be in the world of Pokemon. Battling seems to be the focus of everything in the Pokemon world, so of course battling would be treated as the primary form of entertainment.

Sword & Shield's Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity

Right from the beginning, we’re introduced to the Galar Regional champion before being sent off to register for the league challenge ourselves. What makes this game more unique is that each and every gym battle is treated like a big event in some ongoing tournament. You start your challenge by walking out into a huge stadium along with the countless other trainers who have also registered, all to a roaring crowd.

At this point, I was getting excited. Not only is the game structuring the league as one huge tournament, it also fills the stadium with countless other challenges like the player themselves and even introduces a number of rivals for the player in Hop, Bede and Marnie.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many battle shonen series, but the thought of this entire league’s gym challenge being structured like an anime tournament arc filled me with excitement. That’s certainly how it frames itself in the beginning. However, by the time you arrive at the first gym and start the challenge proper, the game seems to fall back on habit and give you the standard gym puzzle to leader battle that you can attempt as many times as you want.

Sword & Shield's Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity
The Gym puzzles are cool, don’t get me wrong. But I’d have much rather had a little anime melodrama.

While the first few gyms treat the matter with some gravity of the challenge before the player. By the time I was getting my sixth, seventh and eighth badges, I felt like I was being rushed through so the game could get me to the ending. Outside of the league challenge, there is relatively little story to speak of this side of the credits. So I’d have hoped that the game would put a little more drama and story into each individual gym challenge.

This is supposed to be a tournament right, one in which there are countless other trainers all working towards the same goal as the player and their named rivals. To this end, I would have loved for the game to frame each gym challenge as a miniature tournament, each of which had their own small narrative and cast of characters. Ones in which the rivals could duck in and out of along the way.

Early on, this game reminded me a lot of Dragon Quest, a game in which arriving in a new town meant for a whole new, self contained mini narrative to play itself out in front of the player, who themselves get mixed up in it. I’d have loved for Pokemon to take that approach. Introducing some characters who become rivals for the purposes of a single gym challenge. Give them a small arc, something to do with them around the challenge, which is paced out over the course of a few days.

Sword & Shield's Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity

I guess my main issue with this whole structure I’m trying to get at is; the game just rushes you through its narrative too quickly. The actual story segments of this game are brief and only poke their heads in after gym battles. The game should have stretched the process out, have the challenge take place in rounds, chuck snippets of narrative and drama in between battles and events, which would give the meaningless gym trainer battles in this game a little more narrative weight.

While the whole tournament structure of game does feel like it gets utilised much better by the time you get to the final city and work towards the champion, even it feels like it rushes through the actual tournament bracket to get to the dramatic villain reveal.

I genuinely did enjoy Pokemon Shield. There are aspects of the games I adore, but there are so many minor frustrations in there too. This gym challenge and the real lack of any compelling narrative throughout large chunks of the game is one of them. When it works, it’s amazing. The fanfare and buildup to important battles in the game is executed amazingly, really making the most of the game being on the Switch.

Sword & Shield's Pokemon League is a big missed opportunity
I can totally get why Team Yell love Marnie so much. I’d be all on board with them.

It’s just, there are so many JRPGs out there that manage to drag compelling narratives out of so much less. And this is Pokemon doing a game long tournament arc, how could they not make this the most hype damn thing I’ve ever played… I think I will continue talking about Pokemon and the things that niggle me about it, as well as the things I feel the game does well. December is going to be a real busy month for me…

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