Pokemon Sword and Shield Review

Worst Pokemon game ever?

No entry in the Pokemon series has caught heat quite like Pokemon Sword and Shield. When word got out that this title would buck the trend of supporting every Pokemon, the news disappointed many and sent a vocal minority into a tizzy. The drama hit a fever pitch around the launch of the game, as the outcry over everything cut from the game sat diametrically opposed to the generally positive reviews from the press. With so much conflicting information going around, who could you trust?

Ultimately, I decided to trust in myself by going through with my purchase of Pokemon Sword. Good or bad, at least I would know for sure where I stood on the discussion. I hope you get the chance to play the game and come to your own conclusions as well.

As one would expect, Pokemon Sword and Shield follows the arc of a young boy or girl who strives to be the Pokemon champion of the world. You already know that they’re going to pick a starter Pokemon, travel across the land, routinely get tangled with your rival, and collect 8 gym badges along the way. Running parallel to this story is a tale of Galar’s mysteries, such as who the legendary heroes of Galar really are, as well as the story of how Dynamaxing came to be in the region. For the most part, the narrative framework is largely unchanged; something I wish Game Freak had put more effort into shaking up.

Even if there is a thick air of familiarity that comes with playing Pokemon Sword and Shield, there have been a number of improvements to the core formula that make the experience a smoother one to play. Being able to skip tutorials goes a long way towards getting to the good stuff faster. A greater use of cutscenes and dynamic camera angles helps to make the world feel bigger, even if it really isn’t.

Just like Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, Pokemon in the wild are clearly visible on the map. This takes so much of the grind away from the game, ensuring that you’re not spending a third of the game fighting common Pokemon that you don’t care about. Having said that, optional random encounters are also available in the game. These random encounters have a chance of spawning a Pokemon that wouldn’t normally be available in that area, giving you a worthwhile incentive to do them. Even so, you could easily beat the game without doing a random encounter, though you’d be missing out on some of the coolest Pokemon in the game.

My favourite change is the Wild Area. Open very early on, this huge open area is teeming with Pokemon of all levels and types. Instead of rolling into that first gym with the only five Pokemon you’ve seen thus far, you can have a few dozen ready to go. I much prefer this option, as it quickly got me hooked on catching Pokemon early on, while giving my team some flexibility from the start.

While you can explore the whole thing right off the bat, you’re really not supposed to. New limitations in place prevent you from catching incredibly powerful Pokemon early on, even if you can see them freely walking in the wild. Unfortunately, they don’t really talk about this limitation until after you get your first gym badge, meaning that overzealous trainers like yours truly got their Pokemon obliterated by running a lap around the Wild Area with no shot of actually catching these majestic creatures. It’s an adjustment, but you’ll soon get into the rhythm of knowing what you can and can’t engage with relative to your level.

Another neat aspect of the Wild Area is that it’s the home for the game’s new raid system. Throughout the land, you can find dens where Gigantamax Pokemon are hiding. By connecting to the internet, you and three others can battle this giant Pokemon and take your chance at catching it for yourself. Thankfully, everyone can catch their own version of said Pokemon.

On one hand, it’s awesome to have the opportunity to partake in a Pokemon PvE experience. It gives players who aren’t into competitive play an opportunity connect with other trainers and enjoy the game in a new way. However, it is a little clunky in its execution. The process of getting online and finding your friend’s raid is a lot less intuitive than it should be, as you have to fish out your friend’s invite from a public list. Furthermore, the easier raids can end with one shot from the first player, shutting out the others from having their opportunity to shine. I would probably stick to the more difficult raids where everyone gets the opportunity to attack.

Of course, online PvP in casual and ranked modes are here, as well as online trading. They work as well as you’d expect, but the clunkiness of Nintendo and Game Freak’s approach to online hurts its overall ease of use.

Let’s get back to the main campaign. Unlike in Pokemon Sun and Moon, where gym battles were replaced with a very different challenge system, you’re back to fighting in more traditional gym battles. To start, you’ll take on some sort of mission while also fighting against that leader’s cronies. Finally, you’ll take on the gym leader in a massive battle arena while the game’s best song blares in the background. The game’s soundtrack as a whole is particularly strong, but the gym theme is a Euro-centric Jock Jam that crescendos when the crowd chants along.

Even with the fist-pumping music in the background, what plays out from there is a fairly traditional battle. Hopefully you show up prepared with the right Pokemon to take advantage of a gym leader’s weaknesses. The one unique wrinkle here is the concept of Dynamaxing. Only during these leader battles can Pokemon super size for three turns. During that stretch, you’re given extra health and attack power. While this may have more of an impact on competitive play, this mechanic is only really used to square up against the leader’s final Pokemon. The gym leader will always Dynamax their last one, making it clear for when you should pop that ability. At that point, it looks really cool to watch giant Pokemon fight, but since you’re both fighting on equal ground stat wise, this whole section is just for show.

Before we close the book on Pokemon Sword and Shield, we should address the elephant (Phanpy?) in the room. Yes, a sizable portion of Pokemon did not make the cut in this game. This is a deviation from previous entries, where you could import your legacy Pokemon from previous games after completing the main story. A number of moves also got cut.

It’s unfortunate that a bunch of legacy content got cut, especially since “catching ’em all” has been a part of the Pokemon ethos for so long. However, it didn’t really impact my enjoyment of the experience. I was never the type of player to catch them all, import legacy Pokemon, or delve deep into the meta, so these changes don’t affect me. To me, it’s still a Pokemon RPG that took about 40 hours to complete while mostly hitting the same notes. Nevertheless, I empathize with the subset of players who are truly hurt by these changes.

Even so, Pokemon Sword and Shield is not the worst Pokemon game I’ve ever played. In fact, it might be my favourite thus far. In spite of my issues with the game being clunky in spots and maybe a bit too safe overall, it benefits greatly from the things it adds to the experience. Better presentation, a quasi-open world, and the ability to really customize your team from the start make it a really pleasant experience from the get-go that doesn’t let you go until you finally capture that last badge. Going forward, I want to see Game Freak get even more ambitious with the franchise’s overall structure. For the time being, this will serve as a really good take on a well-worn formula.






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2 thoughts on “Pokemon Sword and Shield Review

  1. coilerxii January 9, 2020 / 9:16 AM

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I think a big reason for this is the (likely wrong) expectation among the fandom that a game-changer would come the moment the series moved to something with better technology.

    Basically, fans as kids (like me) looked at the old handhelds and thought “boy, if we could get a Pokemon game with console power…” There was this thought that a paradigm-shifting masterpiece along the lines of Mario 64/Ocarina of Time/GTA III/Metal Gear Solid was going to happen the moment the cartridge could be placed in something with appropriate power.

    Then with X/Y the technological advance happened-but the paradigm shift didn’t. And having this happen a second time kind of made people bitter.

    • Jett January 9, 2020 / 11:16 AM

      Thanks for the insight! As a late bloomer, I don’t have all the context.

      As much as I’d love to see that “Breath of the Wild” Pokemon game, I don’t know if that’s actually something Game Freak wants to make. Especially when we’re now at a point where they’re cutting Pokemon for scope. This might be the format they want to work in, for better or worse.

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