Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: Rediscovering Wonder
Pokemon Sword and Shield is the latest iteration of the Pokemon franchise, and the first “Mainline” pokemon game to be released on console.
And it has a lot of people feeling a lot of ways.
There was a lot of controversy about these games before their release, and every new announcement seemed to add more fuel to the fire. While there were a great many of them, the biggest was easily the reduction in available pokemon. The roster has been getting bloated for well over a decade now, with the current number of pokemon sitting at 890 (as of Sword and Shield). For various reasons, the most prominent one given by the developers being development bloat, the roster available in Sword and Shield has been stripped down to 400 (not including regional variants). So while you’ll find many returning favorites, not everyone is here this time around (for the record, it is a crime against humanity that Mismagius was cut).
I mention this because the controversy surrounding this title before release is kind of inescapable. I know I read about four early reviews myself that talked about the “Thanos Snap,” as the fanbase has called it. What I haven’t seen, is any mention of how this effects gameplay; which is to say, it really doesn’t beyond stopping you from bringing in your past pokemon (which will instead be a function of the Pokemon Home app released in early 2020). If anything, the reduction improves the experience. For completionists, it makes filling out your pokedex a much more attainable goal. For competitive players, it makes planning for your opponents teams actually possible (while this was possible in competitive before now, that was largely because there were only a small number of viable pokemon in the series). It also helps to make Galar feel like a unique place in the pokemon world, with the wildlife feeling distinct to the region instead of “a bunch of pokemon we’ve seen before but also a new bird.”
And good lord, does Galar feel like a completely unique place.Every inch of this game has been designed based off of the UK (Scotland specifically), from the new and regional-variant pokemon, to the architecture and wilderness. With the leap from handheld to console, the game is able to support sweeping vistas and they GO for it. This is most evident in The Wilds, where the player is given control of the camera for the first time ever as they trek through various terrain with an ever changing weather system. We’ll talk more about the mechanics of The Wilds later, but there is no denying the beauty of this game. This occasionally causes moments of slow down (particularly when there are several character models on screen or complicated weather effects, such as in The Wilds), but during the majority of the game it is entirely absent.
As for the gameplay, there are a variety of quality of life improvements that have been a long time coming. The options menu allows you to turn off the nickname prompts, automatically place newly caught pokemon in the box, and even streamline your controls to so that you only have to use one joy-con. For battles, there are hold-overs from Sun and Moon, such as telling you what moves are strong or weak against your opponents, but bring in new innovations such as the Info Screen, which reminds you what stats have been modified. And further still, the game world itself is vastly improved. Brought back from Pokemon Let’s Go is overworld pokemon that roam through tall grass and in the water, but now they interact a little with their environments. Water pokemon will occasionally leap through the air, while land pokemon will creep through the grass, some hiding so deeply that you have to walk over and pull them out to find them! There are even some improvements to the general mechanics, with the base stat screen from Let’s Go making a comeback, as well as removing the need for HMs entirely. While the lack of HMs is something that was supplemented in older games with items that called overworld pokemon (or your eevee/pikachu in the Let’s Go games), in Sworld/Shield they simply removed the need entirely. Flight is accessed through the town map as easily as clicking on where you want to go, swimming has been seamlessly integrated into the Bike, and as far as I’ve been able to find there are no boulders to move or trees to cut down!
The storyline is a little odd. Rather than the world altering storylines of some past games in the series, the storyline in this generation is a personal one; your character and their friend want to be The Champion of the Gym Challenge, an annual event similar to a Soccer/Football league. There is a world altering storyline happening in the background, but it always plays second-fiddle to the Gym Challenge storyline. Character arcs focus on people experiencing personal challenges and overcoming them through love and affection. It can be surprisingly touching in some instances.
Finally, we have to talk about The Wilds, the games new all-purpose area for every stage of the game. This area contains a wide range of environments with constantly shifting weather patterns that contribute to which pokemon can be found where and when, as well as the main form of co-op introduced in this generation: Max Raid Battles. Max Raid battles are four player battles against a single Dynamaxed enemy that scale in difficulty as you complete Gyms. These battles give you access pokemon not available through normal gameplay, or ones that are comparatively rare otherwise, and make use of the new Dynamax mechanic. This is essentially a fusion of the Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves of yesteryear, made available to every pokemon in the game rather than restricted to a comparatively small handful.
To help keep players from having to stay in The Wilds (and thus causing additional slowdown and mechanical issues) many of the features can be accessed from anywhere in the world through the Y-Comm, Sword and Shield’s newest iteration of the GTS. From the Y-Comm you can access trade requests and surprise trades (the current version of Wonder Trades), join in on other player’s raids, and take place in friendly online battles or competitions.
Pokemon Sword and Shield is less a return to form, and more a return to that first time you picked up a pokemon game. There’s a new surprise around every corner, battles being held in stadiums are the ultimate ideal of pokemon battles, and everything just feels wonderful. Are there problems? No doubt. The Wilds in particular suffer from occasional slowdown if the game tries to load in too many players or pokemon at once, especially in certain types of weather relying on heavy particle effects (lookin at you, sandstorms). Even with that in mind, if you haven’t bought a Switch yet, this would be the game to buy one for.