Pokemon Sword/Shield (2019)
GameFreak | Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
It’s a whole new place, with a brand new attitude
Pokemon is the game series I’ve stuck with the longest – I’ve been playing these games for as long as I can remember. From Red, back on the GameBoy Color, to now, with Sword and Shield on the Switch, these colourful worlds with all their stories and inhabitants have always been a part of my life. I can still remember each and every team that carried me through these titles, all the way to the Elite Four and Champion, from each generation – like Aurelius, the Talonflame from my Pokemon X team, to Arkaig, the Swampert from Pokemon Sapphire. Though I didn’t particularly enjoy my playthrough of Pokemon White, I still remember my team: Samurott, Galvantula, Lilligant, Braviary, Sawk, and Chandelure. I remember the towns, rivals, and silly villains, like Team Rocket, and Skull, and their foolhardy plots that are inevitably foiled. But most of all, I remember these Pokemon; the tiny pieces of data that I became absurdly attached to, as they fought on my behalf, through Kanto, Johto, and all the regions since. These partners were with me through every defeat (looking at Whiney and her infamous Miltank) and every hard-fought victory, like Steven, the first Champion I ever defeated. Through these ups and downs, critical hits, and clutch survivals, these little creatures have always impressed me, and I’ve loved them all in turn.
This is just my small version of #ThankYouGameFreak, and in a roundabout way, to say that I won’t be talking about the controversy surrounding these titles, and the National Dex. In my personal opinion, these missing elements are minor inconveniences, and petty complaints; though I do understand why fans are upset, I just don’t share in the outrage. I have a genuine list of complaints about Sword and Shield, and none of them include the textures on trees. I don’t think Game Freak lied, nor do I think the studio intentionally cut corners to make a lazy, subpar game. There is a much more level take on the issue of “Game Freak lying” in an article on Polygon that I felt was a good read, as it gives a much more nuanced take on the entire situation. Regardless, I’ve played the game, beaten the story, done the thing, and here’s what I think.
Searching far and wide
As with nearly every Pokemon game, our young protagonist begins their journey in a sleepy town – this one is called Postwick, quaint if I ever saw it – before receiving their starter Pokemon and heading out to see the world. The world, in this case, being the Galar region – loosely based on a European/British style, I genuinely enjoyed everything Galar had to offer. There are some truly stunning areas, like the whimsical town of Ballonlea, and the centrally-located Hammerlocke, with its Hyrule Castle Town vibes. Though visually I found each area to be well crafted, I did find them somewhat lacking in terms of content; each route was fairly short and straightforward, which didn’t allow for much in terms of exploration or discovery. Even Ballonlea, which I just praised, was simply too small, consisting of just 2 houses, the Pokemon Center, and the gym. The minimalist routes made travelling from town to town seem somewhat dull. It was disappointing to finally reach a new town to find that it was equally as lean as the route to get there.
The Galar region definitely could have been more fleshed out, with lengthier routes and more robust towns; it made me long for the expansive, challenging areas, like the Victory Roads of yestergeneration. The Galar region was so gorgeous, I simply wanted more of it. The soundtrack that accompanies your journey for these games is also incredible – I thoroughly enjoyed the battles themes, route tunes, and especially the Wild Area songs. I never thought I needed bagpipes in a Pokemon game, but here we are. The camping mechanic in Sword and Shield has replaced the previous generations’ Pokemon Refresh – it serves as a way to grow closer to your Pokemon, just by hanging out. By building these friendships, they’ll work harder for you, with more critical hits, dodges, and occasionally hanging on with 1 HP. Cooking curry was also an entertaining gimmick, and I found it fun trying to complete my “Curry Dex.”
To be the best
Though there isn’t much challenge to be found in traversing this lovely region (not including the Wild Area, but I’m getting to that) you won’t have to look farther than the main crux of these titles to find your uphill battle. I’m referring, of course, to the Gym Challenge. Framed slightly differently in Sword and Shield, the Gym Challenge is treated almost like a sporting event, held in massive stadiums across the land to crowds of adoring fans. The Gym Challenge requires an endorsement to participate – have no fear, the current Champion of the Galar region, Leon, will provide you with said endorsement – and the usual eight badges to proceed to the Final. In this installment, instead of facing the Elite Four before the Champion, you’ll face your fellow Gym Challenge competitors, as well as a re-match with some of the Gym Leaders. Finally, you’ll have to defeat the Champion to claim your title and complete the Challenge. This structure is brilliant, and I’m surprised they haven’t gone this route before. It makes so much sense to have the Gym Challenge be the big deal that is it in Galar. Battling it out in a stadium, in front of a crowd (with all the ensuing hype) makes collecting these badges much more entertaining. I also found there to be some difficult fights along the way – particularly when I didn’t have a Pokemon with a type that matched up favourably against the Gym Leader (I had a rough time in the Fairy Gym). Regardless, this was one of the most enjoyable Gym journey’s I’ve ever experienced in a Pokemon game.
These stadiums also serve as the exclusive locations for Sword and Shield’s central gimmick of Dynamax. Built on so-called Power Spots, the process of Dynamax is only possible in these gym battles, and available to a single Pokemon for 3 turns. The Pokemon’s HP is increased, as is the base power of all of their moves; these moves also have secondary effects, like lowering the Defense of the opposing Pokemon, or initiating weather like sun or rain. Though the Dynamax mechanic was impressive, I felt like (despite their intimidating size) the Dynamax Pokemon had a relatively small impact on the gameplay, because the phenomenon’s use is so restricted. I can’t honestly say whether I prefer Dynamax over Mega Evolution, or Z-Moves, but at the very least, it was equally as enjoyable. I’m slightly disappointed that random Dynamax isn’t an option, exclusively for the following scenario: in previous generations, when you couldn’t escape from a low-level Pokemon, you would get immeasurably angry, switch in your level 90 starter, and nuke that poor ‘mon with a Hyper Beam. Now, imagine you could Dynamax and REALLY nuke that unsuspecting Pokemon. But no, the dream is dead. I am, however, extremely interested to see how Dynamax is utilized in the upcoming 2020 competitive VGC season. And chunky Pikachu is still the best.
I had hoped that Dynamax would play more of a central role in the narrative of Sword and Shield (in a sort of scary, Attack on Titan finale) but it doesn’t really. In fact, the whole story of these games is fairly weak and underdeveloped – like a Magikarp that only knows Splash. Endearing, maybe, but definitely disappointing. There is some vague positing about an event called the Darkest Day, some heroes, some legendary Pokemon, etc, etc. There is also some interesting discussions regarding the concept of energy resources, but it all comes together so haphazardly it barely has any kind of impact at all. There are a few moments where Important Things™ like earthquakes and explosions seem to be happening, and you think okay, here we go, this is where the story gets going, but no. The rug is pulled from beneath you as the story undercuts itself. You go on ahead, says Sonia, the professor’s granddaughter, let the adults take care of this. You just focus on your Gym Challenge. Well alright then.
The only significant narrative beat (aside from learning tidbits about the legends of Galar here and there) comes at the very end of the game. I hesitate to spoil the details, but it involves the super obviously sketchy Chairman and his assistant, who appear to go rogue and impede your progress for about 10 minutes, and then both disappear (with little explanation), never to be heard from again. As always, the legendary Pokemon are involved, and the story culminates in a Pokemon Go-esque raid battle that effectively wraps up what little story there was. It was all rather flat and halfhearted, and though Pokemon isn’t exactly known for its hard-hitting narratives, I did expect more from this installment. With the introduction of Dynamax, they missed a huge opportunity to utilize the potential of gigantic, rampaging Pokemon (which is actually hinted at several times, and sort of comes about post-game) as a plot point, but it never comes to fruition.
The only place that you’ll encounter wild Dynamax Pokemon (sans rampaging) is in the aptly named Wild Area. It’s clear a lot of time and effort went into creating this space – it’s huge, with strong Pokemon for capturing or training against, and a plethora of items to collect which refresh every day. There are dens where uber-strong Pokemon hide, which you are able to battle in Max Raids (again, think Pokemon Go) with either friends, randoms, or NPC’s (side note: the young girl who always brings a Magikarp? Please stop. Please.) There is a variety of terrain, dynamic weather, and tons to explore. I found myself whiling hours away in this area without realizing. With the somewhat short section of post-game content, I appreciated all that the Wild Area had to offer. I did have some trouble with the online features, particularly trying to link up with other players for Max Raids, but hopefully those issues will be ironed out in future.
Until next generation!
I could get into some of my more nitpicky criticisms, like the fact that I wish there were more character customization options (especially for the male characters) or that Team Yell had a more prominent role, but these are small elements with relatively little effect on gameplay. These titles are certainly not the best Pokemon games, but they are far from the worst, and I truly enjoyed my time with them. I honestly believe that expectations will dictate your opinion of Sword and Shield – if you’re expecting to be disappointed and let down, you will be. If you’ve played previous Pokemon games, and are expecting a similar experience, you’ll find one here – and it’s good fun. The game looks fantastic, as both the Pokemon and Galar region are really brought to life on the Switch. A lot of move animations have been polished and updated, and some of the new ones are truly stunning – check out Falinks’ “No Retreat” if you need convincing. Dynamax is a fun gimmick, and you’ll be grateful for the extra power when facing down the Galar region’s Gym Challenge; but with endearing rivals, a friendly Champion, and a curry or two along the way, you’ll be well equipped to face Sword and Shield’s hardships. Once you’ve completed the main story, there are still things to do: exploring the Wild Area, ranking up in the Battle Tower, and of course, completing your Pokedex. So no, not every single Pokemon (all 800 of them) are in these titles, but I am grateful for the ones that are. I’d like to finish off by giving my final thanks to my lovely team from Shield.
Thank you to Finchy, the Inteleon, Artorias, the Corviknight, Fritter, the Appletun, Ornstein, the Toxtricity, Revanant, the Polteageist, and Ariamis, the Frosmoth. Ya’ll are the real MVP’s.