For over the last two decades, Pokemon has become a generation defining franchise. It’s financial success has played a key role in solidifying Nintendo’s family of handhelds as must-have hardware. Now, Nintendo is helping to usher in a new era of Pokemon by making the jump from handheld to console with the newly released Pokemon Sword and Shield. Not only do Sword and Shield represent the start of generation eight, they’re also the first new mainline entries in the series on the runaway success that is the Nintendo Switch. It’s safe to say there’s a lot riding on these games.
What’s old is new
Set in the Galar region, a land heavily inspired by British culture, Pokemon Sword and Shield puts players back in a familiar story arc. A young and hopeful trainer sets out on an adventure to become the very best, like no one ever was. On this journey, they’ll make friends, battle evil, and of course, meet a wide array of Pokemon. Game Freak has been heavily criticized over the years for the repetitiveness in tropes that fans have come to expect from Pokemon RPGs. In Sword and Shield, the majority of these tropes are still present, but not without some fresh takes.
After being completely absent in 2016’s Pokemon Sun and Moon, gyms are back in Sword and Shield. As a participant in the “gym challenge”, the player must go from city to city taking on Galar’s most acclaimed trainers with an ultimate goal of challenging Leon for his title of champion. The gyms themselves are home to some of the most creative game design in Pokemon Sword and Shield. Each gym has its own unique set of obstacles that a trainer must clear in order to challenge the gym’s leader. One gym leaned into puzzle elements, requiring me to redirect water passageways to open an entrance to the final battle, while another had me herding Wooloo around a field like some sort of cowboy. You can clearly see where the developers carried over what they learned from the Alola region's Island Trials.
One gym mission that impressed me in particular was that of the Rock-type leader Gordie (Sword)/ Ice-type gym leader Melony (Shield). The entire surface of the gym is riddled with pitfalls that can only be detected by the trap detector item. The Switch’s joy-cons will vibrate harder and harder to indicate a nearby fall. This mechanic is an exciting way to challenge players instincts and memory, while managing to stay on theme. In addition, it allows Game Freak to take advantage of the Nintendo Switch’s highly touted HD rumble feature. The return of the 8-gym structure can seem like a bit of a bummer heading in, but it’s hard to come out disappointed.
A battle revolution
The core of Pokemon since Red and Blue has always been the battles. We catch, train, trade, and grind in order to have a team strong enough to outmatch our opponents. The battling experience in Sword and Shield is the most refined in the franchise to date. The interface is cleanly laid out, with easy to access items and battle statistics. The interface will also give players a heads up as to what moves will be effective against which pokemon, if the opposing creature is already registered in the Pokedex. Pokemon Sword and Shield's battle system pretty free of frustration.
The move animations themselves haven’t received much of an upgrade from how they looked in generation seven, which is certainly a let down. Leaving the 3DS in the past and jumping to the Switch was a great opportunity for Game Freak to come out swinging with some completely revamped animations for some of the moves that have been around for years. That being said, there are a solid number of brand new moves in Sword and Shield, and they’ve got fun and refreshing animations to them. Cinderace’s Pyro Ball and Flapple’s Grav Apple were some of my personal favorites
A simpler Pokemon world
Simply put, Pokemon Sword and Shield are the most accessible Pokemon games to date. The sheer number of quality of life changes and improvements eliminate the mechanics that have bogged down the player experience for generations.
The stress of carefully choosing which moves to learn and forget in the process of leveling up your Pokemon has been relieved. Now, players will have access to the move rememberer from the very first town. This same character serves as the name rater and can be found inside of every Pokemon center. It’s basic changes like this that make Sword and Shield more enjoyable.
Competitive battling has been widely seen as a complete undertaking in the eyes of Pokemon fans. You’ll find yourself spending hours upon hours breeding for the proper IVs, natures, and moves. Add on top of this the EV training needed in order to ensure that stats are distributed where they’ll be most effective. It’s enough to have turned many away and created a fine line between those playing for fun and those playing for a true competitive edge. In Sword and Shield, players can purchase mints that will change the nature of a Pokemon, completely altering its statline and trajectory. No longer do you need to breed 20 Larvitars in a quest to have a jolly Tyranitar.
After making some progress in the post-game, players will be able to unlock the IV checker. This lets players identify each Pokemon’s individual values right from the boxes. The game will simply give one of five descriptions that clearly tell players where their monster stands. Gone are the days of flying to a specific city to speak to an arbitrary NPC that talks in riddles and clues. These improvements will surely help to get more Pokemon fans invested in competitive battling online, while making life less tedious for those already devoted to it.
Nintendo and its exclusives are notorious for their unnecessarily intricate online multiplayer configurations. It’s a relief to say that Pokemon Sword and Shield have a quick and easy way of linking up and communicating with other players. Simply press Y to open the Y-comm and you’ll be able to trade, battle, and swap league cards. If you want to specifically interact with friends, you can set a link code so that only they can accept your invites to trade, battle, or raid.
A new way to play
The mainline Pokemon franchise has always stuck to a linear form of progression, much to the dismay of some longtime fans. Having routes that directly connect one town to another and the lack of free roam limit what players get out of these games. In Sword and Shield, Game Freak finally leans into the open world RPG elements of Pokemon with the Wild Area. First unlocked in the early hours of the game, the Wild Area is an expansive land with varying climates, environments, and Pokemon to discover.
Sword and Shield see the return of the feature originally introduced in 2018’s Lets Go Pikachu and Eevee games where wild Pokemon roam the overworld. In the Wild Area, this concept is taken to the next level. Before nabbing your first gym badge, you can encounter fully evolved monsters like Garbodor or Snorlax while traversing the Wild Area. You can’t catch these high-leveled monsters without the proper badge, but you can battle them for a nice sum of exp. They also pose a legitimate threat to the player while exploring. I felt a genuine sense of fear when a Liepard began to race towards me, and easily outran my character. After making quick work of my Scorbunny and Rookidee, I only escaped thanks to the pokedoll I’d been gifted earlier.
It’s anecdotes like this that represent how exhilarating the Wild Area is in comparison to traditional routes. Having the complete range of Pokemon levels in the game from the beginning does so much to change the way we interact with the monsters around us.
The Wild Area is broken into different regions and subsections, each with their own environment. In the snowy areas, players can find Snorunts and Abomasnow. In the dust bowl, you’ll see Pokemon like Drilbur and Tyranitar. On top of this, there is weather constantly cycling and changing throughout the regions. This can be tracked using the town map to help players narrow down their Pokemon hunting. Many creatures only appear in certain regions, during certain forms of weather. For example, Cramorant can be found in the Stony Wilderness region, but only during times of heavy rain.
It’s dangerous to go alone
Lastly, the Wild Area serves as Pokemon Sword and Shield’s multiplayer hub and home for raids. Using the Y-comm, players can switch from local to internet connection. When connected, you’ll see players from across the world running around the Wild Area going about their business. Exploring the Pokemon world alongside friends and strangers is like a dream, but certainly has its hindrances. When playing in the Wild Area while on internet connection, Pokemon Sword and Shield struggles to maintain 30 frames per second. We’ve seen moments of fps hitches in Pokemon titles before, but this is without a doubt the most egregious. I found myself disconnecting from the internet and just adventuring solo because the experience was infinitely smoother.
As mentioned, the Wild Area gives me strong glimpses of the open world Pokemon RPG I’ve always wanted. A brand new feature to Sword and Shield are the raids. There are a number of “dens” scattered throughout the Wild Area that are home to powerful dynamax Pokemon. When interacting with these dens, players will see a silhouette of the Pokemon inside, along with its typing, and difficulty on a scale of five stars. From here, they can choose to do the raid alone, with friends, or allow random players to join.
The party of four enters the den, and they’ve got ten turns to slay a dynamaxed Pokemon in order to reap in some sweet rewards. These battles are exciting and add a new layer to Pokemon strategy. Since only one player can dynamax per raid, my friends and I were constantly collaborating on battle tactics. It was something that I’ve never done in a Pokemon game before. After defeating the raid, players have the opportunity to capture the Pokemon and add it to their team. In addition, they’re rewarded with exp candies, berries, treasures, and Technical Records (one use TMs). Raids are awesome, I spent plenty of hours late at night with friends bouncing around to each others games on the hunt for precious loot and rare Pokemon.
The story of Pokemon Sword and Shield is one of ancient lore. The bulk of it centers around wishing stars, a mysterious resource that causes the dynamax phenomenon. Over the last few generations, new Pokemon games have coincided with the introduction of new battle gimmicks (see mega evolutions in X and Y or Z-moves in Sun and Moon). Dynamax fills this role for Sword and Shield, causing Pokemon to grow to kaiju size and gain stat boosts along with special moves.
The story itself isn’t bad by any means, but falls into the same tropes and beats as the last several Pokemon games. There’s some sort of ancient or mythical power that is affecting the strength and behavior of Pokemon. The good guys are trying to learn more about this unknown phenomenon while the bad guys try to harness it for their own use. We’ve seen it time and time again throughout the franchise.
Something I found to be exceptional is the way that the gym challenge is portrayed in the narrative. Battling is a staple in the Galar region, and you can really feel that as you progress through the story. Gym battles are like sporting events that take place inside of stadiums in front of roaring crowds. They even put you in a jersey to drive this point home. Pokemon battles finally feel epic in a way that they never have.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are a great first step for the mainline titles on Nintendo Switch. Game Freak follows the tried and true formula of the series while ushering in inventive new ideas to elevate the player experience. Quality of life improvements make these entries the most accessible and palatable in the saga. The Wild Area is home to countless hours of ways to explore and interact with the Pokemon world like never before. Performance issues and lazy tropes hold them back from being excellent, but Pokemon Sword and Shield are a strong step in the right direction for franchises latest generation.
This review is based on a digital code provided by the publisher. Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are available now for $59.99 on the Nintendo Switch.
Pokemon Sword and Shield
- The Wild Area is a literal breath of fresh air
- Raids are a fun new form of PvE
- Gyms are revamped and better than ever
- Vast number of quality of life improvements
- Easy to use online features
- Performance issues when playing in the Wild Area online
- Repetitive story tropes
Donovan Erskine posted a new article, Pokemon Sword & Shield review - A generational shift