Pokémon Sword and Shield. Just proclaiming that name is bound to get you replies full of controversy on social media, as fans tend to be one-sided with the game; you either find disgust in the title or activate ultra defense mode. However, I’m here to offer a different take on the titles; I firmly believe this game is not the disgrace people have made it out to be or the undisputed greatest Pokémon game. I believe this game to be just “decent”, so let’s analyze. (Note: this article will contain spoilers, so be advised!)
First up is the story mode, of course. The story itself is one of the weakest I’ve seen in a mainline Pokémon game. In brief, the story follows yourself and the champion’s brother, Hop, as you both compete to beat Leon, the proclaimed “unbeatable” champion. Along the way you meet two other rivals. Bede is an edgy rival who is hired by the chairman of the league, Rose, to find wishing stars. Wishing stars are what dynamax Pokémon, both you and your rivals have one (I will explain this concept further on). Marnie is the sister of a gym leader who also intends to be champion, as she is constantly followed by Team Yell. Speaking of, Team Yell is the “evil” team of the game; they are extreme supporters of Marnie whom you have to chase away to make them stop bothering her. Anyhow, it turns out in a last minute twist Rose was evil, as he was awakening legendary Eternus and collecting wishing stars to rapidly dynamax Pokémon.
This story sounds passible in concept, but it failed in execution. Besides Bede and surprisingly Hop, characters are surprisingly bland and/or lack needed development. The height of this can be seen with Sordbort and Shieldbort. They appear out of the blue, and only for the post game. They recieve no development and feel like forced inconveniences who were shoved into the game last minute so Nintendo/Game Freak could claim the game has post game story content. Also, the Rose twist comes out of nowhere along with the concept of Eternas in general. Besides this there is no evil characters in the game. There is no motivation for the player to fight team Yell because they mean well, and there is no over looming threat to look forward to stopping. It is just the “be champion” story we’ve seen in every game, with few changes which don’t really it too intresting.
Although, one of my biggest issues with the story is the focus on the gym challenge over the lore. The lore feels like it could have used much more explaining and details than what we got, especially since the lore changes factually multiple times during the game. We also got almost no lore on Eternus which I feel was very much needed, as Eternus’ premise had too much wasted potential on how he came to be and the rule of his powers. Instead, they chose to focus on the gym battles and leaders. I take issue with this as the gym leaders are not very fleshed out in terms of interactions and character development. Having the focus be on them rather than the lore or the characters which needed development felt like an odd decision.
Now, I mentioned Bede and Hop being the sole acception to the lack of intresting characters. Starting with Bede, he actually sees meaningful development in terms of character and goals. He slowly gains respect for your character while not losing his “jerk” persona. His goal changes, as he goes from working under Rose and finding wishing stars to wanting to become the next fairy-type gym leader. Rose dumps Bede from helping him to find wishing stars after Bede breaks a public monument to look for wishing stars, giving me complicated feelings towards the character- which I like. On one hand, I feel a tad bit bad as he was just trying to help Rose because he looked up to Rose. On the other hand, Rose never encouraged such behavior so it felt like a bad thing of him to destroy a historical monument. Meanwhile, Hop is a decent character in a different way. His personality is intresting, as although he is considered a generic positive rival, he doesn’t achieve his goals and he is not happily accepting of the fact as we’ve seen with other rivals. He is upset but tries to hide it to support your character (which is seen especially in the post game two hour story). This, along with having an inconsistent record of losing and winning against others as you go along the game, makes him slightly more intresting than previous rivals like Hau.
Next is the gameplay in story mode, and it’s alright. The routes are plain and samey, always having a very linear path with three or more trainers. There aren’t enough routes for them to get too stale, so I suppose they mostly get their job done. The towns are hit or miss; some have unique environments with a large sense of scale, while others have very minimal effort. Hit or miss seems to be a theme with this game, as this applies with the gym challenges. Gym challenges can be very unique, such as when you have to push Wooloos ahead as Yampers try to scare them away, but some of them are as plain as fighting three trainers and being done. The gym leaders themselves, on the flip side, are some of the best we have gotten. They have good personalities, great designs and sometimes provide a decent battle. It is a shame their potential is wasted due to lack of interactions and overall activity (especially for the version exclusive gym leaders).
Speaking of providing a decent battle, the difficulty was a large concern leading up to the game. So, how valid were the concerns? Unfortunately they were very valid. This game allows you to go to the Wild Area and do raid battles early on, and raid battles give you exp candies which makes it way too easy to over level Pokémon. Even when you don’t do this, if you have a Pokémon which use very effective moves compared to your opponent, you will likely defeat them in one or two hits. The only trouble I had in this game was with Leon’s battle, and even then I did not lose. In fact, I never lost to a battle during the entire game. Difficulty options felt very much needed here.
The main gimmick of this game is Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing. Dynamaxing dramatically increases the size of your Pokémon, giving them powerful attacks based on the move types they have. Gigantamaxing is the same premise except the Pokémon changes their form entirely. All Pokémon can Dynamax, while only some can Gigantamax. Most people seem not to be huge fans of this gimmick, but I like the sense of scale and power they add to the battles. I always looked forward to being able to use it, as Dynamaxing is only available at gyms in the main story. This is not too much of a deal breaker to me as those are the only places you would really want to use it anyways. The dynamax/gigantamax lasts for three turns making you have to strategically plan when to use it, which I also appreciated.
So, the story was below average and the main story gameplay was not the greatest we have seen of the series. Then how come I had enough fun with the game to have over thirty hours and still not be bored? Introducing the Wild Area. This was my biggest concern with the game before release, but it ended up being the most enjoyment I have gotten out of the Pokémon series in a while. The Wild Area has three main points I want to discuss; the area itself, Pokémon camps and the raids.
The area itself is big enough to where it does not get stale, and small enough to where it does not take a painful amount of time to get from one location to another. The amount of Pokémon in the area itself is very impressive. In the area alone, you can catch every Pokémon in the game under different locations and weather. Game Freak did a good job helping you feel immersed into the world, having Pokémon run to attack you and walk/swim around in and out of the grass/water. There is also a money system with exclusive currency, which allows you to buy upgrades to your bike and other goodies. The Wild Area, when connected to wi-fi, also attempts to be the Pokémon MMO we have always dreamed of. I say attempt as it makes the game laggier and the game makes it near impossible to meet with your friends in the Wild Area. Although, I can appreciate it as a first attempt and it is still nice to see trainers roaming around with you. The area also has a decent amount of secret collectables such as elemental stones and cooking ingredients. My main issue with the Wild Area the pop in, which can get very bad at times. You can very visibly see Pokémon and trainers fade onto the area right in front of you. This adds a feeling of unprofessionalism, as you could be only a few steps away from an object while it still has not faded in yet.
Pokémon Camp is a fun distraction from the main game where you can spend quality time with your team. I will note that this is available outside of the Wild Area, but this is the place where I found myself using it most. There are multiple ways to talk and play with your team, such as playing fetch or annoying them with a feather. Either way, it is funny to see how Pokémon interact with you and others. You may occasionally even see Pokémon race or talk each other, some becoming friends and some feeling uncomfortable around the others. The main feature of the camp is curry cooking… not exactly what I was expecting either. However, it is fun to see different materials you collect during the game make food to replenish your team. This by far has the most personality and expressions of the entire game, and I commend it for that.
Lastly for the Wild Area, the raids. This is by far my favorite part of the game. Raids consist of you and three other friends (or NPCs) fighting a dynamaxed/gigantamaxed Pokémon together. Raids are ranked from one to five stars, with five stars being the most challenging. This sounds like it would get boring and repetitive in concept, but with friends, that is far from the truth. I found myself spending hours going around the Wild Area and tackling raids with friends. You recieve fulfilling rewards such as EXP candies and Wild Area money, and the act of discovering gigantamax raids with your friends is even more satisfying. This was the extra content I needed to have me keep coming back to the game.
While we’re on the topic of the wild area, the graphics and performance of the game are heavily debated amongst the community. Again; some people think they are a terrible excuse for modern generation graphics, while others think it is one of the best looking games on Switch. The theme of “hit or miss” strikes again, as that describes the graphics for me perfectly. Some areas looked undoubtedly beautiful, such as Glimwood Tangle and the underground routes. Other areas… not so much. Specifically, the more grass based areas ended up being my least favorite visually. The Wild Area is clearly the area of the game which struggles the most graphically, with much lower texture quality and low fedility polygonal structures. The framerate was mostly solid during my playthrough, only becoming noticeably lower while connected to other trainers in the Wild Area.
The music was, you guessed it, hit or miss for me. Some themes stood out to me more than a lot of my previous experience with Pokémon music, while others felt bland and not noticeably great. An example of a theme I loved would be Bede’s theme. The theme made me look forward to my next encounter with Bede, and goes a long way into making the battle feel lively and intense. On the other hand, a theme I did not care too much for was Team Yell’s theme. The music is very generic heavy metal which doesn’t add too much excitement to the battle. I will admit, music is subjective. However, I feel that some music knocked it out of the park in terms of the intended effects while others did not.
Lastly, I wanted to touch on the designs and new Pokémon in this game. The character designs are some of the best we have gotten in the franchise. They are all expressive, full with personality and charming. Gladly, the same can be said for the Pokémon. While Sun and Moon disappointed me in the new Pokémon department, Sword and Shield had me constantly impressed with how good the new Pokémon were. Specifically, favorites of mine are Toxtricity and Centiskorch. The only legendaries I am not too huge on are the main dog legendaries, Zacian and Zamazenta, as they were underwhelming compared to the designs of previous legendaries in the series.
Overall, Sword and Shield has its many ups and downs. How does the national dex play into this? While the national dex did not play too heavily into my final score, it is disappointing to see so many Pokémon cut, especially since Game Freak is reusing animations and models. However, the national dex did not effect my enjoyment out of this game whatsoever so it would not be right to deduct too many points from the final score for it. This game gets an 7/10 from me. Core Pokémon fans will enjoy it, but it may be underwhelming to regular hardcore gamers. Let’s hope Game Freak uses the criticism the community has given to create a better game than ever going forward!
(Note: I left out Sonia as a character because I did not pay too much attention to her development, so I thought it would be unfair to review her).