Ooh boy, this is going to be a tough one. And it isn’t because I don’t know the series; I’ve been an avid Pokemon fan ever since Nintendo Power sent me that preview marketing video back in the 90s. The release of a brand new Pokemon game is usually cause for excitement, both for me and for the fanbase at large. But Pokemon Sword and Shield courted controversy long before we had even seen significant gameplay footage. For the first time, only some of the 800+ Pokemon are available in the new games; the ones that are missing can’t even be transferred over from another game. From there, the controversy continued, with fans meticulously analyzing every screenshot. What I’m getting at is, it’s difficult to even talk about these games without starting an argument. But I’m going to do my best to avoid that, and just focus on what Sword and Shield bring to the long-running franchise.
Visuals and world size are not usually the biggest concern with Pokemon games, but given that these are the first games to bring the full core Pokemon experience to a home console (and given the controversy that comes from fans misinterpreting interviews), this seems like a good place to start. In terms of raw graphical quality, it’s exactly what you’d expect; it hasn’t changed much from Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee in that regard. However, those games recreated the layout of the original Game Boy games almost exactly, so there was only so much detail that could be added. In Sword and Shield though, the devs used the Switch hardware to create a more full and complete world. There’s so much more visual detail in the environments, including interiors of houses and the like. The Pokemon look the same as ever, but I didn’t really want much to change in that regard; I don’t think anyone was looking for visuals in the vain of “Detective Pikachu” (the movie, not the game.) The environments around them, even during many (though not all) battles, provide the increased detail.
It is true that Game Freak could have done more with the increased power, such as making the games fully open-world. I’m not sure whether that would be ideal, to be honest, but we can at least get an idea of what that would look like by discussing the Wild Area. This is Game Freak’s experiment with open-world design: a wide open area in the middle of the game’s map, which players can explore freely. You can even control the camera! The area is broken up into different sections, some of which aren’t available at the start, and features a ton of wild Pokemon. As in the rest of the game, some wild Pokemon are encountered in the traditional random way, while others are visible walking around the tall grass (just like in the Let’s Go games.) Sometimes you’ll find particularly strong Pokemon wandering around outside of the tall grass, but these will usually be too strong until you get to a certain level. There’s more to say, but for now, let’s just say that the Wild Area is a ton of fun to explore. If you’re online, you may even see other players wandering around too. I admit, I do find myself wishing the Wild Area was bigger; it really is something new for the series. But at the same time, I’m glad the entire game isn’t like that. Specific routes allow for different themes, and Pokemon to go with them. For example, one route is a big ladder puzzle, while another is mostly ice and water. The structure these routes provide is nice, but I do admit that might just be because it’s what I’m used to. Either way, that suggests it was wise to not make the entire game play like the Wild Area, but I do still wish it was bigger.
Speaking of “bigger,” much has been said online about Sword and Shield’s premier new mechanic, Dynamax. Essentially, the Dynamax mechanic allows players to super-size one of their Pokemon for three turns, during which the Pokemon can use a special set of moves similar to the generic Z-Moves in Sun and Moon. This mechanic is only available when battling in a gym or similar environment, and when participating in Max Raid Battles (which I’ll get to shortly.) Of all the fan complaints leading up to this release, this is the one I really agree with. One can’t help but compare it to the much more versatile and interesting Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves of previous games. Both of those mechanics worked in any battle, the former lasted for as long as the Pokemon was active, and the latter had far more variety given the species-specific moves available. Dynamax is cooler than I expected, I’ll give it that; seeing the colossal Pokemon and their colossal moves is something. But the only thing that allows it to even come close to matching its predecessors is with the Gigantamax mechanic. This is functionally the same as Dynamax, but it also sort of combines all three: the Pokemon becomes giant (like Dynamax), changes in appearance (like Mega Evolutions), and has a major species-specific move (like Z-Moves). The problem? Besides the fact that it only lasts for 3 turns, like regular Dynamax, there are only 25 Pokemon that are able to use it. Not only that, the ability to Gigantamax is tied to a specific Pokemon, not a species or item, and getting your hands on most of them is very difficult. But when you are able to use it, I do find it to be pretty exciting.
Other than a few that are available for free under certain circumstances, the only way to get a Gigantamax Pokemon is through a Max Raid Battle. These battles take place at various spots throughout the Wild Area, and challenge four trainers to defeat (and hopefully catch) a Dynamax or Gigantamax Pokemon. This is another major new mechanic, so I want to get into some of the details. As expected from a raid mechanic, the idea is to gather other players, be they local or online. That being said, for all but the five-star raids, I had no trouble winning with just the NPC trainers the game adds in for me. That made it rather annoying when I reached a certain point and was only able to find 5-star raids; getting a group together for them is not always easy, and it was nice to have the option to handle them alone. Now, lower-tier raids didn’t actually stop appearing; they just became a lot more rare. Also exceedingly rare are raids for Gigantamax Pokemon. Outside of a few that have been made more common for a limited time (a practice one hopes Game Freak continues), these go far beyond a needle in a haystack. That said, there is good reason to do non-Gigantamax raids. All raids reward you with candies you can use to level up your Pokemon, which eliminates a lot of the annoying grinding usually required to bring a lower level Pokemon onto your team. Another common reward is TRs; these are just like TMs, except that they only work once (whereas TMs stopped working like that some time ago.) They let you teach your team some pretty strong moves relatively early in the game, which is always a plus.
Before I get to breaking down how the game is to play, there are a few odds and ends I want to make sure to note. First, while connecting with people online is not too difficult, someone thought it would be a good idea to get rid of the GTS. The Global Trade System allowed players of the 3DS games to put their Pokemon up on offer with a requirement for what they were willing to trade it for. Once the listing was up, it would stay up until someone accepted the trade or it was removed. Without the GTS, you either have to trade with people you know outside the game, organize a trade online somewhere, or connect to a random person and hope that they understand what you’re trying to get. I’m also disappointed to learn that the games only have three legendary Pokemon to find, and no Mythical Pokemon to speak of (though they could be added with updates.) I know people have complained about previous titles having too many, but I feel this has taken things too far in the wrong direction. And finally, there seems to be a lot less story this time around. Things mostly happen “off-camera” until the end of the game, and compared to what we saw in previous titles, the story and characters who are present don’t reach that level.
Despite all this, Sword and Shield are still Pokemon games, and they’re still a blast to play. While there aren’t a ton of new Pokemon this time around, I really like a lot of the designs and ideas. The gameplay hasn’t changed much at its core, so you can go in with some idea of what to expect. After all, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. I know a lot of people disagree with that idea (in this context, at least), but at the end of the day, it’s fun to play. Discovering new Pokemon is still a blast, and there are definitely some designs that will surprise you if you go in without looking all of them up.
So, are these the best Pokemon games we could have received? No, I don’t think you’ll find many fans who feel that way. But amidst all the complaints, controversies, and accusations, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these games are fun. You don’t need to be able to transfer over all of your old Pokemon or to see a massive visual overhaul to enjoy Sword and Shield. Even though it isn’t the game a lot of us wanted, it’s still worth trying the game we have. I recommend Sword and Shield to any fan of the series. And if somehow you’re reading this review without having ever tried a Pokemon game before, there are worse places to start.
Don't deprive yourself of a great adventure
Gameplay - 8/10
Visuals - 8/10
Story and Characters - 8/10
+ Awesome new Pokemon
+ Wild Area is cool
+ Graphical improvements
– Dynamax isn’t that exciting
– No GTS
– Can’t pet Pokemon anymore