Pokémon is somewhat of an important franchise to me. It’s basically what started my love for gaming, with my very first Pokémon experience being Pokémon Silver and choosing Cyndaquil as my starter. Since then, I have played every core Pokémon experience as well as some of the spinoff games like the Mystery Dungeon series and Ranger, and my love for the series has always been unwavering. Even after the enjoyable experience that was Let’s Go, I found myself desperately wanting a core Pokémon experience on the Switch, a platform which has quickly become one of my favourite consoles (though that is mainly attributed to Splatoon 2, Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate and Breath of the Wild). Along comes Pokémon Sword & Shield, GameFreak’s first attempt at bringing the traditionally handheld franchise to a home console. It ends up kind of just feeling like a port that does make some improvements on the formula, but also makes some terrible mistakes at the same time.
Pokémon Sword & Shield are set in the region of Galar, a UK-inspired region filled with hazardous environments, medieval structures and everyone saying ‘mate’. That’s right, Pokémon has become your worst nightmare (not actually). There isn’t really a super hard plot to follow, unlike some of the previous games, so if those were the most enjoyable parts of the Pokémon games for you then that appeal might not be satiated. However, that doesn’t stop the world and its inhabitants from having their own quirks and stories to tell. If anything, with the shift in camera allowing a little more control in certain areas, the artist and writers had fun in communicating the ideas and themes of the world in a more concise manner.
At its core, the main complication of Sword & Shield revolves around a past event called ‘The Darkest Day’ and the possibility of it repeating itself due to an energy crisis. This alone gives you a clear idea of the message this Pokémon game is trying to send, but if that wasn’t clear enough, you can also take a look at how the Wild Area behaves. The Wild Area is the newest and quite possibly the largest addition that the Pokémon series has seen yet (without delving into puns). It features a large, open-world like design, a cycle of available Pokémon whose availability changes based on a variety of factors, including weather, time and date. Game Freak has cleverly taken a political message (yes, it’s a political message) and have interwoven it with the world and the game design for the Wild Area by way of the rotation of available Pokémon in the Wild Area. Weather has been a staple of the Pokémon series since Generation 3, where weather was introduced into the overworld, which also worked in tandem with Pokémon battles (weather effects that were present in the overworld would also be present in battles until changed by specific moves like Sunny Day or Rain Dance). The one thing that has always remained consistent, however, is where these weather changes can occur. Sandstorms are in deserts, where it was appropriate, rain occurred in forest areas and snow/hail was always in snowy areas. This is where the Wild Area is remarkably different. Through some crazy witchcraft, an area can be covered in torrential rain one moment, experiencing drought the next and then proceed to have snow everywhere. These weather effects also push the Pokémon in and out of their newfound habitats within the Wild Area. This little nod to how climate affects an ecosystem and its inhabitants is so brilliantly designed that Game Freak deserves to pat themselves on the back for this. Also, the Galarian form of Corsola which exists as proof of coral bleaching is also brilliantly designed and written, changing the bright and happy Pokémon to a harrowing ghost type Pokémon that absorbs others’ life-force through its branches. Seriously, this is so excellently implemented.
Political ideals behind, there are a few gameplay changes that have come around this time. For starters, Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves have been thrown out the window in favour of the latest gimmick to hit the Pokémon series – Dynamax. I’m not going to sugar coat it – it is cool that every Pokémon can Dynamax, but the problem is its availability. One thing I really enjoyed in the later Pokémon games (because I like to be stupid) is just steam rolling things through the use of an unnecessary mega evolution or Z-move, but you can’t do that with Dynamaxing because the ability to Dynamax your Pokémon is only available in certain circumstances (like Gym Leader fights, Championship fights and Max Raid Battles). Dynamaxing only lasts for three  turns as well which is fine, requiring you to be a little more tactical with it, even if it does come at the cost of being able to be silly with it at all times. Dynamaxing does have a little more depth to it than the previous gimmick, however. When you engage in Max Raid battles (battles against Dynamaxed Wild Pokémon in the Wild Area), you receive Dynamax Candy. This works similarly to Rare Candies, however, it is used to level up a given Pokémon Dynamax level which determines how much health they will have in Dynamax form. To further add to this, there is Gigantamax, a more powerful version of Dynamaxing that only a handful of Pokémon can use. Yes, Game Freak has basically just made a simplified version of Mega Evolutions for every Pokémon, with the core concept of Mega Evolutions remaining intact through Gigantamaxing. At the time of writing (and I doubt it will change) there are currently only 27 Pokémon capable of reaching Gigantamax form, one requires you to beat the game, two require you to have save data from Pokémon Let’s Go: Eevee or Pikachu. The only other way to get Gigantamax-capable Pokémon is through distribution events like the Meowth that was given away in Mystery Gift or hope that you encounter one in a Max Raid Battle and catch it (yes, you have to capture a Pokémon that is already Gigantamaxed or hope that a random one you catch is able to Gigantamax).
Another area where Sword and Shield separates itself from the pack is with Gym Challenges. Rather than your traditional Pokémon Gym experiences, which were notably mixed up in the previous generation, Sword and Shield’s Gyms aren’t always straightforward in comparison. A personal highlight was a specific Gym where the goal is to capture Pokémon double battles with other trainers who are challenging the Gym. For each Pokémon you defeat or capture you will earn points (determined by how your fight was completed), however, you can choose to focus on another trainer’s Pokémon which fights alongside you. It’s this really interesting dynamic that I really enjoyed and I wish that Game Freak would experiment more with ideas like this. In saying that, there are also Gyms which do feel far more traditional than the ones found in the previous generation, with simplistic puzzles to be solved and some trainer battles in between each puzzle step or so. My main issue with the Gym Challenge itself has more to do with the Championship at the end. Every Pokémon game has featured a Pokémon League, with an Elite Four roster unique to each generation of Pokémon. Sword and Shield make their own spin on the tried-and-true formula with the Championship Tournament, an event where Gym Challengers and Leaders alike can all compete in the hopes of becoming the new Galar Champion. In essence, this idea is really cool. An actual competition for the title of Champion is awesome, but it also comes at the cost of a Champion battle in subsequent tournaments – the tournament just kind of ends.
There is a short-but-sweet post-game questline that you can play through which has some rather interesting and quirky characters. I won’t go into too much detail regarding this for spoiler’s sake, but in terms of actual endgame stuff this is just about it. The game doesn’t really feature any legendary Pokémon for you to capture and the only activity outside of the Battle Tower that you can really work through is Max Raid Battles against Dynamaxed (and sometimes Gigantamaxed) wild Pokémon. As someone who really enjoyed hunting legendaries, especially when you had to uncover secrets and solve puzzles to unlock them (like the Regi Pokémon in gen 3), this was incredibly disappointing, especially when you factor in the point that the legendaries available in this generation are all scripted encounters, meaning you don’t even have to go searching for them (seriously, I have an abundance of Premier Balls and nothing to use them on).
There are a few design choices that really made me question what the designers were doing. A core part of the experience for Pokémon games is finding and training new and more powerful Pokémon. This was something that really became a matter of choice; do you focus on a new, higher level version of one of your current Pokémon or do you catch a new one and start anew? At some point, Sword and Shield hit this question remarkably well with final forms of Pokémon evolution chains being catchable in the Wild Area. Where it fails is when it lets you really make these choices. In the Wild Area, you can encounter notably powerful and high level Pokémon – the first Pokémon I encountered there was a level 26 Onix when most of my team was barely past level 10. My first instinct here was “oh yes, I’ll catch this and use it to power level the rest of my party” only to be told by the game I was unable to even throw a ball at the Pokémon. I can respect this choice, as Pokémon has always had a limit to the Pokémon that will obey you based on how many badges you have (having every badge removes this limit entirely). Pokémon Sword and Shield double down on this concept by incurring a restriction on the level of Pokémon you can capture, as well as the level of Pokémon that can obey you. If the two restrictions were tied together this wouldn’t be so bad, but they are not. You eventually hit a point where Pokémon past level 50 can obey you but you cannot capture Pokémon above level 35. It really seems that rather than teach the player about the nuanced nature of EVs and their benefits, Game Freak put a hard barrier to force players into investing in a system they might not even understand. I hate this design choice, especially since you can work around this by having someone trade you a Pokémon above this capture restriction. Speaking of trading, the game requires you to set a link code to specify players you wish to trade with, even if they are on your friends list. To make matters worse, there is a system in the game where you can collect the trainer cards of other players you interact with and yet you STILL need to use a link code if you want to trade with these players whose cards you have in your collection. It’s a silly design choice and should not exist for players that are on each other’s friend lists and/or trainer card collection.
The music for Sword and Shield is generally fine, though Pokémon games have struggled to have music that captivates me as well as Gen 2 did, but that’s just me. The music features more instruments and even chanting (and at one point there are even wolves howling). There’s nothing particularly bad, in fact there are a couple tracks towards the end that standout, though I do have to admit that I really didn’t like the music for the main legendary battle as it lacked intensity and instead opted for a more shonen (your typical action anime centered around a young male), rise to the occasion and save the day style of writing. I’m sure there are some people that loved it but I prefer the music that really makes you feel like you’re basically fighting a god.
Now for the technical part of Sword and Shield. Where do I begin? The game’s art look really nice. Nintendo games have a tendency to prioritise art style and direction to carry the visual experience rather than raw visual fidelity like in most AAA titles. Pokémon Sword and Shield is no exception here and to this end, it works nicely. However, there eventually comes a point where the art can only carry a game so far and Pokémon has definitely hit that point. Sword and Shield appears to render at abysmally low resolutions, especially when in docked mode. The game begins to look blurry and blocky when you enter areas that have wider and more complex rendering, like in the Wild Area (general Pokémon battles are mostly okay due to how scaled back the rendering is). This isn’t even to maintain stable performance, as in the Wild Area (especially towards the city of Hammerlock) the framerate can really begin to dip quite noticeably and this issue only becomes worse when you are connected to the Internet. While the rendering solutions are slightly different, games like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey look substantially better, render at far higher resolutions and perform remarkably better with all the increased demand from the Switch’s limited hardware. Pokémon Sword and Shield just feel like 3DS games that were brought over to the Switch and this is largely due to its visual experience that leaves quite a lot to be desired. Hell, even The Witcher 3 runs at a higher resolution and that game is unoptimised on every platform. It’s 2019 and games should not be running at such a low resolution and still struggling to hit 30fps.
Also, Dragonite was left out of this game and that makes me mad.
I really enjoyed Pokémon Sword and Shield far more than I anticipated given how many negative things we were hearing prior to its release. It’s definitely not perfect, and I’d argue that it makes more mistakes than most of the previous games, but it is not without its worth. Those who enjoy the core Pokémon experience are bound to enjoy the latest generation of the franchise unless somehow every single Pokémon they liked didn’t make the cut into this generation (which is entirely possible). In saying that, issues like bad optimisation, poor game design that gates a player’s ability to catch Pokémon if they are too high (but not so high that they wouldn’t be able to obey you), a Pokémon League-like tournament that lacks any real replay value and a pretty stale endgame if you don’t like competing in the Battle Tower or against other players really detract from the experience. Perhaps this game is better left for a discount buy.
Reviewed on Switch // Code supplied by publisher
- Game Freak
- Nintendo / The Pokémon Company
- November 15, 2019