Pokémon Sword and Shield: The Crown Tundra review – end of a generation

The second and final DLC expansion for Pokémon Sword and Shield has been released and it is a step up from the previous one.

So here we are, a year after the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield and the games are now finally complete. Rather than release a standalone special edition developer Game Freak instead chose to create an expansion pass for the game, that includes two separate pieces of story based DLC. That definitely seems like the best way to update a Pokémon game, since it avoids repetition and starting from scratch, but while the theory is good the reality remains a little underwhelming.

The expansion pass costs £27, which means this and preceding DLC The Isle Of Armor cost £13.50 each – since you can’t buy them separately. Again, in theory, that’s pretty good value for money, as that nets you over 100 returning pokémon, a small number of new ones, a new open world environment to explore, and some brand-new features such as the new Dynamax Adventures mode.

The problem with The Isle Of Amor is that it managed to take all that content and present it in the most uninteresting way possible, with bland open world design, banal quests, and the worst use possible of the game’s low-tech visuals. The Crown Tundra does manage all these issues a little better, at least most of the time, but its glimpses of how a modern Pokémon game could work remain frustratingly ephemeral.

Accessing The Crown Tundra works in the same way as previously, as you’re given a train ticket to the new area as soon as you log-in. The new location is nominally based on Scotland but is actually situated in the south of Galar, which presumably means that Galar is based in the southern hemisphere of the Pokémon world. When you arrive, you’re immediately reminded of how bad the game’s graphics are (was that close-up shot of the PlayStation 2 era trees really a good idea, Game Freak?) and how simplistic the storytelling is, but it does getter better from there on.

At least The Crown Tundra does have some form of narrative, unlike the parent game, as you meet try-hard dad Peony and his constantly embarrassed daughter Peonia. They’re used to introduce the new Dynamax Adventures mode, which has you properly exploring a Max Lair rather than just automatically battling whatever resides in it. That means fighting multiple dynamax pokémon with the chance of catching a legendary at the end. Although you can’t use your own pokémon to fight them and have to make do with what is essentially a loaner.

This makes sense in that if you’re playing The Crown Tundra your regular team are probably all level 100 monsters that can swat away even legendries with ease. But that just speaks to the inherent brokenness of the game’s systems, where it has to admit that playing it normally will make you so powerful that the single-player game becomes a triviality.

Although it seems unwise to underline the issue so much, The Crown Tundra was never going to fix a problem so fundamental to the game’s design. Instead, once Dynamax Adventures are introduced, you’re able to explore the new open world area on your own, following up on three main quest lines. The most significant involves new legendary pokémon Calyrex – the strange, floating deer-headed creature seen in the expansion’s promotions.

He’s one of the few pokémon you can actually talk to before capturing him, which seems a bit weird considering your ultimate goal is to stick him in a pokéball, but at least it’s something different. Which is more than can be said for the fetch quests and busywork needed to work your way towards that goal.

One of the other quests involve the Regis family of pokémon, which was an extremely involved process when they first appeared in Ruby and Sapphire. Here you just have to solve some insultingly easy puzzles and it’s all over disappointingly quickly. Yet another example of how the Pokémon Sword and Shield formula is streamlining the series to the point of inanity.

It’s a shame because the hints of what the series could be in the modern age are evident everywhere, especially in the third main quest, which involves the legendary birds from Pokémon Red and Blue in new Galarian forms. This involves a surprisingly cool cut scene and the three birds disappearing off across Galar – not just The Crown Tundra but The Isle Of Armor and the original Wild Area.

This is easily the best quest from either of the two expansions, because it uses the whole range of locations now available and doesn’t make the acquisition of new pokémon a robotic process that it’s almost impossible to fail at. You’re given few clues as to where the birds are and searching for them is fun and filled with uncertainty – something that is sadly missing from the rest of the game’s sanitised experience.

What’s disappointing though is that it’s basically a rerun of the Legendary Beasts quest from Gold and Silver and the fact that Sword and Shield are only now catching up with a 21-year-old Game Boy Color game shows how much the series has been treading water all these years.

Despite it all, the biggest problem with Pokémon Sword and Shield is that as uninspired as it so often is catching ’em all is still irresistibly addictive. That’s why the series is so slow to innovative, especially given how financially successful the latest games have been, and as mindless as the experience often is – given how strong our pokémon are now – we can’t pretend we didn’t enjoy touring round The Crown Tundra catching all the old school pokémon.

The snow theme does get old pretty quick but there’s some variation later on and a fourth quest with some secret legendaries, plus a big tournament at the end featuring previous characters that works as a sort of goodbye tour. Also, rather than just being a flat plain like the previous two areas this one is more intricately designed, with winding passageways that are more reminiscent of more traditional Pokémon games and which we found more interesting to exploring.

The Crown Tundra is a more enjoyable experience than The Isle Of Amor, and better in some ways than the main game in how it balances the legacy of the old titles and the potential for the future. That only shines through on occasion though and the vast majority of the game falls into a stodgy middle ground of largely mindless gameplay and low-tech presentation.

Pokémon Sword and Shield was never a bad game, but it remains a hugely frustrating one as the changes necessary to modernise it seems so blindingly obvious to everyone except Game Freak. Where the series goes from here we’ll have to wait and see but at least The Crown Tundra does seem to promise continued slow, but inexorable improvement.

Pokémon Sword and Shield: The Crown Tundra review summary

In Short: It features some of the best moments from this generation of Pokémon but this final slice of DLC still suffers from a lack of substance and ambition.

Pros: Better open world design than previous attempts and Dynamax Adventures are fairly diverting. Plenty of new (and old) content and some of the quest design is surprisingly good…

Cons: …and some of it is disappointingly bad. The low-tech presentation and weak graphics are still very distracting. Often skilless combat, assuming you have an experienced team.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £26.99 (inc. The Isle Of Armor)
Publisher: Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: 23rd October 2020
Age Rating: 7

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