A mainline Pokémon release is always a big deal, but this time it’s different. Not only is it the debut of a mainline release on a new platform, it’s the debut of a mainline Pokémon on a home console. Yes, the Switch is also debatably a handheld, but it’s tough to remember the last time a new Pokémon has garnered this much attention. Now, Pokémon Sword and Shield are available across all regions for Switch owners to enjoy, but has it taken the big step forward longtime fans have long been waiting for?
What Is It?
Pokémon Sword and Shield represent the eighth generation of the long-running series. The games feature over 81 new Pokémon species, bringing the total number to 890 by the time this review is published. That’s a lot of Pokémon–arguably too many Pokémon, so let’s go ahead and take the opportunity to tackle the controversy surrounding the decision to not have a National Pokédex.
As a Pokémon fan, I do understand the frustration of the NationalDex no longer being available. If you believe in Pokémon‘s classic “gotta catch ’em all” mantra, it’s easy to see why it’s so maddening. But how many players actually go through that effort? I don’t have the stats of how many people actually catch ’em all, but the last time I did that was when I got all 150 of the original Pokémon. That was in 2000, 19 years ago; I was 12. So if you’re 12, or if you have all the time in the world to catch ’em all or wade through all your options in the Pokémon Bank, by all means–be mad and boycott the game. Those that are boycotting, however, are missing out on one of the best games in the series.
Pokémon Sword and Shield take place in the Galar region, which is pretty much Game Freak’s take on the United Kingdom. Like every Pokémon game before it, pretty much everybody is crazy for Pokémon. You talk to any NPC in the game, and they’ll talk to you about Pokémon. You go to a hairdresser, and they’ll talk about looking good with your Pokémon. It’s all Pokémon all the time, and in Galar, everything about Pokémon is bigger.
Pokémon are so big that gym battles and tournament matches take place on grand stadium-sized stages. Thousands of people will watch these battles, much like they would for a football game. One of the main reasons why this is the case is because of the new Dynamax feature, which has all but replaced Mega Evolution from the last two generations of Pokémon. “Dynamaxing” your Pokémon results in having them grow into kaiju-sized beasts to get an upper hand on your opponent. It doesn’t really change the tide of battle, but it does essentially add more features to the game.
Why Should I Care?
A lot of people were hoping (and expecting) Pokémon Sword and Shield would be for Pokémon what Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey were for Zelda and Mario, and while there are features that make Sword and Shield feel like a more wide open experience, the new games are still very much what Pokémon has been for the last couple decades. On the surface, it’s still all about traversing the world and getting all eight badges before fighting and becoming the Pokémon Champion.
That isn’t to say there weren’t any huge improvements. Sword and Shield has made a bunch of changes that make it the ideal series experience in 2019, mainly because of its quality of life improvements. Like the Pokémon Let’s Go games from last year, random battles are a thing of the past. You have the option of dashing your way through tall grass and dungeons without having to fight a wild Pokémon, adding unnecessary hours to your experience. The joy of actually only running into Pokémon you want to fight cannot be understated, and while you’ll still run into trainers looking for a fight, at least you’ll know when they’re coming.
The Pokémon Box Maintenance system is mostly available at will, which pretty much eliminates the need to go to a Pokémon Center for anything but healing. Even healing is pretty minimal as oftentimes when you make your way through the game’s various routes, you’ll come across NPCs that’ll heal you. Even the rivals you come across in the game will heal you before and after a match, making for a much more streamlined experience.
Speaking of a streamlined experience respecting your time, one of the most understated features of this game is the fact that you can skip tutorials. All sorts of games, especially Nintendo’s and even more so with the Pokémon titles, include constant badgering from NPCs telling you how to do things you’ve known how to do for years. Just say no, and thankfully they stop. Every battle you have and every Pokémon you catch will also net you experience for your whole team, even if one of your six main Pokémon don’t participate in battle. As long as it hasn’t been knocked out, you’re good.
Going back to what’s actually thematically new with Pokémon, and what makes Sword and Shield unique, there’s the Wild Area. The Wild Area is a vast landscape that features all sorts of Pokémon in their natural habitats. You’ll come across Pokémon swimming, ice Pokémon in the snow, ground and fire Pokémon in the more dry areas, and you get the idea. It’s so big that you actually can move the camera around with the right stick–in any other situation, this wouldn’t be a big deal at all, but it’s a Pokémon first. The Wild Area will even let you capture Pokémon in their final evolution phase–I remember being totally flabbergasted when I saw Pokémon like Vileplume casually walking around. The Wild Area is a cool place to just casually run through and catch Pokémon, and it’s easy to spend a mess of hours here much in the same vein as finding shrines in Breath of the Wild.
Also in the Wild Area are beams of light that lead to caverns that hold Pokémon Dynamax raids. You can take part in the raids with bots or live players online, and similar to how raids work in Pokémon Go on mobile, they’re all about weakening the Pokémon before everybody has the opportunity to catch them. If you don’t knock them out within a set amount of time, you miss out and you have to start over if they’re still there. As cool as this multiplayer function is, in our testing, connections were quite abysmal. It’s a shame because this sort of stuff is essential for Pokémon taking the next step, but Nintendo got in its own way… as usual.
Sword and Shield have their share of other things that make it unique, but they definitely don’t make up the core of the experience nor are they really all that important. One such feature are Pokémon Camps that you can make outside any town to use as a bonding experience with your pocket monsters. You can also make and feed yourself and your Pokémon some curry which have different effects on your squad. I personally found this weird and only did this around three to four times in my playthrough. It’s cute, but nothing I found particularly necessary.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
If you’re a Pokémon fan and you aren’t pointlessly boycotting the release (which failed, because it’s become the fastest selling Switch game regardless), there’s no reason not to own the latest game in the series aside from being unable to afford it. It’s easily the best-looking, the best-playing, and the most convenient release yet, and even after you become the Pokémon Champion, there is still plenty to do in the post-game that doesn’t even include you catching ’em all.
If you’re a newcomer, hop right in. Pokémon was and will probably always be “baby’s first RPG,” and with enough Pokémon spread out from the various generations, it definitely retains the charm it’s known for. On the other hand, if Pokémon hasn’t clicked for you at any point in time, odds are really low that Sword and Shield will do anything to change that.
Any way you look at it, Pokémon Sword and Shield are the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game since Pokémon Gold and Silver, which is a statement that should mean a lot to any Pokéveteran.