Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: A Breath of Fresh Air
While each new Pokemon entry always brings something exciting like new Pokemon and new regions, it's a franchise you can usually rely on to stay the same at its core. Pokemon Sword and Shield continue that trend.
It's the same Pokemon you've played before, but Sword and Shield manage to do pretty much everything better than their predecessors, and newcomers are in for a real PokeTreat.
If you've played a Pokemon game before, you know what to expect out of Sword and Shield. You're a young kid who sets off on a journey to explore the world — or one part of it at least. The goal is to face off against the strongest Pokemon trainers in the land, eventually battling for the coveted title of Pokemon Champion.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: A Breath of Fresh Air
It's what we've striven to achieve in every generation for the last 21 years, but Sword and Shield imbue our quest to catch em' all with a sense of energy and excitement it's never had before.
Though Pokemon Trainers are common as fleas, you normally never encounter many other Trainers (in earlier games) with the same goal as you. Neither do you run into those taking on Gym Leaders.
Even Breeders and Trainers with different goals sort of existed in their own little world, just waiting for you to trod on them. They didn't really care because it wasn't their thing.
In Galar, though, everyone has some interest in the Champion Cup, which amounts to the World Cup in soccer. And, of course, everyone's in love with anything to do with it.
Whether the people you encounter are rooting you on, challenging you, or standing out by doing their own thing and not taking part in the Cup challenge at all, the Cup still unites the entire region around the idea of Pokemon and how people relate to them. In essence, it finally manages to create the world every Pokemon game tried to make you believe in before, but never quite managed to pull off.
The Galar region is one of the best in the series for other reasons as well. For one thing, it's just so darn colorful and lively. The world feels fleshed out, with a unique atmosphere for every area.
Turffield's rustic agricultural charms give way to Hulbury's working-class fishing town (host to a banger of a harmonica theme), and the camera pans out in just the right way on certain routes so you get a wider view of the world around you.
It's pretty amazing how a simple change in camera focus can have such a big effect. Pokemon can feel claustrophobic at times, especially the tiny Alola region with its closed-in routes. Obviously, Sword and Shield aren't open world, not by any means, but seeing the landscape unfold and wondering what's beyond the next route fuels that sense of adventure you're supposed to feel on your Pokemon journey.
Here's where we run into a more traditional Pokemon issue, though. For the deep feeling of adventure and a more engaged populace, Galar can still be a bit flat at times.
The dialogue style hasn't changed much at all, and there aren't many things to do outside of pursuing the main storyline. Granted, Sword and Shield aren't trying to be Pokemon: The Revolution, but it would be nice to eventually see a bit more depth to the world and its inhabitants.
Fortunately, we have the Wild Area to keep this from being much of a problem.
It's a huge breath of fresh air and an innovative way to change up the franchise's foundational elements without completely altering them. You've got access to almost the entire Wild Area from the beginning, with just a few spots gated off until you upgrade your Rotom Bike. While it might initially seem small just looking at the map, it's pretty big and takes a fair amount of time to explore in its entirety.
If you do decide to explore the whole thing in one go, you still won't be able to catch strong Pokemon unless you have the right Gym Badge. You can encounter them and have them wipe your team off the face of Galar, but all those evolved, rare, and strong 'mon are tantalizingly out of reach until the right moment.
This encouraged me to keep coming back to the Wild Area every time I got a new badge to see what new Pokemon I could find. This pattern meant the Wild Area ended up opening for me in tandem with the rest of the game, because admittedly, being set on by a super-strong Rhydon sort of dampened my enthusiasm for too much free exploration early on.
It's no Xenoblade Chronicles 2, where insanely powerful creatures track you down and make life hell, but some of them are more aggressive than others and keep you on your toes.
It also offers you a variety of Pokemon types early on you'd usually have to wait for. Struggling against Milo's monstrous Eldegoss? Grab a Vanillite from the Rolling Fields or a strong Bug type. Or just for the fun of it, snag a Tyrogue and end up with a Hitmonchan before you even get to the second Gym.
That's not taking into consideration the numerous Dens you can explore to take on Dynamxed Pokemon and — sometimes — Gigantamax Pokemon.
Apart from netting you some really good rewards should you walk away victorious, you'll sometimes get a shot at rarer Pokemon like Sizzlipede, plus higher star Raids feature Pokemon that might have one or more perfect EVs.
Overall, the Wild Area is a fantastic complement to the main adventure and lets you handle it however you want. It lets you build a widely diverse team from an early stage — or, you know, you can just make curry, if you want. You do you.
There might not be as many Pokemon to choose from as before, but the struggle to choose just six for your team is real in Sword and Shield. On top of the older Pokemon making a return appearance, all the new Galar Pokemon are fantastic, and that's not really an exaggeration. There's usually a dud 'mon or 20 in the mix, but even the goofy looking ones just have this exuberant, fun charm to them.
Take Alcremie as an example. It's sculpted cream with stuff on its head, which is, on the surface, close to smiling ice cream cone levels of "erhm?" But to get it, you have to spin around with a Milcery, so you're making... literal whipped cream.
Sinistea is a teapot ghost that comes in forged and rare authentic varieties. Viking Meowth is horrifying, but — no, it's actually just horrifying. Integrated superbly with the setting, but horrifying.
Uh...back where it came from?
Regardless, it's the most alive, creative, and just plain fun Pokemon has felt in ages.
If you can't whittle the choice down to just six Pokemon, the new permanent Experience Share mechanic will be your best friend. At first, I admit to being skeptical. The last thing I wanted was an easier Pokemon game, but it turned out to be a pretty clever move.
Rather than seeing all your 'mon levels soar skyhigh, it seems pretty balanced on the whole; it takes more experience points to level up (or at least, that's how it seemed to me), and you tend to stay right where you need to be for where you're at, unless you go out of the way to grind for levels.
In fact, the difficulty is balanced fairly well throughout. Type advantages are as important as ever, and there were times I found myself struggling more against a wild Pokemon or a regular Trainer when I didn't have a type advantage than I did in Gym battles.
Dynamaxing adds a lot to here as well. Only HP is affected, so it doesn't completely nuke your opponents like Z-Moves, since they can usually Dynamax or Gigantamax as well. But it does turn what would otherwise be a normal Gym or story battle into a mini-event of its own, complete with altered soundtrack.
Nah, that's not Dynamax. That's just Greedent the car-sized squirrel.
The good thing about type advantage's role is that permanent EXP Share makes it easier than ever to swap out a different Pokemon if you want to give it a try or need to raise a different type.
It's actually the first time in over 20 years of playing Pokemon that I actually raised two teams simultaneously. Not having the endless grind to get them up to speed was immensely satisfying, not to mention how helpful it was for overcoming some otherwise sticky encounters.
That feeling of convenience, of finally moving away from archaic design, didn't stop there. There's the ability to swap Pokemon instantly without using a PC, autosaving, a fantastic fast travel system, and being allowed to see most wild Pokemon (and subsequently skip encounters you aren't interested in). All this together means you've got a seamless Pokemon experience that doesn't suffer from any of the slog previous games did.
The story is also paced pretty well. It's not as upfront and direct as Sun and Moon's story, but that's also okay because it means you can walk five steps without someone popping up to see if you suffered some tragic accident in the three seconds they lost sight of you.
Sword and Shield strike a balance between the main adventure storyline and the plot that develops alongside it that's been missing since before Gen V.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review — The Bottom Line
- Excellent new batch of Pokemon
- Lively region full of personality
- Well-balanced difficulty
- The Wild Area
- Best-looking games in the series
- Great soundtrack
- So many quality of life improvements
- Still the same basic Pokemon, which might not appeal to those wanting more
- Could do with some more depth in characters and region development
We can't end without mentioning just how lovely Sword and Shield look. Pokemon has never been about pushing graphical boundaries, and the games don't do that. Yet they do look fantastic nonetheless, vibrant colors, some pleasing water and wind effects, and expressive Pokemon.
Yeah, the character models are still slightly less expressive, but overall, there's just a general overall warmth to the whole region. It's the best Pokemon has looked in a long while, especially coming off the janky-looking 3DS games.
More importantly, the games pull all this off with multiple Pokemon spawning in the grass, on the water, or in caves, and the performance doesn't suffer from it a bit. Even the Let's GO games struggled when multiple Pokemon were on screen, so this is a definite step up from before and a step in the right direction for the future.
I had the most fun with Pokemon Shield that I've had with any Pokemon game for well over 10 years. No, these entries don't shake the series up or offer some radical new take on Pokemon gameplay. But they don't have to.
Instead, they improve in nearly every aspect of the series and offer you a refined and overall just enjoyable journey through a charming new region with your Pokemon by your side and some well-realized new additions thrown in for good measure.
At the end of the day, that's all I really want out of Pokemon anyway, but if this is your first time on a Pokemon adventure, you've picked the best time to step aboard.
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[Note: Nintendo provided a digital copy of Pokemon Shield for the purpose of this review.]