As a Pokémon fanatic, I was thrilled when Nintendo and Game Freak announced that the new titles in the series were coming to the Switch. Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield (Pokémon SwSh) are the two latest games in the long-running franchise (for some reason, Pokémon games are still released in pairs) and I enjoyed them a lot.
At face value, this is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game since 2013’s X and Y.
While I had a lot of fun and remain a fan of the series, several small and non-game breaking flaws plague Sword and Shield. Newcomers will almost certainly enjoy this latest entry in the Pokémon series, but veterans may notice some of the concerns I bring up over the course of this review.
The Galar region
Pokémon games have never been known for their story. While you’re not getting a thrilling narrative like what’s present in other big-budget video games, Sword and Shield’s tale is both sweet and compelling.
Your goal is to become the Pokémon Champion, similar to previous titles. But this time, players accomplish this by competing in the game’s Gym Challenge. A bunch of trainers challenge Gym leaders to become the Champion, with a pleasing twist at the end. Your rival Hop, along with two other trainers, Marnie and Bede, are also vying for victory in the Gym Challenge. You often encounter these trainers and battle them as you move through the game’s story.
Thankfully, Bede brings back the return of a jerk rival, as it’s been several generations since we’ve had an opponent that was a jerk. On the other hand, Marnie’s personality is timid, though I found her a delightful addition to the series.
Throughout your journey, you’ll also learn the history of the Galar region.
Sonia, Professor Magnolia’s granddaughter, unravels the history of two heroes of the game’s world along with the mystery of Dynamaxing Pokémon — a new ability that allows Pokémon to grow to giant sizes during battle. Overall, I found the story was shallow but enjoyable, as well as easy for people of any age to understand.
However, I missed battling against an evil enemy. Instead, Pokémon SwSh features ‘Team Yell,’ a group of soccer hooligan-like fans that support the Gym Challenger Marnie. While Team Skull from Pokémon Sun and Moon only attempted to be evil, Team Yell members are just overly passionate fans, which I found a disappointing shift.
The story picks up and gets more interesting eventually, with the stakes being raised considerably towards the end of your journey.
Pokémon Sword and Shield include two new battle features, Dynamax and Gigantamax. Dynamax gives Pokémon the ability to become larger, whereas Gigantamax makes Pocket Monsters grow more massive and change their shape, similar to a Mega Evolution. This works once per battle and only lasts for three turns. Unlike Mega Evolution, you can only perform these actions in specific locations. I enjoyed that the story backed up the reasons for why this is only possible in specific locations in the game.
There is a sense of grandeur to having huge Pokémon battle each other, with certain moves changing the surrounding weather. This was especially true in the large stadiums where fan cheering got louder and more excited after performing a Dynamax.
Pokémon SwSh also includes new evolution mechanics that I found interesting. To evolve Galarian Farfetch’d, for example, you need three critical hits in one battle. Also, to evolve Milcery into Alcreamie, you need to give the Pokémon a specific item to hold and make your character spin in a particular direction, for either more than or less than five seconds and at either night or day, depending on how you want the evolution to turn out. I found these forms of evolution were creative and a welcome change of pace from what past Pokemon games offered.
I also liked the designs of most of the new Pokémon. They’re a vast improvement over Pokémon Black and White’s Vanilluxe, an ice cream Pocket Monster.
Last but not least is the Wild Area, a section of the game that feels a little smaller than a region in Breath of the Wild. You freely roam around the area, have control of the camera for the first time in a Pokémon game, and there is a variety of Pokémon wandering around. However, visually it doesn’t look great. In the Wild Area, you’ll also see other players walking and biking around. You can also join other players in Max Raid battles to takedown either a Dynamaxed or Gigantamaxed Pokémon.
It’s important to note that the only way to get your own Gigantamaxed Pokémon is if you catch it in a G-Max Raid.
You can also see Pokémon roam around in the Wild Area as well as other locations in the game. While Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee and Let’s Go, Pikachu! also did this, SwSh does it better. This time, the smaller Pocket Monsters hide in the grass. This means that while they’re partially visible, they’re hard to see depending on their size. For example, I often miss Dittos in the overworld due to how small they are. Some other monsters, however, are bigger and more difficult to miss like Snorlax.
Gengar, use ‘Mean Look!’
Sword and Shield are the best the Pokémon series has ever looked, but far from the best looking games on the Switch.
Graphically Pokémon SwSh doesn’t compare to games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Dragon Quest: XI. The game also doesn’t come close to matching other 2019 AAA titles on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, though I understand those consoles feature far more powerful hardware.
Further, Game Freak recycled attack animations from previous 3DS Pokémon games, which is a disappointing move on the developer’s part, considering this is a new Switch title. Don’t get me wrong though; they aren’t all horrible. For example, Scorbunny’s final evolution features an excellent move that looks great.
But to be frank, some animations are downright embarrassing. For example. Scorbunny’s Double Kick attack looks terrible. If you compare Sword and Shield to other games in the series like Pokémon Battle Revolution, Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon Stadium, the difference in battle animation quality is very apparent. For direct comparison, look at Scorbunny’s Double Kick versus any kick move from Battle Revolution.
Even character and Pokémon animations during the game’s many cutscenes aren’t the best. For example, a Legendary Pokémon’s movement animation in a cutscene near the end of the game looks horrendous.
Bug-Types and glitches
Before Sword and Shield’s official launch, several people got their hands on a hacked version of the game. Early reports based on these hacked copies of the games indicated that Sword and Shield was full of glitches and bugs.
Playing the game myself, I can say it ran pretty smoothly, but the experience isn’t perfect. The Wild Area suffers from some slow-down issues, especially when you’re playing online.
You’ll also notice Pocket Monsters will pop up randomly in the Wild Area. I’ve had an Avalugg appear right in front of me when only a second earlier there was nothing there.
The Wild Area is far more stable when you’re playing offline, though there are also graphical glitches in some other areas of the game, particularly Motostoke City with an Onix that pops in and out.
While frustrating, it’s important to point out that none of these problems are game-breaking.
Has Game Freak gotten lazy?
No, I’m not referring to Game Freak leaving out more than 400 Pokémon in SwSh.
Pokémon Sword and Shield lack a lot of trainers to battle compared to previous entries in the series. The original games, Pokémon Red, Blue and Green, feature a map flooded with trainers in between Lavender Town and Fuschia City. An area like this does not exist in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Even the game’s Victory Road felt lacking.
Towns in the SwSh are shallow, with many of them featuring little to do beyond battling at their stadium. Even the most expansive cities in Pokémon Sword and Shield are relatively shallow. In comparison, Pokémon X and Y’s Lumiose City and Red and Blue’s Saffron City are two locations that are filled with content and things to do.
Even dungeon design in SwSh is very straightforward. It was great that you receive the Escape Rope (an item that allows users to escape from any cave) as a key item in Sword and Shield, but I never felt like I needed it. In older games, you could easily get lost in caves, and would sometimes have to solve puzzles to get out of them, but this didn’t exist in Sword and Shield.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are solid entries in the Pokémon series, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the games. What they lack in depth and visuals, they make up for in creativity and grandeur. Altogether, Sword and Shield is a great Pokémon game at its core.
That said, at this stage in the series’ evolution, the franchise should be in a far more advanced place. I would have liked to see Game Freak work with Genius Sonority — the developers of Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness — to inject new life into the franchise.