Not Quite The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was

HIGH The new art style and emphasis on the Gym Challenges.

LOW How often the it says  “Let the adults take care of things”

WTF Opal being a spiteful old hag.

Pokemon was key in my childhood. I have fond memories playing on the GameBoy, searching for strong creatures and going through the gym challenges to become the league champion. I’ve spent hours and hours working with friends to catch ’em all. I came to Pokemon Sword and Shield with this nostalgia and affection and enjoyed it, but I found it stuck between trying to be approachable to anyone while also trying to appease its hardcore fans.

Pokemon Sword and Shield are the latest in the long-running RPG series developed by Game Freak where players collect and train a team of creatures to take on a series of gyms in turn-based battles (think: boss fights) and then become the league champion. After getting their first pokemon from the Galar region’s champ, players set out into the world in what is essentially a standard series opening. It’s not exactly the same as it has been in the past, though.

Some of the main tutorials (like how to catch a pokemon) are now skippable, which is something the series desperately needed considering how many players are long-time fans. Pokemon now also appear onscreen before fights instead of the previous JRPG-style random encounters, so players can avoid pokemon they don’t want and focus on ones they care about.

The gyms themselves are the biggest change. Older installments generally had players fighting against a series of trainers with a specific type of pokemon. In Sword and Shield, there are also missions and puzzles attached to them.

For example, in one of the first gyms players will have to herd sheeplike pokemon through areas in order to progress to the gym. In another section, players will compete with NPCs to catch pokemon, forcing them to find a balance between weakening the pokemon (enabling it to be caught) but not weakening it enough so that the NPC catches it first.

Sword and Shield also introduces the Wild Area — an open sandbox showcasing many pokemon to catch and a free area to explore full of glowing dens where players can participate in ‘raid’ battles featuring “dynamax” pokemon. Dynamaxing powers up a pokemon and turns it gigantic, modifying its moves and making it exceptionally powerful.

While these new changes keep things fresh for a series that has spanned more than 20 years, other changes are… not so great.

One of the key pillars of the franchise has been the ability to import a player’s pokemon from previous games. Sword and Shield do not offer this import feature, and actually offer less than half of the total pokemon that exist. I understand the removal is for balance purposes, but I’m still frustrated that my older teams of trusty pokemon can no longer continue the journey with me.

The dynamax pokemon do offer an interesting wrinkle for a battle or two, but ultimately fall flat in execution — they gain more health, but they aren’t more resistant to attacks any more than normal, meaning their weaknesses are still easy to exploit. I was often a lower level than gym leaders who were using dynamaxed pokemon and easily took them out in one move.

Sword and Shield also want the player to focus on the gym challenges, to a fault. In past installments, the gyms were never the true focus of the story. Instead, there was always some type of evil team with nefarious schemes that players had to stop. Sword and Shield actively pushes the player away from that part of the narrative and makes most of it happen off-screen. This new focus throws the pacing off for the majority of the campaign until it fully reveals the plot in the final five hours.

Another issue is that Sword and Shield never provided any challenge. I only felt a sense of struggle once, and it was on a one-off optional battle that I didn’t realize was significantly above my level, and I still won. I know I’ve got a lot of experience with Pokemon, but at times it felt like the game was actively trying to lose by throwing healing items and money the player, and there were fights where the AI used moves that wouldn’t hurt me, allowing me plenty of time to heal my pokemon.

I enjoyed my time with Pokemon Sword and Shield, but I ended feeling conflicted.  I appreciate many of the changes and felt that it generally respected my time, but I almost felt like a passive participant. The more complex gym challenges had a meatier role, but the narrative shouldn’t have been shoved to the side. Overall, I would recommend it to players who want to have a Pokemon experience, but this one won’t stick with me the way the older ones have.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo.  It is currently available on Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Mild Cartoon Violence and Comic mischief. Players are fighting Pokemon, but that’s the worst it ever gets and it’s bloodless and not graphic in the least. there is no sexual content or salty language. Approved for all ages.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: In a bizarre move, there are sound settings that are locked behind a missable NPC. These settings allow players to control individual aspects of the audio like pokemon cries, battle music, and so on. Below is a screenshot of this NPC. As the game is turn-based, there are no audio cues necessary for play, however. Text is not resizable.

This is the missable NPC gating audio options.
text example

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left stick will move players through the world. “A” will select prompts and “B” will cancel prompts. “Y” opens up the menu to allow players to connect either online or locally. “X” will open the menu to look at the player’s current team and to see items. The right stick, in the wild area, will allow the player to move the camera around.

Eugene Sax
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