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Review: Pokémon Sword and Shield is a Conflicting Experience

  • by Jeff Bennett
  • 3 Years ago
  • 3

Mainline entries in the Pokémon series have finally made their debut on the Nintendo Switch with Pokémon Sword and Shield, but instead of being a cause for celebration, the ceremonious occasion has been rife with controversy.

First, it was announced that the games would neither feature nor allow the transfer of every Pokémon in the series’ catalogue. In fact, Sword and Shield nearly cut the amount of available Pokémon in half. That barren Pokédex marked a first for a core title in the series. Understandably, many fans were not exactly pleased with the news.

Despite the controversy, Pokémon Sword and Shield enjoyed a crowded and successful launch event in New York.

Developer Game Freak insisted the lack of Pokémon in core Pokémon titles was due to quality control of the animation. With the new entires there are now over 1,000 Pokémon across all of the games in total, so less available Pokémon in Sword and Shield meant less of a workload for the animators, which would allow for more dynamic representations of the critters, or so Game Freak said.

While not an ideal situation, the reasoning provided was enough to appease most fans. More expressive animations would be a welcome addition to the proceedings. But then, it turned out that Sword and Shield essentially recycle Pokémon models from the 3DS titles and the attack animations aren’t anything special.

Both the models and animations from the 3DS titles (left) are seemingly left largely unchanged in Pokémon Sword and Shield (right).

This was a major case of bad PR. Some of the worst PR that I’ve ever witnessed, to be honest. Having now played the games, I think I know the real reason that the cast of characters was cut. My personal theory is that it was for balancing issues. It seems like the video games are taking a page out of the card game’s playbook and banning certain Pokémon from battles to level the playing field.

Another possibility is that Game Freak’s staff were spread too thin as they were working on the ill-received Little Town Hero which released just last month. Despite having a full plate on their hands, they had to meet the holiday deadline. Personally, if I were in their shoes I would’ve axed the lesser title from development until I finished Pokémon‘s first proper Switch title, but that’s just me.

Little Town Hero might have interrupted Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s development.

But you know what? I can forgive the Thanos snap that wiped out half of the Pokémon in Sword and Shield, but there are two things that still really bug me.

First, why didn’t Game Freak just come out and say it was for balancing issues, or that their workload was too heavy? Again, bad PR I guess.

Secondly, why, despite all the sacrifices made, do Sword and Shield lack so much polish? Some of the backgrounds and assets look like they came straight out of the N64 era. I recognize that graphics don’t make a game and that they’ve never been a focus of Pokémon, but… yikes! Even when I’m caught up in a heated battle I still can’t help but notice some of the eyesores on display here. Not to mention the issue of pop-up. NPCs and assets often don’t even fade in, they just appear out of nowhere. And not even from a distance, sometimes they just pop up within arm’s length of your character. Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee were more polished than this.

Get a load of that tree. Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s assets are downright ugly in some areas.

The games still feel like 3DS titles, too. I suppose it makes sense, they come from the same director of Pokémon Sun and Moon, but I guess I was expecting more from a Switch title. They also follow in Sun and Moon‘s tradition by being painfully slow in the beginning. The handholding is enough to drive you crazy during that first hour.

Okay, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, there are a lot of positives going for Sword and Shield as well. The online play is awesome. Unlike last year’s Let’s Go! releases, Sword and Shield allow for random matches and ranked competitive battles. No more outdated code system.

The online interface is easy to navigate and chock full of social elements.

The online trading system sees a much more streamlined presence, and swapping the newly implemented League Cards with other players adds some flair to the social aspect of the games.

Also, discovering the new Pokémon in the Galar region has been one of the most fun experiences I’ve had since Ruby and Sapphire. Time will tell if the Galar region’s Pokémon have staying power, but either way it’s nice to see what Game Freak’s character designers have cooked up for us.

Following in the footsteps of Sun and Moon, there are also region-specific variants of classic Pokémon. I’ve gotta be honest, I found many of them to be underwhelming and sometimes a giant step backwards for the original designs, but you’ll probably still get a kick out of them. I prefer the Alola variants though, they paid much better homage to the Pokémon that came before them.

Nonetheless, a lot of the new features are nice and actually add to the experience rather than detract from it. The games introduce a Wild Area that serves as a sort of open-world area where you can truly explore and do everything from camping (which includes cooking up some Poké grub), multiplayer Max Raid Battles that utilize the Dynamax feature (more on that in a minute), and traditional Pokémon hunting – with full camera control while you’re exploring! It’s a nice change of pace from the more linear paths taken throughout most of the journey. I’d like to see this idea expanded upon for future titles.

The Wild Area is an intriguing glimpse of what an open-world Pokémon game could be like.

Like Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee before it, Sworld and Shield wisely allows you to see wild Pokémon roaming about in the open so you can choose whether or not to engage them. It also allows for random encounters, which are optional. As far as I can tell, your Pokémon won’t follow you around in Galar though.

Also like the titles before it, Sword and Shield both offer exclusive content for each version. This includes not only exclusive Pokémon, but also exclusive gym leaders. While the games still largely follow the same story beats and progression, the slight differences add just enough flavor to set each title apart.

Version exclusive gym leaders spice things up in Pokémon Sword and Shield.

The previously mentioned Dynamax feature is also kinda nifty. It allows your Pokémon to become giants during battle. Like, Godzilla-sized. It can only be activated once per battle, and it just lasts for three turns. The mechanic temporarily boosts your Pokémon’s HP and allows it to use flashy Max Moves. There’s also a Gigantamax form available to some Pokémon, but it’s mostly cosmetic more than anything else.

I found the whole Dynamax mechanic to be funner than Sun and Moon’s Z-Moves, but less impressive than X and Y‘s Mega Evolutions. It all feels a bit superfluous and totally unnecessary, but it’s harmless. And, hey, lookit my giant Vulpix! Why not?

Dynamax battles don’t change the formula too much, but they’re an entertaining spectacle. See those tiny specks on the battlefield? Those are the trainers…

Gym battles make a welcome return as well, which I appreciate. Actually, Sword and Shield finds a nice compromise between the traditional gym battles of old, and the substitute trials introduced in Sun and Moon. Before you can battle each gym leader, you must complete a mission first. Most of them are enjoyable and they’re a pleasant experience overall.

Moreover, the crowded stadium backdrop full of cheering spectators for the gym battles give the games an epic feeling. It makes me yearn for a return of the Pokémon Stadium games, and is one area the HD graphics actually elevate the gaming experience.

The rush of stepping foot onto an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds cannot be understated.

Lastly, while the music in Sword and Shield didn’t initially blow me away, some of the tracks have grown on me. It doesn’t always reach the heights of Pokémon‘s other soundtracks, but it’s still pretty darn good. It’s better than most other soundtracks this year, in either video games or film.

And how’s the Galar region itself, as a location? Seeing as how the regions in Pokémon games are just as iconic and integral to the experience as the Pokémon themselves, this is an important question. Honestly, with just a bit more polish and better Galarian Pokémon variants, this would’ve been one of the better regions in the series.

Somebody call M. Night Shyamalan to the Galar region, pronto.

As it stands, I’m in love with the idea of Galar and there are moments where it really impresses me with its nods to the United Kingdom of which its based off of, but I still feel like they could’ve done more with the concept.

That’s pretty much how I feel about the entire Pokémon Sword and Shield experience. They could’ve done more with the concept. Still, it’s worth getting if you’re a fan of the franchise because it will definitely scratch that itch like only Pokémon can, but temper your expectations.

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