The eighth generation of Pokémon games was always going to be faced with a difficult challenge. The first new generation to be released on the Nintendo Switch, and the first in the mainline series to be released on a home console, the announcement of Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield led to some of the highest fan expectations in the series’ history. However, given the direction Game Freak had been travelling in recent years, fans were also wrought with scepticism. Unfortunately, the Pokémon Company did little to alleviate fans of their worries, and in fact, at the beginning of 2019 did the opposite, creating one of the largest controversies seen during the lifetime of the series.
For those unaware, Pokémon Series Producer Junichi Masuda announced in early February of last year that not every Pokémon from previous generations would be available in the Galar region. Additionally, members of the Pokémon team seemed to suggest this was due to the increased workload that came with creating all new models and animations, utilising the enhanced graphical capabilities of the new console. Fans interpreted this as a statement that the new games would boast much improved visuals when compared to their predecessors. Some fans were, rightly or wrongly depending on who you ask, outraged that they would not be able to battle and trade with all their favourite old pokémons on their shiny new Switch, which led to the now infamous #Dexit. Moreover, from promotional material Game Freak themselves published as well as various data mines conducted prior to the games’ release it became clear that the boost in graphical capabilities of the Switch’s hardware was not translating to an improved graphical experience as fans had hoped. This only added fuel to the fire, and led to many calling for a boycott of the games as a whole.
It was onto these shaky foundations that Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield were launched in November of last year, and as a long-time fan of the series I have to say, I was massively disappointed. Marking the start of a new era for the series on home consoles, the eighth generation of games had the potential to bring the beloved series into the modern era, much as Breath of the Wild did for Zelda, however they simply did not deliver. Even ignoring the stripped back National Dex, and relatively minor graphical improvements, the new titles lacked in many other key areas. The primary issues were with the new mechanic; Dynamaxing, which while interesting at first, quickly became repetitive and began to feel like little more than a worse Mega form. Additionally, the story, if indeed it even qualifies as one, was so bland and predictable that I doubt even the games’ target audience of 10-year olds found difficulty anticipating the “twists”. Don’t even get me started on some of the one-dimensional characters and the insultingly basic post-game content.
However, the game did not suffer in all areas; the gym leader puzzles, some areas within Galar region itself, the new generation of Pokémon and Galarian forms – They all provided a pleasant experience, but crucially, I was always left with a sense of what could have been. What forms could the games have taken had the developers been allowed more time, more freedom to innovate & create, and perhaps had less influence from the Pokémon Company? I provide you with this background to give a sense of my apprehension when diving into the new expansion for the game: The Crown Tundra. Having heard murmurs of good things and following a peek into the new region and liking what I saw, I decided to give it a go. I wondered if this could be the missing piece in Gen VIII’s puzzle?
My journey began by grabbing a train from Wedgehurst Station. One quick cutscene later and I had arrived. The first thing to grab my attention was the gorgeous atmosphere. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for snowy environments, but I found the peaceful music, faint drifting of snowflakes, and soft crunch of ice underfoot had the effect of lulling me out of the station and into the tundra to explore this seemingly vast new landscape. This tranquillity was almost immediately shattered with the appearance of Peony. His boisterous, jazzy backing track and loud personality immediately laid to rest any thought of serenity I might have had. From the get-go I found the characterisation to be above the mark when compared to the main game, which definitely instilled confidence in me for what was to come.
And indeed, what came next was the most enjoyable experience I have had with Pokémon Sword to date. The overall premise is that the player is tasked by Peony to explore the region in order to discover and capture various legendary Pokémon native to the tundra; some familiar and some not so. There is a clear “main quest” involving the primary new legendary, and additional threads to follow involving others. In terms of the story, while I’ve unfortunately come to expect very little from Game Freak in this department, surprisingly they deliver in The Crown Tundra. I will admit, the main quest is shorter than I would have liked, however what is presented is fun and light-hearted, and genuinely got a chuckle out of me at times. It’s certainly not complex by modern RPG standards, but in comparison to elements of the base game, it’s leagues ahead. I enjoyed following clues and trekking around the various locales within the icy biome, all with the aim of tracking down legendaries. However, what truly tied the experience together was the structure of the tundra.
In the base game, there is a large region known as the “wild area”. In this zone the player can roam freely in an open space and has free control of the camera. Many different Pokémon can be found wandering the area depending on the weather and time of day, and there are no loading screens. The impact this feature had at launch cannot be understated, as it indicated a move towards a more modern and open Pokémon title, one in which the player has the freedom to explore as they desire, without the restrictive boundaries of linear routes and encapsulated towns, and one in which Pokémon can be discovered in a more natural environment. It indicated a more seamless experience, one that a large proportion of the fanbase has been pining after for years. Unfortunately, in the base game there was only one such zone, which effectively neutered this positive effect. Each time I would leave the wild area to progress via a route or town, I would feel as though I was losing that sense of freedom. In the Crown Tundra, however, the entire region is a wild area. This is a total game changer and feels like what modern Pokémon titles should be – open and immersive. The simple fact that camera control is unrestricted and the act of walking into a town doesn’t prompt a loading screen truly does make a difference. So much so that in the few areas where the camera is fixed, it felt quite jarring and alien.
It’s clear that Game Freak put some thought and care into this expansion, as evident by the many little touches that help to complete the experience. For example, the player can have their lead Pokémon follow behind them, a feature fans have wanted to see return since it was removed from Gen V onwards, and one which leads to some great moments: Who knew Eternatus was so big? Additionally, I liked the mission title cards, the use of readable clues and graphical touches, such as when standing still for a while the player character will begin to reach out to catch snowflakes. Elements like this help to add a degree of polish to the experience.
Unfortunately, for all that the Crown Tundra does for Pokémon Sword & Shield, it cannot remove the imperfections of the base game, and I was consistently reminded of this even as I enjoyed the expansion’s content. Long cutscenes with stilted animation, the stark absence of voice acting, texture pop-in, copy-pasted models and simplistic visuals; all these issues hold the game back. We have seen the degree of quality Nintendo can produce for the switch with titles such as Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8, Animal Crossing, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and the aforementioned Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Why can Pokémon not achieve this too?
So, in conclusion, did I enjoy my time with The Crown Tundra? For sure. Do I wish the bar was not set so low? Absolutely. As to whether the expansion acts as redemption for Sword & Shield, I can only say yes to a degree, and not without dropping some kindling in its wake. It’s my hope that Game Freak both learn from Gen VIII’s failures and develop on its successes in order to create the next title – one that’s worthy of the Pokémon name.