Pokemon has always been a franchise with one foot in the future and another in the past. While one steps forward into new features, the other stays rooted in antiquated game mechanics, until the whole franchise is doing the splits. As the series’s first leap onto home consoles, Pokemon Sword and Shield seemed poised to finally lift that second foot and dash headfirst into the future. And they succeed! Mostly. But not without tripping a few times, shedding about 500 Pokemon worth of weight, and stubbing their toe on a late-game rock.
Pokemon Sword and Shield | A Refined Formula
Pokemon Sword and Shield follow the same narrative formula as their numerous predecessors. You start of as a young boy or girl in a small town, receive your first Pokemon, then set off on an adventure to defeat the eight Gym Leaders and earn yourself a shot at the Pokemon League Championship. Maybe you’ll even stop a villainous team or two along the way. It’s a tried and true formula that’s kept the series going for decades now, and longtime Pokemon fans won’t find many surprises there. The story beats range from laughably predictable to bafflingly nonsensical, but are also sprinkled with some surprisingly deep and human moments that left me cheering for specific side characters even as I shook my head in puzzlement at others.
Gameplay-wise, Sword and Shield sticks to the turn-based, type matchup-centric Pokemon battles we’re all used to. Though the core gameplay remains the same, developer Game Freak has streamlined many of the antiquated gameplay principles from past entries. Random encounters have been nearly eliminated, with almost all wild Pokemon now visible—and easily avoidable—in the overworld. The PC storage system is now accessible almost anywhere you go, letting you swap Pokemon in and out of your party even outside Pokemon Centers. Pokemon breeding is faster, fast-travel is unlocked within a few hours, and—thank Arceus—tutorials are finally skippable. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that Pokemon Sword and Shield are the most time-efficient Pokemon games to date, so much so that almost none of my 25-hour trek through the main story felt wasted.
Sword and Shield’s Galar Region: Go Big or Go Home
Your journey to the Champion takes you through the Galar region, a United Kingdom-inspired country filled with golden countrysides, misty forests, and industrialized cities. Galar is well-realized, complete with its own British-inspired colloquialisms, culture, and history that set it distinctly apart from other Pokemon settings. Among these cultural distinctions is a heavier emphasis on the spectacle of Pokemon battling. Whereas previous games made your Pokemon League challenge seem like a private affair, Galar’s residents treat them as a national sport, with matches against Galar’s Gym Leaders taking place inside massive stadiums packed with spectators. Attendees discuss your odds of winning on your way to the match, crowds cheer and chant during your battles, and fans congratulate you on your victory as you exit. It’s a refreshingly grandiose portrayal of Pokemon battling, more in-line with how it’s depicted in the cartoons and manga, and one that put a smile on my face at each big victory. I never tired of basking in my fans’ praise, and NPCs’ increasing recognition of me felt like an appropriate reward for my triumphs.
Contributing to that increased level of spectacle is the new battle mechanic called Dynamax. As the cheesy portmanteau implies, Dynamaxing is a once-per-battle buff that you can give to one of your Pokemon, increasing its size to gargantuan proportions for three turns. The change boosts its hit points and upgrades its moves to more powerful forms, and certain Pokemon can even change forms while Dynamaxed. It’s essentially Sword and Shield’s version of Pokemon X and Y’s Mega Evolution or Sun and Moon’s Z-Moves, intended to be a flashy game clincher for you…or your opponent.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical of Dynamaxing at first. I initially expected it to be a more boring version of Mega Evolution, but I quickly realized that Dynamaxing makes for a far more interesting mechanic than either of its predecessors. Outside of player vs player battles, Mega Evolutions in X and Y were essentially “Press this button to win” since the transformation lasted the entire battle. Z-Moves, conversely, were flashy and strong, but didn’t make much impact outside that one turn. Dynamax, however, finds a healthy middle ground between the two. The three turn limit on Dynamaxing makes them more impactful than Z-Moves, but less overpowered than Mega Evolution. Rather than turning it on and watching my powered-up Pokemon sweep through opponents, I was forced to bide my time and think strategically about when was the optimal time to Dynamax, knowing that my opponents’ Pokemon also had the same power.
In addition to Dynamaxing, a new key feature in Sword and Shield is the Wild Area. An expansive, Pokemon-filled field, the Wild Area is the closest to an open-world zone that Pokemon has ever had. There, players are free to roam as they please, even into areas far above their Pokemon’s current level. Its zones are nicely varied, with weather patterns drastically changing the Pokemon that can be found there. In addition to normal Pokemon, players can also encounter wild Dynamaxed Pokemon in the Wild Area, which must be battled with three other players—or NPCs if you have none—in a Max Raid battle.
I had a blast biking around the Wild Area in search of whatever Pokemon popped up next, and the Max Raid Battles are a fun bit of multiplayer PvE content that provide worthy rewards for the challenge. However, frequent dips in frame rate plague the area, especially when traveling via bicycle. In addition, the whole area is only visited twice during the main story. For such a big area, it feels almost secluded from the rest of Galar, with its presence barely even mentioned by the game’s characters after your initial visit. Even Watts, the special currency you can acquire there, have no use in the rest of the region. Maybe it’s an intentional metaphor for Ireland, but I highly doubt it. Players can always volunteer to go back to it, of course, but the only incentive for doing so is to catch more Pokemon they may have missed and search for Max Raid Battles to fight in. It’s a fun area with a lot of potential that just feels a tad squandered.
Game Freak Used Cut! It’s Super Effective!
The Wild Area, sadly, is not the only place where Pokemon Sword and Shield are missing just a little something extra. The games’ early parts are filled with lovely environments and some of the most fun, inventive Gym Challenges the series has ever seen, which makes it all the more noticeable when those seemingly disappear in the later game. The areas you visit in Sword and Shield’s latter third are noticeably barren compared to Galar’s earlier locales, to an almost worrying extent. At best, this could be considered poor pacing. At worst, it feels like these games may have been rushed out the door before they were ready for release. And although the earlier splendor does return for the story’s climax—and what a spectacular climax it is, by the way—it’s hard not to look at the barren late-game areas and relatively meager post-game content and wonder just how much of Sword and Shield was cut from Game Freak’s original vision.
And of course we can’t talk about cutting content without addressing the Donphan in the room, or rather the lack of one. If you’ve followed the games prior to their release, you’ve likely heard that not all 890 Pokemon are available in Sword and Shield. Some simply cannot be caught, transferred, or traded into Sword and Shield. Responses to this will range from a mild bummer to furious outrage, players who are willing to deal with some of their favorite Pokemon getting cut from the game will no doubt find a pleasing plethora of new species and alternate forms to catch. The Galar region’s Pokedex is a delightful mix of cool, cute, tough, and weird that will contain a new favorite for everyone. Even discounting the 80 new Pokemon, the 300+ from older generations present in Sword and Shield ensures that players have at least a few old favorites to add to their team. Nevertheless, if the roughly 500 cut Pokemon are a line in the sand that you simply will not cross then, well, that’s your business.
A less noticeable—but nevertheless important—cut came to Sword and Shield’s online functionality. Players disappointed that they can’t catch ’em all will be even more disappointed to learn that they’ll also have a hard time trading ’em all. The previous generations’ Global Trade System (GTS) has been replaced by the more bare-bones Y-Comm system. Players can no longer search online for that Galarian Ponyta that they want to trade for, nor can they post their own Farfetch’d with the set criteria that it be traded for someone else’s Corviknight. Players are instead limited to trading with either friends or random strangers, with no way of simply searching for what you want, meaning dedicated collectors will need to check with either friends or online forums to find what they need. There are some marginal improvements to how trading works, specifically that you can search for trade partners in the background while you play now, but this is one step forward in a system that takes two steps backward.
Pokemon Sword and Shield Review | Final Thoughts
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield have both soaring highs and saddening lows. In many ways they are the best that Pokemon has ever been, shedding the series’s antiquated game mechanics to create a grand, efficient, and fun experience that I’m itching to play again. Unfortunately, their underutilized Wild Area, barren late-game zones, and gutted trading system drag them down and leave me dreaming about the greatness that could have been. They are, simply put, good games with too much unfinished content to be considered great.
TechRaptor reviewed Pokemon Shield on Nintendo Switch with a copy purchased by the reviewer.