Pokemon Sword and Shield on Nintendo Switch
For years people have wanted Game Freak to mix things up with Pokemon and with Pokemon Sword and Shield it’s clear that that was an attempt to drive the series forward into a new direction while still preserving the heart and soul of the series: catching, trading, and becoming the best there ever was.
The results are very mixed and not everything sticks the landing in Sword and Shield. Fortunately though, the heart and soul of Pokemon still shines through unabated.
The “biggest” change by far is obviously the inclusion of Dynamaxing. I’ll be honest, before playing Sword and Shield I was preparing myself to hate it. It just appeared so corny, bizarre, and out of place.
That said, the story of Sword and Shield does a nice job of explaining why Pokemon are able to grow so large and because it’s limited to gym battles, raid battles and other special circumstances, it never wears out its welcome.
Dynamaxing is surprisingly pretty fun! Seeing a goofy giant version of your favorite Pokemon is never not funny, and ripping through the AI with your party member is incredibly satisfying.
As a story mode feature, it works very well and freshens up the experience for this new generation even if the AI’s use of their Dynamax is very predictable and easy to counter. It’s more about you just reveling in the destruction than it serving as a valuable shake-up to the gameplay of story content.
Dynamaxing is only problematic for the competitive online battle community. It’s a balancing nightmare as it’s too difficult to predict when a Pokemon will Dynamax and in the right hands, a Dynamaxed Pokemon can easily rip through half of a team with little resistance, throwing strategy and counter plays out the window.
There are already a small group Pokemon emerging that seem capable of abusing Dynamaxing and making party composition and strategy building less fun.
Another “feature” I was prepared to hate was the lack of a complete National Dex. While I don’t care about anything enough to send death threats, much less Pokemon, I did silently lament that I couldn’t bring all of the Pokemon I had in my Bank into the new generation of games.
Would I still prefer that the National Dex was complete? Yes, I would. But, the idea of a regional dex being the new standard isn’t as difficult a pill to swallow as I thought it would be.
Sword and Shield has a Black and White vibe where the new Pokemon take center stage, and I really enjoyed the designs, unique typing, and ideas that went into some of these Pokemon.
This is the most effort I’ve seen Game Freak put into creating Pokemon that have unique moves, abilities, different forms, evolution etc. Toxtricity, a new first of its kind –Electric/Poison Pokemon– can evolve into two different forms based on its nature, each with their own abilities and move pool.
Applin, a Grass/Dragon Pokemon, depending on your version, can evolve into one of two different forms with each one having base stats geared to either attack or defense.
The more strategy and complexity when it comes to Pokemon with multiple forms, evolutionary paths, etc. the better. The game can use more thinking, not less and Sword and Shield does deliver in that front.
While it’s no solace if your favorite Pokemon was on the chopping block, the reduced pool of Pokemon does mean that Pokemon that have been left for dead can crawl out of the shadow of other Pokemon, not present in Sword and Shield, that have run rampant for years thanks to power creep that has grown more pronounced with each passing generation until Sword and Shield.
Sword and Shield resets the table in a way and establishes its own meta. For future games, Game Freak, in theory, has the ability to tinker and balance the meta and balance much more easily than trying to contend with a snowballing amount of Pokemon. I say in theory because Game Freak has never really seemed that concerned about balance, but the potential is there at least.
For me though, the most non-problematic new addition is that of the Wild Area. The Wild Area is a lovely open space with varied weather conditions where you can stop by each day to explore for new Pokemon you don’t have, hunt for shinies, get rare items, and participate in the new raid battles.
Continuing this theme of a curmudgeon Pokemon fan being surprised he likes new things, the raid battles were something I was preparing to not like. I’m not a Pokemon GO fan and I just didn’t want Pokemon GO mixed in my hardcore mainline games. Yeah, I’m that guy, sorry.
But I’m also someone that can admit when they are wrong. The raid battles are fun, and extremely rewarding! I enjoyed the team aspect of working together to take on a superpowered Pokemon, which was a unique experience for me, but more importantly, I loved the rewards.
Raid battles not only give you the opportunity to catch whatever you’re fighting with the possibility of getting a rare Hidden Ability, but also shower you with EXP raising items, new moves, rare candies and other very useful items. It gives me a reason to stop by the Wild Area every day to stock up on items and to see what raid battles are on the menu.
One aspect though of Sword and Shield that I had zero expectations for but still found myself disappointed in was the story.
Yes, I know: “imagine caring about the story of a Pokemon game” but I felt Sun and Moon made some big progress in creating a compelling narrative that went beyond being the best there ever was. I’m not a huge fan of Sun and Moon, but if anything for me, that’s the part of those games that I’ll look back fondly on. I thought Sword and Shield would carry the torch further in this regard.
The story of Sword and Shield doubles down on the “being the very best” angle. I’ll admit, this is the best version of that because of how hyped up gym battles are thanks to the excellent music and presentation. And I really enjoyed the new tournament champions league-like structure for the finals instead of the usual elite four. It made battles feel more intense like the anime finals always are.
The problem is the usual world-threatening subplot is pushed aside at every turn until the last possible moment. Any time you start to learn a little bit of what’s going on, the adult NPCs basically tell you not to worry about it and just keep going with your gym challenge… and you just listen to them. OK then.
I just could not bring myself to suddenly care about some big problem that only reveals itself at the end of the game when I was discouraged from learning about it the entire game. There was very little build-up to the climax and it was very strange and heavy-handed, even by Pokemon standards.
The “rival” (Hop) is still incredibly irritating, overly happy, and just never leaves you alone. The sub-rival, Bede, on the other hand, kind of fulfills that “jerk” rival role that fans have been missing since Gold and Silver, but unfortunately he is never allowed to take center stage over Hop.
Visually though, in most cases, Sword and Shield is a real treat. Galar feels more alive than any other region we’ve explored to date. Cities burst with color, and I love the themes of some of the new areas.
In particular, the Fairy-infested Glimwood Tangle nails the look and feel of an enchanted forest. I also loved the vibe in Circhester Bay, a very peaceful, snowy, Arctic Circle-themed area filled with dispersed cold tundra platforms that are connected by icy water jam-packed with Pokemon life like Wailmer and Mantines.
That said, most of the routes and dungeons are extremely simplified and you never need to spend a lot of time in them as there are very few puzzles that need solving. Sword and Shield is probably the most straight forward Pokemon game in this regard. If you didn’t care for puzzles and large caverns, then this might be good news.
I personally always found puzzles to be annoying. That said, now that random battles are less of a thing with most Pokemon just roaming around and easily avoided, I actually would have had more patience for some puzzling this time around, but that didn’t happen with Sword and Shield.
You can also go ahead and just turn off battle animations after a while because they are just as barebones as they have been in recent years. Very little improvement to be seen here other than the Dynamax effects.
As far as the post-game goes, it’s very similar to previous games as in it’s geared towards nudging you towards hardcore online battling and breeding. You can take on the Battle Tower to grind out some BP for important competitive items and TMs.
It’s much easier now to get into competitive battling in-game, and you can now use items like Protein to max out your EVs and change natures via items you gain from BP.
Pokemon with at least three perfect IVs can found roaming around the Wild Area and stick out with a glowing aura that you can’t miss.
Although it’s accessible at the start of the game pretty much, the Wild Area alongside the Battle Tower is going to be a big part of Sword and Shield’s postgame for the reasons detailed throughout this review. You can also farm a new currency called Watts in the Wild Area which works similar to BP as it’s used to purchase useful items you’ll want for building a perfect Pokemon for battling.
Finally, with every Pokemon game Game Freak gets a little better at streamlining more of the game and Sword and Shield has plenty of that.
For example, Escape Ropes are now an unlimited use Key Item. Your Bike can transform into a vehicle that can cross water instantly without having to push a button. You can fast travel to more locations, cutting down on travel time within areas.
There’s just one NPC located in every Pokemon Center now that does all the move reminding, forgetting etc. and will do it as much as you want for no cost.
There are lots of little improvements like this across the board and they are all welcomed.
All in all Pokemon Sword and Shield, despite being the first core game on the Nintendo Switch, is a very typical Pokemon game. It innovates a bit, messes stuff that should have been left alone up, and leaves other things alone for better or for worse just like every generation before it.
The core gameplay though is still just as fun as ever and the addition of exciting new Pokemon, a beautiful new region, new more organized multiplayer activities, and a fun new open-area to explore help push Pokemon Sword and Shield over the edge to being a game worth picking up for any Pokemon fan.