Three years in the making, Pokèmon Sword and Shield – also known as the eighth generation of Pokémon releases – mark one of the most significant steps Game Freak and the Pokémon Company have taken with the series in a long while: their first time releasing a mainline Pokémon title on a home console. This latest entry into the long-running series does have a multitude of flaws when it comes to graphics and missing content, but in spite of those issues it still stands very strongly as a Pokémon experience, offering something for casual and competitive players alike.
In essence, Sword and Shield are typical Pokémon titles: the player and their rival set out around the Galar region, building their rosters and taking on eight Gym leaders along their journey. You still put together a team of six Pokémon at a time and you still win a badge from every gym, and it’s still an enjoyable experience – hence why Game Freak hasn’t changed the formula in more than two decades – but of course, every new Pokémon release brings a couple of minor alterations and Sword and Shield are no exception.
The most significant of these changes happens in the overworld, where players will find random wild Pokémon encounters considerably rarer. This is because wild Pokémon roam the overworld rather than simply materialising out of nowhere, and you can choose to avoid them if you want (or need) to; it not only meant that I felt a lot more free when exploring the Galar region, but it also looked quite nice as an added bonus. The other major change is in the end-game, where Sword and Shield replace the tried-and-true Elite Four concept with a Champion Cup, where players will take on other trainers and Gym Leaders they’ve beaten for the chance to take a shot at the Pokémon Champion.
As with every other new region, the Galar region features a number of brand-new Pokémon that are interesting, unique and memorable. I made a point of using only new Pokémon — and new regional variants of older Pokémon — during my first playthrough (of what is sure to be many), and found my experience thoroughly rewarding. Players like myself, who ignored and avoided the leaks, will also appreciate the surprise of encountering brand-new Pokémon and also evolving some of the ones Nintendo, Game Freak and the Pokémon Company introduced in the pre-release campaign. Unfortunately, I did find myself questioning why these new Pokémon didn’t appear as frequently in the overworld as older ones; I understand that some Pokémon need to be rarer than others, but in a new Pokémon game (especially one with a significantly smaller Pokédex), it’s disappointing that Game Freak didn’t opt to put some more emphasis on the newer monsters.
Pokémon Sword and Shield also feature a new experience called the Wild Area, a huge open-world region filled with various Pokémon, NPCs and traders that I found myself returning to multiple times just to explore and have some fun. Although the area can feel a little empty despite the amount of people and Pokémon running around, there’s a certain thrill to be found when you go into battle against a Pokémon that’s much stronger than yours and come out on top. Again, though, although new Pokémon are common within the Wild Area, they don’t appear any more frequently than the older Pokémon; given how many older monsters there are in comparison to the newer ones, it’s disappointing to see that Game Freak didn’t even put a slightly higher spawn rate on the newer monsters.
Pokémon Sword and Shield have also followed in the footsteps of the past couple of generations by introducing a new battle mechanic. It’s called Dynamax, and it allows players to make their Pokémon bigger for three turns, giving them access to powerful moves with secondary effects that offer a range of options for both competitive and casual play. I found this mechanic to be more enjoyable than I expected; although it seems like it might be little more than a gimmick, the turn limits and the inability to just Dynamax whenever I felt like it made the times I could do so even more fun. It feels a lot more balanced than Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves, which first appeared in Pokémon X and Y and Pokémon Sun and Moon respectively — in fact, it feels like a blend of the two.
The Dynamax mechanic gets its chance to shine in the Wild Area as well; a group of up to four players can team up to take part in Max Raid battles against a Dynamax Pokémon. Unlike your own Pokémon, however, Max Raid bosses don’t revert to their original forms after three turns. On top of that, they can occasionally attack twice in a row, which makes them extremely challenging to take on. These battles were a great aside from the main story, especially since you can often find rare, high-level Pokémon on offer which makes team-building that much easier.
The final new addition to the series is Pokémon Camp. I didn’t use the feature all that much myself, but I’m sure that there are plenty of players out there who will enjoy the curry-making minigame and playing with their Pokémon. I did find myself laughing at some of my Pokémon’s reactions when they played in the Camp, but I couldn’t find myself getting motivated to use the feature outside of boosting my friendships with Pokémon that required that to evolve.
Pokémon Sword and Shield’s main story and gameplay are challenging, but by no means overly difficult. Game Freak’s decision to force the Exp. Share onto players may be somewhat controversial, but the developer accounted for this by adjusting trainer and wild Pokémon levels accordingly. Although I didn’t feel like I had to stick around and grind for XP at all throughout the story, I did find some occasions where I was underleveled despite having the Exp. Share active; that wasn’t a problem, though, because it created an extra challenge. If players do find the main quest too easy, though, one recommendation would be to reduce your usage of healing items — the game gives them out quite liberally.
When compared to previous generations’ focus on preventing an evil corporation from taking over the Pokémon world, Pokémon Sword and Shield’s focus on the Gym Challenge and Champion Cup is a welcome addition that feels like a reference to the series’ roots while also helping to freshen it up. The Elite Four was always a challenge, but the Champion Cup feels like you’re actually competing against other characters to become the Champion, rather than being the only one doing so. It adds a layer of intrigue to the whole end-game, which is very, very welcome.
Of course, Pokémon Sword and Shield do include a main antagonist, but they contribute to the storyline being one of the weakest I’ve seen in the whole mainline Pokémon series. They’re very predictable from the get-go, you just know that you’ll have to face off against them eventually, but after a week of gameplay I still can’t figure out exactly why they behave the way they do. It’s perplexing and rather disappointing coming from the same studio that brought us Pokémon Black and White’s N. Post-game content is also somewhat lacking: after a very strong end-game with the Champion Cup, you gain access to the Battle Tower and some post-game content (the typical Master Ball acquisition and Legendary Pokémon hunting, as well as Rare League Cards acquired from the Gyms you’ve beaten), but we’re still yet to see anything that comes close to Pokémon Emerald’s Battle Frontier. The post-game feels short and, once you’ve completed it, there’s very little to keep drawing you into the game aside from the competitive battling aspect and completing the Pokédex.
Having said that, Sword and Shield are easily some of the most accessible games when it comes to competitive battling. The Dynamax mechanic adds a range of strategic possibilities as noted earlier, and the more limited Pokédex — a real sore spot for much of the Pokémon fanbase — make it a little more challenging to build a competitive roster. The new Mints allow you to change a Pokémon’s nature, while bottle caps allow you to maximise their Individual Values and Vitamins can be used more than ten times, eliminating the need for repetitive, tedious breeding. I haven’t built my competitive team just yet, but I’m excited by the possibility of doing so. Sword and Shield’s greatest strength lies in its social aspect, and its competitive battling scene has a very bright future indeed.
Sword and Shield have plenty of strengths, but they have considerable weaknesses as well, some which warrant more criticism than others. One thing that I simply don’t understand is Game Freak’s decision to abandon the Global Trade Station, a marketplace-like system that allowed players to offer their Pokémon in exchange for Pokémon that met certain criteria. The rumour mill suggests that the GTS is set to be implemented in Pokémon Home, but removing it from the actual games is borderline unforgivable. Without a GTS, players are unable to complete trades online without being subjected to negotiation, which is not good at all.
Additionally, Pokémon Sword and Shield are without question the best-looking Pokémon games of all time, but there are some areas where the graphics look more sloppy than anything else. Some of the older moves look quite dated, and it would have been nice to see a bit of a refresh for these home console releases. The games don’t look awful by any means — some parts of the Galar region are absolutely breathtaking — but I had a persistent feeling that they could have looked a whole hell of a lot better. With that being said, this is Game Freak’s first attempt at developing a Pokémon title on a home console, for the bigger screen, so I’m willing to let that pass. It’s going to take some time before the series reaches the lofty graphical standards the rest of the industry is setting, but that’s okay.
It’s also difficult to discuss Pokémon Sword and Shield without addressing the #Dexit controversy — the fact that Game Freak cut nearly 60% of the National Dex from Sword and Shield. Nobody is happy with that decision, of course, but its impact on the game as a whole is somewhat exaggerated for two reasons: it’s not going to affect your main story playthrough, because Pokémon transfers are typically locked until you’ve completed the main story anyway; and I’m happy to believe producer Junichi Masuda’s claim that it was necessary to help with balancing issues. Of course, every Pokémon is someone’s favourite, but the mass omission encourages players to try something new and come up with new strategies. Some players will be hurt by Dexit more than others, and that’s fine, but I didn’t find it to be a major issue once I played the game, and I suspect that many others will be in a similar position.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are by no means perfect, even as Pokémon games in a vacuum, but they offer an enjoyable play experience that’s sure to delight long-term fans and new ones alike. Although they leave something to be desired graphically, and the Pokédex is considerably smaller than it was in past releases, the changes Game Freak has made to some of the series’ core mechanics are sure to offset that by providing an enjoyable experience.
They’re not perfect, but Pokémon Sword and Shield are sure to delight new and old fans alike with a series of well thought-out, well-implemented changes to the core Pokémon formula.
Luke reviewed Pokémon Sword and Shield using a copy of Pokèmon Shield purchased at retail.