There is no video game series more near and dear to my heart than Pokémon. Despite the series’ ironic inability to evolve, I’ve enjoyed nearly every mainline Pokémon game to varying degrees. But like many Pokémon Masters my age, I’ve become frustrated by how the franchise’s annualized release schedule has stifled innovation in recent entries. With Pokémon Sword and Shield, I’m happy to report that for the first time in a long time, Game Freak has pushed the franchise forward in a way that feels meaningful.
In many ways, Pokémon Sword and Shield are the games I’ve been waiting for, in others, they feel like a half-measure for a studio with as much experience as Game Freak. Pokémon Sword and Shield aren’t the Breath-of-the-Wild-style reboot many fans were hoping for, but they are a major step in the right direction. More importantly than that, they’re easily the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game’s campaign in years.
A Smarter Pokémon
The most immediate change veteran players will notice in Pokémon Sword and Shield is how much Game Freak has scaled back the excessive tutorialization that plagued the franchise’s 3DS entries. Basics like a walkthrough of the Pokémon Center and catching a Pokémon can easily be skipped, allowing experienced trainers to get into the meat of the game much quicker. It’s a simple quality of life upgrade, but one that makes a huge difference to longtime fans and vastly increases my likelihood of replaying the game in the future.
Quality of life upgrades are really the name of the game in Pokémon Sword & Shield. For example, the return of one of the most highly-praised changes made in Pokémon Let’s Go (the ability to access your box of Pokémon nearly anywhere on the map) is back and encouraged experimentation as I found new species to add to my team. Everything from fast-traveling and world traversal to the basics of getting into competitive battling has received some small tweak to make previously cumbersome tasks feel like second nature.
Similarly, the story of Sword and Shield is much less intrusive than what we’ve come to expect after Pokémon X/Y or Pokémon Sun/Moon. Things are back to basics in the Galar region and, in my opinion, the game is better for it. After a brisk introduction to the main cast of characters, Pokémon Sword and Shield are happy to get out of your way and let you explore. Within my first hour of playing, I had met my rival, gotten my starter Pokémon, and made my way to the semi-open area of the map, The Wild Area.
Game Freak manages to create a (mostly) likable cast of characters that feel like they’re adding to the world rather than keeping you from it. The best part is, that if you’re the kind of player that just doesn’t enjoy watching cutscenes, Game Freak provides the option to turn them off completely right from the start.
2B A Master
In the anime, we get the impression that Pokémon battling is treated a lot like a sport, where top trainers are celebrities that people look up to as heroes. While we’ve had elements of that kind of sports culture around Pokémon trainers in previous games, in the Galar region the connection is undeniable. Matches are televised, trainers have trading cards, and gym challengers wear sports uniforms to battle gym leaders in front of roaring crowds. The choice to make the Gym Challenge feel like this epic event that you were lucky to be a part of (rather than something every schmoe with a Pokémon can try their hand at) adds a real sense of gravity to the familiar story of collecting eight gym badges.
Aside from a few story beats I won’t spoil here, there’s no major distraction from the Gym Challenge and the adult characters regularly comment on how they’ll handle things while you focus on being a sports hero. On the one hand, this is appreciated because it allows you to strike a satisfying balance between exploring the Wild Area as your team develops, and advancing the story quickly when you’re feeling ready to move on to the next beat. On the other, I miss the stakes of events like Team Rocket’s takeover of Saffron or Goldenrod. It feels like one of many things previous games got right that Game Freak has struggled to translate over time.
After the news broke that Game Freak would be limiting Pokémon Sword and Shield’s roster to 400 Pokémon, many fans were (understandably) upset. As much as I’d love to see more of my favorite Pokémon from previous generations available in Sword and Shield, I can’t say that their exclusion impacted my enjoyment of the game. I’m the kind of player who wants to use my first playthrough as a chance to explore the region’s new Pokédex and see which Pokémon might be interesting to use in competitive play down the road. Even limiting my team to only Galar Pokémon, it was truly difficult to narrow it down to six partners for my journey. In fact, this was the first time I’ve ever gotten rid of my starter Pokémon because I just couldn’t justify keeping a Pokémon whose design I wasn’t in love with on my team.
Excluding a few duds (starter evolutions included), the Galar Pokédex brings some truly awesome additions to the table. Before I was even halfway through my 25-hour playthrough I was considering what my roster might look like for a second run. Even if you’re a fan who is lamenting the loss of your favorite Pokémon, there are more than enough species from multiple generations to choose from and give the game plenty of replay value.
A Wild, Wild World
I avoided spoilers as much as possible with Pokémon Sword and Shield, so I was immediately hooked on exploring The Wild Area to see which Pokémon had made the cut, and who I could start adding to my team. I spent the first 5-6 hours of my playtime testing the limits of the Wild Area, and it recaptured an element of Pokémon that’s been missing for me for so long: a sense of discovery.
Game Freak’s decision to let us off the leash and encourage exploration so early on is easily the most refreshing addition to Pokémon Sword and Shield. For the first time in a long time, this new world of Pokémon felt like a place with secrets to uncover. The first Pokémon I encountered in the Wild area was an Onix that was over twice the level of anything on my team, and that kind of water cooler moment speaks volumes about why the Wild Area is such a welcome addition to the formula.
Similarly, Max Raids inject a much-needed fresh idea into the mix. Being able to use these events to capture rare Pokémon and gain useful items makes them worth doing at any stage of the game, which is key to making them feel like more than a cheap gimmick. Having a way to casually connect with friends and work toward a mutually beneficial goal is one lesson I’m glad Game Freak learned from Pokémon Go.
Despite Dynamax and Gigantamax Pokémon being on the goofy side, their implementation in Max Raids justifies the mechanic’s existence for me. Unfortunately, I’m not as sold on the concept when it comes to actual battling. In both gym battles and my limited experience with competitive online play this generation, Dynamax & Gigantamax feel more like a disruption than an innovation. Though it seems unlikely, I wouldn’t be against them being banned from tournament play.
Gating the areas with big scary Pokémon your team can’t handle is genius and I was genuinely excited to return to the Wild Area to explore whatever new corners were opened up to me as my team grew stronger. My one and only gripe about this system is the decision to limit progression and your ability to catch high-level Pokémon based on your gym badges. I understand wanting to encourage players to move their story forward as their Pokémon grow, but if I can tough it out, I should be able to catch any Pokémon I run into. It’s especially frustrating because it can lead to weird situations where you aren’t able to catch Pokémon that are lower level than your party.
You Can’t Teach An Old Mon New Tricks
For all that’s wonderful about the Wild Area, it’s also the poster child for Pokémon’s primary issue as a series: a rushed development cycle. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the Wild Area for the first time pushed all of the right buttons for me, but man, do I wish there was more to do and see. In a post Breath of the Wild world, it’s hard not to ask “Why isn’t there more?”
This feeling is probably most felt when interacting with NPCs in the wild area. During my first hours-long trip to the Wild Area, I ran into the same NPC trainer twice within just a few minutes of each other. Similarly, being able to see other trainer’s avatars onscreen while connected to the internet is a nice touch, but your limited ability to interact with them makes the functionality seem dated and it caused more than a fair share of frame drops for me. As a result, the world feels far less alive when offline. If I had to choose between one or the other, I’d rather have seen Game Freak invest the time into making a larger number of trainers for me to battle at any level while exploring the Wilds.
Unfortunately, the feeling of cut corners isn’t limited to the Wild Area. In the first major city, Motostoke, there are shops that have been copied and pasted on the same small street. Battle backgrounds inside buildings, most notably Gyms, are a generic colored background instead of fleshed-out 3D environments. Your rival Hop repeats a number of dialogue bits during your first few battles. It seems clear that Game Freak’s eyes were bigger than their development cycle allowed, and one can’t help but wonder what they could do with the same amount of time as any other Nintendo studio.
There have been countless arguments online, both before and after the games’ release, regarding the quality of Pokémon Sword and Shield’s graphics and animations. Much like the game itself, I think it’s a tale of two extremes. The game is often lovely, especially in its towns and cities, but the rough edges that do exist are harsh and the backlash is somewhat understandable. Frame rates are much improved from the 3DS days, but the fact that we see them dip below 30 fps at any point will be a tough pill to swallow for some gamers. In my experience though, it was never anything worse than what I encountered in Breath of the Wild or Link’s Awakening.
Gotta Catch Most of ‘Em
As much as the formula permits, Pokémon Sword and Shield allow you to play your way. Aside from letting me spend my first hours exploring, character customization is where this newfound freedom was most apparent in my playthrough. As a guy with a more alternative style, it’s not often that Nintendo games allow me to create a character that authentically feels like me. For the first time in a Pokémon game, I can finally make a character who looks and dresses like me and it went a long way in helping me connect with my avatar.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are the most fun and challenging the series has been in years. It’s still easy by most RPG standards, but Gym leaders and high-level NPCs actually use good strategies like weather, entry hazards, and stat-boosting moves to varying degrees of difficulty and success. This was the first time in years where it felt like inventory management and preparation for going into a catching spree or major battle was necessary for success. I wish I could crank up the enemy AI even more; I wish there were more trainers to fight and fewer NPCs to heal you for no reason, but the fact that the game actually requires you to think about strategy on any level is a step back in the right direction.
Between the quality of life changes, and a slight bump in difficulty, I get the impression that Game Freak is finally listening to their audience of adults, at least on some level. That being said, I think much like Zelda did with Breath of the Wild, Pokémon still has a lot to learn from its past. Kanto had optional areas that rewarded you with legendary Pokémon that no one told you about in-game. Pokémon Red and Blue don’t tell you where to get Flash and I went through the Dark Cave without it in my first playthrough because I could and I didn’t know any better. Those kinds of moments are important in making a world feel lived-in and worth exploring. Breath of the Wild was special because it made every hillside, cave, and open field feel like a living world teeming with secrets to be found. Though Pokémon Sword and Shield come close to capturing that same feeling, I think we’re still a few entries away from the game many fans are dreaming of.
For all the complaints I can (and have) levied at Pokémon Sword and Shield, it’s important to stress how much I not only enjoyed but continue to enjoy the games. For me, it’s easily the best entry in the franchise since generation IV, which is now over a decade old. Ultimately, I expect more from Game Freak because I know that Pokémon can be more, but Pokémon Sword and Shield show that even with the immense amount of pressure the studio is under to churn out these games, that there’s still lots of room for innovation.