Pokémon Sword and Shield Review
Pokémon Sword and Shield is a stunningly excellent game. If you were on the fence, and not sure whether or not to pull the trigger on buying it, take this as a sign that you should. Whether this is your first Pokémon game, or your fifteenth, or you haven’t played in a decade or more, this is still the game for you. As a twenty-year fan of the series, I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun with a Pokémon game as I have with Shield. But like every game before it, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an iterative hop more than it is a generational leap, and that’s good, and bad, and everything in between.
We’ll start at the beginning. Like every Pokémon game, you start by picking your gender, your name, and, in line with recent generations, your skin and hair colour. A bit of exposition here, a bit of dialogue there, and you’re given the choice of three starter Pokémon: Grookey the grass type, Sobble the water type, or Scorbunny the fire type — the first of many adorable new creatures you’ll see in Sword and Shield. The Pokémon you pick here will be your closest partner throughout your journey… or it won’t. There’s nothing stopping you from stuffing it into a PC box the moment you catch your second Pokémon. For the most part, it’s a standard affair. But even early on, there’s hints of something more.
Your best friend and rival, Hop, is like many rivals before him: kind-hearted, competitive, and, yep, you guessed it, friendly. He’s the latest in a series of friendly rivals, a departure from the series’ roots of borderline-malicious rivals like Blue and Silver. But from the outset, Hop presents a more interesting character than most other friendly rivals in recent history. He’s the younger brother of Leon, the unbeaten — and seemingly unbeatable — champion of the Galar region. Hop looks up to his older brother, admires him, wants to be him. But ultimately, he lives and competes in Leon’s shadow. He’s not Hop, the promising, up-and-coming challenger, he’s Hop, the champion’s kid brother. It’s reminiscent of last generation’s Hau, a young boy destined to take over the position of Island Kahuna from his grandfather. But unlike Hau, who struggled with living up to the expectations set for him, Hop’s struggle deals more with his direction in life. He’s not trying to be his brother, he wants to carve a different path, and to do that, he needs not to fill hefty shoes, but to step out of the shadow cast by the Galar region’s biggest superstar. It’s a deeply fascinating journey, and seeing it unfold before you is an absolute joy.
Sword and Shield are filled with subtle character stories like this. Take Sonia, the headstrong professor’s assistant with a passion for Galar’s history and the drive to uncover its secrets. Or Marnie, a shy but determined challenger who’s attracted a strong fan-following that she doesn’t quite get on with. Even Bede, the closest Sword and Shield gets to the classic antagonistic rival, is written with a great deal of nuance and has a wonderful, if a little rushed, story to be told. Ultimately, none of these stories are going to be winning any awards for writing or storytelling — this is still a game aimed primarily at children and it’s written like one — but they serve as an incredibly effective lens through which to view the Galar region.
As a whole, the story progression is fairly simple, but it does take a few key departures from series tradition. Gyms are back, after a brief vacation in the Alola region, and they’re bigger and better than ever, now giant spectacles with roaring crowds, all celebrating Pokémon battling as Galar’s number one spectator sport. As you progress through the Galar region, you’ll take on 8 gyms — the usual number — but for the first time since perhaps Red and Blue, this journey for glory and greatness forms the core of your motivation. There is no evil team (not really, at least), there is no imminent, world-ending threat (for most of the game). There is a side plot of discovering the region’s history, but for the most part, Sword and Shield are about rising through the ranks to become the greatest trainer in the region. It’s simple, sure, but it’s focused and effective, and eliminating that sense of world-ending urgency means that you never feel like you’re wasting time by participating in other activities like training, hunting for a rare Pokémon, or raiding with friends.
It’s that last one, Pokémon raiding, that is the strongest part of Sword and Shield. As you wander through the Wild Area, you’ll occasionally see a shining beacon of light pouring out of one of the dozens of Pokémon dens scattered throughout the wilderness. Interacting with these active dens lets you and up to three friends take on — and potentially catch — a gigantic, Dynamaxed Pokémon. They’re a little like Pokémon Go raids, just on a slightly smaller scale, and in much more refined. Raids are challenging, and they’re exceptionally fun, in part because the Dynamax Pokémon you’re facing break all the rules. They’ll often use two or three moves per turn, or erect a shield that prevents you from damaging it for three attacks, or decide that your Pokémon’s buffs are too much and wipe the buffs away. Every now and then you’ll even come across a powerful, transformed Pokémon called a Gigantamax, and while these are incredibly difficult to catch, there’s a strangely addictive quality to trying to hunt them all down. And of course, you can raid with friends online, which is where I spent most of my time in the game.
Unfortunately, Sword and Shield’s online capabilities are far from flawless. At the heart of it all is the Y-Comm, a system for communicating with other players both online and over local wireless. With the Y-Comm active, stamps will appear on the left-hand side of the screen, signalling what nearby players, friends, and random players from around the world are doing in their game. It’s a little like the Player Search System from Generation 6, in that it gives you a little insight into what other players are up to at any given time. You might see a stamp from somebody looking to trade, or have a friendly battle, or, most importantly, raid. But sometimes, you won’t see that stamp, and that’s part of the issue with the Y-Comm: it’s inconsistent.
While you can filter stamps by a variety of options, sometimes it just doesn’t work the way that it seemingly should. Even when I didn’t have any filters on, sometimes I would go hours without seeing any raid stamps, or any stamps at all that didn’t belong to friends. And sometimes, even when a friend was looking for a raid and asked me to join in, the stamp just never showed up. It’s a system that could be fantastic, but in its current inconsistent state, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. There’s also no way to easily group up with friends in the Wild Area, no GTS (for the first time since it was introduced), and ultimately no way to control which stamps pop up. It also doesn’t help that performance seems to take a hit in the Wild Area when you’re connected to the internet.
Having said that, the Galar region itself is a wonderful, beautiful place, especially with the introduction of the Wild Area. I will admit that the visual fidelity of the Wild Area is a little lower than that of many other areas in the game, but the trade-off is a wide, open sandbox to play around in. It’s a feature that replaces many of the early- to mid-game routes you’d see in prior games, and for the most part, it’s a pretty successful replacement. The Wild Area feels like a gigantic nature reserve, filled with Pokémon at every turn, living out their daily lives. And while there’s not really much to explore, exactly, it goes a long way towards making the Galar region feel like a living, breathing place. The towns and cities of the Galar region are even better, each one beautifully crafted to perfection, and each one an utterly gorgeous set piece, if nothing else. Some of the later areas are somewhat boring, straight routes with nothing much of note, but they’re overshadowed quickly by everything that does look and feel great, so there’s little time to dwell on the uninspiring.
So let’s talk about the five-letter elephant in the room: Dexit. The news that a number of Pokémon would be absent from Sword and Shield — and wouldn’t be able to be transferred when Pokémon Home finally sees a release — dominated fan discussion online in the leadup to the game’s launch. Post-E3, it was difficult to have any sort of conversation about Game Freak’s latest game without the term Dexit popping up, and controversy surrounding the issue continued to grow in the months that followed. I’d like to take a moment to talk about that; although a review isn’t quite the right platform for this kind of discussion, it’s impossible to ignore. On that note, let’s talk about what Pokémon Sword and Shield is, what it isn’t, and the disconnect between its creators and some of the series’ biggest fans.
As mentioned above, Sword and Shield is by far the most fun I’ve ever had with a Pokémon game. It is an utterly excellent game, above all else, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s what I’m judging in this review. Having said that, Sword and Shield are not the gigantic, generational leap that some expected. To say it’s an upscaled 3DS game — as many have done — could not be further from the truth, but it’s also not a bold, progressive step into the future. To put it simply, Sword and Shield is not for Pokémon what Breath of the Wild was for Zelda. Personally, I never believed it would be; Game Freak has always been a large proponent of evolution through iteration. But for many, Sword and Shield was destined to be Pokémon’s “Breath of the Wild moment,” and in that respect, it falls monumentally short. Many have argued that, as the very core component of the most profitable media franchise in history, and with the huge generational leap in terms of available hardware resources, Game Freak could and perhaps should be pushing the envelope of innovation in its main series games. And by omitting a huge amount of Pokémon — Pokémon that are all most definitely somebody’s favourite — not only is Game Freak not innovating, for many it’s taking a step backwards.
When this controversy started to unfold, the first thing that came to mind was a 2017 interview with series director Junichi Masuda and Sword and Shield director Shigeru Ohmori. In discussing the then-untitled game, Masuda dropped a statement that’s stuck with me:
“Of course, it is very difficult to make the game, so I hope people don’t get their expectations up too high.”
It’s an incredibly open, somewhat shocking statement from the director of the biggest series in the world. Even in 2017, more than two years before the release of Sword and Shield, Game Freak’s approach was to try to temper expectations. Not because they were planning on making a bad game, not even necessarily because they intended to cut half the Pokedex out of the game. But because, at the end of the day, making a game is incredibly difficult, even for a production as large as Pokémon. And at a certain point, no amount of money and resources is going to change that. With Sword and Shield, Game Freak has reached that point.
I don’t intend to make excuses for Game Freak in this situation. For many hardcore Pokémon fans, the removal of 400-odd Pokémon was line in the sand, and once that line has been crossed, there’s no easy way to uncross it. For many, Sword and Shield will be nothing more than a wave goodbye from the series they’ve spent decades investing their heart, soul, and money into. For Game Freak, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company, this will be a blip on the radar, but for the fans losing out, this will be a much more personal loss. And it’s this disconnect, between those who make Pokémon and those who play it, that is so deeply ingrained into just about any discussion there is to have about Sword and Shield. It is, at its very core, a divisive product from top to bottom.
I’ve spoken in previous reviews about the importance of managing expectations, and over the past few years I’ve tried my hardest to learn to see games as what they are, rather than what they could be. It’s helped me to form a healthier relationship with video games, and by extension, a healthier relationship with the people behind those games. I can’t pretend to know the struggles of developing a series like Pokémon, and I won’t sit here behind a keyboard and speculate about where — or if — it all went wrong, what could or should have changed in its development.
Am I upset that I won’t get to see some of my favourite Pokémon in glorious HD? You bet. Am I sad that a Swampert I’ve held onto for close to two decades is going to be trapped in the games of the past, or locked behind a paywall, waiting for its time to shine? Absolutely. But that inner-conflict, that emotional response to the business decisions of a multi-billion dollar corporation, well… that’s more a reflection of my own personal values than it is a reflection of Sword and Shield as an experience. And when I’m playing Sword and Shield, when I’m running through the world, battling alongside my partners, teaming up with my friends and family in a raid, I’m not thinking about Dexit. I’m not thinking about what could have been, what should have been, what Game Freak didn’t or couldn’t bring to the table. I’m thinking about the sheer joy of seeing adorable new creatures for the first time, the childlike wonder of discovering a whole new region, the thrill of battling my way to the finals, and the camaraderie that comes with the community that has developed alongside the game’s launch. When I play Sword and Shield, the business decisions of a multi-billion dollar corporation fall away, and I’m left with a game that puts a smile on my face every single time I pick it up, and that is always on my mind long after I put it down.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are not without their problems. But beyond the rubbish online play and uninspired late-game routes, and beyond the controversy surrounding them, they’re simply the most fun I’ve ever had with Pokémon. The story is wonderful, the creatures themselves are all fantastic and adorable, and Max Raids will absolutely never not be great fun. And if you can overlook the fact that these games aren’t the generational leap that some expected, you’re sure to find something special in them.
A self-purchased version of Pokémon Shield was used for this review.
+ Wonderful characterisation
+ Utterly gorgeous cities
+ Max Raids are the most fun thing in Pokémon history
- The Y-Comm sucks
- Late-game routes are boring
- No really, the Y-Comm really sucks