Title: Pokemon Sword and Shield
Developer: Game Freak
Genre: Monster Collecting RPG
Available On: Nintendo Switch
Official Site: https://swordshield.pokemon.com/en-us/
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Where to Buy it: Nintendo Switch EShop
Pokemon Sword and Shield was the center of many controversies before its release, the biggest of which focused on the removal of hundreds of Pokemon from the game’s code. But despite the controversies, Sword and Shield sold over 6 million units in its first weekend available, making it the fastest-selling game in the series. While the seminal monster-catching game might have a few flaws, the addition of a few really interesting features makes a valiant attempt to make up for those flaws.
Pokemon Sword and Shield puts you in the shoes of a resident of the Galar region, a fictional area based on the real-life United Kingdom. Your best friend, named Hop, introduces you to his brother Leon who just so happens to be the Pokemon Champion of the Galar region. Leon brings you the gift of your very first Pokemon, which ignites the flame of adventure underneath you. You set off on your own journey to take on the Gym Challenge- a series of trials that will see you catching and training lots of Pokemon to gather eight Badges and take on the Champion yourself. It’s a formula that every other game in the series has followed, though Sword and Shield have added a few new wrinkles to the formula. New in this entry is the ability to Dynamax your Pokemon, which sees them growing into kaiju-style giant monsters, complete with deafening roars and unique moves to punctuate the spectacle. Some Pokemon also have the ability to Gigantimax, which is similar to Dynamax except that when the Pokemon grow in size, they also change forms rather than just growing. It’s an interesting concept, and while it’s not as engaging as Mega Evolution or Z-moves from the previous games in the series, Dynamaxing definitely gives battles in the Galar region their own flavor and style.
To speak of style, Pokemon Sword and Shield delivers in droves. While Gym battles in previous entries typically took place in private, indoors and at the end of obstacle courses; Gym battles in the Galar region are spectacles not dissimilar to World Cup Soccer matches, taking place in sold-out arenas with thousands of cheering onlookers. The stadium setting allows for both you and your league opponent to Dynamax your Pokemon without destroying anything, and the cheering fans serve to cement your position as a participant in something big and important. Outside of the stadiums the style is different but just as awe-inspiring; with large and imposing Gothic architecture looming over as you explore the cities. One of the biggest improvements in this game, however, is the character designs and customization. While you’re only given the choice of eight different character designs at the beginning of the game, the options for customization are nearly limitless. Nearly every city in the game offers new outfits to purchase, and the options for hairstyle and eye colors mean that no two players should ever have exactly the same character. You can create your own styles in this game, and it’s a refreshing upgrade over Pokemon Sun and Moon’s more limited outfit choices; though the omission of a ginger hair color is conspicuously absent, especially in a game based around the UK. People you’ll find in the world also sport their own styles, with every Gym leader and major character in the game having their own distinct look that enhances their personalities. Pokemon Sword and Shield definitely does an excellent job of invoking the style and flavor of cities in the UK- and not just in the design of its world and people, but in the designs of the new Pokemon as well.
From the very beginning of the game, the new Pokemon introduced in Sword and Shield remind you that you’re in an area based on the UK. From the humble flocks of the sheep Pokemon Wooloo to the Royal Corgi-inspired Yamper, to the cormorant Pokemon Cramorant, and the stereotypically British ghost Pokemon Sinistea; nearly every Pokemon added in this generation solidifies the English theming that the game’s going for. The three starter Pokemon- Scorbunny, Grookey, and Sobble- are fantastic additions to the game, and the new Fairy type Pokemon you can find later in the game are wonderfully cute and a must-add to any team.
Finding Pokemon to catch in this game gets much easier as well, through the addition of the game’s biggest and best new feature, the Wild Area– a wide-open field that changes dynamically according to time and day. Pokemon of a wide variety of levels wander around here, both in the grass and in the field. From the moment you first step foot into the Wild Area, there’s very little that will prevent you from exploring it in its entirety. Some areas lie behind water that’s impassable without a late-game upgrade, but the rest of the area is open to you to explore. The limiting factor, however, is that the level of Pokemon you can catch is limited based upon the number of Badges you’ve earned. The Wild Area also has Pokemon Dens, which will light up and allow you and three of your friends (or random players) to battle a Dynamaxed Pokemon in a Max Raid Battle, for some fantastic rewards and an opportunity to catch those Pokemon. The Wild Area and Raid Battles are an awesome addition to the game and show the developers have a great idea of the potential for online interaction in the series.
Pokemon Sword and Shield also has some phenomenal music, my favorite being the Gym Battle theme. The song has a lot of Eurobeat club music inspiration, and when someone is down to one Pokemon, the entire arena erupts into cheers of “DYNAMAX”; if one of the players’ own Pokemon faints a hush washes over the arena, and it’s just an absolutely fantastic implementation of dynamic music in exactly the area that needs it most. Toby Fox of Undertale fame actually composed a song for this game as well, and it fits perfectly for where it’s included. Every piece of music in this game is inspired, fun, and evocative of the area in which it plays. It’s a soundtrack that I find myself listening to outside of the game, just because it’s that good.
While the aesthetics of Pokemon Sword and Shield form a cohesive package, there are definitely some areas where the game falls significantly shorter than it should. The Wild Area, as innovative as it is, has a hard time running consistently if you’re connected to the internet- dropping frames, skipping around, and lagging while doing nothing more than just walking forward. Performance in the rest of the game is fine aside from some small rough patches, but the Wild Area is one of the most glaring deficiencies the game has. Another issue is in regards to the overall story- mainly the fact that you play almost zero part in it. As a participant in the Gym Challenge, you’ll hear about lots of events happening adjacent to the Challenge but will participate in none of them. Other characters in the story will discover cool things or stop events from occurring, but you’ll only experience them in the past-tense; the most egregious moment being late in the game when something happens with a significant impact to the plot, but you only hear about it through a screenshot of someone’s mobile phone, showing you the outcome. You’re not an active participant in the story and it feels a bit cheap.
The Gym Challenge also feels a bit lackluster. There’s a moment in the late game where you’ll do three gyms back-to-back, with the option of not even taking a break. It makes the back half of the game feel rushed and incomplete. Add on to this the fact that the maps and environments outside of the towns are small and lack many features, and the game feels a bit empty as a result. There are no dungeons in this game on the scale of anything from previous games, and all the caves and routes are almost exclusively straight lines with a handful of trainer battles in them, and it feels disappointing to not have anything to really sink your teeth into aside from the Wild Area.
While there have been criticisms in regards to the game’s animations, those criticisms are only half true. In battle, there are only a handful of animations that really fit the attacks. Your choice of starter Pokemon has a signature move with a unique animation, but the rest of them are just a few generic animations with a particle effect. Particularly egregious are moves like Scorbunny learning Sucker Punch, in which he does a kick animation to hit the other Pokemon. Other moves such as Tail Whip leave the Pokemon in an idle animation and instead scale and rotate the model, making the moves have less impact and emotion. With that said, however, animations outside of battle are creative and fun. Going camping with your Pokemon in the Wild Area will show them playing together, running in circles, racing, or even dozing off. You can play with them by throwing a ball or wiggling a feather toy, and each Pokemon has its own unique set of animations for each of these actions. Another moment found at the beginning of the game shows Grookey, Scorbunny and Sobble interacting and playing together, but an animation of this quality is not shown again throughout the entire game. The lack of certain animations in battle feels a bit cheap but doesn’t detract from one of the strongest features of the game- the battles themselves.
In previous games in the series, the AI for Trainer Battles and Gym Leaders were more reactionary- send out a grass-type Pokemon, and the opposing trainer will typically use a Fire-type move, even if it’s not the best possible option. In Sword and Shield, trainers use a wide variety of moves- including those that inflict status ailments or change the weather of the arena- to set up combinations with either other moves in that Pokemon’s arsenal or even a Pokemon that hasn’t been sent out yet. I found myself getting tricked multiple times by a Pokemon having type coverage that it wouldn’t normally have in previous games, and it made the late-game fights tense and exciting. The post-game Battle Tower takes this concept and amps it up to eleven; with even the first battle in the Tower being tougher than any single fight found in the rest of the game.
Verdict: Pokemon Sword and Shield is a game that has engaging and fantastic moments, but is held back by all of the technical shortcomings and developmental shortcuts that were taken. It genuinely feels like the game came out six months too soon; with some additional development time and a more engaging storyline (that I could actually participate in and not be a bystander), Sword and Shield could have been the very best game in the entire series. As it stands right now, it’s a great game marred by some poor design decisions that still manages to be just as addicting as the rest of the games in the series.
- Engaging and fun Pokemon battles
- Amazing character customization
- Phenomenal music
- Shallow storyline
- Back half of the game feels rushed
- Some animations feel lazy