Natalie Rambles About the Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass

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Because this is not quite Natalie Rambles About Pokémon Part 2

Pokémon Shield was a… difficult game for me to go through, as it served the final ordeal in a months-long reanalysis of the Pokémon series. A time where I looked at the toxic fanbase and reminded myself of how these games are made. A time where I aired my plentiful emotional baggage with this series. And a time where I jumped back a decade to better grasp just how much the series has evolved.

After all of that, I was more than a bit fatigued, put Pokémon Shield aside, and did not think much of its DLC when it was announced. However, I still bought it, and with a daunting double-hit combo of new releases peering over the horizon, I figured I should get around to it before Pokémon Sword and Shield, along with their expansion passes, are fully irrelevant.

I was considering doing a proper review but… Pokémon is such a difficult thing for me to wrap my head around that I’m not even sure if I can make proper reviews of the games any more without going off on semi-related tangents, or heavily butchering my thoughts. So, consider this yet another review/ramble hybrid thing.

On that note, the obligatory third part of this intro:

The idea of DLC for a Pokémon game has been fluttering around for quite some time, but there was always some confusion about how the DLC would work and what it would add. I remember some people claiming that DLC would outmode the idea of an updated version as the developers could remix, rework, and rearrange things after launch. Instead, the Expansion Pass is a bit more straightforward, as it simply introduces the Isle of Armor and the Crown Tundra. Two new environments that contain new Pokémon, new side stories, new post-game challenge battles, and other miscellaneous tidbits.

Part 1: The Isle of Armor

The Isle of Armor sends the player character away from bizarro England and to bizarro… inverted and disconnected Northern Ireland? Wherever it is, the player is sent there with the loose goal of training at a renown dojo with an aging master of Pokémon. Somebody who claims that he can teach the player character the ropes to becoming a great trainer, despite being an oddball with a more hands-off and indirect training style.

This training regime sends the player running and biking across the Isle of Armor, which serves as an expansion of everything the Wild Area was meant to be. An open environment where the player can find randomly generated items sparkling on the ground, walk up to dens that give them a secondary currency, watts, and of course catch Pokémon as they spawn throughout the environment. The only major difference between the two is the lack of watt traders on the Isle of Armor, the Pokémon that spawn, and the environment itself.

That might not sound like much, and in a sense, it isn’t, but this titular island combats what I came to recognize as the greatest weakness of the Wild Area. Biodiversity. Pretty much every part of the Wild Area looked the same, boasting a lot of green fields, green trees, and the occasional patch of water. You could tell the environments apart due to certain landmarks and a sole rocky area, but overall, it was samey and forced the developers to introduce a weather system to justify the presence of certain Pokémon. For as much fun as it could be, the Wild Area in the base game felt like a trial run, something that was born from technical and resource limitations.

The environment is more interesting to explore due to its diversity, adding in a forest, numerous beaches, a scattering of caves, a pocket-sized desert, and an expansive sea. The developers figured out how to bring back the Walking Pokémon feature from Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee. And while the game does still stutter and hiccup in spots, it ran noticeably better in these environments than it did in the Wild Area. These seem like minor changes, but they do make the act of traveling through the Isle of Armor more enjoyable than the Wild Area. Even if the environment could have used one or two more warp points away from the clustered center of the map. Also, while cute, the trailing Sharpedos quickly outweigh their novelty.

Now, you’ll notice that I just went off on a tangent about the environment while sidelining the story, and that’s because it’s neither interesting as a story or conducive to the Pokémon experience. Players go from point A to point B, chase ornery Slowpokes, find soup ingredients, and encounter a version specific rival who thinks they’re the top dog until the player character schools them the old fashion way.

After several ordeals, the player character is given a new legendary, the wushu bear Kubfu, who the player needs to raise from level 10 to 70 (assuming they beat the main campaign) before they can evolve them into one of two (and only one) different forms. Once Kubfu evolves into Urshifu, then the player can take on their vaguely goofy sensei, who shows his true strength in the ring of combat. Once the battle is done, the cast yuck it up, and… that’s it.

I get what the developers were trying to do here, create a sort of isolated training arc. Give players the opportunity to endear themselves to and raise a legendary Pokémon, and introduce a few new quirky characters all the while. However, none of it really clicked for me, and I don’t think that this idea is compatible with Pokémon. Training, raising, and enhancing Pokémon is a routine, mathematical, and scientific process, which leaves this sensei-type character unable to impart any wisdom or the like. He’s just some dude who tells the player to do stuff and gives them a legendary for their troubles. A pretty good legendary with a great signature move, but still, just a legendary.

As such, I think the true star of the Isle of Armor is the isle itself, the act of exploring it, getting lost in its world, and going from one end to another. Catching a few Pokémon you like, fainting Chanseys for easy EXP, fighting Max Raid Battles, gathering oodles of watts, and collecting RNG-driven items that range from berries to nature-changing items.

Actually, come to think of it, this gameplay loop was probably the best and most endearing thing about the base game as well. You know, when it was being less of a campaign-driven Pokémon game and more of a test bed for an open world Pokémon game with online and spawn-based elements that encourage players to come back every day. Which… I’m going to put a pin into this topic for a moment, but I will get back to it in Part 4. For now, let’s talk about the Crown Tundra.

Part 2: The Crown Tundra

The Crown Tundra sees the player character venture off to the blisteringly cold… southern Galar? That doesn’t make a lick of sense, but whatever. The core concept here is, yet again, there’s a new stretch of open world land for the player to explore, oodles of new Pokémon to catch, a short side story to follow, and some minor bits of new endgame content. Second verse, same as the first, but… I think Crown Tundra is better in pretty much every way.

Let’s start with the story. Right as the player is thrown into this new location they meet up with Peony, an eager and energetic older man who serves as the protagonist’s confidant throughout the story and he is easily my favorite Pokémon character since N from Black and White.

He is always upbeat, always ready to go out on adventures, and absolutely down for anything you could throw at him. While he is not the brightest crayon in the box and far too accepting of the supernatural things that happen to him throughout the story, he is always bursting with such enthusiasm whenever he speaks, and his animations do an excellent job of conveying just what sort of person he is. He is somebody I was always happy to talk to in-game, and I cannot think of the last time I thought that about a Pokémon character. Peony is the best boy, best man, and best dad. 

I seriously started just referring to him as ‘dad’ during the latter half of my time with Crown Tundra, because he is damn near archetypical in just how good of a dad he is. But his ‘age regressed gyaru MILF’ of a daughter doesn’t seem to understand that, so I decided that he was my character’s dad instead. Besides, there’s almost a familial resemblance.

Now, I would have loved it if this entire expansion was about your character and Peony just getting into mischief and angering divine beings. Sadly, the core of the story is more interested in the harvest spirit Pokémon, Calyrex, and relegates Peony to a mouthpiece for this new Pokémon, who is the true focal point of this story.

Calyrex’s schtick is that they are a neglected small town guardian whose power has been waning over the decades and they’re too much of a lazy and socially stupid dork to ask anybody other than the protagonist for help. As such, it is up to them to learn why Calyrex stopped being worshipped, how to get their powers back, and once they are fully restored, capture them instead of letting them do their job as a harvest spirit Pokémon.

I would describe this portion of the story as standard genre fluff, following a familiar story structure note for note with nothing particularly unique or interesting. Honestly, the most surprising thing is that of all the Pokémon to give attention to, they gave it to one that looks like… this. I am normally the first to defend a Pokémon’s design but… this just looks unfinished. You have this massive noggin, a stoic deer’s face, a bunch of neck beads with Triforce symbols in them, tiny stick arms, and giant stilt legs that they only use when riding on their magical horse.

However, the story here better fits the mold of a Pokémon game, it has some quirky moments, and it feels like you are actually doing something. Even though the writers could not really reconcile a solid reason for the player to battle and catch Calyrex. Seriously, it seems like they should just bring a bountiful harvest and then join the protagonist as a thank you for restoring their power. But no, instead I needed to thunder wave this high level legendary, false swipe them to 1 HP, and then throw Dusk Balls at them until they gave up. You know, the same way any sane person catches Pokémon when Quick Balls don’t do the trick.

However, Calyrex was far from the only high level legendary I wound up catching using this method. Sword and Shield were rather lean and limited with the legendary Pokémon they introduced, and the games lacked the requisite legendary hunt that fans have learned to expect at the end of Pokémon games. However, Crown Tundra may as well just be called “The Legendary Expansion.”

Players can catch or otherwise obtain 44 legendary Pokémon per playthrough, not counting Ultra Beasts, which are all there too! This easily makes SWSH the most jam-packed Pokémon game when it comes to legendary Pokémon. And while I personally have grown fatigued of the robotic process of catching legendary Pokémon, I actually enjoyed the workaround introduced for 29 of them.

Dynamax Adventures are a spin on the Max Raid Battles emblematic of Pokémon SWSH, and while I was dreading them at first, they are easily my favorite introduction in this Expansion Pass. After Peony, of course. Using a rental Pokémon, the player and three AI companions go through a cave with multiple pathways where they need to progress through a series of 3 Dynamax battles, catching new Pokémon to replace their rental. All before facing off against a legendary, or Ultra Beast, positioned at the end of a cavern. However, unlike regular Max Rad Battles, these battles lack the same prolonged catching animations and the momentum stopping shields used by enemy Pokémon.

This, combined with the variety introduced by the swappable rental Pokémon and the fact that you don’t know which Pokémon you will encounter during this journey, all makes for a mode that I found myself quite enticed by. I was tempted to clean out this mode and catch all the legendaries because of how it introduces something new to the Pokémon formula. Unfortunately, these encounters take a good 15 minutes each, which is about as long as it takes to catch a legendary the old fashion way, but it still feels like a bit too long. Besides, I have oodles of legendaries in my boxes, all disorganized and raggedy because Pokémon Home is bad at organizing Pokémon into boxes.

As for the region and environment itself, once again, I really liked what Crown Tundra brought to the table. I have a strong fondness for winter environments, both urban and rural, so you can imagine how I felt trekking up and down snowy mountains, nestling away into a cozy cave, and venturing out into an icy sea. I enjoyed it aesthetically, though I am a bit more mixed on how the world is constructed. It is closer to a walled maze than an open bastion where you can go in any direction without brushing against a wall or sorts. Though, this is not a huge problem in practice. These environments are meant to be traveled through as part of dailies and beyond your initial voyage, there is not a ton to ‘explore’.

Overall, venturing through the titular Crown Tundra was a fun time, and what made it all the more fun was encountering Pokémon that made me think, “Oooh! I want that one!” You know, despite the fact that I have a living Pokédex (aside from event Pokémon), and I can get literally any Pokémon I want if I so desire. …Except for Pokémon that require trading to evolve… which is a lot of them.

So… yeah. The story was okay, aside from one dope character. There was one neat mode that made catching legendaries both interesting and challenging again. And I had a good time scoping out this environment, even if I got lost constantly during my first trek. I seriously hope that Pokémon Legends: Arceus has its own minimap, or else I’m going to get so horribly lost. Hell, I’ll even take a compass, and compasses suck.

Part 3.0: Natalie Rambles About Pokémon Some More

While I ultimately enjoyed my time with the Pokémon Shield Expansion Pass, playing it did unearth a series of grievances I have been developing with the series over the past decade. For as much as I love Pokémon and want to admire all of its finer points, I often find myself obsessing over the minutiae, as I have reached the conclusion that the mainline Pokémon games are fundamentally broken on some level, and I do not understand why.

I do not understand why The Pokémon Company and Game Freak have not axed or converged existing evolution methods for the sake of simplicity and convenience. Because nobody likes trading a Pokémon with a rare held item just so it can evolve. I think that the move pool is overly complicated and filled with redundant moves, and should prioritize functionality and uniformity above flavor. And I dislike the chore-like process of managing natures, Effort Values (EVs), and Individual Values (IVs).

I went over these gripes, and more, in my 2019 post, Natalie Rambles About Pokémon, and since then, I have come to realize two things. As time goes on, I become more and more irritated by things that are obtuse or cumbersome about Pokémon. And even though I look at Pokémon and see problems to fix, The Pokémon Company and Game Freak will never address my grievances.

Pokémon as a series will never see a strong overhaul of its core mechanics. Evolution methods will always be convoluted for the sake of variety. The move pool is too deeply ingrained and used throughout multimedia projects to change. And the same is true for natures, EVs, and IVs.

I feel confident in saying that natures, EVs, and IVs were not originally intended to be ‘solved’ or ‘mathed out’ when they were first introduced, but people have had nearly 20 years to break things down, got used to manipulating them, and the games have made the process easier. However, the process of manipulating and maximizing a Pokémon’s stats is still a pain in the rear. It is still a chore and it is still not remotely fun. It’s not even JRPG grinding fun.

You can ignore it, you can pretend that natures, EVs, and IVs are not there. But that does not mean that they go away. The Pokémon you catch, raise, and use in battle all have semi-hidden stats that determine their objective and mathematical worth. You can still complete all content with even a suboptimal team, which I think is a good thing, but the more I played through this Expansion Pass, the more I began asking why so many aspects of Pokémon work the way they do and are the way they are, and why things are not better. Why has the system remained so true to so many 25-year-old fundamentals? Let’s start with something so fundamental that it seems like it should not necessitate any elaboration.

Part 3.1: What is the Point of Catching Pokémon?

Let’s start this analysis right from the top. In the mainline Pokémon titles, what is the point of catching Pokémon? To expand one’s party with usable Pokémon, to expand one’s collection with entries into the Pokédex, and to accumulate EXP for one’s active party. Simple, right?

Well, yes. But I still caught a little over a hundred Pokémon during my time with the Expansion Pass. I completed 95% of my Pokédex before I set foot in the new environments, but I still found myself catching Pokémon for reasons beyond sheer completion. I saw a Pokémon and thought “Oooh! I want that one!” Before throwing various Poké Balls at them.

Players want to catch Pokémon because catching and capturing well-designed creatures is… fun. Humans have been trained to want things that appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities, and— Hold on, I don’t even need to MAKE a point here. Pokémon Go. It made billions! Five years after launch, it is STILL popular enough to warrant annual festivals, and the core appeal is catching Pokémon. People love catching Pokémon, but… the mainline games do not adequately reward repeated captures as Pokémon Go does. Because when you catch a Pokémon in Go, you are given Player EXP and a Pokémon. A Pokémon that you can either raise or exchange for items that can be used to enhance and evolve Pokémon of the same evolution family.

In Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee, players were encouraged to capture Pokémon by the truckload because it took this concept and expanded it. While the game removed (most) wild Pokémon battles, players could still catch Pokémon to receive EXP based on a multiplier in addition to various types of items.

Namely candy items that boosted a specific stat through something known as Awakening Values, which were completely busted and probably should not make a return. However, the idea of Pokémon dropping items that manipulate stats via EVs when captured, that is a good incentive for players to catch Pokémon. It would also provide better mechanical feedback to something that most players will probably want to do just for the sake of doing it.

Hell, I say why even bother just limiting this to any type of item. Catching Pokémon is technically a way to get certain held items, so why not have Pokémon also ‘drop’ held items when captured?

Part 3.2: What is the Point of Battling Pokémon?

Hold on now! Before changing anything about how Pokémon catching works, we need to consider the other fundamentals and ask what the point of battling Pokémon is. Well, one fights wild Pokémon to accumulate EXP for one’s active party. While one fights other Pokémon trainers to accumulate EXP for one’s active party and to accumulate Pokémon Dollars, which are the main currency used primarily for buying combat-related items, Poké Balls, and trainer customization. Simple, right? I mean, this is how every JRPG works, isn’t it? Well, not quite.

Items or loot drops are a core part of many RPGs, especially modern JRPGs, but fighting wild Pokémon does not result in any drops. Instead, if players are hankering for items, they are encouraged to avoid wild battles and instead look for items lined across the ground, which range from useful rare items to forgettable fluff. I think there is nothing wrong with finding items in the environment, as it is a foundational part of the JRPG genre. However, with the way they arrange the open world sections of Pokémon, if you are not trying to catch a wild Pokémon, then the only Pokémon you should fight are the ones with a high EXP yield. Such as the Chansey native to the Isle of Armor or the Audino native to Crown Tundra.

This begs the question of if wild Pokémon have a purpose other than EXP dummies and capture targets. And I do not think they have a purpose beyond that. Once you have all the Pokémon you need, and your crew is sufficiently leveled, or max leveled like mine was by the end, then what are wild Pokémon other than a distraction? Nothing. That is literally their only purpose, and I think that sucks.

So, what’s the solution here? Um… we could copy my approach for catching Pokémon and they could drop items, just different items. However, I think I have a better idea! Have wild Pokémon drop Pokémon Dollars! That way, players will get something for beating wild Pokémon along with EXP. It should not be much, a mere pittance for the effort, but an extra something to encourage players to not run away from every battle against a Pokémon with low EXP yield and that the player does not intend on catching.

Also, if Pokémon Dollars are too abstract, then perhaps they could drop materials that can be sold for Pokémon Dollars. Same functionality, but this alternative might be more ‘lore friendly.’

Part 3.3: Why Are There STILL So Many Items?

I am genuinely amazed by the sheer volume and variety of items seen in SWSH. I am shocked that, considering the strain that comes with testing every item to ensure that they all work, that nobody convinced a decision maker to cull the item count to something manageable. The sheer volume of STUFF in this game is shocking, and I do not know why the developers feel the need to bring back basically every item from the prior games.

The held items, the items used to change the types of Type: Null and Genesect, the apricorns from generation II and the associated Poké Balls, the items for every antiquated and annoying form of evolution. Oh, and don’t forget the Mint items that are used to change natures! All of these, and more, are thrown into the “other items” category, because the developers did not want to create a new category for some reason! Seriously, fan resources do a WAY better job at organizing this sort of thing and… it’s a menu category!

It is frankly embarrassing just how bad item organization is here, how long it takes to find anything, and frankly, I can’t stand it one bit! The only real solution here is to think about what’s in-game, what has value, and what is worth bringing forward. Afterward, one should ask if there is a better way to do things, rather than iterating on what worked in the past!

Take for instance… recovery items. Why does this game have Big Malasada, Casteliacone, Full Heal, Lava Cookie, Lumiose Galette, Old Gateau, Rage Candy Bar, and Shalour Sable? All of them are functionally identical items that heal a Pokémon of all status conditions. But instead of having one, or maybe two items in an inventory that do this thing, we have 8. That’s not even counting Heal Powder, which lowers happiness and is functionally a different item. I get that this is all fluff and flavor… but for who? I understand each of these items come from different games originally, but I don’t think that players have as strong a fondness for items as the developers think they do.

Oh, and then there are healing items… which I do not understand, at ALL. Combining all healing items together, they come in increments of 10, 20, 30, 50, 60, 70, 100, 120, 12.5%, 25%, and 100% HP. When you get a Pokémon to level 100, there is a decent chance that they will have over 300 HP, so… how does this spread of numbers make sense? And why are they fragmented around so many subsets and subcategories?

You have regular potions, berries that restore HP and can be used automatically in battle, and you also have beverages like fresh water and lemonade, in addition to things like Moomoo Milk, which you can only get from hyper specific locations… why? Again, who cares about this flavor text and distinction? These are items meant to do a function in-game. They are just text and sprites. And mechanically/mathematically… this is just a terrible spread.

Part 3.4: Why is There No Auto-Healing?

One of my least favorite aspects of any JRPG is managing character health and resources outside of battles. It always feels wasteful to use items after an encounter, as it cuts into the player’s funds and forces them to stop their adventure right after finishing up an enemy encounter. I do not mind it in most cases, but I always feel that combat is less interesting when the player is encouraged to play conservatively and minimize how much they cut into their resources.

This is why I’m fond of RPGs with auto-heal after encounters, no or limited healing items in battle, and a skill/magic system that encourages players to go all out in one battle, rather than saving up their points. Because they encourage players to go all-out with every encounter! However, I also understand the other end of things. The argument that roughing it out throughout a dungeon and conserving one’s resources can make for an engaging experience.

With modern Pokémon, that scenario I just described never really happens. In Pokémon SWSH, dungeons are short and quick, and I cannot recall many instances where players could not just head off to the Pokémon Center to heal, for no cost other than your time, after a fierce encounter. Hell, they heal you after each round in the championship. Which begs the question of… why not just auto-heal after every encounter? It will save players time, save them resources, and if Game Freak is worried about ‘dumbing down’ their games, they can just make this an option.

I understand that this would be a major change, but so was the mandatory EXP Share, and players have grown used to it. Much like how they would if they got the auto-heal feature. Which, for the record, could be used to justify nudging the difficulty up a peg, because players would not need to carry fainted Pokémon across multiple fights.

Part 3.5: The Stagnation Justification

For years, I have held the belief that while Game Freak is a studio with some marvelously skilled and incredibly dedicated staff, there is something wrong with the studio culturally. I have obviously not worked there, and I do not believe that there exists much in the way of interviews from former staff members, let alone ones that speak in-depth of the studio. However, I look at how the series has iterated and get the impression that something is preventing the developers from changing a lot about the series. Something is stopping them from thinking about it from the top down, taking chances, playing with conventions, and focusing on what players will enjoy the most.

I get the impression that the people at Game Freak are culturally discouraged from taking apart the concept of Pokémon and devising ways to rework the games to be… better overall. I get the impression that if designers were to question things the way I just did in the past few paragraphs, they would get rejected outright, or given a stern talking to about ‘what Pokémon is.’ Everybody has a slightly different answer to that question, as everybody has a slightly different experience with Pokémon. The people who grew up with it view it a certain way, diehard fans view it another, the people who have fostered the series since its early years view it in a wildly different manner, and between cultural and linguistic barriers, the question gets all the more complicated.

Despite all these complications, I am still suffocated by this sense that things could and should be better. Whenever I play a Pokémon game, that is the most powerful and overwhelming thought I have. “This may be great, but it should and could be better.” I don’t want it to change, mind you. I think the format is fine, I consider the story charming in its simplicity, and I don’t give a crap about the games being easy. I just want the mechanics and user experience overall to be improved. I just want things to be streamlined without regards for tradition.

Tradition is the tool of the intellectually dishonest and emotionally stupid. It is used to inhibit imagination and stagger innovation. It is a remnant of the dead and is only repped nowadays because those with power and wealth want to preserve the status quo. Tradition is just the man bossing you around. Tradition is the reason why the world is burning. Toss out the old ish and try something better. Don’t let your mind be limited by uniform designs. Don’t latch yourself to some crap a guy said a couple centuries ago. Build off the old and make something better. Be what you wanna do, do what you wanna see, hit the streets with fire in your pockets and be a go-getter!

I just do not understand what is preventing the developers from seeing issues that I have been unable to unsee for nearly a decade. How they just don’t re-examine the series closely even though they are working on it day in and day out for years. Game Freak and The Pokémon Company are infinitely more intelligent entities than I can ever hope to be, and I genuinely do not believe I am smarter than anybody at either company. This is why I keep going in this loop, this terrible cycle of thinking that something should change, getting frustrated that it has not changed, and trying to counteract my argument with a good reason. But no matter how hard I think about these things, I cannot fathom a reason why.

…Unless these ‘faults’ are done by design. Maybe they want the Pokémon series to be flawed to retain better friction and keep players interested. If the game did not fight the player, then their enjoyment would be improved, but their engagement might not be as strong. Perhaps the developers want to make players frustrated on some level to retain this engagement. If they made things too easy, if they did not make players work for their pride and accomplishment, then players might not keep coming back.

They want engagement, they want retention, they want active users for their game… and perhaps that’s what Pokémon has always strived to be. Not a mere packaged video game but something greater. And perhaps it is time to take this idea, this idea of perpetual engagement, to the next level. Perhaps it is time to make Pokémon into a truly modern video game. To mimic the games industry in the best way imaginable. To let these flames burn bigger and brighter.

And what better way is there to fuel a fire than to douse it with some GaaS?

Part 4.0: Pokémon Should Become an Open World Live Service

Having gone back and invested another 20 hours into Pokémon Shield, I came to the realization that the Pokémon series is already well on its way to becoming a live service, and Pokémon Sword and Shield was undeniably a testbed for this concept. The game has several activities that reward Daily Active Users, ranging from the lotto, shops with rotating stock, Poké Jobs, scouring the open world areas for valuable items, and investigating dens for a secondary currency. It wants players to keep coming back and the game even hosts both limited-time events and competitive seasons.

While most people assume live services are built as more of a monetary exercise, with the expressed goal of pushing players to microtransactions, that is not really the case. A live service does not need to be always online. A live service does not need additional monetization if there is a base price to be paid. It just needs to have something that services players and keeps them coming back over a long period. And between all the item management, trying to get the perfect Pokémon, and playing in online ranked battles, there is plenty to keep a player engaged here. 

Going forward, and with the upcoming Pokémon Legends: Arceus, I expect the series to veer more and more into these elements, introduce new ways to capture player retention, and keep players coming back day in and day out. I honestly expect future games to take a lot from modern live services, such as daily quests and general activities that urge players to traverse an established semi-dynamic world. And I especially expect future Pokémon titles to take inspiration from games like Genshin Impact, which I think will be one of the most influential games of the generation. Not because of any singular innovation it can call its own, but how it crafted a high-quality open world action RPG with live service elements.

It is easy for me to imagine future Pokémon games putting increasingly greater emphasis on exploring a vast world with Pokémon to utilize, catch, and battle. I imagine the world gradually changing and expanding as time goes on, and periodic events being held to draw lapsed players back under the promise of rewards and bonuses. And while I do not imagine the game being monetized beyond basic DLC packs, I imagine it asking for more of the player’s time to keep them locked in the Pokémon multimedia ecosystem. Thereby boosting their willingness to purchase other Pokémon merchandise and engage with other Pokémon software, all to forge the player into a lifelong supporter of the series.

Because that is the true long game of Pokémon, and… it works. Millions who played the games as kids still go back to the series with each new release, and even if the series will never be a mega hit ever again, it still does exceptionally well because of this fanbase. The same fanbase who buys plushies, trading cards, figures, and so forth, fueling the Pokémon machine without needing to resort to microtransactions. …At least for the mainline games. 

I think making the mainline titles these pits of near-unlimited engagement are the best way to keep this machine going and… this is also what people actually want from Pokémon. People clamor for open world and non-linear games because they convinced themselves that linearity is inherently bad, and based on the trajectory of the series, they are getting exactly what they wanted.

If you look at the Pokémon community, you will see so many people desperate to find new and unique experiences, a game they can dedicate hundreds of hours into. So just having a Breath of the Wild like open world where the player can go anywhere, find any Pokémon, and do what they want while the world levels up with them (a la Genshin Impact), would be a dream come true for these people.

And if the game is constantly changing or introducing new things, then people will be able to scratch their Pokémon itch frequently. They would not strictly need to wait for the next mainline title, as they would constantly receive new things to keep themselves preoccupied. I mean, fan games and mods would still be big in the community, as people love going through Pokémon games from start to finish. But that’s something that will likely never be replicated in a main game. Because that would require the use of multiple save slots, which is never going to happen.

Part 4.1: I Do Not Want Pokémon to Become a Live Service

Based on how I’ve discussed live services in the past, one can easily reach the conclusion that I am in some way a supporter or defense of live services, when that is not really the case. I prefer the simplicity and wholeness of packaged games, and consider live services exhausting to keep up with. They are proponents of artificial scarcity, often retire content arbitrarily, and are psychologically… questionable.

However, I can see that the industry is heading in this direction, and I know it is useless to fight against this trend. Live services are and have been the next big thing for quite a while and the reason why I engage with live services is so that I can better understand them, comprehend the positives and negatives based on my own firsthand experiences. I do not actually like seeing a game or series become a live service, as they often compromise enjoyment for the sake of engagement, but I know I can do nothing about it.

Besides, as a live service, I would say that Pokémon SWSH avoids many of the common pitfalls with the genre. It’s offline by default, nothing beyond rare mythical Pokémon are locked behind events (as they have always been), there are no microtransactions, and while there is a lot of fluff, it has the best quality of life features out of any game in the series. So even if the Pokémon series does go full live service with future titles, it will be one of the least offensive live services around.

Personally though, I don’t really want this. I like treating a new Pokémon game as an event. I like looking forward to a new release. I like the social aspect of seeing other people blaze through the game in, like, 2 days while it takes me 2 weeks. I like the satisfaction of going through the game, going on this rather expedient hero’s journey where I accumulate a team of buddies, save the world from some ne’er-do-wells, and beat the strongest in the land. Thereby cementing myself as a fly boss who can catch beasts of legend like it ain’t no thang but a chicken wang.

I do not particularly enjoy going back to a game over and over again, let alone on a daily basis, and while I love Pokémon, I have a low tolerance for the series nowadays due to my innumerous issues with its foundational principles. I love it, but I want it to be better, and I need to take a break after every near-annual release. So a mainline Pokémon live service would truly be something of a nightmare for me.

Part 5: Yo, Nat! What Would Your Dream Pokémon Game Be?

…I could just end this post here, but there is something else I could not help but think about in detail while playing through the Pokémon Shield DLC. What exactly do I want the Pokémon series to be? I want many mechanical overhauls, but what would my dream Pokémon game look like? Well, it would be a single-player-only turn-based open world RPG set in a new region with a party-based combat system, but I can go into far more detail about this nonsense game that will not exist, so I will.

I considered making this a more formal Game Design Document type thing but… that would require more work, and I figured I could draft this in a day if I wrote about things in a less technical manner, so that’s what I did. Besides, this is just an idea, a concept, and it will NEVER be developed into anything.

Game Premise:
The premise behind this concept, which I am going to call Concept Flora, would feature a protagonist traveling across a large and unpopulated island region, where the only sizable human settlement is a laboratory located near the center of the island. The player begins their journey at this lab where they are given a set of starting Pokémon and told to embark on a brief tutorial in the environment around the lab. Once done, they are sent off to explore the rest of the region at their leisure, with an ultimate objective to explore several key areas of interest and take on a final trail of sorts, but little beyond that.

Or in other words, the core of my premise is basically that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, if only because I think it had a good prologue and introduction section that gave the player a pocket of open world to discover before letting them out into the larger world. I think this is just a good form of tutorialization, and something more games should do to ease players into the world, while giving them some freedom from the outset.

Party System:
While I think the current (primarily) one-on-one combat system of Pokémon has a lot of depth and its simplicity makes the game more approachable due to how limited one’s choices are, I do not think it always presents its depth to players as best as it can. Players just need to use a super effective move on each enemy to clear all main game content, and this can make the combat feel slow, routine, or boring in many instances, as it keeps presenting the same problem repeatedly, and the solution never really changes. Switch out your Pokémon, use a super effective move, rinse and repeat.

Everything works. The more competitive end of things has a lot more complexity. But generally, I would rather see Pokémon just be a more normal party-based RPG. Why? Well, it adds more layers of complexity to combat, as you are controlling multiple characters at once and fending off against one, or many, opponents at the same time. It allows the player to make more actions while considering more factors in combat and… look, there are many mechanical reasons why there are very few single character turn-based RPGs, okay?

Anyway, the active party would consist of three pre-selected Pokémon, and the player’s total party size would be expanded from 6 Pokémon to 9 Pokémon, while the quality-of-life feature of switching out their party with Pokémon from their boxes would be carried over from Pokémon SWSH. The active party of 3 Pokémon would be sent into each combat encounter against varying numbers of opponent Pokémon, and the turn order would be determined by a turn indicator meter, a la Final Fantasy X. Players would be able to switch out Pokémon at will, using a turn in the process. Meanwhile, catching Pokémon would only be possible when a single Pokémon remains in the opponent party. Just like with horde battles and wild double battles in prior Pokémon games.

Combat Actions:
For the combat itself, the entire move pool of Pokémon would be replaced and reimagined, prioritizing mechanical functionality over cosmetic appeal.

  • There would be physical and special damaging moves of varying types and varying levels of power, but the functionality would be uniform across most types.
  • The accuracy of most moves would be set at 100%, barring moves that rely on being inaccurate.
  • Moves would no longer correspond to body parts, like wing attack, fire punch, or iron tail.
  • Most moves could be selected to attack one or all targets, at the cost of the move’s power.
  • No moves would damage an ally Pokémon.
  • Nearly every Pokémon would be able to maintain a move set of 6 moves. 4 damage-dealing physical or special moves and 2 status moves.
  • Moves like hold back and false swipe would be reclassified as status moves, as they are not designed to defeat opponents.
  • Generic damage dealing moves would follow a uniform naming format. Physical moves would be called *Type* Strike *Level* resulting in names like Fire Strike III. Special moves would be called *Type* Burst *Level* resulting in names like Psychic Strike IV.
  • Move levels would be denoted in roman numerals.
  • When a Pokémon learns a damage-dealing move of level II or higher, they will be also able to use all weaker versions of said move during combat.
  • Pokémon movesets would be changed via the in-game menu, and not remembered or forgotten like in prior games. Once a Pokémon learns a move, they will be able to remove and add it to the moveset at will, and without engaging with an NPC.
  • Signature moves would be removed unless they are for a legendary or mythical Pokémon.

What exactly does this look like in practice? Well, let’s just look at three random Galar Pokémon and consider what a moveset could look like:

Move 1Fire Strike VSteel Strike VElectric Burst V
Move 2Fighting Strike IVFlying Strike VFlying Strike IV
Move 3Psychic Strike IVFighting Strike IVExtreme Speed
Move 4Sucker PunchPower TripZap Cannon
Move 5Speed Up IIDefense Up IILock-On
Move 6Attack & Defense UpAttack Up IIThunder Wave

My primary reason for adopting a change like this is because I am incredibly anal when it comes to type balancing in Pokémon games. In the existing format, the player needs to manage 18 types across 24 move slots while retaining at least one move slot for moves like false swipe and thunder wave, which are staples for catching Pokémon and have been since Black and White. This makes any other status move feel like a waste of a slotthe could be used for a more useful damage dealing move.

By introducing these two new ‘status slots’ to the moveset, this problem is averted, it is easier for players to cover all types with a team, and non-competitive players now have a greater incentive to make use of status moves during combat.

Isolated Battles:
Many contemporary RPGs do not carry over health, magic, or status conditions between battles. The primary reason for this is to encourage players to go all out in battle, to increase the difficulty of encounters without worry about constant healing, and not punish players for doing poorly in a single encounter.

As such, Concept Flora would carry over the same principle and have Pokémon fully heal after each battle, restoring HP, recovering from status conditions, and so forth. With the implementation of this mechanic, the game’s difficulty could be raised without inconveniencing the player or disrupting the flow of their experience as they recover after each encounter.

Move Levels and PP:
PP as a concept is something that the Pokémon series has largely undermined over the years. Players have ample opportunity to fully restore PP at no cost other than their time, and the prevalence of PP Up items further undermines the issue. In my experience, PP is only a problem when up against a Pokémon with an ability like pressure, which doubles PP costs of opponent Pokémon. Even so, it is exceedingly rare to run into PP issues if a Pokémon’s PP is over 15. As such, I think it is best to reimagine PP as a concept.

Instead of having PP unique to every move, what if every Pokémon had a set number of PP at the start of the battle, spent PP with the use of every move, and accumulated PP at the end of every turn?

For instance, let’s call back to the Cinderace listed in the example above. Say that Cinderace starts a battle with 6 PP and that each of their moves costs PP based on the level of move used. So, Fire Strike V would cost 5 PP while Speed Up II would cost 2, and Sucker Punch… would cost 4 PP. Let’s say that Cinderace uses Fire Strike V and lowers their PP to 1. At the end of their turn, they would recover a set number of PP, let’s say 3 PP. This would bring their total PP to 4 at the start of their second turn. They then use the 4 PP to perform Sucker Punch, lowering their PP to 0, which will go back up to 3 PP by their third turn. Cinderace then chooses to use Speed Up II, bringing their PP to 1, and back up to 4 PP by the fourth turn.

These numbers are all just placeholders for example purposes, and testing would need to be done to determine the optimal figures. And even then, the figures of starting PP and PP accumulated at the end of each turn should vary from Pokémon to Pokémon. Regardless, this approach would encourage players to not spam their strongest moves all the time, while being fairly simple with its mathematics, only relying on simple addition and subtraction. Which is important, as Pokémon is a game for people of all ages, including tiny children who are still learning their basic maths

Complexities can be added, such as a reduction in PP cost if there is a same-type attack bonus. Bonus PP for using super effective moves. A PP reduction if Pokémon are hit with a super effective move. Non-active party members amassing PP in the background during battle. This is an idea that can be expanded in many ways, and one that I am not presenting as a proven solution. I am not a game designer, and I do not have any earnest aspirations of being one. But this is an idea that could definitely make combat more stimulating, without being too complicated.

Also, this isn’t an even remotely original concept. It’s just a remixed (and better) version of the AP system from Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.

In most circumstances, I do not understand why Pokémon have specific abilities instead of multiple abilities Aside from the fact that it is a way to boost engagement and distribute special event Pokémon that go to fuel a have and have nots economy. Beyond abilities such as Hustle, which have pros and cons, abilities are net positives for every Pokémon, and if I oversaw any Pokémon project, I would simply give every Pokémon every available ability, as it just makes Pokémon better. It makes some with only one ability worse by comparison, but new abilities could always be added on, or tossed aside depending on what the game needs.

Effort Values:
I do not hate the concept of Effort Values, but I would want it to see two major changes. The EVs obtained from battling Pokémon should be doubled. And instead of having an overall Effort Value cap of 510, there should be no cap, allowing every Pokémon to obtain 252 EVs in every stat. This would make Pokémon stronger overall, but I do not consider that a bad thing. Of course, there would also be other, more automatic, means of farming up EVs than just battling.

Duplicate Pokémon, IVs, Breeding, and Natures:
Something that I find baffling about Pokémon is how it encourages players to capture or breed duplicates. In certain rare contexts, it makes sense to have multiple different copies of the same Pokémon, with different stat builds and so forth. However, I am also a strong proponent of the approach where one does not necessarily catch or use duplicate Pokémon, and instead both catches and battles a certain Pokémon to upgrade their copy of the same Pokémon species.

I am stealing this concept from gacha games where getting duplicates of a character in a gacha summoning session results in materials that can be used to enhance or upgrade existing characters. Like Princess Connect! Re:Dive. Because while this mechanic is dubious in the context of a game where you obtain new characters from monetized or limited exchanges, there are no limits to battling or catching Pokémon. Instead, it will provide an additional incentive to perform an action that players will want to perform. Catching and battling enemy Pokémon.

What precisely will be improved by capturing or battling duplicate Pokémon would require experimentation, but I believe that it would be an interesting idea for IVs to be increased with each Pokémon of a species felled or captured, until a Pokémon has a value of 31 IVs in every stat. A mechanic like this, combined with the ability to search for a specific Pokémon with a feature like DexNav, would encourage players to keep engaging with the game, and searching for specific Pokémon just so they can fully upgrade theri copy. However, because of this change, players would need to be able to regularly battle every species of Pokémon, including legendary Pokémon. Which could be handled through respawns or by maxing out their IVs by default.

There will be no breeding in this unnamed hypothetical Pokémon game, because breeding is not inherently fun. The reward is what makes it fun, while the act is busywork. And if there are no duplicates then there is no breeding for obvious reasons.

Natures would also be omitted, because if there are no duplicates, then natures fail to serve their original purpose. Diversifying the stat distribution of Pokémon within the same species.

De-Evolution and Pokémon Copying:
Okay, so if there are no duplicate Pokémon in Project Flora, how would this hypothetical game handle branching evolutions or pre and post evolutions of Pokémon? Well, something that I find contentious about Pokémon is the fact that Pokémon undergo a permanent transformation. While this is sensible from a more naturalistic perspective, it always puts more stake on later evolutions, who are (generally) objectively better at fighting than their pre-evolutions. Which is a shame, as the pre-evolution Pokémon still have great designs, and some people just prefer the cutesy look of Pokémon before they fully evolve. As such, I think it would be a good quality of life feature to allow players to backtrack a Pokémon’s evolution via a system that lets players both de-evolve Pokémon and switch which branched evolution the player wants them to assume.

Like most features, this would be something that players could do from an in-game menu, choosing to bring a Pokémon back to a prior evolution or choosing to have that Pokémon assume a different evolution. So, players would be able to turn their Electivire back into Electabuzz and turn their Froslass into a Glalie.

This is an ‘interesting’ system that I am totally stealing from Digimon, but isn’t this a massive mechanical penalty due to how evolved Pokémon have better base stats? Well, you know how the eviolite item boosts the Defense and Special Defense of a Pokémon by 50%? I am imagining something like that, just not as a held item, and instead of being strictly focused on defenses, it would be a boost to all stats. I’m imagining a 20% boost to all stats for Pokémon one stage away from their final evolved form, and a 40% boost for the first evolution during a three-stage evolution. Making many pre-evolutions somewhat viable for combat, without making them better than their evolution. And again, these would only be available once the Pokémon’s evolution is ‘unlocked.’

So instead of sending you a Meganium, you can send out a Bayleef with boosted stats, which at least some people would appreciate. But what about instances where you want to use multiple Pokémon in the same family line at once? What if you want a team with Espeon, Leafeon, and Vaporeon? Well, in that instance, then players should be able to ‘copy’ their Pokémon into multiple slots within a team. Every Pokémon would still draw from the same pool of base stats and share a level, but they would be able to fight alongside one another. And I also see no reason why not to make this a universal feature, even for Pokémon who do not have any evolutions. If somebody wants to go to battle with a team or Durants, then I see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to. They would have the same stats and would only differ in moveset loadout, but that would be as viable an approach as any.

The only real restriction I could imagine being here is locking the Pokémon copying feature behind some sort of progression check mark and preventing certain Pokémon from being copied. Because otherwise players would be plowing through the game with mythical Pokémon.

Evolution Methods:
As for how players would unlock new evolutions, evolution in this metaphorical game would only happen by reaching certain level thresholds, using evolutionary stone key items, and reaching a set level of friendship. No location, move, or gimmick-based evolutionary methods would work under this system and there would be no items used to evolve a single Pokémon. Because memorizing and researching this information is not fun. Getting new Pokémon is the fun part.

World, Setting, and Objective:
Concept Flora’s setting would be the creatively named Flora Island, a circular landmass surrounded by sea and a shape that almost resembles a flower from overhead. Specifically, a flower with petals that stretch outwards, like a daisy or sunflower. The center of the island would be a hub area that would gradually grow throughout the game and as the player progresses, eventually becoming a hub with various other characters, shops, and side activities. But at the start of the game, it would be a single building, a laboratory, surrounded by an open field-like environment that would branch outward into various ‘petals.’

There would be 8 to 12 ‘petals,’ each of which would have its own unique biome. So, there would be a mountainous biome, a swamp biome, a forest biome, a tundra biome, a biome that is just a bunch of beaches and sea, and so forth. Following a tutorial section where the player gets to know the hub, they would then be told to start exploring these biomes, collecting a variety of Pokémon unique to each one, before eventually reaching a road block partway through each biome. Where the player needs to fight against a powerful boss Pokémon to unlock more of the biome and obtain a Flora Orb, which would be used to upgrade facilities at the hub area and unlock various things and features based on the quantity of Flora Orbs obtained.

The goal with Flora Island would be to provide the player with a diverse selection of environments and Pokémon they can encounter early on. Ideally, the player should have access to the majority (probably no more than 60%) of the Pokémon roster within the first few hours of the game while being able to pursue specific Pokémon from the outset. So, if the player wants a powerful fire type Pokémon, then they could make a beeline straight for the volcanic biome early on. The purpose of this structure is to clearly communicate to the player where they should go to find a type of Pokémon and what type of Pokémon they should bring to these areas, while not making everything available to them immediately.

Trainer Level:
Pokémon is a game that treats levels as something of the utmost importance, and that has always been the case. As such, it is difficult to manage an open world Pokémon game without giving the player some control over the levels of wild Pokémon they encounter. As such, I propose the idea of introducing a player level, or rather, a trainer level that allows players to raise the level of Pokémon found throughout the world, and unlock various features as they accumulate trainer EXP.

Players would gain trainer EXP by completing various objectives, collecting Flora Orbs, catching Pokémon, and so forth. As the player raises their Trainer Level, they would unlock certain locations such as isolated dungeons, facility features in the hub environment, the PP accumulated at the start of every encounter, or possibly every round, and it would allow players to set the ‘world level’ of enemies they encounter, allowing them to make the game harder or easier. Again, I am stealing this concept from elsewhere, namely Genshin Impact.

My Stupid Concept Story:
While flying to the island via a personal transport Pokémon, the player character notices that much of the island is wrapped in a dense miasma, except for the central hub, which establishes a great unknown for the player to uncover throughout the campaign. After landing and being reunited with Professor Maple, the protagonist would be given three Pokémon (A Pikachu, Eevee, and another one), a wall climbing Rotom Bike for traversal, and pushed into the tutorial where they fully explore the hub area and are introduced to the core mechanics of this game.

After completing every tutorial objective, the player would then be given carte blanche to explore the start of each biome with the expressed goal of finding X Flora Orbs and returning them to Professor Maple. Once this objective is achieved, and Flora Island is freed from some of its miasma, Professor Maple will inform the player about the history of the island.

Based on her findings, Professor Maple hypothesizes that Flora Island was the first landmass created on Earth and was forged by an ancient Pokémon as a means of experimenting with what the world could be like. After Flora Island was created, it was hidden away from this world, and was only discovered by humanity a year ago, appearing suddenly and from nothing, still cloaked in a dense miasma. An organization sent Professor Maple to this island to investigate from a safe location and told to wait for a survey team to aid her. But she knew that something was up, and only trusted the player character to help them, as they are the greatest trainer she has ever known.

However, she determined that somebody did not just outright discover this one day, and found traces of a person, a Pokémon Trainer, who revealed Flora Island to the world, and has pinpointed their location to one previously obscured area. It is here where the player encounters a middle-aged man in ragged clothing, who I’ll call… Ozymandias. Ozymandias is hostile to the protagonist at first, but soon explains his side of the story. Ozymandias considers himself a Pokémon Master, having completed the Pokédex for many regions, become the champion across the world, and claimed many legendary Pokémon as his own.

He displays some of his legendaries before the player and asks them for a little sparring match. The player is supposed to lose this fight, and after seeing the power of this middle-aged man, Professor Maple asks why he is here. He explains he learned a myth of this island existence and sought it out, using the power of Palkia to rip open space, and Dialga to view the world as it once was, all so he could pinpoint the location. He went to such lengths as the myth claimed this island was connected to Arceus, who he dubs as the most powerful Pokémon, and the greatest Pokémon to add to his collection. As such, he ventured across the lands to find this lost island and is in the middle of training his Pokémon for his greatest battle.

Professor Maple orders him to stop, but he just laughs, claiming that the player can do nothing to stop him, before opening the gate that he believes will lead him to Arceus, taking his army of legendaries with him. The player character rushes in after him but can do nothing but spectate from afar. The game then plays out a battle from Ozymandias’s perspective as he blows through his legendaries while weakening the relentless Arceus as they change types, but eventually, Arceus is weakened, and captured with a Master Ball. The player is shocked by this, but soon sees Arceus released before Ozymandias, bowing before him, respecting his might, before the man grabs Arceus and lets out his Jirachi, making a wish to be one with Arceus and have all his power, to have power above all. Jirachi has little choice but to make this wish come true.

The player then awakens to see Ozymandias fused with Arceus as one centaur-like being and sees all his legendaries bound in chains. The man cackles as his new might and escapes the realm. The player character pursues him and soon sees him create an island out of nothingness and suspend it in the sky. The player flies upwards using a Pokémon from Professor Maple and sees that the Ozymandias erected himself a castle. His own domain. Professor Maple orders the player character to return to the lab, and they do so, leaving Ozymandias within his flying castle.

Professor Maple explains that Ozymandias is incredibly powerful and the only hope the player has of defeating him is if they get more Flora Orbs. The player can go ahead and try without sufficient orbs, but Ozymandias will have boosted health and stats, making the battle incredibly challenging.

Once the player has obtained Y Flora Orbs, then they can travel to this castle in the sky. After battling, and capturing, a gauntlet of legendaries, the player is face to face with Ozymandias, who leads into the hardest battle in Pokémon. Ozymandias has 150 for all base stats and can switch his type at any point. This means he is immune to normal, ghost, fighting, ground, electric, dragon, and poison, all status conditions except confusion, and takes 25% damage from most other attacks due to dual-typing resistances.

After this painful fight, the player obtains Arceus as an ally Pokémon, who promises to aid the player in their journey, an ending cutscene plays, and the player is then given the opportunity to continue their adventure forevermore, while uncovering a few bonus endgame areas. Das Ende.

Was that a very good game pitch? Not really, but there is at least a nugget of a good idea in there, methinks. Not that it really matters, as this is a mere concept, and a concept is worth its weight in gold. Which is a resounding… 0 Pokémon Dollars.

Okay, I’m done for now now. But I will return to burn and stake more of my Pokémon-scented mind gremlins shortly after the releases of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon Legends: Arceus. I would pray for mercy on my autistic mind, but I know that won’t do jack. For pain is the one true inevitability in life.

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