If there’s one thing everyone knows about Pokémon Sword and Shield is that they have been talked about. They have been talked about a lot. Whether it’s the controversy surrounding the omission of individual Pokémon or a tree that looks a bit too low-res for people’s tastes, chatter about these games has been incessant since their announcement.
Fans are undeniably divided in a manner that will probably fall into history extremely quickly, but what it all comes down to are these two games; are they good? Are they bad? Do they have both good and bad points because nothing is inherently perfect or inherently worthless? Spoiler alert: it's the latter one, but let’s talk about why.
Starting off in Pokémon Sword And Shield is about as 'Pokémon' as it gets; you’re a young-ish child who’s been tasked with going off on the adventure of a lifetime surrounded by small creatures that do your bidding because that's what they’ve been programmed to do. It’s nothing you’ve not seen before if you’ve played a Pokémon game. This time, however, you’re in the largely idyllic Galar region, which is inspired directly by the United Kingdom, complete with the green and pleasant lands that undeniably remind us of dear old Blighty. You meet up with the first of your several rivals Hop, and you get yourself a Pokémon from his philanthropic brother Leon, who just so happens to be this region’s Champion.
There’s a lot of classic hallmarks here, but it’s sprinkled with a few interesting (if potentially inconsequential) differences, such as the Pokémon that neither you nor Hop picks at the start being taken by the Champion rather than being sent to the processing plant to make more candy in Pokémon GO. This last-chicken-in-the-shop also happens to be the monster that’s super effective against your own choice, which instinctively filled us with a sense of dread and anticipation thinking about when we’d have to face up against them.
What’s also new in Pokémon Sword And Shield is the hands-off approach to tutorials; the game does offer to explain things to you through dialogue options, but if you tell the game you’re already hard enough to tackle the swathes of level 2 monsters living just outside your house without any guidance, it’ll just let you be on your way, with the mysteries of the Pokémon type strength / weakness relationship for you to fathom largely on your own. Considering how massive the franchise is, this is a very welcome breath of fresh air for series veterans and certainly seems to streamline the introductory part of the game.
After a bit of chatter, a few new characters and a bit of wandering through tall grass, you’re finally let loose on the big selling point of the whole thing: the Wild Area. This is an expanse of grassland, water, and other bits and bobs that house myriad different Pokémon and (gasp) a controllable camera. It’s kind of silly just how much we appreciated this feature, and highlighted to us just how far behind Pokémon was in certain specific regards in comparison to other modern game series. This is something that we were sadly reminded of time and time again, but we’ll get onto that in more detail later on.
At first glance, we were totally enamoured with Pokémon Sword And Shield's much-hyped new Wild Area. It’s big! It’s full of Pokémon! Oooh, there’s things we can’t yet reach! We were filled with a sense of joy and wonder the likes of which we’d not felt in a Pokémon game for a long time; this is really new, and seeing all the countless varieties of Pokémon actually rustling around in the tall grass in front of our eyes (just like in the Pokémon Let’s Go games) makes it feel like we're in a world that’s alive and rich with character. Our task was to get to the other side of the Wild Area and enter the next town, which we did… a little too quickly, for our liking. After taking a good look at the map we realised that the Wild Area was just one point on the map, and as soon as we left it we were once again greeted with the same rigid routes and grassy patches (with the same wandering Pokémon, thankfully) that have been the series staple for so long.
After returning to the Wild Area, we discovered that it does, in fact, stretch about twice as far as we initially thought, which was a huge relief, but when playing through the rest of the story we kept returning to the Wild Area even though we didn’t really need to, just because it’s where we wanted to be. Hideously powerful Pokémon such as a level 50 Steelix were all just there, completely beyond our skill level but perfectly accessible, teasing us with an unimaginable EXP boost if only we could fell it. It’s exciting, endearing, and tantalising to see such overpowered monsters out in the open; we just wish it could’ve been a more integral part of the experience. Not that we could catch these powerful monsters even if we wanted to, because with so many strong Pokémon accessible so early, things had to be changed to make sure you weren’t able to blitz through things too quickly – and it’s all thanks to gyms.
The gyms are back, and bigger than ever. In the good old days, gym battles were humble affairs between you and a trainer who had somehow convinced everyone else that they’re ultra-powerful despite having only three Pokémon all under level 30. Now, these contests are preceded by challenges, which can be fairly simple and traditional or completely bonkers, such as herding Wooloo whilst avoiding a ‘ferocious’ Yamper.
These are generally quite enjoyable, save for one which is an absolute stinker in our eyes (we'll let you find out which one), but the real spectacle is once you’ve done all the nonsense and you’re ready to take on the Gym Leader proper. Stepping into the massive area is something we didn’t really appreciate when seen in trailers and the like, but doing it for real, it really was a gripping experience; one that we thought would dull as we nailed Leader after Leader, but instead the stakes became ever higher, and hearing the crowds chant and cheer really gives a gravity to the situation. Beat them, and you’ll be able to catch higher level Pokémon than you could before. Sneaky.
Then there’s Dynamaxing, the new gimmick slapped all over the promotional stuff where your Pokémon gets ludicrously big for a few turns. In truth, we weren’t bowled over by the idea as it seemed nothing more than a rather unsubtle means of getting fans excited about ballooned 'mon. Colour us surprised, then, when we started using it in Gyms (you can’t use it in normal encounters, only very specific ones) and actually ended up having a really good time with it. It's a mechanic that's not going to set the world on fire by any means, and realistically, we can’t see it becoming a staple of the series for years to come, but for what it is, it’s really good fun. It’s likely due to the atmosphere, crowds of people going absolutely ballistic when it happens, and the fact that you can’t do it most of the time, but for our money as a little addition, it does its job better than we’d hoped.
It does add a small amount of tactical variation as well; when you Dynamax a Pokémon, all the moves they had before keep their type, but lose all additional effects such as poisoning and lowering stats, meaning your Dynamaxed ‘mon becomes nothing more than an all-out powerhouse – which isn’t always what you want, so some consideration is needed. The only exception to this is a move called Max Guard, which is basically Protect for big boys and girls, with the same chance of failing if used repeatedly. As we said before, it’s not revolutionary, but for what it is, Dynamaxing is a lot more fun than we expected.
What goes on between the Gym battles though, that’s a bit of a mixed bag. The routes we mentioned before that have been a part of the series since the beginning are a little more vertical and windy than we're used to, but apart from that, there’s almost nothing to write home about in this respect. What’s more, you’ll be hounded by NPCs during the story that want to talk to you for a few moments, walk on ahead a few metres, and then want to talk to you again, mixing up the pace in a way that we didn’t appreciate.
Too many times we were so close to just mashing through the text that if we hadn’t had the job of reviewing the game, we probably would have. To make things worse, all this discourse is extremely basic and uninteresting; characters just bob their heads and flap their mouths repeatedly, or pivot on the spot by using a walking animation. It’s all stuff that would be fine on something as limited as the 3DS, but we’re talking about a console that is significantly more capable than that, and as a result, Pokémon Sword And Shield feels a tad out of place and rigid – especially when compared to other games on Switch. There are a handful of fully-animated cutscenes that, by contrast, look really good, but a solid 90% of the time it’s all just the same old chatting we explained prior, and it’s a real shame. Given the leap up to more powerful hardware, we really had high hopes that Game Freak could take the series to a new level in this regard.
What else is there? Well, you can access your Pokémon Boxes anytime you like when you’re not in a battle or a Gym, which is hugely appreciated. You can also make a Pokémon remember a move, forget a move, or just change its name in any Pokémon Centre in Galar, rather than flying to someone’s specific house on a specific route. It’s also free, meaning you’re much more able to mix things up and try out new ideas without fear of ‘messing things up’; these are small changes, but extremely welcome ones. You can also make use of your Poké Ball Plus if you have one, slapping any one of your many 'mon inside it to carry it around in the real world for a bit, and earn some in-game items at the same time. It's not much, but considering the accessory's rather hefty price tag, it's nice to see that it's still compatible in these newer titles.
You can also set up camp with your party at any time (besides in battles and Gyms like with the Boxes). You can play with your Pokémon, talk at them, and most importantly, cook curry with them. Yes, by tossing a handful of Berries and potentially even a special ingredient into a pot of endless sauce, you can cook up one of a colossal number of curries to feed to yourself and your Pokémon. If you’re good at it, you can not only heal your party and make them like you more, but also grant them experience points and restore PP. It’s a bit like having a portable Pokémon Centre with you at all times, which is especially helpful out in the Wild Area. It takes time, but due to the practically endless possible combinations at your disposal, it’s actually quite rewarding.
There’s also the inevitable slew of new Pokémon and moves as well. We’re not going to name any names to keep things spoiler-free, but overall, the new selection of Pokémon is really solid. There are a handful of less-interesting examples, but the vast majority are pretty chuffing lovely in our eyes. What makes them even more interesting is the fact that they were kept a secret in all the pre-release info. Yes, we knew about certain ones of course (and the leaks didn't help), but there’s little better in life than finding a Pokémon that you’ve literally never seen before, learning its ins-and-outs, and waiting to see if it evolves, and into what. We can’t express enough how much more enjoyable this made finding Galar’s new creatures.
All right, it’s about time we addressed the Donphan in the room, the lack of a National Pokédex in Pokémon Sword And Shield. Yes, it’s true that not every Pokémon available in previous games will be present in Galar, or even usable in the game, and if recent interviews are anything to go by, they never will be. Considering the fact that every game prior has at least been able to house all previous generations – even if they’re not actually present in the game and require external services – this is a big blow, and in our eyes couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Pokémon series is finally being pushed onto the big screen with its core games, running on the most powerful hardware it’s ever had access to, and yet we lose a whole chunk of the roster in the process. It’s a sad state of affairs, we’re not going to lie.
And then there’s the other small issue, and that’s graphics and performance. This is quite difficult to pin down, as there are certain instances where Pokémon Sword And Shield looks and runs great. This is usually in battles, where the highly-detailed Pokémon models pop out of the screen at what our eyes estimate to be a cracking 1080p and at a very solid 30fps, for the most part. Camping is a particular highlight, with your party ‘mon running up to you in all their high-tri-count glory, with a shallow depth of field producing a very pleasing bokeh effect behind them; it’s moments like this that remind you that yes, this is proper mainline Pokémon game running on your Switch, and it's glorious.
Disappointingly, there are just as many moments when things look (not wishing to put too fine a point on it) really quite underwhelming. The Wild Area, for all its mechanical prowess and deliciousness, can look pretty plain and basic for a Switch game, and there are even moments of noticeable frame rate drops around here as well. As we mentioned previously, most dialogue sequences are stiffly animated, and many towns are woefully underpopulated and barren. What’s even worse is these underpopulated town centres are also prone to drastic frame rate drops, for some bizarre reason. It’s nothing that impacts the overall experience, and many people likely won't care at all, but for us, it's a little disappointing given the Switch's potential.
What's far from disappointing however is the game's soundtrack. Sweet groggily goodness, this is a spicy set of jingles we have here. Everything from the town themes to the piercing bagpipes heard in the Wild Area is absolutely tip-top, but the real cream of the crop is the Gym Battles. Once again, the care and attention put into these iconic battles is heightened even further by a thumping, bass-heavy string of tunes that add real feeling into every moment. Combine this with the crowds joining in ARMS-style as the Leader's final Pokémon takes its stand, and you've got a recipe for a serious adrenaline rush.
Remember Dynamaxing? That thing we mentioned earlier and said can only happen in Gym Battles? Well we lied – you can also take on giganto-mon in Max Raid Battles, which pit you and three other trainers from the real world (or the made-up world) against a Pokémon that would be too big to fit on a 3DS. These are quite different to normal battles and can be tricky to complete within the limited time frame. This is mainly because not only are these Pokémon hench, but they can also erect shields to protect themselves and attack multiple times in a turn. They hit so hard that they can often body any of your team in a single hit, which means your only option is to hit back just as hard. Thankfully, you can do that by Dynamaxing your Pokémon as well. Only one person can do so – and only once – and with the same three-turn limit that your opponent is not restricted by. If you manage to defeat it, you can catch it, and considering these are often rare (or even exclusive to Max Raid Battles), it’s well worth your time taking them on. Max Raids prove to be a fun little challenge and give the game a social element, much like that seen in Pokémon GO.
Pokémon Sword and Shield succeed in bringing some new ideas to the table, but they’re also somewhat guilty of not pushing things far enough. What’s done right is done right, but what’s done wrong feels like it’s come from a decade-old design document. There are moments contained within that are best the series has ever been, but this joy is at times spoiled by contrasting moments that left us disappointed and did not match up to the rest of what the rest of these games can offer. What we've got here is an experience full of highs and lows, from the unadulterated wonder and joy of seeing a brand-new Pokémon in a stadium full of cheering crowds, to the monotonous and dragged-out dialogue we just wanted to skip. The wonders of exploring the Wild Area feels like the true evolution of the series, but even this brave stride forward is balanced out by the inclusion of restrictive and boring Routes from games of old. The niggling issues are impossible to ignore, then, but on the whole, Pokémon Sword and Shield are a solid start to the HD generation of Pokémon games, but there's ample room for improvement with the next outing.