Pokemon Sword and Shield review: Same as it ever was

Eric Abent - Dec 6, 2019, 1:16 pm CST
7
Pokemon Sword and Shield review: Same as it ever was
Editors' Rating: 7/10
Pros
  • New Pokemon designs are mostly very solid
  • Excellent music
  • Beautiful graphics - the best looking Pokemon game to date
  • Dynamaxing is actually a fun mechanic
Cons
  • Sword and Shield don't do enough to move the series forward
  • The story has strange pacing that makes players feel like passive observers
  • No GTS makes trading with other players difficult until Pokemon Home
  • Culled Pokedex means a lot of favorites are missing

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Pokemon Sword and Shield are the most controversial Pokemon releases we’ve ever seen. Game Freak’s announcement that Sword and Shield wouldn’t feature a full national Pokedex was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of people, and after that, we saw a wave of criticism coming from longtime Pokemon fans online. By the time these games launched, taking a look at fan communities online would have someone who was out of the loop to believe that no one was buying these games.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with Pokemon Sword and Shield and I wanted to take my time with this review given the amount of controversy surrounding these releases. As a longtime fan of the Pokemon series myself, the news about the Pokedex was disappointing for me too, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of the criticism of the series as a whole.

Are Pokemon Sword and Shield bad games? No, I don’t think so. As I said in my Pokemon Sword and Shield first impressions post, I think the Pokemon formula is an inherently fun one; no matter how the games change (or don’t change) throughout the years, catching Pokemon, building a team, and working your way through the gym challenges will always be a fun thing to do.

With that said, I do think these games are disappointing to a certain degree. We’ve been waiting for a true-to-form Pokemon game on consoles ever since Red and Blue released, and with Sword and Shield, we finally see those wishes granted. Sword and Shield were Game Freak’s chance to go all out and leverage the extra horsepower of the Switch to push the Pokemon series to new heights. Unfortunately, Game Freak didn’t do that.

The Pokedex Problem

Let’s dive right in by addressing the elephant in the room: the Pokedex. This is something I’m a little bit conflicted about, because I’ve never tried to catch them all and complete the Pokedex in any game, and with more and more Pokemon being added with each generation, the chance of me deciding to do that decreased further as time went on.

Still, I do have my favorites, and many of those favorites simply are not in Sword and Shield. I’m definitely not alone in that particular boat, given the sheer number of Pokemon that aren’t in the Galar Pokedex. It’s a bummer to see that your favorite Pokemon didn’t make the cut, or that you won’t be able to bring over some of the Pokemon you’ve used in previous installments. For that matter, we can’t even bring Pokemon from previous games forward to Sword and Shield yet; that functionality won’t be added until sometime next year when Pokemon Home launches.

In my first impressions article, I said that someone who wasn’t aware of the cut Pokemon wouldn’t be able to tell that Pokemon are missing from this game, and now having finished the game, I still think that’s true. Pokemon Sword and Shield throw a lot of Pokemon at you as you progress through the game. I finished the game’s core narrative with 138 Pokemon captured, and I’m almost certain that’s a personal best for me.

As someone who has never really been driven to catch them all, the fact that the Pokedex has been cut in half may actually have its advantages. One of my favorite post-game activities in Pokemon games has always been hunting for shiny Pokemon, but in order to do that effectively, you need to obtain the Shiny Charm, which increases your chances of encountering shiny Pokemon.

Historically, this has only been obtainable when you fill out the national Pokedex (save for Sun/Moon and Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon, where the requirement was changed to completing just the Alola Pokedex). That meant you needed to collect every Pokemon that existed aside from the mythical Pokemon that were only available through events.

For someone who didn’t have the time or the endurance to collect some 800 different Pokemon, actually obtaining the Shiny Charm was a no-go in most games. Now that the Pokedex has been significantly culled in Sword and Shield, however, it’s a goal that seems much more attainable. In a strange way, Sword and Shield’s limited Pokedex can actually be a good thing if you’re a fan of shiny hunting, because it means the Shiny Charm is easier to obtain.

That’s one of the only silver linings to the limited Pokedex in Sword and Shield. It’s a shame that not all of the Pokemon are in the game – there’s no getting around that, and I can’t blame people who are upset by that. To hear Game Freak explain it, this is something that had to happen eventually, but it’s disappointing that Pokemon’s first true console outing had to be packaged with such a decision.

What I liked

As far as the new Pokemon go, I have to say that I’m really impressed. Though there are some questionable designs among this new batch (there always are), I really love a lot of these new Pokemon. From a design standpoint, I would say that this is the strongest collection of new Pokemon we’ve had since Gold and Silver, and after a certain point, I was excited to move onto a new route or section of the Wild Area just to see what kind of new Pokemon were lurking there. For me at least, that excitement has been missing from a lot of recent Pokemon games, so it was nice to have it back.

For the most part, Sword and Shield look beautiful too. These are easily the best looking Pokemon games I’ve ever played, but that’s not exactly a difficult accomplishment given that up until this point, mainline Pokemon games have been exclusive to handheld consoles. Still, the Galar region largely looks incredible, and its towns and cities – some of which are massive – are a joy to explore.

There is one exception to that, though, as graphics quality seems to drop off significantly in the Wild Area. The drop is most noticeable when looking at character models, so it seems that the Wild Area may push the Switch closer to its limit in terms of graphics capabilities.

Even though I was relatively indifferent toward the feature in the lead up to release, I wound up really liking Dynamaxing (and, by extension, Raid Battles) too. I know a lot of people in the community prefer something like Mega Evolution, but I more or less hold that and Dynamaxing in the same regard, especially when we throw Gigantamaxing into the mix. I certainly enjoy Dynamaxing more than I did Z-Moves though, and having to track down Pokemon capable of Gigantamaxing through Raid Battles certainly makes that aspect worth diving into.

I also think that the music in this game is very good. In fact, Sword and Shield might have my favorite music across the entire franchise. I’m not often driven to plug in a pair of earbuds when I’m playing Switch games in handheld mode, but Sword and Shield definitely made me want to because its music is simply fantastic.

I found that there’s a certain degree of challenge to these game that’s lacking in other Pokemon titles, but that’s partly my own doing. In Pokemon Sword and Shield, EXP Share is on all the time like it is in Pokemon Let’s Go, and you can’t turn it off as you could in the 3DS games. Not wanting a team to be vastly overleveled by the time I reached the endgame, I made it a point to swap out parts of my team on a regular basis. The only Pokemon I stuck with the whole way through was my starter Pokemon, but aside from that, my team was in a constant state of flux throughout the game.

I think that was Game Freak’s goal in forcing EXP Share on players with this installment, as it made some of the latter battles more challenging than what I’m used to in a Pokemon game. I had to regularly stock up on revives and use them often to make it through some matchups, and I found that opposing Pokemon were sometimes outfitted with attacks that were effective against the Pokemon they were weak to. Even better was that I got to see and use a bunch of different Pokemon as I made my way through the game, so when you play through Sword or Shield, I definitely recommend doing what I did and swapping out the Pokemon on your team regularly.

More than any of these individual parts, though, Pokemon Sword and Shield are just a lot of fun to play. We’ll get to the parts I had issues with them shortly, but even with those flaws, I still really enjoyed these games. I don’t think there’s been a Pokemon game I haven’t enjoyed yet, but to put a finer point on it, I enjoyed playing through Sword and Shield more than games like X and Y. With all of that said, we need to talk about some things…

What I didn’t like

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: the folks at Game Freak need to take some risks with Pokemon, and Sword and Shield show a pretty major aversion to that. Sitting here after 40 hours of play and thinking about these games, the Wild Area is the only thing I can think of that’s well and truly new. There’s Dynamaxing, but Game Freak’s modus operandi for recent games is to come up with a new battle mechanic that lasts as long as the generation it was introduced in – first was Mega Evolution, then came Z-Moves, and now we’ve got Dynamaxing, with is almost a combination of the two mechanics that came before it.

Aside from the Wild Area (which is a lot of fun to explore and something that I hope makes a return in future games), Pokemon Sword and Shield will be very familiar to anyone who has played a Pokemon game before, even if they haven’t played since Red and Blue. I don’t think that’s really a good thing. At this point, I have to wonder how the developers at Game Freak can stand iterating on the same core concept while only making small changes for 20 years without going insane.

Moreover, there’s a lot that suggests that Pokemon Sword and Shield could have used more time in the oven. Trading is one aspect that’s a little weird in Sword and Shield, because there’s no Global Trade System like there was in the DS and 3DS games. You can still trade with other players by using the new online system called “Y-Comm,” but it isn’t as easy as selecting a Pokemon you want to trade, selecting the Pokemon you want to trade it for, and then waiting for someone to come along and accept your offer.

Instead, you perform a trade by first connecting to the internet and searching for another player to trade with in the background. When you’ve both been connected, you each select the Pokemon you want to trade at the same time and then both players are asked if they agree to the swap. There’s no way to say “This is what I want to offer, and this is what I want in return.” It’s just you selecting a Pokemon, your trade partner selecting a Pokemon, and then both of you being asked if you accept. So far, I’ve had no one accept a trade and, frankly, I haven’t wanted to trade for any of the Pokemon other people wind up offering.

This is a system that was clearly made for two people who are communicating outside of the game to set up trades with one another, and it isn’t a suitable stand-in for the Global Trade System. I suspect that there’s no GTS because Pokemon Home will facilitate trading between players, but the obvious question then becomes “why aren’t Sword and Shield and Pokemon Home launching side-by-side?” For now, it seems that Surprise Trade – Sword and Shield’s version of Wonder Trade – is the best way to trade Pokemon with other players online.

I feel like Pokemon Sword and Shield could have benefitted by waiting to launch alongside Pokemon Home. As I said before, there are certain aspects of this game that don’t feel finished. One of the best examples of that is Sword and Shield’s map, which is just a bunch of towns and cities connected by different routes. There aren’t any dungeons in this game like the Silph Company, Power Plant, or Team Rocket Hideout from Pokemon Red and Blue.

You simply finish up in a city, then walk the route to the next, maybe stopping in the Wild Area to catch some new Pokemon. The closest we come to proper dungeons are a pair of mines (which are given the uninspired names of Galar Mine and Galar Mine No. 2), but those really just connect one place to another as any other route would. Perhaps Game Freak created the Wild Area as a stand-in for dungeons, but I don’t think that fills the gap well enough.

Sword and Shield have a healthy number of cutscenes that focus on individual characters, so it’s a little weird that there isn’t a word of voice-acted dialogue in this game. The lack of voice acting was understandable when Pokemon was still on handhelds, but I think it should be there for a console release like this. It’s jarring to have these all these close ups on character faces, complete with moving lips and changing expressions, but with no spoken dialogue to go along with it.

The story’s central conflict is neither bad nor revolutionary, but one thing that struck me as a weird is the fact that it doesn’t really get going until the final stages of the game. As you play, you’re periodically brought up to speed by several characters, but you never really get the chance to participate until the very end. Up until that point, you’re mostly a passive observer to the game’s story, talking to people who unload a bunch of exposition and then tell you to focus on completing the gym challenge while they handle problems or investigate matters further.

There are other small things that don’t make any sense to me at all. For example: you’re required put on a special uniform before you challenge a gym, and throughout the game, you’re showered with new uniforms representing all of the different Pokemon types. Yet, when it comes time to change into that uniform before heading out onto the pitch, you don’t have an option to wear anything but default uniform you’re given at the start of the game. What’s the point of giving me all these uniforms as I play if I can’t wear my favorite one when it really matters?

I also wonder why Sword and Shield’s online component is so poorly implemented. Despite the fact that Raid Battles were made to encourage players to team up with one another, Sword and Shield don’t automatically connect to the internet, even when your Switch is connected. Instead, you have to go into Y-Comm and manually connect from there. Any time your Switch goes to sleep, you lose your connection and have to go back into Y-Comm to connect again. It’s awful.

Wrap-Up

While I thought Pokemon Sun and Moon were a step in the right direction for the franchise between mechanics like the island challenge and features like Poke Pelago, Sword and Shield just kind of feel like a plateau for the series.

There’s nothing outright bad with these games; yes, the limited Pokedex is disappointing, but for me, it isn’t anywhere near a dealbreaker. Sword and Shield are a lot of fun to play through, and I think any Pokemon fan would enjoy them if they decided to buy them.

With that said, Sword and Shield aren’t what I expected from Pokemon’s first true outing on a console. Maybe that’s partially my fault for expecting too much, but it feels like Sword and Shield could have existed just fine on the 3DS if Game Freak were to down-res the models and limit the draw distance. Sword and Shield were a perfect chance for Game Freak to try new things, but instead, it stuck to what it knew and largely played it safe.

It wouldn’t have taken that much to wow Pokemon fans with Sword and Shield, either. What if these were the first Pokemon games since Gold and Silver to feature multiple regions? That’s something fans have been requesting for decades at this point, and the Switch is more than powerful enough to handle a game of that size. I guarantee that if Game Freak had taken us to a region like Kalos or Unova after the Galar region’s main narrative wrapped up, a ton of fans would have reacted very positively and would have been more willing to forgive some of Sword and Shield‘s faults.

Hopefully now that Game Freak has put a mainline Pokemon pair on the Switch, it won’t be afraid to branch out in the future. Hopefully Game Freak will listen to fans who are upset with the direction it took Sword and Shield, because while I do think those fans were guilty of being a little too dramatic at times, they did make some good points. Hopefully soon we’ll see the Pokemon series reinvent itself the way The Legend of Zelda did so successfully with Breath of the Wild, because for now, Sword and Shield keep things just a little too familiar.


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