POKEMON SWORD AND SHIELD are finally here, bringing the next generation of pocket monsters to Nintendo’s next-generation console, the Switch. While, sure, Pokemon Let’s Go was a solid Switch remake of an old Game Boy classic, expectations for Sword and Shield are higher. A next-gen Pokemon game should push the envelope in exciting ways with bigger story scope, better presentation, improved gameplay, and a robust online experience. Now that I’ve become yet another Champion and saved the world all over again, it’s time for my review.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Same old story
If you’ve played one mainline Pokemon game, you’ve pretty much played them all. Sword and Shield do the usual eight gym battle grind as you fight to become the region’s Champion. The gyms have “Missions” this time around, which are unique little challenges that you have to pass in order to battle the gym leader. These gym leaders are cool, too, with each featuring more prominently into the storyline. It isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
The world also reacts to the player’s success. As I achieved each badge, the number of supporters outside of the gym increased. It’s a small thing, and you’ll only notice it a handful of times, but it’s nice to not be totally ignored like in previous titles. You finally feel like a bit of a celebrity and you can customize your character to look the part.
As with all Pokemon games, there’s a nefarious organization that the player has to take down. In Sword and Shield, this subplot is only introduced towards the very end, unlike the previous games’ encounters with evildoers. The story gets a little muddled here, but I didn’t really care, as it ultimately led to me catching more powerful creatures.
One thing that could have made the story more compelling was voice acting, which is especially jarring this time around. None of the characters speak, which is a shame. At the very least, it would have been nice to hear voices during the cutscenes.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Passable presentation
The lack of voice acting, in addition to the “8-bit” Pokemon cries, are the only bad things about the game’s audio. Otherwise, Sword and Shield might have the best audio of any Pokemon game ever. Classic tunes return in the places where you expect them, but new gym music and ambient noises set these games apart from what’s come before.
Of course, with a next-gen console to power it, you’d better hope that the visuals have also seen a big improvement. While, yes, technically Sword and Shield are better-looking games with solid performance in offline play, they simply don’t hold a candle to other top Switch titles.
Now I know not every game is going to look like Breath of the Wild, but these new Pokemon titles genuinely look last-gen by comparison. The aliasing is reminiscent of experiences on 3DS, and it becomes extremely noticeable when playing in the docked mode, where the image is blown up to fill a TV screen.
Of course, bad visuals don’t necessarily make a game unplayable, but a low framerate can. Go into the huge open Wild Area, turn on the internet connection, and the framerate can plummet. I don’t know if connection quality to other players is a factor here, but the lag is damn awful at times, especially when you’re trying to dodge powerful Pokemon or make quick turns in the Rotom Rally minigame.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | We’re gonna need a bigger ball
The big new mechanic introduced in Pokemon Sword and Shield is Dynamaxing. This is a type of temporary evolution that sees a Pokemon grow vastly in size and power. Gigantamaxing goes one step further, causing the Pokemon to develop new characteristics as it gets larger. The latter is fantastic fun to witness, as it’s always exciting to see what absurd changes have been made to a super-large creature.
The ability to Dynamax is exclusive to the Galar region, which is the English-inspired setting for Sword and Shield. As an Englishman myself, I found the references to English culture to be well-implemented. Wyndon (based on London) is especially impressive.
Players move from countryside cottages to bustling cities at a satisfying pace, stopping only for the optional catching session for new critters. It’s great to see the wild Pokemon on the overworld, as previously implemented in Let’s Go. There are also wild Pokemon hidden in the grass, providing those classic random encounters, which I think makes for the best of both worlds.
Aside from the occasional chance to Dynamax, which is only during key battles in the main story and only lasts for three turns, the battle system is the same as it’s always been. It’s that turn-based battling that we’ve seen for decades now. Some will love to find that this is unchanged, but others will hate and have grown tired of it. I’m somewhere in between, honestly. After a few hours, I disabled the Battle Animations to help speed fights up, as they can really drag with Abilities and different status effects continuously popping up. Thankfully, that’s an option!
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Gotta learn ’em all!
With new Pokemon comes new strengths and weaknesses to learn. Though Sword and Shield don’t add a new Pokemon type, there are Galar-exclusive creatures, which take an existing monster and drastically change it. Ponyta, for example, changes from a fire type into a fairy and psychic type.
A lot of the brand new Pokemon look good, with some interesting designs, and I happily filled my team with new ‘mons (and Arcanine, as he’s the best good boy who survived the cut). The great Pokemon designs are marred slightly by the outdated animations, with some moves looking awkward as hell.
Learning about the new Pokemon and how to fight them is part of what makes a new generation so exciting. Helpfully, after battling a new Pokemon for the first time, the game will detail what moves are effective during future encounters. It perhaps makes things a little too easy, but I didn’t mind the reminder when my memory failed.
Little conveniences like the above helped keep me engaged with the adventure. I have clocked 24 hours on the game in total, stopping only for food, sleep, and family obligations. Sword and Shield make it clear what your next objective is, provide enough of a challenge in completing them, and encourage you to keep playing with continuous gameplay unhindered by loading screens.
Overall, the difficulty was about what you’d expect for a Pokemon game, though I will say that the level of enemies rapidly ramps up towards the end of the game. One moment you’re battling Level 47-50 Pokemon, the next moment they are hitting 60 and above. During the finale, you do have the opportunity to take a break to level up, but I just pushed through with healing items. This made for a refreshingly difficult Champion battle which came down to the final move. The stadium setting with a cheering crowd made this fight feel like an actual grand finale.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | We’re in the endgame now
It should be pretty obvious what Pokemon Sword and Shield‘s endgame is. Catching ’em all means going back and hunting down the Pokemon you haven’t yet caught. It’s a major final challenge to complete this Regional Pokedex, as I myself have only captured a quarter of the available Pokemon.
I say “available Pokemon” because Sword and Shield don’t feature the entire roster. In fact, over half of them have been cut, and developer Game Freak has no intention of ever adding them.
While it’s sad to see Dratini and his firends get the chop, I don’t think it drastically impacts what Sword and Shield offer. They are still filled to the brim with four hundred different Pokemon to capture, which I’d estimate will take players an additional 50+ hours to accomplish. For me, that’s enough to justify the $60 price tag.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Turing test
Pokemon Sword and Shield‘s online components are bloody weird. The first instance of this is in the Wild Area. At the cost of framerate, you can turn on internet connectivity and see other players wandering around the world. Interact with them and they’ll say some random line and give you an item for camping. (Oh yeah, there’s camping, too. It’s cute for the first two minutes, but then you’ll likely forget about it.)
I get that these are kid-friendly games, but man, there aren’t even emotes or approved canned responses. What’s the point of human players if they aren’t allowed to be human?
The main challenges of the Wild Area are the dens, which each hold a Dynamax Pokemon. You enter the den with three other players and then battle a giant monster. If it’s a Pokemon you haven’t yet caught, it can be a good time. However, it’s often difficult to find a full party of players in the three-minute limit, with the game then giving you A.I. partners instead. Sadly, this happens more often than not. You would think that a lot of players would be searching for Raids during the launch weekend, though this could also be the reason for it not working and being unstable.
There is some fun to be had with Sword and Shield‘s online modes, as I experienced with the Secret Trade blind Pokemon swap and some of the higher level Max Raid battles, but the game’s bizarrely lonely multiplayer feels incredibly outdated. You’re jumping through the same hoops as previous games, which I don’t think is good enough for 2019.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Would you like to Switch Pokemon?
Pokemon Sword and Shield is a very safe game. Developer Game Freak hasn’t taken any risks here, which is good in that it guarantees a classic Pokemon adventure, but is also bad in that we’ve been here many times before.
If you’re not sick of the formula, or if you’re new to the franchise, then it’s easy to forgive the meh story, subpar visual presentation, unchanged battle system, and messy multiplayer. It’s a solid Pokemon game that anyone can enjoy. Nothing more, nothing less.
Pokemon Sword and Shield was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch with code provided by the publisher.