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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
First-ever dark-type gym leader
Great supporting cast of characters
Gyms nail down a feeling of hype
Wild area offers new ways to complete your Pokedex
While Pokemon Sword and Shield does little to move the franchise forward, it’s still a fun romp into the world of Pokemon on the Nintendo Switch. It’s by no means a must-buy title, but it could be a great introduction to Pokemon for new players not yet tired of the same turn-based mechanics present since Red and Green.
We purchased Pokemon Sword/Shield so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are Game Freak’s first main titles for a home console, and expectations ran high. Before the game came out in November, there were already many fans disappointed in the limited Pokedex and the recycled animations, but the largest disappointments came after release, with a myriad of lackluster game mechanics and a core gameplay loop that hasn’t evolved since 1998. While Sword and Shield may not be the revolution that Pokemon fans wanted, it’s still a fun game with loveable characters that will manage to enthrall you for 30 hours. You should also check out our list of best Pokemon games to see if any of those suit your tastes.
Check out our roundup of the best role-playing games available on the Nintendo Switch.
Game Freak, what happened? What inspired you to make characters named Swordward and Shielbert? Why does my main rival feel like the main character of the story? Few people play Pokemon for its riveting storytelling, but Sword and Shield’s narrative is bad enough to almost ruin the experience of the game.
The main narrative thread is nonsensical at best and baffling at worst. There’s a prophecy about a dangerous Pokemon who made the world really dark, and that’s about it. The rest of the drama derives from this, and I’m still not sure, after several playthroughs, what exactly the Darkest Day does to the world and why we have to stop it.
Throughout your journey in the Galar region, you’ll run into a number of rivals. There’s Bede, Marnie, the gym leaders, and of course, your best friend Hop. Hop wants to be the best trainer there ever was, and his big brother is the undefeatable champion Leon, who’s unbeatable. Every time you run into plot characters, you will be reminded that the undefeatable champion is, in fact, undefeated because he’s the unbeatable Leon.
Hop, the undefeated champion Leon’s younger brother, will constantly remind you how you will help him to one day beat the unbeatable champion. Hop is completely unaware that you, the player character, also want to be the Galar champion, and he does not care. He is basically just like a shounen anime protagonist, who believes everyone exists to help them be the greatest person ever, everyone else’s dreams be damned.
But enough of Hop and Leon. There’s also Marnie and Bede. Bede’s also a jerk, but he’s a jerk with a solid storyline. I won’t spoil anything, but I respect Bede for treating you like a proper rival.
Meanwhile, Marnie is a gem. She’s a rival with an embarrassing fanbase, Team Yell, who goes around Galar harassing the other trainers. Throughout the story, you help her get out of the situations Team Yell puts her in, and you learn of the heartwarming love that powers their relentless shouting.
The gym leaders are also pretty fun people. There’s nothing deep or compelling about them, but they cheer you on and make you feel good. Overall, you’d do best to ignore the story in Sword and Shield, especially when it comes to Hop and Leon, but you may find yourself cheering for your other rivals.
This is the first Pokemon entry to cost $60 on launch, and it’s also an entry with one of the shortest playtimes and a serious lack of polish for a AAA game.
I never really got sucked into a Pokemon game before, since I found the core gameplay loop to be too simple. And yet, I was addicted to Pokemon Sword. I won’t pretend it’s the best game I’ve ever played or even the best Pokemon game, but there’s something about Sword and Shield that captured the feeling of fun.
Sword and Shield is still a Pokemon game: win by mastering type matches in turn-based combat. Hunt for the Pokemon with the best stats. At its core, Sword and Shield is just another rebalancing of the game that came out in 1998. However, it hasn’t changed its formula because it just works.
If you’ve never played a Pokemon game before, you’ll love Sword and Shield’s soft challenges. If you’re a veteran, you’ll probably like it, too. I played Pokemon Sword and my friend played Pokemon Shield, so I can offer two perspectives: that of a fairly inexperienced Pokemon player (me), and that of a competitive Pokemon player (my friend).
First, I’ll cover the new-ish player’s perspective. Once I beat Hop in my very first match, I was addicted to the taste of success, and I sped through the game to feel the rush of gym battles as quickly and as intensely as I could. Before every gym battle, I swapped out my Pokemon so they were optimized for victory against that specific gym. That kept me from being overleveled, as this Pokemon game gives experience to every Pokemon on your team every time you battle. Switching out Pokemon spreads the experience fairly thin.
Each gym battle got progressively harder, with the 8th gym being the peak of difficulty thanks to well-rounded double battles. Responding with my own counters in both my team’s matchups and types was a lot of fun and required the strategy planning that I’d been craving since I began the game.
If you’re a Pokemon veteran, you’ll be underwhelmed by how effective the type matchups are at one-shotting your opponents. If you build a balanced team and “grind” by completing your Pokedex, the group experience will soon over level your team to the point where gym battles are laughably easy. You have to purposely limit the amount of battling you do in the main game in order to keep any semblance of a challenge.
That said, this game’s constant need to reward the player for the smallest of actions feels good regardless of the difficulty curve. You’ll constantly feel motivated for that next little jingle, that level up or victory. This game’s an especially great experience for children, thanks to its forgiving and motivating nature.
The gyms are also a lot of fun, even if they can be a little easy for more experienced players. Before the actual battle, you have to complete gym challenges, which are basically minigames. You’ll find yourself doing a lot of bizarre things, from herding sheep to playing gachapon, and if you’re like me, you’ll love the silliness of it all. It feels as if the gym leaders themselves are trying to ease you into the gym and let you have a good time.
Outside the towns, there are the routes, and there’s the Wild Area. Open world games have been popular for years, so Gamefreak tried their hand at the concept by introducing a large patch of land where you can freely roam and encounter Pokemon of varying levels. I loved racing around the wild area with my bike, racing to see how fast I could loop around it, straining my eyes to find Pokemon I’d yet to encounter to fill my Pokedex.
However, while it was a lot of fun, it grew stale pretty fast. I’m a huge fan of open-world RPGs, such as The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, for the freedom they allow the player to get to know the world at their own pace. The wilds of Zelda are a masterclass in environmental storytelling, with the ruins of Hyrule hinting at the world that used to exist a hundred years ago, each rotting hut a clue to the old lifestyle of the Hylians, Zora, Rito, Gerudo, and so forth. If I climb mountains, I may find dragons.
Meanwhile, The Witcher’s vast landscapes offer a story in every nook, with every lonely soul you run across in the woods potentially offering a new quest that will give you a glimpse into their family, their village, their philosophies, and your own emotions. There’s an emotional attachment you gain from exploring the Northern Kingdoms, a yearning to help the downtrodden by simply being in the right place at the right time.
Each gym battle got progressively harder, with the 8th gym being the peak of difficulty thanks to well-rounded double battles.
What motivation do I have for riding my bike outside Motostoke or Hammerlocke? Within a couple of hours, I know where every berry tree is. I know where to raise Pokemon. I know where to find all the treasure hunters. I venture out and find new Pokemon. Everything in the Wild Area exists to serve me, the player. I never stumble across little details that feel like a secret shared between the game’s inhabitants and me.
Discovery and wonder aside, the Wild Area does have Dynamax raids. Basically, some Pokemon burrow in dens and you can fight them in their Gigantamax form. You get lots of goodies for fighting, such as experience candies and new moves, and you can fight the Gigantamax Pokemon with your friends. They can be up to five stars in difficulty, with greater difficulties offering greater rewards. They have somewhat unique mechanics from normal Pokemon fights, and defeating more difficult opponents requires skill and teamwork.
While some longtime fans wished to see more endgame content out of Sword and Shield, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with your friends in the Wild Area. Dynamax raids give players a great chance to meet new players online, catch amazing Pokemon, and feel a sense of accomplishment when they defeat a five-star raid. If you try to solo a five-star or event raid, you will be swept out of the den—you need the power of your friends’ Pokemon to survive, but it still feels like a fair fight.
The battle tower is back with features from previous pokemon entries, such as rental teams and ranked gameplay. I thought the battle tower AI opponents were more difficult than the main game opponents, and it was fun upping the difficulty with new team combos. You can always play against real people online in the main menu, too.
Do you have a favorite Pokemon? I hope you haven’t invested too much of your love into it, because it’s probably gone for Sword and Shield. Bulbasaur, Psyduck, and Charmander are all gone. There’s a total of 400 Pokemon in this generation’s compendium, less than half the number of Pokemon in the previous generation.
If you’re ready to accept the loss of your childhood favorites, then you may find new favorites in this generation. A lot of the new Pokemon are adorable and well-balanced. Sirfetch’d is a fan favorite: a puffy, unibrowed duck ready to take the world down with a leek for a sword. Wooloo is the cutest little ball of wool you will ever lay your eyes upon. If you’d ever wanted a goth Pikachu, you may love Morpeko.
The DLC will bring back some old favorites as well as introduce new Pokemon and legendaries.
Frankly, the UI in Sword and Shield feels the same as always. If you’ve played a mainline Pokemon game before, you’ll know how to navigate through Sword and Shield. If you haven’t played any main Pokemon game, then you’ll pick it up quickly enough through the game’s extensive help and its innate simplicity.
Sword and Shield are guilty of a bit of hand-holding, but that’s to be expected from a game aimed at children (sorry, adult fans). Instead of judging the game for having tutorials, I will judge it for the quality of its tutorials.
The game tries to teach you about its mechanics throughout the course of the game. Instead of giving you all the information you need at the beginning, tips unfold slowly as you encounter new mechanics in your playthrough. Usually, it teaches you through battle or by gifting items at appropriate times.
To teach you about Focus sashes, for instance, you learn about them by battling a trainer with a Focus Sash so you can experience what it does (he gives you his Focus Sash if you win the battle). While the tutorials can come across as cheesy to experienced players, they rarely felt intrusive to the playthrough, and they were a memorable way to learn the system for new players.
Before Sword and Shield were out, there were a lot of rumors that the graphics were unfinished, unpolished, or otherwise unkempt. While the games don’t have the best-looking tree bark in the Switch’s library (that honor would go to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), Sword and Shield manage to be charming nonetheless.
Many of the cities have a brick facade with a layout reminiscent of old English university campuses, giving the game a very calm and folksy feel. There’s more variation on the wild routes and the open area, where the grass stands tall, the water looks wet, and the ladders seem stable (they’re so stable the world freezes when you climb them!).
I really enjoyed the walk to Ballonlea, in the Glimwood Triangle. It’s a dark forest crowded with overgrown, glowing mushrooms that provide shelter to the whimsical fairy and ghost Pokemon in the route. You can feel the magic radiate from every little detail of this area, from the bubbly Tudor cottages in Ballonlea to the sparkles that will drift across the screen as you walk.
Where Game Freak really outdid themselves was in the field battle and gym battle graphics and animations. As you battle, the camera gently scrolls and cuts to different angles, as if the battle were panels of a comic book, giving the battles an extra layer of hype and adrenaline. Meanwhile, gym battles take place in a huge stadium with big, cheering crowds. The way the lights flare onto the stage makes you feel like you’re facing off in the world championships ( how we should all feel when we’re fighting a gym battle!).
The classic, cartoony style of the game fits perfectly with the models. The textures are simple, but nice to look at. It just feels right for a Pokemon game. There are some new, welcome touches with the animation, too. If you run in a circle, your character will twirl. It’s really cute.
The game’s animation is one of the experience’s weakest points, unfortunately. It overall feels like the animators ran out of time during development, with some fight moves, such as double kick, being symbolized by a small hop that feels like a placeholder. Thankfully, there are some gems: Wishiwashi’s school of fish that come together to form a fish monster; everything about Grookey; Mudsdale kicking up a storm with Bulldoze. And my favorite bad animation? When the legendary Pokemon turn to face you, they basically moonwalk on a turnstile.
Did I encounter any bugs, glitches, or other weird features during my playthrough? Quite a few, unfortunately. Climbing ladders causes the world to freeze. Going online in the open area translates to a lot of stuttering and lag. There are some infamous exploits to take advantage of the Pokemon lottery. But I didn’t run into any game-breaking bugs, and it’s been a lot of fun despite the lack of polish. Visually, it’s still the most charming a Pokemon game’s ever been.
The classic, cartoony style of the game fits perfectly with the models. The textures are simple, but nice to look at. It just feels right for a Pokemon game.
Well, the musical score definitely belongs to a Pokemon game, with the same familiar jingles that we’ve been hearing since Red & Green. With that in mind, the score feels fresh and welcome in 2019, with a gorgeous mix of orchestral instruments and electronic touches. Everything feels in its proper place, from the Pokemon Center theme to the happy brass instruments in the wild areas.
For a game that’s supposed to take place in the fictional United Kingdom, the score could use more British, Irish and Scottish influence, but it’s still a fun listen. The cities best highlight the game’s UK roots, from Hammerlocke’s regal harpsichord, plucks to Motostoke’s tunes, the soundtrack is especially beautiful, subtle in its presence yet suitably enchanting for a glowing town.
By far, the highlight of this game’s sound happens in the gym battles. The energetic buzz of the gym theme melds perfectly with the sound of the cheering crowds, which changes depending on which stage of the battle you’re currently in. The score and the crowd both get more hectic and disorganized as you get closer to beating the gym leader, and the extra layer of excitement that covers Dynamax battles is addicting.
Pokemon’s greatest failure is having only eight gym battles because that means that I can only experience the gym battle soundtrack eight times through each playthrough of Sword and Shield.
For $30, you can get two new regions and 200 new Pokemon in Sword and Shield. The Expansion pack covers both games if you own both Sword and Shield. There’s a lot of new content in the DLC, including new wild areas to explore, but after Sword and Shield’s middling reception and myriad bugs, I’m not confident the new content will offer the level of polish that Pokemon fans have been asking for, and especially not the level of quality that usually comes with titles so closely associated to Nintendo’s hardware.
This is the first Pokemon entry to cost $60 on launch, and it’s also an entry with one of the shortest playtime and a serious lack of polish for a AAA game. You’ll get between 20 to 40 hours out of the main story, depending on your tendency to seek outside tasks. I don’t think it’s overpriced for the content, as it’s still a game that will keep you busy for a few weeks, but it’s undeniably a more incomplete package than, say, Pokemon Sun and Moon.
If you’re looking to get the same gameplay experience as Pokemon: Sword/Shield, your best option is Let’s Go, Pikachu! (view on Amazon). This is a reinvented classic, set in the Kanto region with the origins 151 Pokemon. It’s basically a remake of Pokemon Yellow, except it incorporates Pokemon Go’s capture mechanics where everything is based on timing your throws right. You basically won’t encounter random battles on Let’s Go, Pikachu!, nor will you get newer innovations like Wild Areas.
The game also typically costs $60 MSRP, though occasionally you’ll find it on sale for $30-45, so in most cases, you’ll be better off picking Sword or Shield despite their flaws.
Pokemon Sword and Shield is a fun distraction of a game, but its lack of content compared to predecessors may detract too much for old-time fans. If the chance to play Pokemon with your friends sounds great to you, you should give the game a chance, but if you’re the kind of person to find yourself more invested in the single-player campaign, you won’t miss out on much if you don’t pick this up.
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