Pokémon Sword and Shield are finally available exclusively for the Nintendo Switch introducing players to the all new Galar region, based off the United Kingdom. Ever since I was introduced to the world of Pokémon back on my old grey brick-like Game Boy with Pokémon Blue Version, I dreamt of what the game would look like displayed on my TV and playing off a home console. There was Pokémon Stadium and its sequel on the N64, which let me link my Game Boy Game Pak so I could see what my favorite Mons looked like on the big screen, but offered little else other than battles. There was also Pokémon Colosseum and XD: Gale of Darkness on the GameCube, which gave fans a taste of what a home console full scale Pokémon RPG could look like.
Flash-forward to 2019 and we now inhabit a world where Nintendo’s home console and portable have fused together to create the Switch, meaning a full scale Pokémon RPG is finally on a home console. But is it everything fans have longed for?
Short answer: kind of?
Pokémon Sword and Shield have faced heavy criticism since E3 this year when the game’s producer, Junichi Masuda, stated in an interview that these games would be the first to not include the National Dex or every Pokémon from previous games. The lack of a National Dex was met with a very vocal outcry by fans to have Game Freak include every monster in Sword and Shield. This wasn’t the only criticism Game Freak faced with many in the fan base claiming the animations and graphics were not up to snuff for the Switch. With all these critiques of one of my favorite franchises I couldn’t help but feel like my hype for these games waned. Despite all this, it’s a Pokémon game and it’s still fun, albeit with many glaring issues.
With my nearly 40 hours with Pokémon Sword I’ve had a lot of fun. The story revolves around you and your childhood friend, Hop, as you travel through the Galar region collecting gym badges in order to defeat the Champion Leon, Hop’s older brother. It’s pretty much the same story we’ve been getting for the past 20 something years. The story is quite short compared to previous games. Had I not taken my time with other aspects of the game I could have finished in about half the time. Don’t expect there to be much of a challenge here either, as the EXP Share item is now permanently turned on – meaning your team will be leagues ahead of any trainer or gym leader who unfortunately challenges you to a battle.
Like Pokémon Sun and Moon there’s a fair amount of intrusions from other characters interrupting your game quite often. It seemed like every new route I walked down a character would stop me to explain something or give me an item when all I wanted to do was explore the new area. Leon, the Champion, is one of the worst offenders for me. Whenever a cataclysmic event happened he would rush to the scene saying something along the lines of “it’s champion time.” It made me wonder how much of this game is my story or his.
All of the cutscenes might not have been as poorly executed if there was a bit of voice acting to go along with them. It’s strange to think that big budget JRPG on a home console doesn’t have any voice acting, especially considering the games could just use the anime’s voice actors. This really hit me when Piers, one of the gym leaders, had a full cutscene where he sang a rock song, hilariously muted.
The story doesn’t exactly hold a candle to previous entries in the series either. Team Yell is the new villain team, although I wouldn’t go so far to even consider them a threat. They’re essentially rowdy fans for another of your rivals, Marnie. There wasn’t even a real leader of the team to take down like Team Rocket’s Giovanni.
From a gameplay standpoint these are very much the same games we’ve been getting for the last couple of decades with a few welcomed quality of life improvements. First introduced in the Let’s Go games from last year, wild Pokémon can now be seen wandering around in the world and there are no more random encounters. Hallelujah! Another step in the right direction is the addition of the Wild Area. Here, Pokémon roam freely and the player can freely control the camera. It’s a little strange to think of a simple feature like camera control being innovative in 2019, but this is Pokémon we’re talking about, which is famous for its lack of change.
After about two hours into the story players will reach the Wild Area. It’s a step in the right direction for the series but it’s far from perfect. It’s the closest thing Pokémon fans have ever gotten to an open world like setting, but it lacks what makes open world or even bigger JRPGs interesting – things to do. Other than catching Pokémon and battling in raids there’s really not a whole lot to do here. It’s a vast open landscape full of Pokémon, but there’s no dungeons to explore, side quests or missions relative to the Wild Area, or even interesting things to look at. Despite this I found myself coming back there quite often because I like collecting as many Mons as possible. I also liked that I could catch fully evolved Pokémon like Steelix or Gengar, which require trading to reach their last evolution. So if you’re looking to complete your Pokédex this is a much-welcomed addition.
Pokémon games have never been known for their amazing visuals, but I assumed that would change when the series finally landed on a home console. I assumed wrong. The graphics aren’t bad, but I can’t help but feel these games weren’t developed with the Switch in mind. Take the Wild Area, for example. This is supposed to be a big seller for the games, however when connected to the online communications within the game it’s a buggy mess at best. Trainers pop up out of nowhere and there are constant framerate drops that are unbefitting of a modern day console RPG. Playing offline alleviates this issue, but then the player will miss out on raid invites and other features. It goes without saying that the player shouldn’t have to stop using an intended feature because it makes the game stutter.
Thankfully other areas within the game look great. Each town has its own charms and I was particularly fond of the forest village, Ballonea. Sadly many towns are quite small without much to explore and nothing to do there other than battle the local gym and move on. I felt the same way on the routes as well. There are no dungeons in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Most routes are pretty straightforward and there are less trainers along the way to battle, yet another reason why this game is much shorter than previous entries.
Much like Mega Evolution and Z-Moves from the last two generations, Dynamax and Gigantamax are the new battle gimmicks introduced within Sword and Shield. Acting as a mixture of Mega Evolution and Z-Moves, Dynamaxing a Pokémon increases its size and the power of all its moves for three turns. Gigantamaxing does all this and changes the look of certain Pokémon. I ended up liking it more than I thought I would, but I was a bit disappointed to learn I could only use it in gym battles and not throughout most of the story. Because Mega Evolution and Z-Moves were cut for these new battle features it makes me wonder if I should even care about them as they’ll most likely be removed in favor of some newer gimmick sometime in the future.
With Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing come Max Raid battles, which can be found in the Wild Area. Players can battle one of these powered up Pokémon with up to three friends (friends not included) in order to get the chance to capture it. Some Pokémon can only be caught this way. This was honestly a lot of fun and the biggest reason why I kept returning to the Wild Area after every badge. Unfortunately, if you don’t have friends these battles can be quite difficult because the NPCs the game gives are often pretty bad. I would have liked the ability to participate in Max Raid battles with random people online, however they are limited to your Switch friends list. This is yet another strange decision to make in 2019.
The post-game portion of Sword and Shield is pretty bleak as well. There is a Battle Tower, but all you can really do there is battle unlike the Battle Frontier from previous games. It raises the question of whether or not these games really need to be split into two versions, which each cost $60. Other games like Fire Emblem: Three Houses offer multiple storylines with radically different outcomes while all of the paths come on one game cart. Asking players to cough up $120 for the full experience of the game is downright ridiculous when considering the only major differences are some Pokémon and a couple of different gym leaders. These games could easily be on the same game cart and would offer players more replayability. This was never as big of an issue back when the games were only $40 individually or $80 for both on the 3DS.
Most of the music in Sword and Shield is fantastic. The gym leader battle themes incorporate the chants of the fans in the stands, which is such a nice little touch. My favorite track would have to be in the Wild Area where it sounds like Scottish bagpipes blaring in the background. It brought up memories of my Scottish grandmother who listened to bagpipes on her old tape player and really lent to the feeling that these games are set in the UK. The writing also had some cheeky nods to, what I can only assume being born and raised in the USA, British slang that would have been so much better fully voice acted.
This review has been quite long and I still feel like I have plenty to say about these games. If you’re on the fence about them I would say it’s okay to like them and acknowledge that they have plenty of unresolved issues. Pokémon is my favorite franchise so I’ll always end up playing the newest entry in the series and enjoying the hell out of it, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s perfect. The lack of a National Dex is depressing for me as I have paid for the Pokémon Bank and I’ve transferred Pokémon from every game since Ruby Version. For every step forward Sword and Shield take there’s at least half a step backwards, all while still being fun to play. If you’re a Pokémon fan you’ll no doubt have fun with these games, but eventually the bubble will most likely burst like it did for me and you’ll come to realize all of the missed potential.
Pokémon Sword Review
- Graphics - 7/107/10
- Sound - 8/108/10
- Gameplay - 8/108/10
- Lasting Appeal - 6/106/10
Final Thoughts: GOOD
I’ve had a lot of fun with Pokémon Sword exploring the Wild Area and catching fully evolved Pokémon wandering around there. There are plenty of issues and it’s far from perfect. Despite that it’s still enjoyable to jump back into the wonderful world of Pokémon with Arcanine by my side.