Title: Pokémon Sword and Shield
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Reviewed On: Switch
Pokémon games were significant to me as a kid; they were my foray into single-player RPGs as well as a single-minded obsession I had for a long time. I had to play all the titles that I could get my hands on and play them as much as possible. It wasn’t until after Pokémon Black and White before I started to develop much stronger interests towards other kinds of games. Still, my interest has always been enough for me to pick up a copy every time a new mainline title gets dropped. It’s been a good comfort game since.
Unfortunately, in the lead up to Pokémon Sword and Shield, the internet has been somewhat less than comforting. A messy hellscape of people throwing accusations over whether or not the new title was going to be any good. Depressing as that may be, I still snagged a copy of Pokémon Sword because I needed to know for myself. Was Pokémon Sword and Shield going to be a terrible game? Or was it going to be the very best like no one ever was?
Pokémon Sword and Shield are the latest titles in the stupendously long-running series about putting powerful creatures in the hands of children and sending them out into the world to go on adventures. This time, however, there’s no professor to guide you into the world, you start your journey of the vaguely European Galar region after the older brother of your rival Hop, the undefeatable champion, Leon, decides to spend some time at home. And he’s brought gifts.
You’ll get to pick out one of the three new starter Pokémon, and then with some firm persuasion, begin the gym challenge. A nationwide event, akin to a tournament in which trainers, old and new alike, embark on a journey to explore the country and defeat some of the most influential trainers in the country to earn themselves a place in the champion’s cup. This immediate change of tone makes the game feel far more lively, with a nationwide competition, it’s almost like you’re against the clock overcoming challenges with everyone else, instead of beating up a gang leader in the back corner of a gym.
Each iteration of Pokémon brings something new to the table, and Sword and Shield are no different. However, they are the first games to cut things since the game boy advance era. The Z-moves and Mega Evolutions of the previous two generations are gone, replaced by Dynamaxing, a sort of hybrid. Dynamaxing your Pokémon increases their size immensely, doubles their HP, and returns their attacks with Max versions, which are pretty, powerful, and have all sorts of additional effects.
To balance them, however, you can only use it once a battle, in particular, matches (within stadiums, and in PVP), and it lasts three turns. There are also Gigantimax forms which change the Pokémon’s design and give the Pokémon a signature move. The signature moves replace a Max Move, for example, Gigantimax Charizard gains GMax Wildfire, but loses Max Flare. This does mean that the particular forms aren’t always just plain better than average. Whether or not Dynamax Pokémon is overly broken, however, is something I’ll wait on. I don’t think they are at this stage.
The other main feature this game brings to the table is something called ‘The Wild Area,’ which has an assortment of parts to it. It’s a non-linear route made up of a collection of segments that have enemy Pokémon on the overworld that will be tens of levels above your current team, similar to games like Xenoblade. There are tons of different Pokémon from different regions scattered around the wild area, that scale in level to the number of gyms you’ve defeated, along with these odd stone formations called ‘Wells.’
Within these wells, hide incredible amounts of energy that will power up a wild Pokémon into a Dynamax form for battles called ‘Max Raid’ battles. In these, you’ll team up with up to three friends to battle the giant Dynamax Pokémon, which will use multiple moves per turn and will even throw up shields during the battle to protect itself. Teamwork is key to these battles as you’ll lose the fight if you don’t win in ten turns or four of your team’s Pokémon faint. If you will, you’ll be allowed to catch the Pokémon. Whether or not you’re successful, you’ll also gain items that can be sold for money, used for XP, and to teach your team all sorts of attacks, as well as berries used for competitive play. As the wild area is accessible very early on, there is an incredible amount of replay value to be had here, allowing you to replay the game with a different team each time.
An often complained about detail is the lack of Pokémon, the Galar region has a total of 400 Pokémon within its bounds. Compared to the total amount of existing Pokémon, 890, this seems somewhat lacking. However, in the last entries, Pokémon Sun and Moon, unless you traded with people that had access to Pokémon Bank, you would be limited to a total of 301 Pokémon that were spread across each quarter of the game. Sword and Shield give you access to 375 Pokémon as soon as you reach the wild area, you just have to go hunting.
With that variety of Pokémon almost out of the front gate, you can wire yourself a ridiculous amount of different teams to play through the main story. It sucks that I won’t be able to use some of my favorite Pokémon in any capacity these games, but I think it’s somewhat manageable, and maybe some more will be added in later. I can dream, right?
Pokémon Sword and Shield’s main story isn’t exactly deep by any means, but it’s probably the best in the series. Representing the gym challenge as a sporting event and designing the region around it makes everything you do feel constantly relevant and alive. There’s also quite a varied supporting cast this time, your three rivals, and several recurring characters.
I found each one to be quite enjoyable, and while not as good as the duo from Black and White, they’re up there as favorites. I also quite enjoyed the fact that there’s no real evil team this time, as Team Yell is just a loud fanbase there to cheer on fellow gym challenger Marnie, one of your rivals. We also have the rival, Bede, a return of the much-requested ‘arrogant jerk’ archetype you can enjoy pummeling. More so than Hop, his character arc involves an inferiority complex, and I wanted to support the guy, not beat him up every time we fought.
The game is a bit more well-balanced than previous entries in the franchise, too, not requiring much grinding, and the game’s bright style encourages you to manage at your own pace, which is a welcome sight considering how fun the new routes are to explore. The pacing becomes a bit fast towards the middle portion, where you’ll likely grab multiple badges in the span of an hour or two due to some surprisingly small areas. Still, there’s wiggle room for you to relax and play however you want without the game punishing you via boredom.
The music is excellent across the board, and there are too many standout tracks for me to list. Dynamaxing may not seem too broken competitively, but in the main story, it will help you crush the gym leaders who also use it themselves. They stand out much more in these games than the past couple of generations, as Sword and Shield are much more cinematic. Many of them also get to show up on multiple occasions instead of being people who hang around in a backroom waiting to fight children. It’s a return to the Black and White quality.
The new Pokémon are a mixed bag to me, I’m not a fan of the starters this generation or the fossil Pokémon, but I do quite like many of the others. Rookiedee, the regional bird, and the ghostly dragon Dreepy, and their evolutions are easily some of my favorites. Many have also been made to take advantage of things in Pokémon camp, a little feature where you can hang out with your Pokémon, watch and play with them as a team. It’s an unnecessary, but very much appreciated feature filled with all sorts of cuteness and unique animations.
The regional forms also make a return, which I very much enjoy, and having new evolutions for them is just icing on the cake. Many quality-of-life changes have also been made, making it extra easy to make a Pokémon team you want to use against others. This generation seems to have balanced this content out a bit more, and I dare say the game was designed with these factors in mind, with the actual story being an afterthought.
There are next to zero postgame areas to explore, but the battle tower and being able to rechallenge any notable characters as I please is a welcome feature. However, I didn’t mind the lack of post-story stuff, as at this point, I’m just working out my team to try and kick-ass against those around the world, and I’m going to be here for a while for it.
Ultimately, I think Pokémon Sword and Shield are some of the best games in the franchise. With fun multiplayer features, the ease of setting up a competitive squad for me to play online with fantastic visuals, solid music, and an acceptable story, I think grabbing Sword or Shield is an excellent idea for most Pokémon fans.
It’s a game you can easily pick up or throw at literally anyone, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll get your money’s worth for time. I’ve spent nearly 100 hours already. The only question now is what they’ll add in the future, and how Pokémon Home will tie into this.
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