Right, listen up everyone. You’re all wrong. Pokémon Sword and Shield are amazing, the hate for it is, for the most part, unfounded, and here’s why.
First of all, a quick disclaimer: this is a review of Pokémon Sword and Shield. I have fully completed Shield and am working my way through Sword (although the differences are minor). This is a spoiler free review but if you want to play the game knowing absolutely nothing about it, I would return to this review after the fact.
On my 22-hour journey through the Galar region, I was constantly smiling from ear to ear at the beautiful game that truly brings Pokémon into a new generation. It was a struggle to put down my Switch when around every corner was a new, brilliantly designed, unique Pokémon. I have played every mainline game in the series and haven’t felt this sense of joy since Diamond and Pearl. Every game in the series makes changes, big and small, but never has a game made me think “this is the new gold-standard of Pokémon”.
The first thing I noticed when I jumped into the game was the sheer scope of the visuals. Many people have hated on the low-res texture (especially the trees), which are there, but it is barely noticeable when you are gazing over grassy, rolling fields or sneaking through mystical, glowing mazes in the forest. Sword and Shield are a breath of fresh air for the series, introducing the first fully 3-D world with a controllable camera in parts and aspects of free roam. Unfortunately, the controllable camera is only available in the “Wild Area”, a zone in the game available before the first gym where you can explore a massive area full of various Pokémon ranging from level 10 to 50+. It is a great addition to the typical formula where you can grind up as much as you want, meaning you’ll never hit a roadblock throughout the story. The best thing about the wild area is the variable weather. The wild area is split into separate zones that each can have their own unique weather ranging from a sandstorm to snow, which affects the Pokémon you’ll encounter. This is great for fans of only a single type; I, for one, love ice types, so the ability to catch multiple ice types in the early game is a wonderful opportunity I rarely get.
Following the pattern of generation 6 and 7, a brand-new battle mechanic has been added. Dynamaxing (and its very similar counterpart ‘Gigantamaxing’) is an option available during major battles in the game that allows you to make your Pokémon grow to a massive size, increasing its stats and changing its moves to significantly more powerful versions. Gigantamaxing also does this but changes the form of certain Pokémon, such as Pikachu, that becomes an absolute chonk (reminiscent of the original design back in 1996). This lasts 3 turns and adds a new dimension to battling, as you have to manage whether you are going to Dynamax early on to get an advantage, or Dynamax at the same time as your opponent to effectively neutralise their advantage from Dynamaxing. Dynamaxing also features heavily in the wild area, with certain spots throughout shooting pillars of red light to the sky. You can go up to these ‘wells’ and fight a Dynamaxed Pokémon which, if caught, will be a great addition to your team (as they generally have much higher stats).
Long term fans of the series will be pleased to know that the new Pokémon are fantastic. The unique designs bring back the philosophy of the earliest games, with a huge variety of creatures, any of which you’d love to have as a pet in real life! (No key rings or literal piles of trash this time). Gamefreak, the developer of Pokémon, has done a great job this time round of not revealing too much before the game’s release. I was surprised by new Pokémon around every corner, including Galarian forms that not only put a new spin on previous ‘mons, but also give some of them brand-new evolutions, such as Obstagoon – the tantalisingly terrifying evolution to Galarian Linoone. With Sword and Shield keeping the trend of no HMs in the game, you are free to build your team however you like – a task that is extremely difficult with nearly 100 new ‘mons and hundreds more returning.
After the omnishambles that was Alola, we finally see the return of gyms! And what a return to form. The puzzles before the main fight are original and the fights themselves are breath-taking. The Galar region is heavily inspired by the U.K. and in true British form the gyms are effectively football stadiums. Seeing the roaring crowd cheer me on as I, fully kitted out in sports gear, make the finishing blow from across the field was a whole new level of immersion I have never experienced in a Pokémon game before. Not only the Pokémon, but the gym leaders too have amazing designs – each character emanates the love for their specialised type without saying a word.
One of my favourite aspects of Sword and Shield is the music and art. Each town has its own tune – both new songs feature as well as remixes of older ones that hit that nostalgia nail right on the head while still keeping the general theme of the game intact. The art in the games is beautiful. Being based off the U.K., there are many areas which reference different cities and areas within the U.K. Grand castles, clock towers, charming little hamlets, and farm towns give the world a huge variety of scenery whilst still keeping under a unified theme which in the past has not been executed as well. (I’m looking at you Alola, you can’t just put 4 islands next to each other and call it Hawaii).
This section is threefold. I will cover what actually missed the mark in this game but also cover what people, who haven’t even played the game, think is bad and give my two cents on why they aren’t as big of an issue as you may think.
Let’s start by covering the big controversy surrounding the game in recent months. Internet dubbed ‘Dexit’, referring to the fact that Sword and Shield does not contain a national dex (meaning this game does not contain every Pokémon ever, even if you transfer them from past games), has infuriated many people. This is understandable at the surface level. Every Pokémon out there is someone’s favourite, so you are bound to be upset by this if you love Bidoof and find out he’s nowhere to be found (sorry to the one person out there that likes them). However, I would argue this is a good thing for 2 reasons. Firstly, it means people get to branch out. If you typically catch the same Pokémon every game and have the same tactics every time, this change causes you to think differently and who knows, you might even find a new favourite Pokémon that you would never have even considered using. Secondly, and more importantly to those who typically catch EVERY Pokémon, the competitive scene will benefit massively. Each game from now on will have a meta defined by which Pokémon are available, meaning that you will see a diverse array of strategies throughout the years as the meta game constantly shifts every year. This will keep the competition much more interesting as it will require players not only to have a deep knowledge of the core mechanics of Pokémon, but also require players to be versatile and have the ability to adapt to changes implemented in each iteration of the game. Finally, most people don’t catch all the Pokémon anyway so most of the people complaining are doing so for no honest reason… from my experience most of the people complaining wouldn’t have even played the game anyway!
Another issue some have, that I have already covered, is the use of low-quality textures and the re-use of old assets in animation. Now while this is annoying in some aspects, I generally found that I was too busy staring into the distance at a beautiful landscape or city to notice a blade of grass being a bit fuzzy. Equally the animation quality is not noticeable because at the end of the day it’s not possible to create unique animations for every Pokémon in the game using every move. With the art style being so refined and clean now after years of iteration, I think the actual graphical fidelity is not something that should be a focus, especially not from a Nintendo game which has never been renowned for being a market leader in resolution and detail alone (or at least not since the N64). I will say however that improving these issues in the future would be a welcome change, I just don’t think it’s reasonable to be outraged by something which makes little difference to the overall experience of a beloved RPG franchise.
My main issue with the game, however, is in its story and pacing. Generally, main series games have a great story, linking in with an evil team and the legendries of the region, no spoilers but this is not really covered as well as previously with Team Yell, the ‘evil’ team of gen 8 being little more than an occasional nuisance throughout the game was disappointing, especially given the lack of any true ‘dungeon’ to be found. Equally, I found the pacing to be quite uneven. It took me 22 hours to beat the game but 6 hours to even get to the first gym. Granted I like to take things slow, but it’s a bit ridiculous that this is the case – especially when you are limited to catching Pokémon up to level 20 until you beat the first gym. Luckily after that the pace picks up a bit, but almost too fast such that the story takes back seat and your only sense of progression is how far you can make it through the wild area. This, coupled with a disappointing lack of post-game content was an unfortunate smudge on an otherwise gem of a game.
Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield blew me away and exceeded my expectations to the fullest. Despite a somewhat awkward pacing, the child-like feeling of anticipation around every corner and the awe-inspiring view into the mesmerising Galar region is one that will not be forgotten any time soon. For people put off by previous generations, I highly recommend checking it out; for any long-term fan of Pokémon, you will not be disappointed. This game is Pokémon to its core and I loved every minute of it.
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