Pokemon Sword and Shield Review
Treading familiar grounds
As a child, you rarely accept media for what it is, which makes returning to it later in life so difficult. Some things hold up, but so much of what you play, watch, and read is heightened by your young imagination. Then, when you return, years later, it might feel like a letdown. I can’t believe the low-poly graphics of Resident Evil scared me. How did I ever think these spandex outfits looked cool? I spent a lot of my time playing Pokémon Sword and Shield, reckoning with my childhood. I remember those early games being transcendent. The idea of traveling the countryside, capturing these wild monsters, then traveling to towns to battle Pokémon masters, it was the kind of whimsy that enchanted a young version of myself. I fell off of Pokémon around the GameBoy Advanced versions. I mean, no one really falls off Pokémon - it’s been a cultural touchstone for Millennials since the late ’90s - but I stopped playing every entry in the series, my most recent experience being Pokémon X and Y.
This is all meant to provide context for myself and the franchise. And because of my distance, when I first thought of Pokémon coming to console I imagined something close to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 - crisp, cell-shaded anime models against beautifully rendered photo-real environments. In retrospect, that might have been unfair, and ever since Nintendo first tipped their hand at what developer Game Freak has been making, it’s been clear that a much more modest upgrade for the franchise is what was envisioned. But even compartmentalizing how Pokémon Sword and Shield looks, as someone returning to the core franchise after a long hiatus, I was baffled by how little has changed.
In some ways, I get it. The franchise reinvented the JRPG is a profound way, creating a near-perfect reimagining of the formula over twenty years ago - and not messing with a formula is basically a Nintendo motto at this point. Sword and Shield did rekindle a child-like wonder in me, as I roamed the world, capturing well-designed pocket monsters, but it also made me a little sad. Aside from some quality of life changes, like the fact that game now communicates the effectiveness of an attack based on whether you’ve captured or battled that Pokémon before, so you’re not required to memorize every single one. Also, XP share is now on by default from the beginning of the game, making sure that all of the Pokémon in your party are leveling up from fights. But aside from some gameplay tweaks, did this storied franchise really have nothing else to say? Is moving from a small screen in your hands to a big screen in your living room enough of a jump to warrant such stagnation in the series? I enjoyed my time with Pokémon Sword and Shield, but I was constantly left wondering, “Is this it?”
You begin the game creating your character, choosing their gender, skin tone, and name. Your character is the best friend of Hop, whose brother, Leon, is the undefeated champion of the Galar region Pokémon League. Upon Leon’s return home from an exhibition match, he brings three Pokémon, of which you and Hop get to choose one. You then begin your journey across the area, competing in the Gym Challenge which requires you to defeat eight gym leaders to qualify for a tournament that will get you into the finals. While you traverse the Galar region, you begin to uncover its mythical history and the powerful characters who control its fate.
The dialogue is bad, even by the standards of a children’s game. Your best friend is insufferable through the first half of the game, though he does get better in the back half. The rest of the cast is serviceable. The story itself is uneven. The act of battling through the Gym Challenge and working your way to the finals is interesting enough on its own, I didn’t really need the inserted exposition of the Galar Region - though there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the character of Chairman Rose, which would be interesting if it was better written. Game Freak isn’t known for their deep characters or thrilling narratives, and Sword/Shield isn’t looking to change that. Which is fine.
The actual act of traveling and catching Pokémon is plenty of fun without narrative hooks or insightful characters. Again, the design of Pokémon is so old at this point, it’s easy to take for granted, but the way the world is pieced together and the way the game is structured to slowly level up your Pokémon while capturing new ones is still brilliant. During the 25-30 hours of the story, I found myself stopping along every route to catch every Pokémon I could, filling out my Pokédex in a satisfying way. There’s a strong gameplay loop as you pop into towns to rest your Pokémon and change them out. Then you’ll stock up on supplies, get a little story, maybe fight a gym leader, and then hit the road again to level up and catch more. It makes it feel less like a grind and more like an adventure.
The end-game is when things tend to get more brutal. After you’ve saved the Galar region and battle the champion there’s less of a linear line of progression, and more of you trying to find any Pokémon worth fighting/capturing. The momentum is halted and this part of the game seems to separate the die-hards who are looking to pour close to a hundred hours into the game, and those who are just looking to take in the main content.
A new feature to Sword and Shield is the Wild Area, an open-world section of the game where you can wander and collect Pokémon. It’s pretty underwhelming - more akin to Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time than it is to Breath of the Wild. Much like the linear routes, you will still predictably find the same under-leveled Pokémon in the same spaces, though there are some stronger Pokémon who are just wandering around. I found a Pokémon nursery, you can do biking challenges, and it’s here you’ll find Pokémon Dens to raid, but there’s hardly enough content to really make it feel substantial. It feels like Game Freak knew the expectation of this game would be a wide, open-world to explore, but they couldn’t come up with a way to make it interesting.
The actual fighting occurs much as it has in previous games through a series of menus, allowing you to pick the attacks of your Pokémon, using special items from your bag, and swapping out your Pokémon from your party. The biggest change to the actual battles is the Dynamax and Gigantamax abilities which allow Pokémon to grow to the size of buildings while battling each other. You can use the Dynamax ability at any time when fighting in a place that is big enough to sustain your Pokémon being giant-sized (usually in stadiums), improving their HP and damage. Pokémon can only Dynamax once per match and can only hold the Dynamax for three rounds. It becomes a bit of a cat and mouse game because if you trigger your Dynamax too early and your opponent weathers your powerful Pokémon, you’re left vulnerable to your opponent using the ability. It’s definitely a cool idea, though it doesn’t revolutionize battles. Trainers seem to always use it at the same time and it doesn’t really change the core of the game, which is learning what types of Pokémon are a good counter for others and exploiting weaknesses.
The whole point of fighting Pokémon in the wild is to catch them, but I found this part of the game frustrating after the half-way point. I tried multiple different strategies and Pokéballs, but some Pokémon are infuriatingly difficult to capture, even when brought down to a sliver of life and using the best ball available. I usually just moved on, not willing to spend a half-hour of my day cycling through the same menus, playing a numbers game; but for completionists, it’s going to be a pain point.
Outside of battle, there are a few other ways to level your Pokémon. First are Poke Jobs, which allow the players to send their Pokémon off on requested assignments for a few hours or a whole day, allowing them to level up without having to actually be in your party. It is a good idea and a way to avoid having to keep a lower-level Pokémon in your party to level up through the osmosis of battles they’re under-leveled for, but I never saw a huge return on these jobs, so eventually I lost the incentive to engage with them. A more enjoyable experience is camping, where you set up a camp and let your party of Pokémon run free. You can play with them using a little feathered cat toy or by throwing a ball. What’s more fun, is watching the Pokémon play with each other. They might race each other or interact in other ways. You can also stop playing and cook them curry using different berries for flavors and main ingredients for texture. I wish it was a little more fleshed out, but it’s such a nice way to break up the gameplay, and I loved watching my little team wander the camp.
There are also new multiplayer components. Players can participate in the aforementioned multiplayer raids, much like in Pokémon Go, working together to defeat a Dynamaxed Pokemon and then capturing it to add to their roster. You can also play competitive multiplayer in casual or ranked matches, or join a multi-day competition. The best I could say is that all of this is fine. The multiplayer raids are a nice way to catch new Pokémon and probably the highlight of the multiplayer and if you don’t want to play with others, AI trainers can join you. The versus mode is frustrating and feels like something that is better geared towards the hardcore fanbase. You can choose Pokémon from your roster, but they are all set to level 50, which makes the matches more about the kind of skills your Pokémon have as opposed to what kind of Pokémon they are. The matchmaking is limited and I couldn’t find a satisfying hook to keep playing versus other people. It feels like another instance where the online play in a Nintendo game is lacking.
The game looks disappointing. I’ve been trying to temper my expectations since seeing the first presentation and playing the game at E3, but even then it’s just subpar. What’s really damning is that there are moments when the game looks great. Certain animations, like when a Dynamax Pokémon is defeated or a cutscene near the game’s finale, are enchanting. A few of the attacks have impressive animations that make you wince when you’re on the receiving end. But for the most part, the animations are static and repeated until you’re sick of them. The world itself is often filled with low-res visuals and certain towns look too similar. Even when you come to a town with a unique look, there’s very little you can actually do there. The best element to the visuals is that you can buy clothes and change the look of your characters, but even here, the options are still limited, especially when it comes to hairstyles.
Even sound-wise the game is a bit of a letdown. There are a couple of standout themes when you’re battling in the stadium, but I found most of the music to be forgettable. The lack of voice-over work is embarrassing for a game of Pokémon's size; even the sound effects of the Pokémon feel uninspired. A lot of these design choices are in keeping with the series’ past, but when you bring a game to home console, it’s not unreasonable to have some higher expectations.
Sword and Shield is pretty solid when it comes to tech. Like many of the staple Nintendo franchises, it’s a smooth experience with almost no issues in terms of frame rate or load times. It snaps along quickly, likely a product of the low-stakes presentation. More importantly, I found the online play to be a good experience as well. There were a few times when loading up commands was longer than expected, but I was never put off by the online experience.
The core of Pokémon remains intact with Sword and Shield, and fans of the series are likely to find plenty to love about the game. What has always been great about Pokémon continues to be great here and I loved catching and nurturing my favorite little monsters into a devastating team of power. The charm, whimsy, and fantasy of the series, which has been its strength since I first played the series as a child is all right at home on the Nintendo Switch. Still, that same inner-child can’t help but be disappointed that he hasn’t seen the Pokémon he imagined those years ago, the one that seemed inevitable as the series came to consoles.