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Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield – Review

8

It’s a tale as old as time: You receive your first Pokémon, head out on a journey across the country in pursuit of becoming the very best like no one ever was.

For better or worse. I don’t think there’s been a Pokémon sequel quite as talked about as Pokémon Sword and Shield. The first mainline games on the Nintendo Switch mark the franchises’ 8th generation of collectible monster catching- with it, plenty of expectations.

Amid complaints of a decreased roster and a split dev team, how exactly does the game hold up? Read on and find out.

Design

The Pokémon series has always been highly iterative, with each game taking small steps forward to improve every game. Likewise, Sword and Shield are probably some of the most polished games with plenty of small animation fixes, as well as a stellar soundtrack.

The game’s main feature, the Wild Area, is also gorgeous. As a wide-open field teeming with wild Pokémon, this area is the centrepiece of the game. My main criticism with the Wild Area, however, is a weirdly low drop distance that can cause trees to seemingly pop into frame.

My main gripe with Sword And Shield’s design would have to be the look of the new Pokémon. While nitpicking the new Pokémon is sort of a tradition among older fans, it remains worth saying that many of the new Pokémon’s designs have lost a lot of the Pokémon appeal in favor of either generically cute designs or sort-of “meme” designs.

Despite that, this is still one of the strongest games in the series from a visual standpoint. Even the small addition of an emoting face on your player character goes a long way to making the story feel great, and an overall better experience.

Gameplay

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If you’ve ever enjoyed a Pokémon game, it’s safe to say you’ll enjoy Sword and Shield. The tried-and-true turn-based battles are the same as they ever were, though with some caveats.

The addition of trainer quips is a great touch for gym battles, adding plenty of flavor to big story moments as NPCs comment on your ability to land crits or super-effective hits. The chance to cut to their reactions is also great for selling the tension of the gym battles.

The removal of some moves from previous games has left the individual Pokémon’s learning process feeling quite sloggish, as many Pokémon simply aren’t learning enough moves and will go levels retaining the same moveset.

The Big New Thing

So the new gimmick for Sword and Shield is Dynamax, which kind of combines Mega Evolution and Z moves into something wholly unremarkable where your Pokémon gets big and has its moves replaced.

One issue I have with Dynamax is that it adds this layer of artificial difficulty to the Gym fights, as all the Gym leaders who use it will essentially always take some Pokémon off your team. Rather than risk your beater getting knocked out it’s safer to wait out the clock until the Dynamax wears off and just take the win there.

There’s also the issue of Gigantamaxing, the poorly-explained mechanic where some Pokémon get a kind-of mega evolution in Dynamax mode. Special individual Pokémon in a species need to have this ability, meaning if you really want a G-max Pokémon you may have to abandon the one you’ve already trained up.

On the plus side though, Dynamax does fix several of my gripes with the previous gimmicks- it’s available from the start of the game unlike Mega Evolution, and can only be used in “power spots” which are almost always story-dependent or in raids.

Unlike Z moves, Dynamax/Gigantamax are infinitely less flashy, and come with way less indulgent animations. The special moves you get are still quite the spectacle, but nowhere near the long animation times of Sun and Moon.

The Wild Area

The true gem in this game is it’s Wild Area, a vast open space to catch plenty of Pokémon. What Pokémon spawn is entirely based on weather, time of day and sometimes they can even be secretive enough to not spawn in the overworld, instead requiring traditional running in the grass until you get an alert.

Running around the Wild Area is fun, it’s a good sink of time especially when you’re not sure what you’re looking for. In between Gyms is the best time to go because you’ll get plenty of new ideas how to revamp your team.

That being said the Wild Areas have one major flaw which is an arbitrary level cap to Pokémon you can capture. Each gym badge gives you a level cap and Pokémon above that level in the Wild Area simply cannot be captured (the game gives you a prompt if you even dare to try).

I get that you’re trying to avoid an instance of catching a level 50 Pokémon and curbstomping your way through the game but the games have always had failsafes for having overleveled Pokémon. Plus, the likelihood of being able to lucky catch a high level Pokémon early on is so slim I feel like anyone who can is simply entitled to their catch at that point.

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Despite its flaws the Wild Are is truly one of the best parts of the game, and a lot of this review’s timeliness was ruined simply because I was too busy camping with my Pokémon while looking for new additions to my party.

L4G

Also in the Wild Areas are dynamax raids. These are 4-player battles with a giant Pokémon that often have special abilities, and you can fight them with friends or bots.

I adore the idea of co-op bossfights in Pokémon- having done a few with my friends, the mechanics are simple enough to be fun but also with a steep enough lose condition to still be a challenge.

Unfortunately, the higher level raids go to the Warframe school of boss design, where bosses have invuln phases that require you to waste attacks to break a shield (this process is made much faster with your own Dynamax Pokémon, for obvious reasons).

The problem with having to catch a G-max-enabled Pokémon is it does also kind of ruin the game’s emphasis on bonding with your partners- Catching your G-Max ready means abandoning the one you’ve been roughing it with since the start of the game.

Sentimentality aside it does also prove a logistics problem, as the game has certain single-use TMs that can be quite the hassle to re-obtain so if you’ve used it on one Pokémon, you’re probably not going to appreciate having to train up a new one to give its moves to.

Content

As with previous Pokemon games, there’s no shortage of things to do even when you’re not chasing gym badges. Most of them are just present enough to remind you to do them, without being too overpowering.

There’s interacting with your Pokémon in the camps, a cooking minigame as well as traversal challenges with your bike. On top of that, player customization makes a return.

There’s something just so inherently fun about the cooking minigame that I can’t get it out of my head, despite the fact I haven’t the slightest idea how to max out my recipes. I think the fact that it completely slows the pace of the game for a few minutes is an absolute treat, and harkens to the more laid back spirit of Pokémon.

The player customization is also great, since you also get to commit the ultimate act of arrogance and print trading cards of your trainer to give out to other players you meet. There’s a good amount of options for these, too- with poses, backgrounds and even expressions for your trainer.

One blemish on this game, however, is a lack of advanced features. Unlike X&Y and Sun and Moon, the game lacks many of the idling features such as the Super Training minigame for boosting your EVs, and the game’s feed-based communication simply isn’t as convenient as X&Y’s PSS.

That being said, Sword and Shield definitely holds up the Pokémon standard of having plenty to do when you want to take things slow. It gets that Pokémon is about making a lot of the small personal choices whenever you can, and excels at it.

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Personal Enjoyment

As a victim of the reduced Pokedex, I was expecting to not like Sword and Shield. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong, despite the severe lack of Garchomp.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many points in the game where I find myself slowing down on progressing through the Gym challenge just because the game is inherently fun.

The game’s story is also a nice change of pace, with a good chunk of the story simply being about doing the Gym Challenge, and having adult characters actually tell you it’s not your job to be worrying about the grown-ups.

While this game doesn’t push the envelope as much as X&Y did on the 3DS, it is a pretty good exploration in communication features for the series. Having an area where you can actually see other trainers, as well as doing co-op raids is actually a pretty cool feature, and I’m curious to see how much of it will be built on going forward.

The game’s hard banning you from catching higher leveled Pokémon is absolutely ludicrous though, and really makes enjoying the Wild Area that much harder if you haven’t beaten the last gym.

I should add that there’s an oddly concerning element in the story regarding Dynamaxing and its origins, that gets weirdly hand-waved away because Dynamaxing is just too important both in the game world and in the meta sense for this game. Welp.

Conclusion

Despite some weird flaws, I enjoyed Sword and Shield. Unlike Sun and Moon, the eighth generation feels like it genuinely tried to push the envelope for what you could do in a Pokémon game.

It has a lot of great ideas, but some weird implementation leading to a sense of confused enjoyment. It’s a great first mainline Pokémon for the Nintendo Switch, though, and that deserves some praise.


Review copy of Pokemon Shield purchased by the reviewer

8.3

Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield

Pokémon Sword and Shield has a lot of great ideas, but some weird implementation leading to a sense of confused enjoyment. It’s a great first mainline Pokémon for the Nintendo Switch, though, and that deserves some praise.

  • Design 9
  • Gameplay 7
  • Content 8
  • Personal Enjoyment 9