Review: Pokemon Sword and Shield (Nintendo Switch)
- Release Date (NA): November 15, 2019
- Release Date (EU): November 15, 2019
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak
- Genres: RPG
- ESRB Rating: Everyone
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
Watching the months of pre-release fervor and debate in regards to the topic of Pokemon Sword and Shield was one of the most intense and long-lasting gaming ordeals that I'd seen occur on the internet. Every week, there was a new topic that would reignite the warring sides of defensive fans and skeptical critics. From the re-used character models and animations, to the removal of a great number of Pokemon, every new press release or trailer resulted in outcry, without fail. So, now that the games are in players' hands, and we've all gotten a chance to try the latest generation of Pokemon, it's time to make like an Arceus, and cast judgment on Sword and Shield.
You're introduced to the world of Galar in a rather grandiose way, as the game opens not on a professor's speech, but instead the chairman of the Pokemon League, as he explains the purpose of Pokemon Trainers in the midst of a stadium full of wildly cheering audience members, where the current champion, Leon, is battling with his trusty Charizard. As Charizard begins to Dynamax--this game's new feature--and prepares to unleash an attack, the game cuts to the logo and fades out to your house, where it shows you, the player character, watching the battle on your phone. It's an exciting way to kick off the game, and it does a splendid job at showing the larger scale and spectacle of gym battles in the Galar region.
From there, Sword and Shield are much like every other Pokemon title. You get your starter, you're sent on your way to collect all eight gym badges, and you capture the cute and cool Pokemon you meet on your way, in order to create a team of monsters that'll help you beat the champion. What sets these new games apart, immediately, is the fact that Sword and Shield are the first mainline Pokemon titles that aren't on a handheld. Of course, we've had spinoffs that gave players a fully explorable world and 3D adventure on consoles in the form of both Colosseum and XD, but this marks the series' first time kicking off a new generation on a console.
The jump to consoles, or at least, a console-handheld hybrid, has brought many new innovations and changes to the traditional formula, such as camping and curry cooking, Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing, the Wild Area, and raid battles. There's a lot to take in, but there's also a large void, since hundreds of Pokemon have been cut from the Pokedex, compounded with the lack of a GTS system, any major post-game, Mega Evolutions, Battle Frontier, and other similar complaints. Make no mistake, Sword and Shield still offer a what feels like a full Poke-package of fun, but when compared to certain previous entries, it's difficult to not think that these games were rushed for the holiday season, leaving them just a bit lacking, when titles like Emerald or Heart Gold/Soul Silver were rife with bonus content for players to pour hundreds of extra hours into.
When taking on each gym in succession gets to be a little monotonous, you can always take a break from it to explore the Wild Area. For the first time in Pokemon history, you're given full control of the camera in an open-world setting, which is just as impressive as it sounds. Sweeping plains stretch before you, with all sorts of Pokemon running around in the overworld, as weather conditions change from rain, to snow, to sandstorm. It makes the Wild Area feel alive, and it's a joy to wander around, finding Gyrados in the lake, Vulpix in the bright sunlight, and Glalie in the snow. This was the highlight of Sword and Shield, although it does also make you wish the entire game was in this format.
Hidden in the Wild Area are "super strong" Pokemon, like Snorlax, Gallade, and Corviknight, and seeing such Pokemon early into your journey can spark a sense of awe. You won't be able to catch them until you have more gym badges, and while that's a little disappointing, it gives you the motivation to finish the story content, so that you can come back and freely catch all the powerful Pokemon lurking. Raid battles are another type of fight that's introduced within Sword and Shield's Wild Area, where you take on rare Pokemon with up to four friends. Winning the fight or successfully capturing the Pokemon once you've weakened it gives you a ton of prizes, most important among them being TR's (one-use TM's) and XP candy which can rocket your Pokemon's levels up much faster than the traditional Rare Candy. Though some may see it as a way to make an easy game even easier, I loved this addition as it allowed for me quickly level up new Pokemon to switch into my team at the drop of a hat.
As exciting as the Wild Area is, it's far from perfect. You might notice the occasional stutter in the framerate, as larger Pokemon spawn in, but things get unbearable the moment you turn online features on. When you're online in this part of the game, you're able to see dozens of trainers running about, finding raid battles and camping; this is actually a great addition, adding to the lively feeling of the Wild Area. The issue, however, is that the Nintendo Switch can't keep up. Infrequent inconsistencies in the performance become constant, as the game will freeze for a second or two every few steps, trying to handle everything that's going on. Slowdown will bring the framerate down to a juttery mess, and it feels very unfinished. The best way to explore the Wild Area is by shutting off online features--a fairly significant part of Sword and Shield--just so the game can handle itself.
HM's, which were once a staple of every Pokemon adventure, are still gone, just as they were in Sun and Moon. The approach that Sword and Shield take is a little less charming; you no longer have access to partner Pokemon to help you get past obstacles, and instead are given a flying taxi service fairly early on, while your bike is upgraded to float on water halfway through the game. I can't say that I miss HM's, and I doubt that I ever will, but I can say that I miss the puzzles that went with them. Sword and Shield are incredibly linear--disappointingly so--featuring just a single short cave, and 10 straightforward routes. There are no puzzles, dungeons, or any major obstacles to make your way through, like there were in previous games. No equivalent to Silph Co., Team Rocket's Hideout, the Radio Tower, Cave of Origin, Mt. Coronet, or similar areas to conquer.
One of the biggest flaws of this entry is that Pokemon Sword and Shield continue the ever-increasing series trend of holding your hand, and carefully guiding you through each area. Gone are the days where you could reach Celadon City, and proceed through multiple paths to get to multiple gyms in any order you wished. Wooloo will go out of their way to ruin your day, by constantly forming roadblocks. Want to explore the other path on the first route? Too bad. Every time you might deviate from SwSh's strict guided tour, a hoard of cute sheep await you, ready and willing to stand in your way. Team Yell, this generation's "bad guys" exist almost purely to aimlessly loiter around town exits and alternate pathways, blockading you from going anywhere that isn't directly tied to the main story at that moment. Pokemon, understandably, is a game targeted towards children, but this level of pushing the player around is insulting, even to the youngest of fans. Being stopped after every major event to be told to go somewhere isn't enough--so there's always someone to push you in that direction as well, be it Hop, Sonia, a Yamper, or any friendly NPC; after so many instances, it begins to feel claustrophobic. This has been an issue present since Diamond and Pearl, yet Game Freak has only gotten more restrictive with every following game. Pokemon Sun and Moon were just as guilty of corraling the player, so it's not entirely unexpected to see this again once more in Sword and Shield, though it still is highly disappointing.
To no one's surprise, all of the Pokemon models have been re-used from X/Y. I find absolutely no fault with this choice, when considering that's why the models were created in the first place. The confusing and misleading marketing has no impact on the actual game itself. There have even been new tweaks to certain animations for those older models, that help the Pokemon feel a bit more alive and a little less stiff. On the whole, Sword and Shield aren't visually impressive, but they get the job done. Each of the major cities are nice to look at, and have a little bit of character to them. There's even little doggie-doors for houses with smaller Pokemon inside, and the Nintendo Switch in your character's room has the exact same color Joy-Cons that you do; an adorable amount of detail was put into certain appearances. The big inevitable fight during the game's climax with the mascot legendary also has a sense of grandness, and the battle itself looks downright cool. However, the experience begins to unravel slightly when you notice that certain previous-gen attacks lack animations at all, the Wild Area outright hitches and freezes every few seconds when you're playing online, and the utterly abysmal draw distance causes pop-in at extremely short distances.
Galar, as mentioned before, has a huge focus on gym battles, much more so than any region prior. Gathering badges isn't just some casual hobby that every 10-year-old does in their free time--Galar treats the Pokemon Gym Challenge with the same seriousness that England does with the sport of football. The champion even has ridiculous logos plastered onto his cape, showing off those who are sponsoring him, and there's in-game product logos and brand names on the edges of the seating within each stadium, just as there are with sports fields, in reality. To reflect just how major gyms are, all of the eight fights with each leader take place in arenas, on a huge field, and the two trainers dramatically walk onto the pitch before the fight, giving the battle a good sense of hype and making your victory seem that much more grand.
Another one of the game's newest features takes place in gym fights: Dynamaxing. Much like Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves, though much more situational and restricted, you get a special one-time-use stunt that your Pokemon can pull off. In this case, Dynamaxing massively increases the size of your Pokemon, and turns all of their attacks into massive superpowered versions. After three turns, the effect wears off, and your Pokemon returns to normal size. Gym leaders will use it as a last resort to try and turn the tide of a fight in their favor, while all raid Pokemon are Dynamaxed from the start for the entirety of the battle, to make them difficult to defeat/capture. Though everyone in Galar treats Dynamaxing as a show-stopping event, it feels little more than a gimmick, and an easy way for you to steamroll through opponent's teams.
When I originally drafted this review, I put "It's Pokemon" in both the pros and cons columns. While it was said in jest, I found myself agreeing with the sentiment more and more, as I played through all of Pokemon Sword. The entries' biggest boon is the fact that it's the classic Pokemon formula that millions of fans have come to love over the past 20 years. On the other hand, the biggest drawback is the fact that these games are held back by Game Freak's continually odd decisions, rushed one-year development cycles, and the failure to make major gameplay changes to freshen up the formula--an issue of same-y fatigue that has plagued the series ever since Ruby and Sapphire, and once more starting anew with X and Y.
For what you get, Sword and Shield serve as perfectly fine Pokemon games. Whether you've been playing each and every game, or you're a lapsed fan coming back to get reacquainted with your favorite franchise from childhood, you'll be able to have fun playing with your friends, raising your Pokemon, and doing all the wondrous things that have made Pokemon such a charming game, ever since Red and Blue.
+ The Wild Area is a great step forward
+ Raids are fun, especially with friends
+ The quality of life changes are a relief
- Lacking a good postgame
- Removal of features
- Performance issues in the Wild Area
While the visuals are only but a minor step up from Let's Go, SwSh's graphics are bright and colorful, and the Pokemon are all expressive. Though muddy textures can look awkward at times, there's a an appreciable level of detail throughout the world that help excuse it in most cases. What isn't as forgivable is the atrocious framerate performance in the Wild Area, which hitches about erratically like a paralyzed and confused Dynamaxed Gyrados.
If you have ever played a Pokemon game in your life, you know exactly what to expect. For better or for worse, it's Pokemon. Multiple quality of life changes really help to improve the overall experience, but it's all the same catch 'em-battle 'em-train 'em mechanics you've come to love or hate.
The main story, if you barrel through it, takes around 20 hours to complete. Even when you get into the post-game, there's a jarring dearth of things to do or explore. So, to get the most out of your playtime, you're going to want to do raids and explore the Wild Area, which adds a good fun few hours to the overall playtime, especially if you've got friends to play with.
out of 10
(not an average)
At the end of the day, Pokemon Sword and Shield are genuinely fun. That fun might be a little short-lived, but it's still got all the trappings that you can expect from a Pokemon game. There's a few new bells and whistles, a few steps taken forward, and a couple of steps taken back, just as there is with every new generation of the franchise.