Pokémon Sword and Shield refines all that has come before in the series. It has the various quality-of-life upgrades found in Let’s Go and new innovations of its own. Despite its lackluster story and absent Pokémon, it’s Game Freak’s most streamlined, polished, and entertaining entry since its transition to 3D.
The Galar region is a highlight of the experience. The various rural environments, steam-powered cities, and coastal towns each have their own identities, inspired by the United Kingdom and naturally enticing you to explore. It makes the core experience of battling and catching Pokémon while you collect gym badges a more enjoyable time.
A quasi-Arthurian narrative
Arthurian legend and other facets of UK culture inspire Pokemon Sword and Shield‘s 81 new Pokémon, and they are ultimately more creative than Game Freak’s more recent efforts, with only a few oddballs here and there. Tales of knights and kings also inform the narrative backdrop, fleshing out a typical Pokemon narrative of becoming “the very best.” But the story’s simplicity prevents it from reaching the heights of series bests like Black and White.
It is, however, held together by a creative, albeit static cast of characters, each with their own distinct designs and personalities. A standout of the cast is Team Yell, a group of overbearing fans who stand in the way of your journey as thugs. And there is an overall grandiosity to the adventure that makes the experience feel bigger than what has come before. The games are just literally larger as well.
The “biggest” adventure in Pokémon history
Those hoping for an enormous graphical leap with Pokémon Sword and Shield will be disappointed. The game looks largely similar to an HD remaster of one of the 3DS games, retaining the flat and lifeless textures that are certainly not pushing the boundaries of the Switch’s hardware. Game Freak’s aptitude for art direction elevates the final product considerably though. The variety of animations during camping is stunning in particular, while the animation in combat is more minimalist and doesn’t really provide an upgrade over the previous 3DS outings. However, this is acceptable since the combat is turn-based and the effects that are present are just enough to not be distracting.
Gyms have various tasks that are wildly different with each one you come across. They are never tedious (no box or treadmill puzzles), with the final battles happening in huge stadiums. Hundreds in the crowd cheer you on as you face each respective leader. If you’re familiar with the Pokémon Stadium games, those console experiences have been translated eloquently into this core entry.
During these stadium battles, which are spiced up with intermixed dialogue and an eclectic soundtrack, you have the opportunity to use your Dynamax Band to make your Pokémon become huge. In Dynamax form, which lasts three turns and can only be used once per battle, a Pokémon’s moves become powerful “Max” iterations that are heavy on extra effects. There are a few Pokémon who have special forms when they Dynamax referred to as their Gigantamax forms. These forms are few and far between but provide unique looks and even stronger attacks for the creatures to use, such as a variation on Meowth whose torso is horrifically stretched out and can now use his extra powerful G-Max moves.
Game Freak has put a lot of focus on streamlining the overall experience with Pokémon Sword and Shield. Quality-of-life improvements such as an adaptive tutorial cut down on the prologue of the game, giving you the opportunity to skip the lengthy explanations as to how Pokémon Centers (etc.) work. You also have the ability to use your box anywhere and fast travel without having a Pokémon with “Fly” in your party.
There’s additionally the option to have downtime with your Pokémon and use toys to play with them at camps. These camps can be found during your adventure or entered into via the menu at any time. Apart from spending time with your party, you can also cook curry with various ingredients (such as berries) you find in the overworld. This curry strengthens your bond with the Pokémon, raises their experience points, and restores their HP and PP. You can even send Pokémon from your box to do jobs in real time to earn experience.
Pokémon Sword and Shield get wild
Random encounters are largely gone, replaced by on-screen Pokémon roaming around. This makes the new Wild Area an exciting place to visit at any time during your journey. This area is teeming with Pokémon inaccessible elsewhere and opportunities to do Raid Battles with up to four players in a pseudo-open-world environment that connects the Galar region to its other areas. With the online functionality, you can connect with others seamlessly to take down extra-powerful Pokémon in raids, which provide Pokémon with greater stats plus a variety of loot like exp. supplements, and spend dozens of hours catching Pokémon outside of the main adventure. While the Wild Area may not be as large as I would’ve hoped, (It’s also the most visually unappealing part of the game due to its muddier textures.) its Pokémon GO-inspired distractions from the overall linear game are more than welcome.
And speaking of the online experience, I have been been able to properly connect with others and rarely experienced any disconnects whether raiding or trading. Additionally, I enjoyed customizing my trainer with a variety of avatar, hair, and wardrobe options.
The differences between Pokémon Sword and Shield are standard if you’ve played any other generations of the Pokemon series, with exclusive Pokémon such as the leek and leaf shield-bearing Sirfetch’d in Sword and the ethereal Galarian Ponyta in Shield. It’s probably not enticing enough to pick up both games as opposed to just trading with others online.
It’s more attainable than ever with Pokemon Sword and Shield to “catch ‘em all,” but the National Pokédex is admittedly missed. The frustrations behind this are valid, as with each passing generation of the series a dedicated player base has been able to import the creatures they’ve caught over the decades. Until the implementation of Pokémon Home, Sword and Shield are isolated core entries that won’t connect to the long legacy that has been established.
Still, I have always enjoyed the warm escapism that the Pokémon games have imparted with their simple pleasures, and Pokémon Sword and Shield continue to provide that. While I can admit that it still doesn’t do enough different, (The absence of voice acting is jarring.) the inclusions such as the Wild Area and streamlining of tired aspects are big steps in the right direction. Game Freak has succeeded in creating a new core entry worthy of being on home consoles, and Pokémon Sword and Shield are a couple of the best games on Nintendo Switch.