In Pokemon games, we tend to know exactly who our enemies are. The rivals are competition, but also mainly friendly faces who often work alongside you in recent installments. It’s the different teams and their masterminds that are our true adversaries. But with Pokemon Sword and Shield villains, things aren’t handled in the same way. Enemies don’t act the way you expect, foes aren’t so clear, and the result can feel rather anticlimactic.
Editor’s Note: There will be Pokemon Sword and Shield spoilers below.
The most obvious opponent is Team Yell. At first glance, they seem like the Team Rocket replacement. Everyone has matching outfits. They’re quick to fight and irritate you. The group even uses the sorts of Pokemon you would have expected Team Rocket to use in a game like this, happily using creatures like Silicobra and Galarian Zigzagoon.
But Team Yell is toothless. You don’t really encounter malicious members all that often. Sure, sometimes they’ll fight you in the name of Marnie at events or when they’re “supporting” certain wild Pokemon. They’ll block you from advancing down certain routes for story purposes, but won’t actually fight you at those moments. They’re at their worst in Spikemuth, when they actively close off the town to prevent challengers from facing Piers and outdoing Marnie. But even there, they act more as standard gym trainers than actual opponents. They back off at this point, even becoming allies once the real threat appears.
As for the real Pokemon Sword and Shield villains, the game is more subtle. Macro Cosmos Chairman Rose, his second-in-command Oleana, and his chosen Gym Challenge competitor Bede are the real antagonists. But even this is handled in a way where, while it is winking and nodding at you about how suspicious people are behaving, it doesn’t come right out and make it obvious until you’ve gotten further along in the game. You have an idea that things aren’t right when you see exactly how Bede is hoarding Wishing Stars and willing to deface ruins for the sake of Chairman Rose’s mission. But instead of a “real” confrontation suggesting that he’s one of the true villains all along and using that as a Macro Cosmos reveal, he’s… just disqualified. Which is an unexpected twist that works, but doesn’t follow the sort of story beats one might expect.
Then, when we start to get glimpses of Macro Cosmos’ antagonistic behavior, we get all geared up and run to help Leon with rampaging Dynamaxing Pokemon. Except we don’t get to help. Leon and Sonia basically send us on our way. Let the adults handle it! Your job is to complete the Gym Challenge! Which is… realistic. I mean, in this sort of situation, you would expect a current champion and adults who have the life experience and knowledge necessary to address issues to take charge. (Kudos to Leon for looking out for us.) But it also feels like a brush off. “Go on ahead and go about your little Pokemon fun time while we do all the important work.” Considering how many years we’ve spent fighting Team Rocket, Team Plasma, Team Aqua, Team Magma, Team Flare, Team Skull, and Aether Foundation, I found it disheartening to not have any involvement with Macro Cosmos until the climax.
The way Pokemon Sword and Shield villains are handled reminds me of Final Fantasy VIII. We spend the majority of the game pursuing other opponents and things. Then, in the eleventh hour, the real villain finally strikes. Sudden exposition is brought in only as we’re about to make our run for the championship, abruptly explaining why Rose is trying to trigger the Darkest Day and Eternatus crashing the party like Ultimecia.
There are things I like about Pokemon Sword and Shield, which is probably pretty evident. (I somehow managed to accumulate 60 hours or more in it without really intending to.) But its story can be weak, and I feel like a big part of that comes from how Pokemon Sword and Shield villains are handled. I appreciate it trying to do something new and being unconventional, in the same way that I still consider Final Fantasy VIII one of my absolute favorite entries in the series in spite of its plotholes and the way it brings in the big bad. I just wish the narrative didn’t suffer and feel so boring as a result.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are available for the Nintendo Switch.