Review: Pokémon Sword & Shield

After a few months on the market, how do the newest entries in the long running franchise hold up?

Console: Nintendo Switch

Pokémon Sword and Shield are, without a doubt, the most controversial entries in the long-running multi-media franchise. The announcement that the ability to transfer all of your old Pokémon to the new games wouldn't be included did not sit well with most fans. Many angry tweets were written, a boycott was called and when the games were finally released…, they moved over 16 million copies before the year was out. So was the backlash unwarranted then? Does the massive commercial success of these games prove that the fans had nothing to worry about? Well, not exactly but they definitely aren't as bad as the Internet has lead you to believe.

Let's dive in.

 

The games open in typical Pokémon fashion. After watching an exhibition match of Leon, the champion of the region, the player is met by their neighbour and rival to be, Hop. After picking up Leon (who is also Hops older brother) from the train station you receive your starter Pokémon. With all of that done, you set out to catch them all and become the best there ever was.

The starters of Sword & Shield are the curious grass monkey Grookey, the energetic fire rabbit Scorbunny and the shy water chameleon Sobble. A solid selection, if I do say so myself. During interviews Junichi Masuda, lead on the Pokémon design team, stated that he wanted to give each starter their own distinct personality this time around. This shines through in both their design and animations, turning what otherwise could have been some rather dull concepts into a set of vibrant and memorable Pokémon.

The starters: Grookey, Scorbunny and Sobble.

I wouldn't be surprised if Game Freak applied the same design philosophy to the entire roster of new Pokémon. They are, overall, outstanding. From the simplistic yet loveable Wooloo to the fierce-looking Grimmsnarl, the Pokémon designs are on point. There are also some Pokémon with neat concepts behind them. Galarian Corsola, for example, is based on the death of coral reefs through climate change. While there a certainly some Pokémon that won't be remembered as fondly, I have heard a lot of people saying not so nice things about Pinchurin for example, these are far and few between.

Within the first two hours, the players will enter the Wild Area, located at the centre of the region and the game's 'open-world' of sorts. You'll see Pokémon roaming around, even outside of the grass, and mysterious rock formation, known as Dens, glowing in the distance. The Wild Area serves as a showcase of much what makes these games different, but also some of its greatest shortcomings. While impressive at first glance, the Wild Area is smaller than I would like and also feels rather empty. While there are certain interesting backdrops they serve no further purpose other than giving some variation in an otherwise rather dull background. You can't interact with any of it and while the different zones with the wild are distinct, they are functionally the same and that makes to the whole area feel monotonous after a while.

The biggest attraction of the Wild Area, aside from the free camera control, are the Max Raid battles. Those glowing rock formations? They are Raid Dens where a Dynamaxed, or very rarely a Gigantamaxed, Pokémon lurk. When Dynamaxed, a Pokémon grows to an immense size. In this state, which lasts for three turns, the Pokémon's HP is increased and its moves turn into Max-moves. They are moves whose power have been greatly increased with a secondary effect. Gigantamax Pokémon is basically the same as Dynamax but with the Pokémon getting a unique appearance.

During Max-Raid battles, the opposing Dynamax/Gigantamax Pokémon gets two benefits over you. They are capable of attacking up to three times a turn and they can throw up a shield. This shield requires a set amount of hits to break, and during this period the damage taken of an attack is greatly reduced. When a shield breaks though, the Pokémon's defences are (temporarily) reduced and you're capable of inflicting some massive damage.

The Dynamax feature and the Max-raid battles are a double-edged sword. The gimmick is much more balanced from a gameplay perspective than its predecessors. As you're only capable of using Dynamax in gyms and Max-Raid battles they don't overshadow/become an instant 'win-button' like those tended to be. The Max-Raid battles, which are fought 4 against 1, can be very fun and rewarding to do, especially with friends. It also adds a welcoming amount of replay value. Ever since its launch, Game Freak has supported the games by holding Raid Events. These events boost the likelihood for certain Pokémon, Gigantamax forms or items to appear and gives players something to enjoy every so often.

Ala, Dynamaxing is, once you get down to it, nothing more than Mega-Evolution and Z-moves rolled into one and in that sense, it's kind of derivative. The Max-Raid are a lot of fun under the right conditions, but a completely frustrating chore under the wrong ones. When you can't find any players to help you out the game assigns AI's as your teammates. The problem with this is that the Max-Raid battles were clearly not balanced enough when working with the computer. The AI simply isn't competent enough to be of use.

Two players and Two NPC's facing off againts a Dynamaxed Pangoro in a Raid battle.

Making a return after being absent from (Ultra) Sun & Moon is the gym challenge. The gyms have always been the centre structure upon which the games progression system is built on, but aside from the island challenge from the previous games, there hasn't really been any change to this structure since Red and Blue. And while Sword and Shield don't reinvent the wheel, they do breathe some welcoming new life into the gyms.

They're an event, with an opening ceremony and giant stadiums packed full of spectators cheering you on during every match and NPC's participating as well. All of this is topped off by the champion league, which ditches the traditional elite four followed by a champion fight, in favour of an elimination style tournament. Add this up with a memorable set of leaders who provide a decent challenge even for older players and the gym challenge is better, and much more exciting, then it has ever been.

While nothing ground breaking, the game's opening is strong. The way the early story beats are introduced and the intrigue is set gives the opening a lot of momentum. A momentum the game is unable to hold on to, as the game seems to forget its own story halfway through. Characters don't show up for long periods, plot points seem to be forgotten and developments integral to the plot happens off-screen. Multiple times the game seems to pick one of these threads up again, only for it to push you back into the gym challenge frustrating me to no end.

The gym leaders grand entrance at the opening ceremony (Shield version).

The pacing after the opening is also problematic. Not a lot happens in the middle act, forcing the game play catchup in, what is quite literally, the final few hours. This is very disappointing, especially as it is clear that the developers put a lot of effort into the characters themselves. All of them have a distinct design, personality and style and some of their stories go in genuinely unexpected and unique places, for a Pokémon game that is. I wanted to see more of these characters, but the game sadly never gives you a chance to.

What the game does very well is its music. It's very, very good featuring music that you can rock your head to, like the Gym music, as well as atmospheric pieces. The Glimwood Tangle for example wouldn't work even half as well to convey its atmosphere without its music. The game-style features plenty of tracks with a style that you can expect in a Pokémon game who has been taken up a notch in terms of creativity.

Lastly, the games also feature a ton of small, quality of life improvements that a returning player will find especially welcoming. The biggest change is that tutorials, e.g. catching Pokémon, are all skippable, meaning you don't have to sit through them if you're already familiar with them. Some other examples include held items returning to your bag instead of being lost when you release a Pokémon and you can now evolve level 100 Pokémon by using a Rare Candy. These changes are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't make them any less welcoming.

Conclusion

Pokémon Sword and Shield are not bad games, but no great ones either. The changes introduced here are a great stepping stone for the next entry in the series to build on. The Wild Area gives some much-needed control and freedom to the player, the raid battles add a fun co-op element and replay value and the gym challenges have been given some much-needed breath of fresh air. The soundtrack is superb, the Pokémon design is as good as it has ever been and the game features much small quality of life improvement. The game is being held back though, by its lacklustre story, less than stellar graphics and the new features not nearly being as well implemented as they good haven been and an overall design that feels outdated. While their flaws are definitely felt, Pokémon Sword and Shield are still good games that are worth picking up.

Update: My reviews on the Sword & Shield expansion pass, The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra are live. Check them out by clicking their respective links or search for them in the search bar!

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