The core Pokémon RPG series takes it’s biggest leap forward with Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. It unfortunately came with a few sacrifices, but I still believe this is the best entry in the series. Sword and Shield pushes the franchise forward with smart quality of life features and a slew of new gameplay elements that makes it worthy to be named a full console Pokémon experience.
As with every new entry, you’ll take the role of an up-and-coming Pokémon trainer and begin your adventure across the Galar region to take on gym challenges.
You’ll be given your choice from three new starting Pokémon: Grookey, the happy go lucky grass type. Scorbunny, the energetic fire type. Then finally Sobble, the pouty yet lovable water type.
Galar takes its inspiration from different parts of the United Kingdom. From the scenic English countryside, Scottish farmlands, to an early industrialized London with its own Big Ben, I loved exploring Galar. NPCs speak with dialects you’d expect from the region, buildings are made with brick and mortar, and just being able to outright see more of the world around you compared to the previous handheld entries gives the world a lived in feeling I’ve never really felt from the series before. Pokémon in the overworld return from Pokémon Let’s Go but here in Sword and Shield it made way more of an impact for me, as many of these monsters I’m seeing for the very first time. Seeing an excited Yamper run up to me or an imposing fire centipede called Centiskorch, really surprised me with the amount of creativity on display from this generations designs.
Also helping push this feeling is the overall presentation of both games. The traditional turn based battles are still here in true form, only they’ve never looked better. Seeing battles with a smooth frame rate, compared to the previous entries, was a much needed improvement. Dynamaxing, one of the new combat mechanics to Sword and Shield, takes battles to a new scale making your Pokémon giant for up to three turns. These are mostly done during gym battles, which elevate these encounters to a new level of excitement. I couldn’t wait to get to the next gym as it felt like a true event. In previous titles these moments felt like I was checking the box off from beating a gym, going into a stadium full of people cheering you on while you battle felt like a childhood dream come true. The gym leader musical theme is an electric tune that would make any giant stadium shake, as the battle progresses and the crowd cheers on with the track. These battles in Sword and Shield are some of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had playing the series for twenty plus years.
Another big focus is on your rival Hop, and the champion of the region Leon. Hop is your childhood friend and Leon is his big brother, the games make the stakes known pretty early on about Leon being an undefeated champion of the region. Hop is living in his brother’s shadow and while he tries to play off the pressure that puts on him, he comes into his own in the later hours of the game. You’ll meet plenty of other characters during your gym challenge adventure like Marnie, who has a crazed group of supporters named Team Yell who meddle with trainers getting in her way, and Sonia who’s the daughter of the region’s professor attempting to uncover the secrets behind Dynamaxing. I enjoyed the new characters, but the overall story of collecting gym badges is pretty typical for the franchise. The twists it takes are welcomed, but don’t really come into play until the final hours of the game.
Sword and Shield pushes the franchise forward in some exciting new ways, the wild area being the biggest. This is an open, outdoor area in the game that players can explore and are given full camera control, a first for the series. Pokémon roam around and will change depending on the weather, time of day, and biome. It’s pretty awesome just to see, but not the most visually impressive area in some spots. Most of the downsides are made up from just the sheer amount of Pokémon to find and interact with or react to you. Pokémon can even be much higher level, making some areas truly feel like dangerous if you go off the beaten path. Some monsters actually feel threatening and I think, that’s pretty cool it made the game feel like a more traditional RPG in ways it hadn’t felt prior. Even though they restrict you from catching them, I found this gave me more reasons to level up my team and return to the area because many of these Pokémon were generally rarer and not easy to come by. If you go online you can also see other trainers exploring the area, although in my experience the game could drop frames dealing with lots of other players around.
Another new activity in the wild area are Max Raid Battles. These are huge fights against giant Pokémon that you and up to three other players can take on for some nice rewards, like candies that give XP or powerful moves to teach your Pokémon. When I attempted to join some random matches, it was hard to get match-made into a battle, but luckily you can team up with bots or friends which both worked surprisingly seamlessly. Raid encounters also evolve over the course of the game, demanding more strategy and preparation needed for higher level battles. In the wild area you can also set up camp anywhere to play and make curry with your Pokémon. Camps this time around felt more realized and connected to the main thrust then series prior attempts at interacting with your partners. Feeding your team curry can heal your whole team and give them experience. Which came in clutch when in the wild area taking on strong opponents.
Besides brand new features, a lot of general quality of life features are introduced that I hope become franchise staples. Being able to largely skip the early game tutorials is a godsend as a longtime fan. If you know how to catch Pokémon, you can just do it. Great! If you know how to use your PC storage boxes, you can just do it. You can also use Pokémon boxes from anywhere in the game! Even better! The Escape Rope for getting out of dungeons or dangerous areas is now a key item, and can be used as many times as you want! Fantastic!
Unfortunately a lot of these welcome features come with downsides. While there’s still plenty of Pokémon old and new, over half the creatures across the entire series are missing. It’s still possible for them to show up in the future, but for right now you might not find your personal favorite here in Sword and Shield. Features like the Global Trading Service are gone and player made lobbies to battle and trade in are nowhere to be seen. There’s a lot of character and graphical pop-in as well, even in areas that are supposed to be these big sprawling cities. While many of these setbacks didn’t hamper my overall experience with the game, I couldn’t overlook them during my time with it. It’s hard not to feel like some corners were cut to get this game out because of how reliant the game’s merchandising and tie-ins were on its planned release date. This of course conjecture, but it’s a nagging feeling that’s hard to shake off when those blemishes rear their head.
For higher level players, a lot of the remaining hurdles for training more competitively viable Pokémon have been removed or simplified, giving you access to items that help you see a Pokémon’s IV’s, or being able to change its nature instead of breeding for hours. This results in the work for the perfect Pokémon taking much less time and being far more straightforward for players that might have been put off by the more complex methods of previous titles.
I love Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, warts and all. It’s pushing a franchise I’ve put countless hours into forward in just about every aspect I want to see. Grindy mechanics and bogged down tutorials are no longer in the way of what makes the series fun, which let me lose myself in a world teeming with charm and personality. This is the most realized Pokémon world in the franchise. It embraces the word adventure. I loved exploring the wild area and seeing old and new Pokémon realized in ways I didn’t expect. Every gym battle was a memorable experience and new Pokemon from this gen have become some of my all time favorite. Pokémon has come a long way from the Gameboy in 1998, but there’s still even more potential for the franchise on Switch, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.
This game was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch system with a retail copy of both titles purchased by the reviewer.