RELEASED: November 16th 2019
DEVELOPED BY: Game Freak
PUBLISHED BY: The Pokémon Company & Nintendo
DIRECTED BY: Shigeru Ohmori
PRODUCED BY: Junichi Masuda, Hitoshi Yamagami & Takanori Sowa
WRITTEN BY: Toshinobu Matsumiya
ART BY: James Turner & Suguru Nakatsui
MUSIC BY: Minako Adachi & Go Ichinose
After over two decades, the core series of Pokémon titles has finally made its way onto a home console. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little kid playing Pokémon Yellow on my GameBoy Colour, and while it doesn’t really live up to those dreams, there’s still a lot to love about the newest generation of Pocket Monsters.
As always, Pokémon Sword and Shield follow a young trainer as they’re gifted their first Pokémon and sent out into the world to collect Gym Badges and catch them all. This time, the journey takes players to the Galar region, based on the United Kingdom, where Gym Battles and the Pokémon League are a treated more like a sporting competition, with each challenger sponsored to tackle the eight gyms once a year, and only the most successful making it to the ‘finals’.
This reinvention of the Pokémon Gyms and Pokémon League are a welcome change of pace. In prior games, Gym Battles, while fun, were just obstacles that the player would face as they moved through the story. Here, however, each Gym Battle is an event, taking place in a massive stadium, in football-esque uniforms, with thousands of people’s chants and cheers intermingling with the music (which I must say, is some of the best to come out of a Pokémon game). Similarly, the dismissal of the Elite Four, and introduction of an actual League, in a similar vein to the anime, is a lot more interesting and gives you the experience that fans of Ash Ketchum and his companions have been experiencing since the nineties.
However, in an effort to also make the game a bit more like Pokémon Go, Sword and Shield also introduce other features (and retain some from the Let’s Go! games) such as Pokémon appearing in the overworld, and a big focus on raid battles, through the new gaming mechanic Dynamaxing. Compared to the likes of Mega Evolutions, Dynamaxing isn’t all that interesting. In certain battles, you can make your Pokémon turn into giants. That’s pretty much it. And in certain places, you can team up with other people to fight Dynamaxed Pokémon in Raids, with the chance of catching special or rarer Pokémon.
It’s not overly interesting or thoughtful, but it’s fun enough and is a nice little feature to distinguish the game from its predecessors, even if it isn’t as strong as Mega Evolutions. It does have a bit more prominence on the online scene though, as from what I’ve experienced, an ill-timed Dynamax can lead to you getting obliterated by a more skilled player.
Speaking of the online functionality of the game. It’s kind of shit if I’m honest.
Obviously, as a gaming series, Pokémon is built around the experience of playing with others. As a kid, catching them all wasn’t a possibility for me because the only friends I had who seemed to like Pokémon as much as I did didn’t live nearby. However, in recent years, trading and battling against other players has become exceedingly easy, with the online interface being continually updated to the point where you could just type in the Pokémon you were after, and scroll through a list of people who were offering it up.
Until now. Now, everything is completely random. You cant search for specific Pokémon, and if you manage to connect to a random player, there’s no actual way of communicating with them. Similarly, the Max Raid Battles, one of the key new elements of the game, seemingly goes to shit whenever you try and search for people to team up with. Of all the battles I undertook, only two or three of them were actually with other real people, as the game would either never let people take up my invites, or tell me I’d missed my opportunity when selecting someone else’s invite. It’s kind of infuriating really.
Fortunately, the game isn’t all about the online. And like I said up top, there is a lot to love here. As you roam through the Galar region, there are a lot of interesting locales to explore, and an expansive, semi-open world Wild Area, where the weather changes and huge amount of Pokémon can be found wandering about. This is perhaps the best part of the game, and I’d often find myself returning to the Wild Area just to roam around between Gym Battles. It’s a great step towards the sort of game Pokémon could be – a truly open world experience populated by interesting characters and wonderful creatures.
But alas, the wild area is limited to the space between three towns. I look forward to seeing it improved on though.
If you’re in the Wild Area though (or just strolling down a regular route) you can also interact with your Pokémon more than ever before. Returning from the Let’s Go games is the ability to access your extra Pokémon from wherever you are, and new to this game is the ability to set up camp, play with your Pokémon and cook meals. It seems a bit silly, but playing catch with these fictional creatures and making them curry did strengthen my bond to the team and make the experience more fulfilling as a result.
Speaking of the Pokémon, Sword & Shield introduce around eighty new monsters, many of whom feature marvellous designs. The weakest, unfortunately, are probably the starter evolutions, and the game is also quite lacking when it comes to legendaries (there are three, two of which are the version exclusive cover Pokémon), but there are so many others that have interesting little quirks that can make you fall in love with them. The new Meowth evolution Perserrker and the rock/fire type Coalossal are my favourite captures from this newest generation.
There are also a wealth of older Pokémon who returned to the game, and in place of the rather disappointing starters, I experienced a new appreciation for older Pokémon like Jellificent, Abomasnow and Noibat, who became my pseudo-starter during my playthrough. Overall, the number of Pokémon hits 400, which I found to be enough for the main playthrough of the game (there are still a load I haven’t bumped into yet) but the absence of the other 400 or so Pokémon (this is the first core Pokémon game no to feature all the Pokémon in some capacity) started to make my enthusiasm wane after I beat the main story.
Which is a shame, because there really isn’t much to the story. It’s the same sort of thing as all the other Pokémon games – battle the gyms while fighting a villain team and investigating the mythology of the region, which culminates with you fighting a legendary Pokémon. Except here, the investigations are generally left to other characters, while you are continually encouraged to focus on your Gym challenge. I feel like the reinvention of the Gyms was necessary and welcome, but in future games, I’d like to see an equal amount of effort put into the Gyms and the overarching story. Especially if we’re not even getting half the Pokémon.
In terms of Pokémon experiences, this is a very enjoyable game. But when you stop comparing it to its predecessors and start comparing it to the gaming industry as a whole, it becomes evident that Game Freak really hasn’t pushed the envelope far enough forward in the past twenty years. While it features colourful visuals, interesting characters and some great quality of life improvements, it seems to lag behind a lot of other games in terms of actual storytelling, graphics and depth.
It’s like Game Freak really committed themselves to making a great game, but after finishing 70% decided it was time to call it a day. Those looking for updated Pokémon experience will almost certainly still enjoy it, but there’s a lot that can be improved.
All-in-all, I give Pokémon Sword & Shield: