Pokémon has been a prodigious staple of Nintendo consoles since the series launched with Red and Blue back in 1996. Twenty-three years and over thirty mainline installments later, Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield arrived on November 15th to the uproar of critical acclaim and the clamor of fan uncertainty. Not only have Sword and Shield marked the franchise’s first traditional venture onto the Nintendo Switch, they’re also the series’ first core entry to be hosted on Nintendo’s home console. This is the first time that Pokémon has taken genuine risks with their franchise and the expectations of their fanbase. Has deviating from the tried-and-true formula paid off?
This wouldn’t be considered a mainline addition to the Pokémon series if certain gameplay elements didn’t stick around. Once again players begin their journey as a fledgling trainer of tamable and collectible monsters. They receive a starting Pokémon from a local idol, bid their mother farewell, and set out to the long and winding routes which will eventually lead them to become a Pokémon Master. Each route is punctuated by a city and its corresponding Gym, where trainers test their mettle against prestigious leaders and earn the right to eventually take on the Pokémon Champion himself. Outside of these parallels to past entries, the gameplay mechanics in Sword and Shield take a turn for the newly inspired.
The featured location this time around is the United Kingdom-inspired Galar region, equipped with the appropriate dialect and thematically-linked monsters. Galar feels bigger than any Pokémon setting before it, thanks mostly to the addition of online gameplay features and the free-to-explore Wild Area. In the aforementioned environment, players roam a sprawling and shifting terrain populated by other Sword and Shield players. Here they can explore, camp, capture monsters, and even challenge the new Dynamax Pokémon in gigantic multiplayer raids. Coupled with generous quality of life changes, Galar is immediately expansive and inviting for both the uninitiated and the Elite Four veteran.
For the most part, the changes made to Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are welcome and well executed. The overworld navigation here is immediately preferable to the presentation of the 3DS and the mobile consoles before it. Thanks to the power of the Nintendo Switch, Galar is broad and beautiful while character models are colorful and masterfully lit. The removal of random battles, supplemented instead by Pokémon that are visible as players travel from one town to the next, makes crawling through the grass more exciting and less of a chore. In the Wild Area particularly, hunting for a specific Pokémon or for the next Dynamax encounter is always tense and engaging. Gone are the days of wandering around, hoping that the next cue of battle music will signal a gift from the RNG gods. Now what you see is what you get.
That ease-of-access translates to other areas of the game as well. Players have almost constant access to their Box of stored Pokémon and can assemble the perfect team for any challenge on the fly. Experienced members of the Pokémon franchise have also been treated to a more streamlined approach to the competitive metagame of Sword and Shield. Qualities that were previously only obtained through hours upon hours of farming, like EVs and Natures, can now be influenced almost entirely by items. Those tools join the likes of EXP candies, which drop from Dynamax encounters and can be used to level a Pokémon from 1 to 100 without the need for incessant grinding.
Of course, surfing into unknown waters couldn’t exist without setbacks. Not every new feature of Sword and Shield works as it should, nor does every decision made by the developers at GameFreak ultimately benefit the series. The familiar set-up feels more shallow and uninspired than ever. While the story of the Galar region will be enough to entice young gamers who have yet to get their hands on more tactfully written RPGs, there is almost nothing in the narrative to be enjoyed by the players who have followed this franchise from the days of Red and Blue. Characters are forgettable. There are no stakes throughout the vast majority of the game and most often, the player character feels more like a spectator than a true presence in this brilliant new locale.
Menu navigation has also been integrated clumsily. Items are not automatically sorted as they’re added to the player’s bag. The ‘Other’ tab of the inventory specifically feels like a catch-all only made necessary by the lack of competent item management. Online lobbies are hit-or-miss even days after the games’ release. Friends will have to create, close and then re-open their Dynamax lobbies just to become visible by their peers. Other times, lobbies will be inexplicably locked. Missteps like these are almost unavoidable since this is GameFreak’s first true foray into populated online environments. Unfortunately the biggest issue with Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield doesn’t come with such understandable circumstances.
Now backed by the strongest system to date, it’s inexplicable that Sword and Shield would also come with the series’ greatest cut to the in-game assortment of collectible Pokémon. In each previous generation, the total number of monsters was always increased. This followed a steady pattern from the original 151 to the 807 included in 2017’s Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. In Sword and Shield however, only 400 Pokémon made the cut. While it does make sense that the team could not adapt the full 807 Pokémon to be available immediately upon the release of these games, the permanent removal of so many allies from this generation is an inarguable sleight against the long-running fan. For many, the time spent catching those removed 400 Pokémon has now become time wasted.
For Better or Worse
Despite the setbacks, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are the new standard for the franchise. It isn’t the first game this year to evolve. The strengths of the Nintendo Switch have elevated the previous presentation and the old possibilities of Pokémon battles to entirely new plateaus. While these installments could not avoid disappointing a margin of the franchise’s old fanbase, those who are willing to follow Pokémon on this journey will be rewarded with the most forward-moving entry to the mainline series of the last twenty years.