Back in November of 2017, I said that Pokémon Sun and Moon were the best entries in the Pokemon franchise since Silver and Gold. I was curious to see how GameFreak would be able to top them especially on the Nintendo Switch, which had been revealed almost a month prior to Sun and Moon’s release.
Switch owners were treated to the appetizer in Pokémon Let’s Go—which, while still fairly by-the-numbers; was a pretty unique re-release of Pokémon Yellow in its own right—but they were hungry for the main course. Now it’s been served, and despite the volcano of vitriol erupting on social media, Pokémon Sword and Shield maintains its predecessors’ high bar of quality.
At its core, Pokémon Sword and Shield remain fundamentally the same as its predecessors. You choose a young boy or girl to begin your Pokémon adventure: selecting a partner Pokémon and battling across the new Galar Region—a loose adaptation of the UK—capturing Pokémon, and challenging the region’s gym leaders, and finally, in lieu of the Elite Four, the Regional Champion. However, much like Sun and Moon; Pokémon Sword and Shield feel so distinctly different from every other entry in the franchise.
Like Sun and Moon, Sword and Shield differentiate themselves from more “traditional” Pokémon games and end up feeling more like proper RPGs. This comes from little details like how Pokémon don’t only show up in tall grass as random encounters, but can be seen and encountered within the world—a standard set in Pokémon Let’s Go. Other little touches like how key opponents deliver dialogue during battles, add nice dramatic flourishes to the gameplay and make the whole adventure feel more narratively driven.
But where Sword and Shield’s RPG inspiration comes out the most is in the “Wild Area”—a large open space in the heart of the Galar Region where players can roam freely and are given full control of the camera. It’s amazing how a simple change in perspective does a lot to change the general feeling of a game; and for a series that has been mostly top-down, getting to run around in a wide-open area with the freedom to look around and see wild Pokémon wandering the habitat, makes battling for experience, or catching Pokémon feel a lot grander. Furthermore, players are able to connect to the internet while in the Wild Area to see other players’ avatars running around. While you cannot directly interact with them, you can talk to them to get items—you can also trade and battle with them, but that’s done through menus.
But of course, Pokémon isn’t all travelling across the land, searching far and wide. Any trainer knows the importance of battling, and while Pokémon battles remain fundamentally the same, the new “Dynamax” feature adds an interesting new element to battles, as well as providing some important context to the narrative.
In certain battles, Pokémon can Dynamax, becoming the size of a giant, and opening up a range of powerful attacks. While this can be an effective way to turn the tide of battle, there are some restrictions that keep it from being as overpowered as Mega Evolution. For starters, Dynamax only lasts for three turns; and each Pokémon has its own Dynamax level which affects their health when Dynamaxed, and can only be raised through “Dynamax Candies.”
Dynamax Candies can only be earned through Raid Battles— another new feature added to Sword and Shield, and largely inspired by Pokémon Go. In these battles, players join a team of four and battle against a dynamaxed Pokémon, working together to defeat the fearsome opponent, and then catching the Dynamaxed Pokémon. This too adds a lot to Sword and Shield’s “traditional RPG” sensibilities; replicating the feeling of being in a party working together to take on a powerful Pokémon.
From a design standpoint, Pokémon Sword and Shield strike a perfect balance between a game that’s designed to be both linear and free-roam, which is important to consider given the console it’s designed for. It’s a game that, at times, looks small but feels big so even in handheld play, it never feels like the adventure is scaled down. Several quality of life improvements has been made, that make handheld play a more welcome experience as you may be dropping in and out of play quickly during commutes or lunch-breaks. And the game is surprisingly easy on the Switch’s battery, at least as far as first-gen models are concerned.
Visually, Pokémon Sword and Shield are gorgeous: utilizing the franchises’ iconic art-style with a lot of interesting locations, well designed Pokémon, new and old alike; and an excellent use of bright colours, softly blended together in a way that makes the whole world look like a living painting. The whole of the Galar Region does a lot of visually compelling things with UK iconography—idyllic countryside, wide fields and moors, cities accented with cobblestone roads, and of course, large football stadiums repurposed as Pokémon Stadiums.
Also, while the game looks great in handheld mode, it’s design and scale make it much more suited to docked play, and it’s pretty incredible to stop and consider that this is the first mainline Pokémon game created for a non-handheld system. Seeing it on the big screen was a childhood dream come true.
In the audio department, Pokémon Sword and Shield might have some of the best music in the franchise. Both the wild Pokémon theme, as well as Battle theme are upbeat, energetic, and add a lot to the overall fun of the game. Several key characters get their own excellent themes as well, but the Gym battle theme is the real show-stealer; with a high tempo techno track, backed by the crowd chanting that really captures the intensity of the battle. Anyone who’s watched a football game in their lives will immediately recognize these familiar sounds, and I for one was smiling throughout every Gym battle. Also, Undertale’s Toby Fox composed a track for this game, and it’s incredible. Just thought you should know.
While I’ve been having a blast playing Pokémon Shield, it isn’t a game without its flaws. For starters, performance can be a bit slow at times, particularly in the Wild Area when large groups of Pokémon are present, or when connected to the internet and other avatars are running around. A lot of the game’s features are a bit archaic—connecting to the internet in the Wild Area requires you to open a separate menu and press the “+ Button” for some reason—and connecting to other players for Raid Battles is pretty unreliable. Here’s hoping a patch comes to fix that very soon.
Furthermore, Pokémon Sword and Shield bars players from catching high-level Pokémon unless they have specific gym badges; unlike previous entries where high-level Pokémon would simply refuse to listen to the trainer until they possessed certain badges.
This is kind of a silly inclusion, considering part of the appeal of the Wild Area is being able to see wild Pokémon—not to mention, much like a more traditional RPG, players can wander into an area where high-level Pokémon are present. Not being able to catch a cool Pokémon you may want because it’s outside your current catchability just seems counter-intuitive.
But any complaints I have with the game are nitpicks at best. Pokémon Sword and Shield are excellently crafted games and I have not wanted to stop playing Shield since I got it. Any true Pokémon fan will definitely find a lot to enjoy here; despite a few minor missteps, Pokémon Sword and Shield are exceptional Pokémon games, and are sure to please fans and newcomers alike.