Ever since we were young, millions of gamers like myself have dreamed of a game that truly immerses you into the world of Pokémon. We wanted to see Pidgeots soaring overhead while Caterpies slithered through the grass and Magikarps splashed in a nearby stream. We wanted to abandon the safety of routes and forage into the unknown. And we wanted to experience a Pokémon adventure that felt like we were living in the show. But could Game Freak truly deliver that kind of magical open-world Pokémon game?
Those hopes and dreams were strengthened by the debut of Breath of the Wild in 2017. Producer Eiji Aonuma set out to “rethink the conventions” of Zelda, and the result was one of the most critically-acclaimed games in franchise history. If Zelda could reinvent itself as an open-world game with such success, why couldn’t Pokémon?
The Wild Area
Pokémon Sword and Shield promised to take the first step in this direction by introducing the Wild Area. The concept sounded incredible! Step off the linear routes and enter Galar’s untamed wilderness where Pokémon roam through their natural habitats. Freely control the camera as you explore an open-world expanse filled with rolling hills, scorching deserts, and clear, blue lakes. It wouldn’t cover the whole game world, but Game Freak was clearly testing the waters and considering the future. It had the potential to be a revolutionary moment for the franchise. But that’s not how it panned out.
Let’s face it: the Wild Area is hugely disappointing. Sure, your early moments in it will give you the illusion of success, but that facade quickly crumbles. For starters, it doesn’t feel anything like a “wild area,” because it’s completely boxed in. It’s essentially a giant rectangle with a city at the north end, a city in the middle, and a train station in the south. It’s entirely contained smack-dab in the middle of Galar. It doesn’t sprawl off to the east or west. It doesn’t connect to any routes, cave systems, or rivers in the rest of the region. This isn’t a wild area. It’s a reminder that the open-world elements of the game were tacked on at the last minute.
Unnatural layout aside, the real goal here is to feel like you’re actually in the wild among Pokémon. Unfortunately, you don’t. Overworld Pokémon are a joy, but the game is optimized so poorly that they just disappear into thin air if you get more than about 10 feet away. You never see more than a few clustered together at once, and you can’t see any off in the distance, so nothing about encountering them feels natural. Seeing critters pop in and out of reality as you step forward and backward is extremely jarring, totally erasing any feelings of immersion.
So maybe there are other fun things to see and do? Pokémon habitats to explore, trainers to fight? Well… not really. There are multiplayer Max Raid Battles which are good for catching rare and powerful Pokémon, but also extremely boring and repetitive. There’s that one single Pokémon Breeder who fights you with the same three Pokémon over and over. There’s an old, decaying tower…that you can’t go inside. There are daily respawning items to pick up. You can do some time trials on your bike. And…that’s about it. Once you’ve trekked from one side to the other (which takes no time at all on your bike), you’ve pretty much experienced all the Wild Area has to offer. I was left feeling like this was a beta that shipped long before development had wrapped.
The Isle of Armor
In lieu of an enhanced third game (like Pokémon Yellow, Crystal, or Emerald), Pokémon Sword and Shield are expanding their world through DLC. The first expansion, The Isle of Armor, launched back in June, added a sizable new area to explore. Like the Wild Area, the Isle is an open-world area where the player has free control of the camera. Did Game Freak fare any better with their second at-bat? Well… sort of.
Something that stands out right away is that the Isle of Armor feels much more natural than the Wild Area. There are beaches, caves, wetlands, a forest, and a cliff that all connect organically. Everything flows together nicely, instead of feeling like the open-world concept was just awkwardly shoehorned into a normal map at the last second. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where my praise for the expansion comes to a screeching halt.
Yes, there’s a more natural-feeling world to explore, but there’s absolutely nothing worth doing in it. The DLC’s paper-thin plot sends you all over the island, but it’s just a series of fetch quests. Go to this point on your map. Grab an item. Return. Lather, rinse, repeat. After that, it becomes just about as boring as the Wild Area.
Now let’s contrast that with Breath of the Wild. I don’t need a parade of fetch quests to hold my hand and convince me Hyrule is worth exploring. Sure, there are empty spaces, but I always found myself eagerly sprinting across them with excitement, because something interesting loomed on the horizon. And on the way there, I’d get distracted by three or four other interesting things that caught my eye along the way. You can get lost for days at a time in that overworld, contentedly perusing every nook and cranny, without even remembering your story objective. That’s the beauty of a well-done open-world game.
Perhaps most disappointing of all were the Towers of Two Fists. The player receives a Kubfu as part of the story, and to evolve into Urshifu, you must conquer one of the two towers. Braving the Dark Tower will transform Kubfu into Single Strike Urshifu while overcoming the Tower of Water will transform it into Rapid Strike Urshifu. When these two towers were first revealed, I was excited at the possibilities. I anticipated well-crafted interiors full of Dark and Water-themed puzzles and unique challenges. I got none of that.
Instead, each tower is comprised of five small, plain-looking rooms. In each room, you’ll fight one trainer in a single-Pokémon battle…and that’s it. Five battles, each lasting just a few seconds, and the whole experience is over. I was stunned. It wasn’t challenging, interesting, or memorable. It was just… busy work. What a waste of potential.
There’s no point in having an open-world area to explore if there’s nothing interesting in it. Why not have the giant Wailord tied into some kind of sidequest event instead of just being another generic battle? Couldn’t they have expanded that small cave area into something that takes more than a minute to explore? Or how about having some sort of powerful island protector serving as a Legendary Pokémon with its own story? Again, this feels like a half-baked beta shipped before its time.
The Crown Tundra
Fortunately, not all hope is lost. There is another expansion on the way. Launching later this year, The Crown Tundra gives Game Freak another chance to improve on their open-world style. While the theme of the Isle of Armor was “Growth,” The Crown Tundra is instead focused on “Exploration.” Now that’s an idea I can get behind! Whether or not it delivers on that concept remains to be seen, but the brief glimpses we’ve seen are at least more enticing than the Isle of Armor.
In The Crown Tundra, the player is appointed as the leader of an exploration team tasked with investigating the far reaches of the frozen tundra. There are ancient temples, massive, colorful trees, and Pokémon dens that stretch deep underground. The second DLC pack also features a mysterious Legendary named Calyrex. It’s said that this powerful beeing can see the past, present, and future, and it once ruled over the Galar region as king. Now that’s a tantalizing story for a DLC pack, and it could even tie in with the base game’s plot.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about The Crown Tundra, but we’ve still seen very little. It likely won’t be able to fix some problems, like the terrible pop-in of wild Pokémon, but it sounds like it will feature a more engaging world and story.
Can Game Freak deliver a truly open-world Pokémon?
So is Game Freak ready for a fully open-world Pokémon? Based on what we’ve so far, the answer has to be no. An entire region that feels like the Wild Area just sounds like a bad time. The Isle of Armor was definitely a few steps in the right direction, but Game Freak is still about a mile off course. But let’s not give up hope yet. There’s no rush to get the next generation out the door. They can continue to learn from the feedback they’ve received thus far, incorporating those ideas into The Crown Tundra. If they’re truly focused on “exploration” as a theme for the second expansion, it should be a major improvement. Hopefully, it can then become a stepping stone to further improvements.
Game Freak can also experiment with world design in spin-off titles. The recently-revealed New Pokémon Snap could serve as a testing ground for world-building ideas. As an on-rails experience, the gameplay will be quite different, but they can still build up experience in crafting an HD Pokémon world that looks and feels as it should. Sword and Shield, and especially the Wild Area, did not feel like they were built to take full advantage of all Switch’s hardware has to offer. If we’re going to spend an entire game inside an open-world environment, it can’t look like it was built on last-gen tech.
If the developers learn from their mistakes and make new strides with The Crown Tundra and New Pokémon Snap, there’s still a chance for the series to take a revolutionary leap. That said, Sword and Shield sold over 20 million copies (the most since Gold and Silver), so Game Freak really isn’t feeling any pressure to change. So if they’re not willing to commit the time and resources to craft an excellent open-world, I’d rather they return tot he classic style than half-ass it again.