For some time now, Pokémon has had a bit of an identity crisis. The series has been churning out mainline entries every couple years nonstop for over two decades, but the once tried and true formula that guaranteed critical success (and big bucks) has felt a bit stale starting arguably with the franchise’s jump to 3D with X and Y. Frustration reached a fever pitch with the franchise’s last major release, Sword and Shield, which received a heavy amount of backlash for its perceived mishandling of longtime fans’ good will. Sword and Shield was accused of deprioritizing the competitive scene with its many changes to the meta, lacking content because of its straightforward storyline and few postgame options, and, perhaps most infamously, failing to include over half of the franchise’s total 905 Pokémon.
It’s been debated since Sword and Shield’s release how much of this is actually Game Freak’s fault. The Pokémon Company responded to the controversy saying the series has simply accumulated too many Pokémon to properly implement every single one, particularly given the series’ short turnaround time for new games. It seemed as though Pokémon had grown too large to properly satisfy anyone fully, as every fan—from diehards to casual players to the young kids these games were originally intended for—all have conflicting interests when it comes to the play experience. It seemed as though Pokémon’s answer to the impossibility of their task was to chase modern trends, layering a popular aesthetic over Sword and Shield that has become ubiquitous over the last few years.
The general vibe of Galar, the region in which Sword and Shield is set, is heavily structured around sports, with the story itself mirroring that of a tournament arc in a sports anime. It seemed like a good fit given Pokémon’s inherently competitive nature, and, in the game’s early moments, is promising and even a bit exciting, a much needed shakeup from the predictable game flow the series became famous for. Unfortunately, the games fall into the same old trap the series always has, having a rinse-and-repeat gym format that culminates in a fight against the champion. Despite its attempts to echo shows like Haikyuu or Captain Tsubasa, with their emotional highs and passionate casts, the game feels more shallow than ever before, bogged down by too many underexplored ideas like the open world areas and Dynamaxing.
The greatest tragedy of Sword and Shield is all the wasted potential. There are shades of a better game within its DNA; boss battles do feel exciting and climactic, given the rapt audience that reacts to the changing dynamic of battle and the banger boss theme. But in its attempt to not stay too far from quintessentially “Pokémon” progression, it fails to hit the beats a sports anime should.
Sword and Shield’s first DLC, Isle of Armor, received some criticism for its brief story, but could have been a wonderful addition if packaged in with the base game. A direct reflection of the obligatory training arc, Isle of Armor finds the player training alongside the baby Pokémon Kubfu at a Dojo and includes a version-exclusive rival. The DLC is a sadly frustrating experience because of its divorce from the main plot, instead being a self-contained side story many players completed after finishing the main game. Taken out of context, though, Isle of Armor is an exciting and unique story for the Pokémon series, and could have been the blueprint for how the game was structured, carefully digressing into isolated but emotionally meaningful secondary plots.
Now that we’re three years out from Sword and Shield, it’s (hopefully) easier to have a more measured appraisal of it; it’s a mediocre game and a disappointment for most, certainly, but more a symbol of the increasing impracticality of the franchise, which seems to have met its saturation point in terms of labor and interest. Though Sword and Shield remains the fifth best-selling Switch game to date, its reception has become synonymous with its name and could put its follow-up in a precarious position. So what’s a good trend to chase in 2022?
Based on the trailers for the next installment so far, it seems like Game Freak landed on a school setting, which isn’t a terrible idea. Academic settings have been popular in Young Adult media for decades, in particular having a spark in interest since the start of the pandemic, perfectly encapsulating the years in between Sword and Shield and Scarlet and Violet. For all my doubts, the recent trailer certainly sold a lot of the elements I’d expect from a setting like this: a squad of delinquent rivals, school traditions and events, and a colorful cast of upperclassmen and faculty. Despite the game’s reliance on the gym progression system, the trailer implies there are new, nonviolent tasks the player will have to complete to challenge each gym. Scarlet and Violet has staked much of its appeal on its true open world, a pointed improvement on Sword and Shield’s Wild Area.
If Game Freak was smart, they’d take some inspiration from Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Persona’s calendar systems, which protract the respective games over several months to mirror a school year. Though many find this idea played out at this point (myself included), simulating a school year would address several complaints leveraged at Sword and Shield, namely the lack of content and short story. Stretching the game across a calendar year runs the risk of making a game feel artificially extended, but allows the opportunity for several unique, dynamic events to take place across the game’s playtime, and could retain players of Scarlet and Violet long enough for Game Freak to roll out updates and DLC that don’t feel awkwardly released after the game’s natural life cycle. If Scarlet and Violet truly is as open of a world as Game Freak seems to be marketing it as, it would also allow for events to be spread out across the world in a logical way, preventing the world from feeling empty or undynamic. A day and night cycle could help with this, too, allowing for encounters to be dictated by a time of day that makes them feel serendipitous or unique.
When I think of high school settings in anime, I think of the high stakes and social dynamics many often present, whether that be the melodrama of Ouran High School Host Club or the exaggerated thrills of Kakegurui. These are tropes everyone is familiar with, and a good base that can easily be extrapolated on in almost any direction. There’s sufficient evidence to suggest Scarlet and Violet are focused on innovation, given what we’ve seen of the new multiplayer features, automatic battling and gathering, and the “three stories” in the game The Pokémon Company has referenced. Many were satisfied with the advancements made in Legends: Arceus, which now reads as a proof of concept for the ideas reused in Scarlet and Violet.
Despite the promise the game shows, I can’t quite shake my initial hesitancy about the game. One of the three stories previously mentioned is, of course, the Pokémon League, a task that’s become more and more tedious with each entry and even superfluous with how simple the process became in Sword and Shield. In theory, I enjoy the combat of Pokémon, but many of these games need significant, weighty side content to support the more formulaic elements endemic to the series, content that should do its best to merge itself with the game’s primary campaign.
Pokémon has abruptly gone from a series I buy on launch to one I might consider picking up if several of my friends recommend it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Pokémon is that I—and many others, as I’ve noticed—have a hard time vocalizing what we really want to see happen with the IP. It’s far from being a dead franchise, but Pokémon may soon be a series unsustained by its original fans. Maybe its most curmudgeonly followers would do well to move on. Sometimes cute critters just aren’t enough.
Austin Jones is a writer and perfume enthusiast. His unfiltered thoughts are available for free on Twitter @belfryfire.