Platforms: Switch (Reviewed – Sword)
Pokémon Sword and Shield might be the most controversial Pokémon release so far. Fans have been in an uproar about cut Pokémon, cut moves, supposedly re-used assets, and all number of other controversies that put Nintendo and Game Freak on the defensive. It was especially significant as this was Nintendo’s first mainline Pokémon release on a home console… ever. After all the yelling on social media and conspiracy theories, we have finally been able to get our hands on the game to tell whether it’s a grand new step for the Pokémon franchise or a quick cash in meant to take advantage of fans’ good will.
Yes, it might not be the most satisfying answer, but Pokémon Sword and Shield aren’t going to be your favorite Pokémon games and they aren’t going to destroy the franchise either. They are decent, solidly built games that play it very safe.
All A Plots
Look, we’ve all been here before. We know what Pokémon games are all about. Set out on a journey, battle and catch Pokémon, gather eight gym badges, take on the Elite Four, and become a Pokémon Master. That’s stayed constant ever since Red and Blue.
It’s the B plots that really make Pokémon releases stand out. Sometimes the evil team is running a criminal empire. Sometimes you have to travel to different dimensions and face Pokémon gods. Sometimes your friends betray you and use you for their own conspiratorial ends. Pokémon games have run the spectrum from lighthearted fantasy to semi-dark shonen plots, which tend to be somewhat entertaining even though they are clearly designed for children.
Sword and Shield, on the other hand, seems to largely give up on its B plots. For the most part, all you will do is travel on short routes and fight gym trainers for the first 30-some odd hours of the game.
There’s a reason for this. In the Galar region, the new setting which is loosely based on the UK, Pokémon training and battling isn’t just a rite of passage. It’s a national sport. Gym battles take place in huge stadiums with crowds cheering you on. Every trainer has to wear a uniform which has advertisements plastered all over it. Gym missions are sort of “Ninja Warrior” style challenges which are likely compilation video fodder on whatever the Pokémon universe’s equivalent of YouTube is. It’s a fascinating mirror of FIFA culture over in Europe.
The thing is, the story never dives deep into this culture. Your rival, Hop, has a neat plotline about how he can’t choose his Pokémon team and is afraid he’s letting his big brother, the current champion, down, but you barely interact with it. It just happens in the background.
In fact, everything sort of happens in the background. There’s a plot about mysterious “Wishing Stars” which are sources of energy that fall from the sky, a plot about the ancient founders of Galar and the myths surrounding them, a plot about an orphan kid who was raised by the Pokémon League chairman, and you basically don’t interact with any of these plots outside of a random battle. In fact, multiple times the game tells you to ignore these plots and just continue your gym journey, which feels disappointing. Even the team, Team Yell, is just a group of random soccer hooligans who cause riots and cheer on one particular trainer, and while they are funny they have next to nothing to do with the plot at large.
It sure does have a lot of cringe-worthy British-isms though. Some characters feel less like an actual resident of the fantasy UK and more like a caricature you’d find in a Monty Python sketch.
I’m sure some of you are now furiously typing “YOU DON’T PLAY POKÉMON FOR THE PLOT!!!” down in the comments, but I’d challenge that. If you think back to your favorite Pokémon game, you can probably remember something significant about the plot. I particularly loved N’s story in Black and White. Nothing in Sword and Shield is that memorable, and that’s a shame.
Would you like to join a raid?
So what about the gameplay? For the most part, as I said before, it’s exactly what you expect. Choose one of three starters, travel from city to city fighting and catching Pokémon, take on gym leaders, and so on. It’s pretty easy, but most recent Pokémon games have been. Just use the correct type move for any given situation and you’ll win with little effort. This isn’t the RPG you want to play if you are looking for a challenge.
The newest style of gameplay are “Max Raid Battles” which make use of the new Dynamax mechanic. If you haven’t been keeping up with the marketing train, Dynamaxing allows your Pokémon to grow to kaiju size in certain battles (just gym battles and raid battles). It also allows certain Pokémon to change their form (called Gigantamaxing). In gym battles, all this really accomplishes is forcing a major showdown between two giant Pokémon at the end.
In raid battles, however, Dynamaxing takes on a whole other level of strategy. It’s you and three other trainers against a massive Dynamaxed Pokémon. These trainers can be real players or A.I. bots, but either way only one of you can be Dynamaxed at a time. Meanwhile, the raid Pokémon can use multiple moves in a turn, put up barriers, neutralize your stat buffs, and much more.
These battles are so much more than “use the right type and win.” In particularly difficult max raid battles, you should have one Pokemon drawing aggro, one mon healing, one mon dealing single-hit damage to your opponent’s HP bar, and one mon dealing multi-hit damage to chip through barriers. It actually feels like a neat little co-op battle, similar to what you’d have in an MMO. You get a ton of XP candies, berries, and TRs (single-use TMs) from these battles too, so it’s always worth doing them.
Of course, there are a few flaws with these battles. First of all, it’s impossible to find teammates if all you are doing is looking online. People have three minutes to join a raid battle, and unless you are watching your notification bar like a hawk, you’ll probably miss global invites. You can specifically search in the online menu for raid battle invites, but the system doesn’t purge these invites when the battles are completed. So 9 times out of 10 you’ll ask to join a battle only to be told that communication failed because there is no communication partner.
This is the case for all online features, by the way. Aside from surprise trading which gives away one of your Pokémon for a random Pokémon of someone else, it’s nearly impossible to do anything online. There’s not even a way to specifically trade with your friends online. To trade with a specific player you have to be in the same room with them and use local wireless connections. While this would be great at conventions and other meetups, it’s not great for more casual fans who just want to play with an online friend from the comfort of their own home. It feels like a major step down from the online functions of Sun and Moon which let you do a lot with friends over the internet. At the very least you can now search for battles and trades in the background while otherwise continuing the game.
A bunch of hollow complaints
So if you wanted to complain about the online suite, that’d be understandable. The complaints about “Dexit” are completely unfounded though. Yes, over half of Pokémon’s impressive roster of over 800 Pokémon have been cut, but that still leaves you with about 400, and what people aren’t mentioning is that you can actually encounter these 400, which is more than you encounter in a lot of past Pokémon games. By the time I hit the first gym I had already caught 51 different Pokémon. That’s a third of the original cast of Red and Blue! By the time I hit the first gym in Gen 1 all I had was a Pidgey and a Rattata.
Frankly, if the fanbase wasn’t told, they would never have noticed. How many times have you actually succeeded in “catching em’ all?” How many times have you managed to trade and train and find every single Pokémon in a Pokémon game? I know I rarely do.
No, this is just people being upset that their favorites didn’t make it in, and that’s understandable. I’m privileged because my favorite Pokémon, Joltik, made the cut. If your fun hinges on the existence of a particular Pokémon or move then sure, look at the cut list and make your decision accordingly. However, if you are just looking for a decent Pokémon adventure with new mons to catch and battle, like I said before, you won’t even notice the cuts.
The complaints about animations and models are similarly unfounded. They look fine, or at least as fine as any other Pokémon game. Some animations are dumb and barely have models move. Some look great (especially for unique attacks). It’s the same as any other game in the franchise. Even if the models were “re-used” they were obviously given touch-ups, and they look great in the game’s new lighting engine. At the very least they are way more detailed than their Sun and Moon equivalents.
In fact, I’d say the presentation is fairly spot-on. The menus are easy to navigate, the maps and locales are quite impressive and dripping with personality, and the music is fantastic. In fact, I’d say the music is the best yet and I’m not just saying that because Toby Fox did an absolutely amazing battle theme for the project.
That traditional Nintendo weirdness
Everything else is kind of a mixed bag. For every great decision Nintendo makes there’s a weird or disappointing decision to go along with it. Here are some examples:
- No more HMs? Great! Except now there are one use TMs called TRs, which kind of brings us back to the original HM/TM split anyway? At least there’s no HMs required to progress on the map… except there’s nothing required to progress on the map. The only thing you’ll get is a bike that can cross water and that’s about it.
- Well now you can see a bunch of other players in the new online Wild Area! Yeah, that’s cool, but there’s only one in the entire game, and you’ll traverse it early on. There’s basically no way to interact with other players too, outside of Max Raid Battles, and you don’t even need to be in the Wild Area to join them, just to start them.
- You can camp with your Pokémon to raise their affection! Yeah but all you can do is play fetch or wave around a feather at the end of the stick. There’s no real meaningful interaction there.
- There’s a starter Pokémon who is a soccer ace bunny that kicks liquid hot balls of fire at the opponent! Yes, but there’s also a Pokémon that’s an apple. Just… an apple.
- Oh and sound options are hidden behind an NPC for some reason… that’s weird.
It feels like a bit of a cop-out to say this, but you kind of already know if you are going to like Pokémon Sword and Shield. Do you like Pokémon? Then you’ll like Sword and Shield. It’s not going to be your favorite, and it certainly won’t make any converts, but it will keep you playing til the end and beyond, trading and training all the while. There’s not a lot to be mad about here, certainly not enough to suggest passing this iteration up if you are a die-hard Pokémon fan, but there’s also not a lot to praise for it either.
After all the anger and controversy, it’s just fine.