Prior to its release, Pokémon Sword and Shield has received quite a backlash from diehard fans. The most notable outcry was that more than half of the collection of monsters wouldn’t make an appearance. While it is a shame to lose fan favorites like Dragonite, does it actually impede on the final product? How is the first mainline Pokémon game on a home console? Thankfully, the aforementioned issue isn’t much of a factor.
Sword and Shield take place in the UK-inspired Galar region. Players assume the role of an aspiring Pokémon trainer who must complete their Gym challenge in order to participate in the Champion Cup. While the story follow similar motions of the past, it does have a unique cast of characters. The Champion Leon, for example, is a show-stopping confident trainer, but can be aloof when it comes to his sense of direction. Even Hop, Leon’s little brother and the designated rival, has more layers than just another eager boy.
The Galar region itself has a lot of unique places to explore. From the steam-powered Motostoke to the snowy mountains of Circhester. While trainers will opt to just locate the gyms and move onward, there are some side activities to partake. Players can finally customize their trainers in a variety of ways. Going to the salon and getting a new haircut or dye, or buying a new set of garbs. Other that that there isn’t much to do in cities as they feel like a means to an end. Find the gym, beat its leader, rinse and repeat.
Thankfully, what works best for the Galar region is the emphasis on Pokémon battles. Each gym is a giant stadium, and facing against its leader is viewed by hundreds of spectators chanting. Even the act of switching from traditional clothes to the official league outfit adds more to the credibility. Battling is a sporting event, and it being a large spectacle is part of what makes Sword and Shield so charming in the first place.
The reason why battles take place in spacious stadium is the introduction of Dynamax. This mysterious phenomenon causes Pokémon to grow giant for a few turns. Dynamaxed Pokémon aren’t only stronger, but they have access to power Max moves that inflict a lot of damage with additional effects. For example a regular fire attack would become Max Flare, which will also set a sunny weather on the field. In addition there are some Pokémon that can achieve Gigantamax. Pokémon don’t only increase in size, but they also look different. In addition, they have access to G-Max moves that have superior utility, like Pikachu’s G-Max Volt Crush causing paralysis.
Dynamaxing is only allowed in gym battles, occasional story points, and a few other situations. This means that players can’t spam them like with Mega Evolution or Z-Moves (both of which are now gone). The main problem with this system, at least within the confines of the single player adventure, is predictability. Since every boss character saves their Dynamax Pokemon for last, it’s easy to know exactly when to counter. Battles are already pretty easy, so being able to level the playing field instantly by Dynamaxing back eliminates a lot of the challenge. In Multiplayer battles this system fairs better since players can choose whenever they Dynamax, as well as it can only happen once per battle.
The Galar region is filled with over 400 different Pokémon, and 80 of them are brand new. Capturing them all combines some of the classic entries to the modern Let’s Go titles. Pokémon roam the overworld and approaching them will start an encounter. In addition there are rarer Pokémon who will pop in grass patches via an exclamation mark. Those Pokémon will also rustle the grass to signify where they are specifically located. This system brings the best out of both mindsets. It retains the excitement of encountering an exciting new Pokémon while being able to avoid pesky random encounters.
To complete the Pokédex players must trade Pokémon with those who have the opposite version. Instead of using the clunky Festival system from Sun and Moon,Sword and Shield uses the Y-Comm system akin to how Wi-Fi worked in generation six. It’s as simple as going to a menu and choosing the link trade option. Even the addicting Wonder Trade option, now called Surprise Trade, returns to allow players to trade Pokémon at random. Battling is also done in a similar manner, and can be done either off or on-line. The only omission is the lack of the GTS, a service in which players can request a specific Pokémon in exchange for another.
New to the Pokémon franchise is the Wild Area. This enormous open world allows trainers to explore different locations filled with Pokémon and other goodies. It’s kind of surreal to have a fully controllable 3D camera in a Pokémon game, considering how the rest of the game is static. Every nook and cranny in this massive space houses a variety of different creatures to capture.
The main problem with the Wild Area is that while the idea is great conceptually, it isn’t fully realized yet. It isn’t to the scope of a full-blown open world game like Breath of the Wild, so there isn’t much to discover. Not to mention that while the game looks nice, the Wild Area looks more drab with a more faded color hue. The worst offense is the frame rate. If players elect to play online, the game can dip into the single digits of frames, which is rather jarring.
Another issue with the Wild Area is how disconnected it feels from the rest of the region. It feels like a larger safari zone instead of an interconnected hub. It would’ve been amazing to venture through the Wild Area from City to City instead of the traditional rigid and linear path. The Wild Area is a great idea, but there are clearly ways it could improve.
Perhaps the biggest incentive of exploring this vast landscapes are the Max Raids. Scattered throughout are red dens. If those dens emit a red beam of light, that means 4 trainers can engage in a Max Raid. Those involve a Dynamax Pokemon with a higher HP that can attack multiple times per turn. Players can either enlist the help of NPCs or better, friends locally or online. If the team manages to take it down, it can be captured.
Not only do these Pokémon have higher stats than regular wild ones, but Max Raids are the only way players can capture the massive Gigantamax variants. There are also exclusive rewards for participating in those raids, such as experience candy or one-use Technical records. Scouring the Wild Area looking for potential epic Max Raids to partake in is enjoyable, and it’s a feature I do hope Game Freak builds upon in the future.
There are also several additions to the classic mechanics that further add to the quality of life. Camping allows trainers to relax in the middle of their adventure and play with their companions. There is even a neat mini-game in which players make curry using ingredients such as berries. Eating curry helps in gaining experience but also heal Pokémon from fainting without the need to go to a Pokémon center. Speaking of which, it is not necessary to head back to the center in order to access the Pokémon box, as it is available from the get go in the menu (like in Let’s Go!).Since HMs are no longer in play, players can easily teleport to previously visited areas using the town map.
As aforementioned, this is the first mainline Pokémon game to be on a home console. Thus the move to a more powerful hardware does benefit for making these entries the cleanest they’ve ever been. Pokémon models are all beautifully detailed with a stylized cel-shaded look, and the different vistas of Galar are a beauty to behold. The animation, however, isn’t much improved from the handheld titles, but even with their limited movement Pokémon have plenty of charm. Perhaps my biggest surprise was how excellent the soundtrack is. It can range from calm and quaint like in Turffield, or bombastic and head bopping during the gym leader battles.
While it’s a shame that not every Pokémon could make the cut, there is a lot that Pokémon Sword and Shield has to offset those omissions. The cleaner graphics, charming presentation and various quality of life improvements makes it yet another success. The introduction of the Wild Area, while far from perfect, could be the genesis of something truly ambitious for the franchise. As it stands, even if it relies on old tropes, Sword and Shield improves in the areas that are the most important. There isn’t a better time to embark on an adventure and catch them all once more.