For most Americans, fall means the beginning of the holiday season. Scents of cranberries and pine begin to fill homes, sweaters and scarves are donned, and temperatures drop precariously low. For me, the crisp autumn air always signals something else is coming… or, more accurately, a couple hundred more things are coming. Amidst the merry bustle, November has long been Pokemon season to gamers worldwide. In my early teen ages, I would fill these year-end months sitting on porches or bedroom floors, soaking up the soft cool breezes and battling with classmates and neighbors for Pocket Monster domination, trading for full collections, and parading our rare acquisitions. Even into my thirties, Pokemon remains an important gaming staple of my fall-time traditions, and I eagerly await each new sequel. Developer Game Freak’s newest adventure Pokemon Sword and Shield is a worthy successor to the throne, captures the joyous spirit of the games of my childhood, and is, arguably, one of the best Pokemon experiences presently available.
Title: Pokemon Sword & Shield
Developer: Game Freak
Available On: Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Game Purchased for the Purpose of This Review
Pokemon Sword/Shield takes place in the Galar region, an island nation full of open fields, locomotives, and bustling cities. Galar closely resembles Great Britain in geography and style, and is easily the most realized Pokemon region to date. The inhabitants of the island speak in a London-like slang, and European frills in fashion and architecture abound. Even the story of Sword/Shield resembles the ancient tales of knights and chivalry of England, and is frankly my favorite Pokemon tale in any mainline game. Through uncovering artifacts and mysterious occurrences in your journey, you and your comrades slowly unravel the tale of two heroes who, in a catastrophic event known as the Darkest Day, are aided by a mysterious sword and shield to fend off the evil and return Galar to its fullness of glory. As a Pokemon trainer, you will still be battling gym leaders (in giant soccer-esque stadiums) in front of crowds of adoring fans as you and your monsters grow in strength and ability until ultimately you become Champion of the Galar region. Aside from your rivals (who are mostly friendly), the story almost entirely lacks a major antagonist with the exception of fleeting moments. This particular beat worked well for me – this tale is one of heroics, strength, and progression.
This entry to the Pokemon franchise also marks the first instance of a main-series title being developed for a Nintendo home console as opposed to a dedicated handheld, despite the Switch’s dual capabilities. To many fans’ dismay, this does not translate to a revolutionary Pokemon experience. Core gameplay remains unchanged, with Pokemon engaging in turn-based battles of strengths and weaknesses, occasionally to be caught in various Pokeballs. If you’ve played a Pokemon game before, expect a new chapter in what you already know. Sword/Shield is not to Pokemon as Breath of the Wild was to The Legend of Zelda, though the Nintendo Switch’s hardware allows for graphics and mechanics that are obviously improved. Characters look charming and alive, environments feel lush and authentic, and some battle animations, like Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing, are truly awe-inspiring.
Dynamaxing is the newest schtick to empower our part-animal pets, much akin to previously seen Mega Evolutions and Z-moves. In certain spots throughout Galar, including Pokemon gyms, Pokemon can transform into much larger and much stronger versions of themselves, with moves that reflect their new power. Some Pokemon even change forms in their Dynamaxed state, known as Gigantamaxing. This embiggened status is seldom used, though always fun to time correctly in key battles and entertaining to see Kaiju-inspired pocket monsters. Dynamaxed Pokemon can also be found in “dens”, caverns housing these beasts that can be tackled in co-op battles with up to 3 other friends. Defeating a den not only awards the winners with the Pokemon caught, but other rare items to aid you along your way. Most importantly, co-op battles with friends are fun and engaging, adding a new layer of complexity to a game series that has forever championed connecting with others. These dens are located in the Wild Area, a new region with free movement of character and camera where Pokemon of all types and levels can be found, amongst other activities. The Wild Area is at first intimidating, but later crucial to the completionist’s and collector’s quest. Returning with higher levels and better Pokemon in the later hours of the game gives you access to the more unforgiving depths of the Wild Area.
Other features from previous Pokemon games see a welcome return in Sword/Shield. For example, the XP Share feature is activated from the beginning of the game, alleviating most (or all) of the grinding in routes to level your companions to appropriate levels. In addition, one of the best additions to Sun/Moon is revived, with new regional variants of pre-existing Pokemon to be discovered throughout Galar. These updated versions of your classic favorites sport new models, color schemes, typings and movesets; essentially, brand new Pokemon that look like the old. These renovations make these two-decade-old inventions feel new and important to the ever-changing and evolving (no pun intended) world that is Pokemon.
For all of the mechanic introductions that Sword and Shield have to boast, there has been no shortage of online outrage over the overt oustings. Termed “Dexit” by the clever minds that be, Game Freak announced a few months prior to the game’s release that this would be the first mainline Pokemon game to not provide animations and models for the entirety of the global Pokedex. In fact, over half of the Pokemon you’ve grown attached to since the late 90s make no appearance in the game files of Sword and Shield, meaning that even transferring them in from earlier games will prove a fruitless task. The most popular Pokemon (Pikachu, Eevee, and Snorlax amongst those favored few) return, but I can’t help be but disappointed that Volbeat, a key member of some of my previous teams, has no chance in aiding me on this journey. Combine this with lackluster online options and reused Pokemon models and animations, and a sour taste lingers in the mouths of long-time fans that expected just a little more from the world’s largest media franchise’s first launch on a current generation home console.
Other complaints revolve around the game being overly wordy and holding your hand too frequently through early segments, though I actually found this a non-issue, especially coming from the previous Sun/Moon, which ranks in my personal Mount Rushmore of “Games That Talk Too Much”. In fact, many of Sword/Shield’s early tutorials are skippable, which prompted a sigh of relief from me and kept me engaged through the early levels. Admittedly, Pokemon Sword/Shield do remain relatively simple compared to other Japanese RPGs, especially with the forced XP Share, but this has never caused me much distress. Pokemon is, at its core, a children’s game, with juvenile themes and all-ages action. I have aged considerably since I first played Pokemon Blue, and have become more strategic in my six-on-six battles, but I recognize that this series has to be accessible to fans of every age, from the earliest ability to read and play all the way to latter adult years. It isn’t hard to imagine Game Freak gifting us with a difficulty slider or setting, which should be easy enough with scaled damage and health of enemy Pokemon, but this remains absent. With any luck, Game Freak will heed the promptings of its loyal customers and give us a game that is truly engaging for all players.
Pokemon Shield lasted me just under 25 hours to become the regional Pokemon champion, which time included some Pokemon collection and leveling, but mostly involved a gradual progression through gym completion. Were this the end of the game, I would certainly be satisfied; of course, for many Pokemon players (myself included), Pokemon Sword/Shield will last long beyond being crowned champion and will evolve into collection of new Pokemon species, hunting for rare shiny variations of your favorites, and battling with your friends. Couple these with new raids and other post-game content including Battle Tower and the resolution of some quest threads, and I’ll likely be returning frequently to Galar until we learn where we’ll be traveling to next.
Few games have caused as much controversy and conversation in 2019 as Pokemon Sword/Shield, from the exclusion of previous Pokemon to the inclusion of gym missions and version-specific battles. For many, the question remains: Are Pokemon Sword and Shield good games, and more importantly, are they good Pokemon games? To both of these inquiries, I have to concede a confident “yes”. Pokemon has never felt better than it does in Sword and Shield, between variation of available monsters, flow of the storyline, larger than life moments and battles, and overall graphical integrity. I do understand the reservations many fans have, and share some of my own disappointment with them, but couldn’t help but smile while traveling through the Wild Area on my electric powered bike-ski. I shared much of this game with my eldest child, who in his own time is learning the names and types of different Pokemon, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and eagerly learning to read so that he, too, can catch them all. Pokemon Sword/Shield made us share emotions; new for him, nostalgic for me. It whisked me back to my own childhood, and though not perfect, I could smell again the familiar scents of fall in my home as I and my son became Galar’s very best.