As part of our in-depth review of the Pokémon Sword and Shield titles, we’re presenting individual review articles, each on a separate aspect of the games. This is the first entry, with more to come over the next week. Be warned – there are some mild story spoilers in this entry, as most of the songs are discussed.
The music of Pokémon games has always been a major component, and a huge part of the charm. Route 1 of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow would not be as iconic without its tune, for instance, and nor would your duels with the Gym Leader and Champion. What do the composers for Pokémon Sword and Shield (Minako Adachi and Go Ichinose) offer us? In short – a lot of hits, but some misses too. There are some banging new tracks, and some lesser ones that are easily forgotten, partly down to a repeated trend in making themes simply too busy.
As a whole it is a solid entry to the Pokémon franchise. There’s a lot to like, including smart structuring of songs and the use of repeated themes in several tunes. However, we can’t just talk about the music here – the sound design itself does deserve a brief examination too.
Table of Contents
- Introduction and Battle themes
- Wild Area and Route themes
- Town and City themes
- Other themes, Sound Design, and Score
Howling – now an instrument
There are a range of instruments used for the Galar region tunes, but it’s fair to say guitar and brass instruments feature heavily for the melodies. There’s a significant techno or synth aspect to many tunes too. We have a variety of styles, such as the slow surf rock style of Turffield Town, or the Tournament Lobby theme featuring techno music styles. Some tunes also seem like they’d fit right at home in other game series, such as the tail end of the Hop Battle theme with the Mario & Luigi series (e.g. Superstar Saga), or Stow-on-Side Town’s theme with the Legend of Zelda (e.g. Spirit Tracks or Wind Waker).
There are some unusual instruments, such as a wind instrument that rather resembles howling, and this is done to good effect, in tunes such as Slumbering Weald and the Zacian and Zamazenta battle themes (the box cover legendaries). All these tracks have something to do with the pair of wolves. We see clever use of the leitmotif (a repeated musical theme that represents a character or theme in the story) associated with this howling throughout the story progression, and it is a memorable leitmotif at that.
Perhaps not as easily appreciated however is the use of bass. It also features a lot in the Slumbering Weald tune, and in others such as the Galar Mines theme, Bede Battle Theme, and particularly in the Mysterious Being tune, which plays in your early unwinnable encounter with either Zacian or Zamazenta. In this case, it gives a nice contrast with the howling, offering a countermelody that does its own thing entirely. The bass gives the sense of a rising uncertainty that you, the player, cannot overcome the challenge, and that is enhanced by the intensifying mist and the apparent invulnerability of the mysterious creature. The bass is replaced in the intro of the Legendary Battle theme with brass instruments, and this tune itself combines aspects between this track and the Slumbering Weald.
Lastly, worthy of note is the increased focus on vocals, a trend slowly increasing since the Pokémon Black and White titles where we first heard
Dennis Ghetsis chanted during the song. Here it’s primarily used in songs emphasising an audience presence, such as Marnie’s Battle theme (chanting by supporters from Team Yell), and the Gym Leader Battle theme. In an unusual instance for the main Pokémon games, the latter is a case of a dynamic theme – one which changes based on how the battle is progressing.
It’s a great move that really helps give the atmosphere of battling in a stadium, and the crowd being an active element of it. The change in tone for the second variation, after you knock out an opponent’s Pokémon, helps add to the feeling you’ve made good progress. The one complaint I would make is the singing by the crowd in the Dynamax climax doesn’t quite do justice to the attempts to replicate the singing of the crowd in, say, a football match – but this is better done in other variations of the regular Gym Battle tune. It is a shame, then, that the Tournament Finals theme is less enjoyable until that last section – the tune is much less catchy or engaging.
Speaking of Battle themes… let’s review the rest of them!
Overall they are solid, and certainly the Gym Battle theme is a standout. Let’s emphasise one of the aforementioned issues of the soundtrack however – some tunes get too busy. Take a look at Bede’s theme.
I’ve mentioned the bass being an instrument with a heavy focus, but it does seem to, alongside the drums, muddle the melody a touch too much. It persists throughout the song as well, never pausing and giving the other instrumentation time to shine. The pace is frantic and only really slows down following the ‘Bede’ vocal, and even then it’s still quite quick. There are some nice moments, and a clear reference to the Pokémon World Tournament theme in Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. The song overall is enjoyable! But given this is a review, I can’t say in good faith that, for myself, it is a song without room for improvement.
Compare this with one of the other rival battle themes, Marnie’s:
The only relatively ‘busy’ part of the tune is the beginning, where you have the start of the battle follow the standard formula of being a disorienting tune. In the song itself, compared to Bede’s Battle theme, there are less bass and more guitar riffs, and cheering vocals supporting both the synth and guitar leads.
Marnie’s theme is much easier to follow. You do hear counter melodies, in the light bell-like instrument for example, but it does not overwhelm the tune nearly as much. The tune progression is also much more focused, and importantly, some instrumentation (including the chanting) drops at times to let the others shine when needed. Overall it’s just more balanced, and for myself a catchier tune, and more enjoyable, because it doesn’t insist on being so busy.
The third of the rivals has a different theme yet again. It’s much simpler in layout and appears to make use of less instrumentation and much lighter drumming, and maybe that’s fitting for his character – he’s a laid back guy. Brass and electric guitar dominate the melody. I’d say the one weakness is around the latter halves of the first and second movements, where the guitar and brass seems to try to combine, but more clash than anything. Afterward when they take turns more is the stronger half of the song, despite a large section of it being the bridge taking its time to take the song back to the start of the loop.
All three rivals, by the way, have more involved Tournament Final versions, with crowd cheering and extra instrumentation. Hop’s newer theme has the crowd seemingly, as far as I can tell, chanting his name, and a rather catchy salsa vibe added over the top accompanied by clapping. I didn’t expect it, but it’s good.
The regular Wild Pokémon Battle theme is less catchy than other examples in previous titles, and does start with a somewhat odd intro. It’s not at all unusual for the beginning of Pokémon Wild Battle themes to have a disorienting style to them, but the sharp notes at the end of the two opening sets do take longer to get used to, and start late in the song’s introduction. You’re already battling before the second set has completed, and I feel it would have been more effective had the tune progressed faster. Otherwise the tune is alright, with strong drums coming in and out. I suppose the few segments feel more disjointed from each other compared to other tunes, and there’s a lack of catchyness. Given this is a song you’ll hear a lot of, it’s a shame it doesn’t present itself as one of the strongest tunes of the game.
The Trainer battle is a bit of a disappointment, personally, and this is solely down to the bridge. At 0:34 until 0:46 you hear a weird bit of synth instrumentation, that doesn’t manage to link up the two parts around it very well. It briefly reappears at 1:07 as well, and just gives it a somewhat… cheesy? aspect to it. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but I don’t think it does the song any favours. It doesn’t match the good guitar work well, which was better complemented by strings. An acoustic guitar or piano for instance would have better aided it. Really, it seems to speak to a trend where we see less melodic battle themes in recent games and having synth noises dominate parts of the tune, while I personally prefer them the other way around.
The Dynamax Battle theme is quite well done in its introduction, building up nicely to the Dynamaxing of the boss and the beginning of the battle. Heavier instruments such as the occasional brass and strong drums emphasise the ‘big’ aspect of the whole situation, and gives a grandiose feel. That said, the change in instrumentation at 0:44 does take away from the tune in my mind. It’s necessary to change things up before the song loops so it can fade and build itself back up, but it doesn’t quite fit the scale here and feels a little… ‘cheap’. Something like an electric guitar or a different brass instrument may have had a better effect.
Team Yell’s theme takes its time to build up, but when the synth kicks in around 0:33 the tune hits its stride. It’s a busier theme than most in the soundtrack, but the balance is fine enough for it to be forgiven. When the drums kick in for a heavier moment, the synth drops back before the song loops. It definitely fits the atmosphere being aimed for with the general attitude of the Team Yell supporters. The electric guitars add plenty, and the touch of piano is also well done. A solid track overall.
Piers’ Battle theme uses the Team Yell Battle opening, and like that track also features the electric guitar and drums heavily, with chanting used every so often in the piece. The melody isn’t particularly memorable or catchy for me, but the atmosphere is consistent, and progression fine. I do approve of the added synths later in the piece to build upon the tune. Structurally there’s little to fault – it just lacks that final ‘oomph’ factor to really stick out.
Oleana’s Battle theme is in my mind very good. It is easy to follow despite the frantic undertone to it, because that aspect does not dominate the tune. While the strings are not overly loud or strong, for example, they stand out, and are well supported by a piano countermelody. The third synth-guitar instrumentation takes over from the string but again doesn’t try to ‘battle’ with the piano, and rather works together. The bass then comes in to help the bridge bring us full circle. It’s maybe not the most catchy tune, but it’s a very solid one.
Bonus mention goes to the use of leitmotif here too. The chimes and piano that act as the counter melody have been heard in Chairman Rose’s theme. Oleana’s whole motivation is pretty clearly explained to us: “Everything I did was for the chairman”. It makes sense the tune we’ve heard in his theme to be an undercurrent in her battle theme. It’s an example of clever composition, tying characterisation and story together in the battle theme here.
Rose’s theme… is less successful. I will grant it does a good job in creating an unsettled and menacing tone with the use of strings, piano, and latin-esque choir vocals, with strings supporting underneath the first half. The song lacks a strong climax for me though – the build up with the vocals is good, but then interrupted too much and never quite hits the heights I feel this tune deserves. It is at least not too busy, just maybe lacking in polish with the progression and structure.
Champion Leon’s Battle theme is underwhelming. The most intense parts are the crowd cheering, but that doesn’t make for a very pleasing sound to the ear in itself, and overshadows some of the tune. The Hall of Fame tune is a very big aspect to this track, but that tune has always been relatively simple and doesn’t lend well for such a significant amount of time. Furthermore, the connotation of the Hall of Fame track for more seasoned players – “you’ve already won, relax, enjoy the upcoming credits” – simply does not work when you are still doing the final battle! The light-hearted ‘dah dah’ vocals underneath it outlining the Hall of Fame tune notes also add to the somewhat minimised energy levels. The intensity for the battle itself is simply missing, and for me it’s perhaps the weakest of all the Champion Battle themes.
You do hear a bit of the same theme found in Vs Eternatus 3 within the Champion Battle theme at 1:40, on that note. You’ll see that it is a commonly used leitmotif.
The Legendary Battle theme does have some good call backs to earlier motifs, as mentioned earlier. My main qualm with it is that it seems to have an identity crisis. It’s understandable in the sense that it both wants to be a serious battle (you’re battling a Legendary), but not be too ominous or intense as you’ve helped out your fellow wolf and vice versa, and it is glad for it. However, the transitions are not smooth, and whatever is going on between 1:47 to 2:17 is indicative of this confused quality. The song changes three times (so that’s four different themes and tones within half a minute). The two contrasting melodies playing around 1:35 also muddle the tune. The song is a victim of trying for too much, rather than settling on one or two directions (like the Mysterious Being theme). At least the sound of sword and shield clashing being used within the song is a nice touch.
Then we have Eternatus’ three themes. While we already mentioned the use of howling in the final version – here the wolf duo are helping you overcome the final challenge – we can see a more messy and grim pair of versions in the other tunes. That said, unlike the Legendary Battle theme, I feel it works fine, rather like how Giratina’s theme in Pokémon Platinum gave a feeling of a strange battle against a monster from a world unlike our own. It’s a much better attempt at any rate than what was made for the Ultra Beast battle theme in Pokémon Sun and Moon, which was entirely too messy to really follow a tune or progression. The static and techno elements add to the sense of Eternatus being an otherworldly being that you cannot contain right now. The song doesn’t try to change too rapidly or often, and does have a sense of progression that you can follow despite the composition.
The second iteration differs in a few ways. The first battle, where you can damage it and before it Gigantamaxes, features vocals and more high pitched strings. The next part removes those in favour for more unusual sounds, which represent the more alien form you are fighting, and the inability to damage it for the first few turns.
All that is gone in the final battle theme involving Eternatus. Howling reappears, which is nicely synced with the arrival of the two wolves, I must admit. The instrumentation is dominated by guitar and drumming, with some synth occupying the lighter moments of the theme as the lead instrument. But a key point to highlight in this song is what you hear during 1:07-1:29. Remember this tune, as we’ll hear it more in other themes.
Toby Fox’s contribution in the form of the Battle Tower… Battle theme does warrant quick mention. It’s an upbeat track that has a clean structure and focus to it with a lot of variations on the same two sets of notes (0:15-0:18, and 0:30-0:33) throughout. We see a clear call-and-response (or ‘question-and-answer’) structure in the second segment. This drops away in the third part when the instrumentation changes, and is more cohesive. In the second loop there is a quieter version of the song’s motif following it, before it ends in an energetic final part to bring us to the loop – this serves to extend the song and keep it fresher for multiple listens by players attempting to grind BP. It’s very solid and hard to fault in this regard.
In true Toby style he does make use of an existing song here – the intro is borrowed from part of ‘The Baby is 2‘.
Overall the Battle themes are solid, but they could have done with some polish. Many lack the final catchy aspect seen in tunes from other titles that help them stick out. That said, the game has given us the likes of Marnie’s and Oleana’s Battle themes, and of course the much loved Gym Battle theme. That’s not bad!