Pokemon: Twilight Wings Proves That Game Freak Dropped The Ball With Sword & Shield

Pokemon: Twilight Wings is a seven-part miniseries published by The Pokemon Company. Set in the Galar region, it offers us a closer look at Sword & Shield’s gym leaders: we see Bea punching literal boulders with her Machamp (and obviously hurting her hands in the process), while Allister hangs out in a creepy graveyard with his Gengar family buds, because obviously all Ghost trainers love tombstones.

It’s admittedly a little bit juvenile, and even the voice acting is clearly aimed at a younger audience. That being said, Twilight Wings does a far better job of selling Galar than Sword & Shield did, to the extent that I reckon Gen 8 focused on the entirely wrong story.

If you haven’t watched Twilight Wings, here’s a quick breakdown: it’s made up of seven episodes, all of which are between six and nine minutes long. Each short film is independent of the rest, but they’re all connected by a Flying Taxi driver and his Corviknight.

The overarching narrative has to do with the Galarian Star Tournament, which Leon, the gym leaders, and several significant NPCs from Sword & Shield are due to compete in. Interestingly, it also confirms that Allister, Bea, Gordie, and Melony are all canonical gym leaders, meaning that Galarian trainers can seemingly choose any eight out of a total of ten gyms to earn badges from.

However, the first and last episodes of Twilight Wings focus on someone completely new: John.

At the beginning of Twilight Wings, John and his best friend Tommy are hospital-bound. Although they’re both avid Pokemon fans, John is particularly fond of Leon, Galar’s Champion. After Chairman Rose visits the hospital, John gives him a letter he wrote about his lifelong wish to attend an official Championship match. Noticing that a relatively antisocial Corviknight takes a liking to the young boy, Rose tells him that one day he’ll make a great trainer. John clings to this as a source of hope, but Tommy berates him later in the series, telling him to stop entertaining fantasies that can never happen. It is never disclosed what John is suffering from, but he oversleeps a lot and easily gets exhausted. Tommy is eventually discharged, but it seems that John will be confined to the hospital for quite a while longer.

Tommy returns later in the series to apologize. Again, it’s quite clearly produced for kids, but it’s still a sincere and touching moment, and it led me to firmly believe that Tommy fits the modern Pokemon mold of your friend/rival perfectly. While he lashes out at John, he also cares about him deeply, and the two have a friendship that is much closer to a children’s version of strong shounen like Hunter x Hunter and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood than what we see between the protagonist and Hop in Sword & Shield. Hop is in Twilight Wings too, by the way, and is somehow just as irritating as he is in the games. There’s a whole episode devoted to his Wooloo running away from home because Hop made it feel bad for not being a Charizard. What a total dick.

I understand that Pokemon usually focuses on you playing as a character with little to no backstory or branching narratives. I think the latter is predominantly a strength — while Crown Tundra paved the way for a bonafide open-world Pokemon game, linearity has always been in the series’ best interest, and an ideal future game would compound the two. That being said, the lack of backstory is something that’s interrogated far less often. I admit that putting you in the shoes of someone like John might remove the childhood wonder of feeling like you, yourself, are the trainer. But seeing how powerful Twilight Wings’ narrative is for a young audience without needing to be a full-fledged arc of the anime has me second-guessing that idea, if only for the fact that Galar as it is experienced through John and Tommy is a million times more intriguing than Galar as it appears in Sword & Shield.

To hammer that point home, let me give you a quick example: the single best part of Sword & Shield, for me, was the arc with Spikemuth’s gym leader, Piers. This introduced a welcome new dimension to the game that reminded me of LeafGreen and FireRed’s postgame section with Lorelei from the Elite Four, which in turn made me consider the possibility that Pokemon’s storytelling is often at its best when you are working alongside its cast of characters instead of simply battling them and moving on. In Twilight Wings, all of the gym leaders are given actual lives, and Tommy ends up becoming good friends with Allister. Sword & Shield did a pretty good job with Piers and Marnie, but Milo? Nessa? Kabu? All of these characters aren’t half as prominent or significant as they could be, and I think a Twilight Wings approach where each and every one of them was given the spotlight outside of their gyms could have made the world of Galar feel more full, and more alive.

When I finished Sword & Shield, I thought Galar was a pretty boring region to have explored. Glimwood Tangle is amazing, and Crown Tundra still blows me away. Circhester, Stow-on-Side, Wyndon… the areas themselves are gorgeous, but they somehow feel empty aside from being where a Pokemon Center and a gym are located. I don’t think you could make the same argument about Goldenrod, or Sootopolis, or White Forest, all of which teem with heart and enthusiasm.

Fortunately, Twilight Wings made me appreciate Galar in a brand new light, which is why I think Sword & Shield could have featured an amazing core relationship in John and Tommy. To be clear, I don’t necessarily mean it had to be John — obviously this is assuming that character customization options are still intact. I also think Gen 8 could have greatly benefited from investing in its characters more — gym leaders in Sword & Shield are supposed to be celebrities, but not many of them are even memorable. I like Raihan, Nessa, and Piers, but I usually need to look up the rest just to remember their names. And although it’s probably the most advanced Pokemon game to date in terms of visual fidelity, I also usually need to look up all of the town names, too.

After watching Twilight Wings, it’s clear to me that Game Freak not only fumbled the ball with Sword & Shield — it totally dropped it. They weren’t bad games by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ve pumped plenty of hours into Gen 8. I like it! But Twilight Wings exposes the potential Game Freak could have met if it had shown Galar a little bit more love, and focused more on the characters as people than having Hop bump into you every ten seconds and use so much British slang that you’d think his dialogue was copied and pasted from Urban Dictionary.

Read next: Pokemon Has A Great Meta Except For The Fact That Ice Is Completely Useless

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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