You take any mainline Pokémon game of the last twenty years, and you can easily sum it up with a handful of lines: A new region to explore. One of three starter Pokémon to choose from. A rival to face, eight gyms to challenge and a Pokémon League to conquer. Hundreds of new and old Pokémon to capture.
Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t shake up that formula at all, unlike the Nintendo 3DS’s last core games in the series, Pokémon Sun and Moon. It instead gently caresses that tradition of exploring a new region, facing off against the mightiest trainers in the land and growing your own team of pocket monster best buddies into a formidable force that can take on any challenge thrown at them. It holds onto the past, while also finding time to make some much-needed adjustments along the way that results in a Pokémon experience that is sharp, vibrant and comfortable to slip into.
Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee and Pikachu may have been the first Pokémon games on the Nintendo Switch, but Pokémon Sword and Shield is a prime example of learning from the past to influence the future, to create not only an addictive new chapter in Pokémon history but possibly its finest hour yet.
Right from the start, Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t waste any time in setting up its traditional status quo. A new land awaits you, this time in the form of the delightfully British Galar region. It’s a massive new locale to explore, one that is hiding all manner of new Pokémon and treasures. It’s not long before you’re given a starter Pokémon and given the task of fighting your way to the top, but there’s an added layer of mystery to the narrative that unfolds in the background of your journey to be the best like no one ever was.
It’s a light story make no mistake, but seeing as how Pokémon is and always will be geared primarily towards the younger generation, it does its part in setting the stage for epic showdowns that make the most of the new Dynamax system. Essentially the evolution of Sun and Moon’s Z-Move mechanics with a good dollop of Mega-Evolution thrown on top, these titanic upgrades allow you to Kaiju up your Pokémon for a showdown that would make Godzilla think twice about his title as King of the Monsters.
Dynamaxing results in not only a chunky health upgrade for your chosen Pokémon, but also gives them access to new eyeball-searing attacks that can alter the battlefield to favour their chosen element. In action, it’s a sight to behold that draws from the British influence that seeps out of every single pour of the Galar region: Namely that of a source material that pulls from a country whose island brand is that of a football-mad community.
Pokémon’s biggest battles take place in massive stadiums, and with Dynamaxing active you can really feel the infectious energy of sports fans augmenting the spectacle. The idea of a full stadium, crowds picking sides and chanting songs of support gives Pokémon Sword and Shield’s gym battles a sense of epic competition that has been missing from the series for far too many years now.
To get your hands on Pokémon that can take on the likes of a Dragon-type tamer or a Fighting-type martial arts expert, you’re going to need to do some exploring though! It’s this time-honoured tradition where Sword and Shield shines once again, trimming the fat and throwing fewer roadblocks at players. HM moves needed to work past pesky bushes and waterfalls are gone, replaced instead by a decently-sized wild area that is home to all manner of new Pokémon.
Routes still exist between cities, towns and this vast new frontier, but it’s the wild area where that functions beautifully as a recruitment center for powerful new partners and keeping them strong enough for the challenges that lie ahead. Exploration is key to any good Pokémon game, and after Sun and Moon’s annoying habit of too much hand-holding between the islands, it’s wonderfully refreshing to be given more freedom once again.
One other fantastic holdover from the Let’s Go games is also present: A Pokémon eco-system where you can actually see which critters are roaming around the land. Head to a patch of tall grass and you’ll be greeted with an impressive spectacle: Sneasels will dart out of the bushes to attack you, Braviary float above you in the skies and you’ll even catch a glimpse of Mantine hopping out of water as you approach a lake. Some areas have set Pokémon minding their own business as you dash past them, but this food chain is in a state of flux that changes along with the weather and time of day.
The end result is a region that feels more dynamic in nature, more alive than ever before as you can focus on the journey ahead of you and not have to worry about random encounters bogging you down along the way. That familiarity extends to the battle system, which hasn’t changed an iota: You’re still levelling up, evolving your chosen Pokémon and making the most of its four-move arsenal to create a creature that works best as a one-shot KO machine when it has an elemental advantage.
You’re able to grow your partner easily in the Wild Area, and with battles splitting the experience points earned across your entire team, you don’t even need to focus for long on the rest of your team when you need them to power up as well. Raid battles in the Wild Area add more to this constant sense of growth, as you can battle embiggened Pokémon in lairs beneath the Galar region, grabbing three AI or real-world players to assist you. Play your cards right, and you can grab this Pokémon once it’s weakened, but the real payoff here is the immense amount of prizes that you can accrue from every showdown.
These raids are easy enough in the beginning, but once you start growing in power they’ll throw a proper challenge your way mate. Four and five-star raids strike back with health-point sponge bosses who can throw multiple moves at you as if they were a cheap OP Final Fantasy boss from the PlayStation One era, and without some strategy from human allies you’ll be hard-pressed to defeat these mighty creatures. You’ll be able to do just that with Pokémon Sword and Shield’s new online link systems, which provide some fun new post-game diversions for anyone who prefers PvE over PvP.
And still, there’s more to talk about! This year’s new kids on the pokeblock generation feature some of the best designs yet in Pokémon history. Wooloo is an adorable bundle of fluff that you want to hug all day long, Corviknight is one of the most impressive new beginner birds seen since Pidgeot took to the skies and Grimmsnarl is my favourite addition to my team whenever I’m facing any Dragon-type trainers.
In addition to those dozens of new designs, there are even new takes on old faces that make the most of the Galar region influences. Galarian Koffing has an industrial evolution that looks like it was ripped straight from a Charles Dickens novel, Machamp looks like it could break an entire city in half when it Dynamaxes and never in my life have I ever wanted anything more than a long long Meowth.
There’s a charm to these new designs that cannot be gushed about enough, and with Nintendo choosing to actually keep most of the new Pokémon under wraps before launch, having that sense of mystery restored made a traditional journey feel fresh once again. Whether you’re after Pokémon that simply look cool or pleasing to the eyes, the eighth generation has you more than covered.
As much as I love Pokémon Sword and Shield though, there are some issues well worth mentioning. The game looks like a colourful visual stunner on first glance, but its one that has a few bugs which are a tad bit sloppy for a first-party Nintendo release. Make no mistake, most video game studios would give their left kidney to have a game run this smooth (Dynamaxed battles are a visual smorgasbord of effects), but seeing some nasty pop-up and some hideous screen-tearing regularly feature on a big TV screen or even the Switch? It’s distracting stuff.
Then you have the great Pokedex brouhaha of 2019, with many a fan moaning about Game Freak essentially cutting the entire roster of Pokémon down to just a mere 400-odd pocket monsters. I’m of the opinion that Game Freak needed to do just that so that players could focus more on the new elements of Pokémon Sword and Shield and could instead throw the best of the best at players.
It’s just surprising to see which Pokémon made the cut for the National Pokedex though. While some are a natural fit for the various biomes (Think roaming Golurks in Celtic ruins and Rhydons in the sandy dunes), but in an even spread of pocket monsters that can fulfil the need to collect ‘em all for battling or a cuteness overload its odd to see Pokémon considered to be low-tier by the community get to make an appearance.
But sweet Arceus, these complaints are nothing when you examine Pokémon Sword and Shield’s entire package. The passion and love that was thrown into this game, the vast new cities to explore and the curry recipes to cook for when you’re camping. I could go on about the quirky gym challenges, the various distractions that easily pads out the twenty-plus hours it took me to reach.
I can wax lyrical for hours about Pokémon Sword and Shield having some of the most amazing animations for specific power moves or how the overall artistic direction of the user interface, characters and even your optional fashion makes a good-looking game look even better. There’s the soundtrack that buzzes with catchy tunes, numerous quality of life improvements that keeps the game rolling at a steady pace and so much more.
Simply put, Pokémon is back and better than ever.
Last Updated: November 20, 2019