A New Era Begins: Pokemon Sword and Shield

Pokemon Sword and Shield
Gameplay
graphics
audio
value
fun
Genre
Reviewed On
Nintendo Switch
Available For
Difficulty
Easy
Publisher(s)
Developer(s)
ESRB
ESRB

Pokemon Sword and Shield marks the official release of the 8th generation of Pokemon- With this, there are 80 brand new Pokemon, plus new regional variants, to catch, train, and force to do your bidding across 8 gyms in the Galar region. Boasting a Pokedex almost 500 creatures shorter than the national Pokedex of the previous game, Pokemon Sword and Shield haven’t been without controversy, but the core game components are still alive and well- you’ll be able to rock-paper-scissors with the best of them. So are Pokemon Sword and Shield super-effective, or is it a real Focus Miss? Let’s find out.

Check out the entire Pokémon Celebration series of articles that have run so far.

The story of Pokemon Sword and Shield is largely the same as previous generations, with some twists: You’ll explore the UK-inspired Galar region and train Pokemon to compete in the Gym Challenge, which is a soccer-inspired league where thousands of fans watch trainers compete. The “evil” team of this game, Team Yell, are actually just a bunch of soccer hooligans who are massive fans of a criminally underutilized character in the story; they’re basically all just idiots with hearts of gold (Peak Team Yell: They shout at you, with a crude megaphone, to prevent you from disturbing a sleeping Pokemon. While right next to the sleeping Pokemon). No actual bad guy shows up in the series until right before the championship battle, and that even is over basically as quickly as its begun. The story of Pokemon games have always been fairly simple, and Sword and Shield keep up this appearance pretty well as you’re just a kid participating in a sporting event, working your way to the top.

Mega evolution, Z-Moves, and a lot of Pokemon from previous games don’t return in Sword and Shield, but the new Dynamax mechanic takes their place. Dynamax can only be utilized once per battle, and is only enabled in specific locations of the game- usually in the gym’s stadiums. The Dynamaxed state allows your Pokemon a sizable health boost and access to powerful moves with beneficial effects, such as fire moves setting up strong sunlight. It’s a very swingy mechanic that even the gym leaders will use on their final Pokemon, several of them showing off special Gigantamax forms, which are essentially the same as Dynamax, but only usable by Pokemon caught in special locations in the Wild Area. The mechanic itself can be used to power through a sweep on an opposing team, or turnaround a bad situation on your opponent at a time they didn’t predict.

The story campaign of Sword and Shield is serviceable, but it’s marred by a shorter than usual run time with way more than the usual amount of dialogue for a Pokemon game. To make matters worse, most of the dialogue is largely unimportant fluff- you could beat the whole story in about 15 hours if you don’t mess around in the Wild Area for hours at a time, but you’ll be stopped fairly constantly by characters who will repeat the same dialogue to make sure you understand its jokes (your rival tells you no fewer than 10 times that his brother, the Champion, has a poor sense of direction). To drive home how unimportant a lot of this dialogue is- the Champion himself will congratulate you for using super-effective moves in the championship battle of the Pokemon League; literally the battle that precedes the credits roll.

The dialogue is just very repetitious without much payoff- though that may be unfair criticism as this is a game for children, but seeing as how I heard a 12 year old yell, “I get it, Hop, shut up!” at his Switch, I think every age group can appreciate this critique. Which, Hop shares a lot of similarities to the rival from Sun and Moon, except that Hop actually suffers a setback and completes a character arc by the end of the game. If it weren’t for him stopping you in every town and in front of every gym, the character would be looked upon quite favorably. Several other characters, including some gym leaders, exude personality as well, which is a marked increase for the series.

The Wild Area is a larger than usual route in between a few of the towns- you’re not required to venture there for more than the two or three times the story demands you do so to reach a new town. The Wild Area, itself, is probably one of the best things added into this game, even if the game struggles to maintain a consistent frame rate while you’re there (if connected online, that is, but more on that later). Each section of the Wild Area can be host to different groups of Pokemon, and different Pokemon show up in each area depending on the weather, which changes regularly. You can find items on the ground or talk to roaming trainers to get items, as you can’t actually interact with the ghosts of other trainers, but they will give you items you can use to make curry for your Pokemon should you want to do so. There are also dens for powerful Dynamaxed Pokemon that you can challenge with other players or with AI player support.

Outside of the Wild Area, the 10 routes present fairly short romps from one town to another with the occasional off-shoot path you can check for items, but for the most part there’s not a lot of room for exploration. For that matter, the end of the game seems especially rushed, with players likely going from entering the town of the 7th gym to the beating the 8th gym in about an hour and a half: One of the towns harboring a gym is literally a straight passage you can’t interact with anything in. Then, from there, you take a minute or two’s jaunt to the 8th gym and beat it too. Lots of the towns just have window-dressing that you can’t do anything with, this becoming more obvious the further into the game you go. Nothing in Sword and Shield is remotely comparable to Victory Road or more complex dungeons from even the earliest Gameboy games- you get a key item Escape Rope, this time, with no reason to ever use it as there’s only a couple “caves” (mines) in generation 8, and they take mere minutes to journey through.

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So, if the single player story is a little on the rushed side, what else is there to do? There are the online features, but first that should be mentioned are the post-game event and Battle Tower. The post-game event itself has you venture back to all of the gyms you previously completed, taking roughly 2 hours if you take your time. The Battle Tower, on the other hand, is somehow a worse Battle Maison or Battle Tree from generations 6 and 7, which were already considerably worse in comparison to the Battle Frontiers of generations 3 and 4. It’s actually a lot closer to generation 2’s Battle Tower than the most recent games, though thankfully you can still earn currency to buy items for online battling from online Vs battles, instead.

While the Battle Tower is strangely simplistic in comparison to previous games, Sword and Shield’s online functionality is considerably more so. To put the following complaints into perspective, generation 6 introduced the Player Search System, which would not only show your friends once you were connected to the Internet, but also allowed you to select them to notify them that you’d like to trade or battle. The PSS didn’t just do this for players on your friends list, either, as you could see random players connecting all the time and see if they’d like to play, as well. Not to mention, while trading, you had a series of pre-selected phrases that you could use to tell the other player that you’re not interested in what they offered, and the like.

In Sword and Shield you can do none of the above. V-Comm, the online component of this game, shows the player a random assortment of stamps showing the activities of various players on the left side of the screen. These stamps, a form of matchmaking, are the only way for players to interact with their friends outside of inputting 4 digit link codes to try and narrow things down. You can’t bring up a list of friends and select who you’d like to play with- instead you will need to both select that you’d like to trade or battle, then both input the same 4 digit code.

Math-savvy readers may have already noticed the problem: 4 digit codes are good for about 10,000 combinations, but millions of people buy Pokemon games. Actually trying to trade with a friend was a strange exercise in frustration as no matter what code we used, someone else always jumped into the slot so then we’d have to disconnect and try again. If you just want to trade or battle random players, not setting a link code can have your session pop up as a stamp to other players that they can click on if they see it. While waiting to trade or battle you can still continue to play and do other things until the game notifies you that it’s found you a partner, which is the one good addition the online for Sword and Shield has.

The premiere online mechanic of Sword and Shield, Max Raid Battles, also suffers due to how poorly implemented the online features are. Max Raid Battles are challenging fights against Pokemon that are always Dynamaxed, and they end if the battle drags on longer than 10 turns, or if your team’s Pokemon faint four times collectively. You can use AI players for these battles, but the real fun comes from challenging and capturing these rare and powerful monsters with your friends, rather than dealing with the AI player who brings a Wobbuffet that literally doesn’t hit the raid boss Pokemon once.

Strangely, you can only join Max Raid Battles by selecting the stamps that randomly pop up in your feed, inputting link codes, or beginning one yourself. Due to inconsistencies in the amount of time players can wait for others to join before the battle automatically begins (3 minutes), and how slowly stamps actually refresh for other players, you can oftentimes be left with a newly refreshed feed but every single invitation for the Max Raid Battle are old enough that the session has already closed so you’re given an error, instead. Additionally, after failing to get into a battle, your stamps list can refresh and still show you the battle that just gave you the error that prompted refreshing your stamps. The online component just doesn’t work well, seemingly by design, for some odd reason.

So, to put this into perspective, players in generation 6 could select the player they’d like to play with inside the game, itself. For some unknown reason, in generation 8, we can do none of that, and the online features suffer for it. Also the Global Trade System, a hallmark of the series since generation 4 that allows players to deposit Pokemon for trade while requesting another in return, is gone for seemingly no reason. The lack of GTS really only exacerbates the issues of the current state of trading in Sword and Shield, as matching with players to trade has to be done completely outside of the game, and then other people can jump into your trade by just entering the same 4 digit code even if they aren’t on your friends list. These issues are simply disheartening, as generations 5 to 6 were a much larger jump in terms of technical requirements: All Pokemon had to be modeled in 3D and given brand new animations from scratch for over 720 monsters, yet the 6th generation games could manage a decent online component 6 years ago. Meanwhile the 8th generation titles cut many Pokemon, moves, features, and has poor online functionality; it just seems strange that this is the product ushering in the 8th generation, and most every problem with it are issues that were solved in previous generations, to some extent.

Of course, it’s not all bad. New additions to Pokemon include mints that let you change your Pokemon’s nature to one that you actually want, as having the appropriate nature previously spelled the difference between a useful Pokemon and one that was 10% too weak to serve the purpose you may have had for it. Additionally, Pokemon of the same species can teach each other egg moves at the daycare- making shiny Pokemon that missed an integral move during the breeding process still useful. Lots of newer animations look pretty incredible, too- Pyro Ball is probably among the finest looking attacks in the entire series, for that matter. Lots of useful moves were shifted from evergreen TMs to one time use Technical Records, but TRs can be acquired in abundance, so really you have access to 200 moves you could teach your Pokemon, versus only having 100 TMs in previous games. That’s a fair bit more flexibility, and powerful moves like Fire Blast, Stone Edge, and more, can be acquired earlier than in the last couple generations.

The graphics of Sword and Shield look great outside of one particular (wild) area- Pokemon models look great in HD and a lot of the environments look fantastical and intriguing- the town in which the fairy gym resides is a personal favorite in reference to the visuals. The Wild Area is when things begin to look less than stellar. Likely everyone has seen the poorly textured trees shown off in the Wild Area, but what’s even more depressing is how the frame rate of the game drops into the low teens just by being connected to the Internet for some reason- sometimes freezing for up to 5 seconds at a time when you stop to pick up an item. The music, on the other hand, is superb and some of the best in the entire franchise. Marnie’s battle theme is incredible, for example, and the honking bag pipes while cycling through the Wild Area is simply a delight. This is easily one of the best soundtracks present in a Pokemon game.

Overall, Pokemon Sword and Shield is another Pokemon game. There are several advancements that will make playing competitively easier, and the story maintains the usual Pokemon charm even if the game hasn’t advanced much in many areas. The online is absolutely dreadful and reminiscent of 2004 Nintendo DS online functionality, and it’s strange that they cut multiple features that the series had implemented as early as the fourth generation some 13 years ago. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot to still love in these games, and that all of these issues are irredeemable: That isn’t the case at all. If you enjoy Pokemon, by all means get Sword or Shield because the brief experience could still be some of the most fun you’ve had with the series. However, if you’re on the fence for whatever reason (your favorite Pokemon was cut, or you’re an avid online player), perhaps it may be better to reconsider the 8th generation when the inevitable third version(s) come out later, as while there’s still some enjoyment to be had in Sword and Shield, it’s still disappointing that the first main series console games for Pokemon, ever, have such glaring retrogrades regarding mechanics that Pokemon solved years ago, let alone features that were cut for seemingly no reason at all.

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