Developed by: Game Freak
Published by: Nintendo
Category: Adventure, RPG
Release Date: Nov 15, 2019
Over the more than two decades that Pokémon has been gracing us with its presence, the series has seen a lot of changes. We’ve seen mega-evolutions, regional species variants, a shift to 3D environments, remakes of early games in the series, and much more. But few come close to being as game-changing as the jump to the Switch with Pokémon: Sword and Shield this year. I haven’t touched the series since X and Y, so I was coming into the series relatively fresh, with a healthy dose of nostalgia for the older entries in the series.
While the game does do away with some of the big shifts the series has seen in recent years, mainly mega-evolutions and X/Y-evolutions, the game introduces several new mechanics that appeal to both new and returning players, with something for everyone to enjoy no matter what brings you to the series. But In some ways, the game feels safe like Game Freak was nervous about making a game with a larger scope, which leaves parts of the game feeling less robust than you might expect from a swap to a more powerful console.
Right away, the biggest change implemented into this new pair of games is the Wild Area. It’s a sort of valley/crater in the middle of Galar where trainers can roam freely and encounter any number of wild Pokémon, all the way from level 7, up to level 60. Out in the world, you’ll find items scattered about, and berries to shake from trees, all while trying to avoid the wrath of a level 30 Onyx as you and your team of level 12 Pokémon make your first trip through the Wild Area. Yes, we have Pokémon roaming an open-world area. It’s almost the kind of thing you dreamed of as a kid. Or at least what I dreamed of as a kid. It truly feels like a fresh new approach and instills a sense of wonder that I haven’t felt from the series in a long time. The possibilities for your team are drastically increased as you can find a catch a much wider variety of Pokémon in the opening hour(s) of the game than previous entries in the series.
Also added into the Wild Area are Dynamax Raids, in which you’ll team with four other trainers, either A.I. or real players over the internet. In these raids, you’ll fight giant versions of Pokémon who often have increased stats, and you can even encounter some that have special properties when they’re big. Gengar, for example, turns into a giant mouth that also serves as a direct portal to the afterlife. You know, stuff in a kid’s game. Annoyingly, you need to catch specific versions of the Pokémon to get these special forms. I learned this after I attempted to make my Gengar turn into a big hell-mouth and attempt to eat a giant Vanille in a gym battle. Instead, he was just a normal Gengar, but big.
Where was I… oh yes, the raids. Early on the Raids are trivial and you can easily finish the fights in a couple of turns with AI allies, but later in the game, the battles do become much more difficult and you’ll want to team up with other players to take down the giant Pokémon. Thankfully, everyone involved can catch the Pokémon from the raid, not just the initiator or player to deal the final blow. You’ll have the opportunity to catch some rare Pokémon through these raids, and events will run making some of the rare Gigantamax versions more common in raids so you can get all your favorites.
Speaking of favorites, a lot of hubbub has been made about Game Freak’s decision to not include every Pokémon into Sword and Shield. While I’ve long given up on my dream of collecting them all, mainly since I got rid of my 3DS and my Pokémon Bank subscription has long since lapsed, I can understand why people could be disappointed to lose their favorite Pokémon who they’ve been carrying forward for however many games. I wasn’t especially enraptured by any of the new Pokémon, save for an occasional regional variant, like Galarian Ponyta., or the nightmarish fossil hybrid Pokémon you’ll create. My team for most of the game ended up comprised of mostly Gen I and II Pokémon. Game Freak has said the decision to not bring every Pokémon forward to Sword and Shield was to allow them to better balance the game for competitive play, so we’ll see how things fall on that as times goes on. Things are still early, so it’s too hard to say how that scene will shake out.
The core game is pretty much what you’ve come to expect from the series. Though much easier than I anticipated in the first few gyms. I attributed this to the fact that you can catch a much wider variety of Pokémon in the opening hours, so you’ll have Pokémon suited to every occasion. Gone are the days of finding a bird, a rat, and a bug, before you reach your first gym, which is strong against every single one of your Pokémon. Instead, I was able to steamroll the first three gyms using only one or two Pokémon. The fact that every battle also gives every Pokémon in your party experience also helps keep everyone on a relatively even field and means you don’t need to spend a lot of time grinding to level your Pokémon.
As I progressed in the game, the gyms did become more challenging, but also less interesting in some ways. Every gym has a sort of challenge associated with it. They aren’t especially interesting, but they’re different from what we’ve seen in the past. The first one requires you to herd a bunch of Wooloo down a course to unlock your path to the Gym leader. Another more interesting one is a maze with water blocking your path, and you can open and close paths by pressing switches. The series has done similar things in the past, with teleport mazes and whatnot, but they’re few and far between. Unfortunately, as the game goes on these challenges become less and less interesting and eventually just revert to standard battles before a gym leader.
On the story front, things aren’t much better. The set-up is as standard as you might expect, but your rival is your best friend, Hop, and his older brother is the “Unbeatable Champion” Leon. You bounce from gym to gym getting the tiniest bits of story on your way, while Pokémon Tony Stark does shady business. It all culminates in a big poorly executed plot dump in the final hours of the main story. I’m not going to tell you that the Pokémon series is known for their storytelling, but previous games at least gave you more substantial bits of story throughout besides the gym battles. Instead, the people around the player are constantly saying “We’ll take care of this, you go do your gym stuff.” There’s perhaps some interesting commentary here about society today, but the game doesn’t really do anything with it. There is a post-game story that elaborates a bit more on the lore of Galar that takes you on your quest to catch the flagship Pokémon for this generation, but that comes after tens of hours of game.
Further adding to my disappointment, Hop isn’t worthy of being your rival. Right off the bat, he shows he’s a chump by picking the starter that is weak to yours. Sure, he already has a Wooloo, but he acts like the player is a savant for knowing type matchups. I’m aware that the games are intended for kids, but I remember things being much more difficult in the old days. Seeing my rival sent a shiver down my spine because we were on much more equal footing. I had no idea how strong they would be each time they showed up. Instead, Hop and the other gym challengers, are merely nuisances.
There are a few things that I need to touch on before we wrap up. One is the trading/online implementation. I already mentioned the raid battles that you can do with other players but connecting to the online service while in the Wild Area sends performance into the toilet. Framerate isn’t especially important in a Pokémon game, but it is disappointing. You will see other player’s avatars scattered about the Wild Area, however, they aren’t running around. You can talk to them, and they’ll give you an item or some old salad you can use to make curry.
Another baffling choice is the trading system that has been implemented. They’ve done away with the system of putting requesting specific trades like in previous systems, and instead, just randomly connect you to players and expect you to just randomly put Pokémon up for trade until you both put something up that the other person agrees to. There’s no way to communicate with the other players either, not even just to say, “I’m looking for the apple what turns into a dragon.” They do have a mystery trade option, where you can put up whatever you like and receive a random Pokémon in return, but it’s a step backward for the system. Even trading locally with my Girlfriend wasn’t seamless. Sat directly next to each other we still struggled to make our games connect.
The last thing that I need to touch on before we wrap this review up is by far my biggest grievance with Sword and Shield, and the series as a whole for the past decade. The series peaked in 2009 with the release of Heart Gold and Soul Silver. The lead Pokémon in your party would appear in the overworld and follow you around. You could turn around and give them scratches and talk to them and it was the most revolutionary thing that the series had ever done. The feature has been absent from the series since, getting only a pale imitation in the Let’s Go games from last year. But even those only allowed your Pikachu or Eevee to follow you. Not any Pokémon. With Sword and Shield, they’re so close to realizing the dream! Every Pokémon has a 3D model that they use in battles and the overworld, as well as having movement animations from the Camp minigame. People standing around towns just have their 20’ tall Onyx hanging out. There would need to be some concessions made for smaller areas, where an Onyx would be impractical but it still frustrates me greatly that they won’t do the work to bring back that feature. Especially when it seems they’re close than they’ve ever been.
Now that I’ve exorcised those demons, I can say that I did enjoy my time with Pokémon: Sword and that it’s a great jumping-on point for newcomers to the series, and still offers a lot for those returning to the franchise. I’m hoping that many of the issues present in the generation of games are merely growing pains from moving from the 3DS to a far more powerful system in the Switch. Some of the issues like trading are confusing choices that don’t seem limited by the switch and are instead just poor choices. The new ideas the game brings to the series do feel exciting, like the Wild Area, and raid battles, if they carry forward, could pave the way for even more interesting multiplayer components. Don’t come to Sword and Shield expecting them to have reinvented the pokéball, but expect a solid traditional Pokémon game that changes the formula enough to make things feel fresh and new.