Pokémon Sword and Shield are a big deal for Pokémon and Nintendo fans as a whole. Not only do they mark the start of a brand-new generation — they’re also the very first original titles in the core Pokémon franchise that were built from the ground up for a home console. Thanks to the portability function of Nintendo Switch, this transition feels completely natural and was a necessary move in order to continue pushing the iconic series forward.
Set in the UK-inspired Galar region, the games put you in the shoes of a young Trainer who sets off on a journey to catch Pokémon, battle other people and meet new friends along the way, with an ultimate goal of becoming the best in the land. This formula will instantly feel familiar to anyone who’s played a core Pokémon title before. While the nostalgic factor is there, you can expect a ton of handholding, especially during the early parts where your gameplay is interrupted every few steps for a character to tell you exactly where to go, no matter how obvious it was in the first place. Nevertheless, this structure will be appreciated by newcomers and is suitable for those who may be new to RPGs in general.
Due to utilizing a more capable graphical system, Pokémon Sword and Shield are easily the most appealing Pokémon games when it comes to visuals. Galar is portrayed as a vibrant and bustling region that serves as home to humans and Pokémon alike. You can see Pokémon roaming around fields, swimming in lakes and even flying in the air — bringing the world one step closer to life. However, that sense of realism is diminished as the result of certain limitations; throughout your journey you’ll come across NPCs, including Pokémon, that seem to pop up out of thin air.
The lively aspect is enhanced by the animation of cutscenes, which are more dynamic than ever before and manage to drive the narrative in an engaging way. But voiceovers are nowhere to be found, forcing you to read text while trying to enjoy what’s happening on screen. For a franchise that has a full-blown animated series under its belt, voice actors should be utilized for the games as well in this day and age. Similarly, screeches of Pokémon sound dated and could use the help of actual cries with modernized sound effects. Outside of cutscenes, animations could also use a facelift, particularly during battles and when characters are interacting with each other. The majority of movements in these categories appear generic and repetitive, but they don’t necessarily take away from the overall aroma of the game world.
A number of notable quality-of-life improvements have been implemented. For example, trading and communication capabilities are integrated in the pause menu, allowing you to access them anytime. Additionally, the ability to fast travel is made possible early on and battle options are more streamlined with a set of clear choices at hand. Factors like these are responsible for offering a more seamless experience that’s only strengthened by how you don’t have to deal with HMs (Hopefully those things never make a comeback).
Akin to previous entries in the series, the difficulty factor is pretty much nonexistent for veterans. The games follow the same familiar formula in that you start off with nothing, meet your rival, choose your first starter out of the same three types, encounter the same patterns of Pokémon types and set off on a predictable path that ultimately leads you to victory. Battles are extremely easy and beginner moves like Razor Leaf, Ember, Bubble or Peck can take you far. Furthermore, each Pokémon in your party gains Exp. Points by default. Exp. Points can also be gained via various other methods such as the adorable Pokémon Camp and Poké Jobs, making leveling up easier than ever. Most of the journey is overtly linear, leaving little to no room for exploration outside the Wild Area.
There are several Wild Area locations for players to explore throughout Galar. Each area consists of a vast expanse of nature that houses a plethora of Pokémon within their respective habitats. If you wanted to, you can very well fill up your party with a variety of types from the first Wild Area. You can freely move the camera horizontally and vertically to an extent. But for something that was hyped heavily by the developers at Game Freak themselves, camera movement is restrictive and there relatively isn’t much to do compared to other open-world adventures.
At the start of your journey, you’re introduced to the Dynamax phenomenon, which enables Pokémon to grow to an enormous size with an arsenal set of powerful moves during battle. Your Pokémon can undergo this change and you can catch new creatures in the same state in specific locations, predominantly in the Wild Area. You can join up with three other players to take on Dynamax Pokémon in Max Raid Battles. If you don’t want to connect with them, you also have the option of siding with NPCs to decrease the wait time. It pretty much feels the same since the objective doesn’t change, so you won’t be missing out either way.
Gigantamax is a similar feature that takes it a couple steps further by altering a Pokémon’s form and equipping them with a unique move. In addition to contributing toward more vigorous battles, the Dynamax and Gigantamax phenomena do more than enough to fill the voids of Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves. The same can’t necessarily be said about the infamous missing Pokémon throughout Galar, especially if some of your favorites were cut off, but you’re bound to find at least six Pokémon that you’ll be satisfied to add to your party. Nevertheless, completionists will be left disappointed in the end.
Pokémon Sword and Shield feel exactly like a Pokémon game, which is far from being a bad thing, but a major change in the formula is necessary in order to significantly mix things up. It’s not broken by any means, but fans who’ve been involved with the series for over 20 years now expect more at this point. It goes without saying that newcomers will feel right at home, and catching Pokémon and filling your Pokédex is still as addictive as ever. Looking ahead, the Wild Area in particular is a sign of good things to come for the Pokémon franchise.
A review copy of Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch was provided by Nintendo UK.