Pokémon Sword and Shield stand thanks to a formula whose capacity to hook has not been eroded in the slightest and nice punctual evolutions that enhance the overall experience; yet, with so much evident retreading and standing still, one cannot help but worry which way the franchise is going if the trend is not reverted
It is a universally known fact that, with the release of every single new portable by Nintendo, another Pokémon generation is bound to arrive shortly. With its flexible nature that treads the line between home console and handheld machine, the Nintendo Switch could have generated some doubts regarding whether or not it would be on the receiving end of the Pokémon games that would be responsible for following the 3DS’ solid pair of Sun and Moon.
However, relatively early on the system’s life, developer Game Freak let the world know that it was working on totally original versions that would have the hybrid device as their home. Given the generally accepted notion that the Nintendo 3DS was an unofficially dead machine and the lack of new handhelds in sight, the announcement did not really come as a huge surprise; yet, the fact the main Pokémon series would at last get a much desired home console entry was enough to make the gaming world hold its collective breath in anticipation.
Truth be told, Pokémon Sword and Shield are, in technical terms, not the first full-fledged adventures of the saga to hit a home console and have all of that processing power at their disposal. After all, they got beaten to the punch by Let’s Go, Pikachu and Let’s Go, Evee. But since those titles were considerable remakes of the classic Pokémon Yellow, released all the way in 1998, that aimed to welcome a wider audience into the fold by simplifying and streamlining some core gameplay mechanics, Sword and Shield emerge as the first versions ever built from the ground up over a machine of the kind. It is a position that naturally brings with it a whole lot of expectations, which – in turn – makes part of the success of these entries strongly rely on how they advance the formula.
If progress is indeed how Sword and Shield should be measured, then their chances of getting a passing grade are at risk. While Sun and Moon took a commendable shot at altering the format to a slight degree, by toying with the goals players had to clear before becoming the region’s top trainer, the Nintendo Switch outings revert that tendency and go back to tradition. As such, once more, gamers take on the role of a trainer who, starting from a small town and holding only one creature in their figurative pocket, must travel through the land, assemble a strong team, defeat eight gym leaders, and finally gain access to a regional championship that will determine who the proverbial very best is.
It sounds like a step back and some are likely to see it as one, but the bottom line is that the trials of Sun and Moon – as different as they were – did not achieve the same level of excitement seen in gym battles. Consequently, the reversal ends up being a positive move, and overcoming these major trainers that not only have nice personalities, but also emit a special aura of challenge is a complete joy. The problem is that structure is not the sole area in which Sword and Shield feels too safe; and to make matters worse, numerous are the aspects in which the game pairs up that extreme conservative spirit with blatant missteps, which makes up for a ride that can lead to some disappointment. Firstly, however, it is important to state that Sword and Shield are utterly engaging adventures; it is, when it is all said and done, awfully hard to mess up a formula as addictive as the one conjured by Pokémon games.
Putting together a team when hundreds of nicely designed creatures are available is a blast: in strategic terms, it is a process that clicks because players will strive to construct a balanced set of six monsters that have types whose weaknesses and strengths do not overlap too much; and in matters of progression, it works due to how fun it is to watch them grow stronger, learn new moves, and evolve. Battling is alluring because, other than holding tactical undertones, these encounters are visually appealing and easy to get a hold of. Finally, to those who want to dive into the furthest reaches of Pokémon training, the game contains the usual variables that can be meticulously optimized by those who are willing to devote their time to maximizing the right stats and acquiring monsters with the natures, abilities, and inborn moves that suit them better.
All of that action unfolds in the brand new region of Galar, a location that uses its clear inspiration on Great Britain not just to build its towns and routes, but also to form a group of 81 original Pokémon featuring many members that allude to the habits, folklore, and culture of the island, such as a mean electric lizard that nods to the punk rock movement and a charming little ghost that lives inside a teapot. Taking advantage of the Switch’s power, it goes without saying that – in sheer graphical terms – Galar overpowers all of the regions that came before it, as the game’s mostly fixed camera angles generates some dazzling views of the varied scenery and the artists at Game Freak clearly went out of their way to create set-pieces that individually stand out both from one another, as absolutely none of the routes and towns look remotely like each other, and also within the Pokémon franchise as a whole.
The victory that is Galar, however, comes with a caveat; and that reproach is related to scope. It is absolutely ironic that, in a game that represents the saga’s jump to the much wider possibilities of home consoles, a point of contention would be the size of its world; however, that is exactly where Sword and Shield land. Galar is fantastic, but it is impossible not to wish there were more to it.
For instance, in a superficial numerical comparison to Kalos, the region of Pokémon X and Y, Galar only has eleven towns to those games’ seventeen; ten routes as opposed to the twenty-two roads of those titles; and eight landmarks versus the twenty-three other notable locations presented by the 3DS efforts. It is a shocking gap, and although it is positively silly to resort to mathematical competitions when quality is what is of the utmost importance, the numbers are – in this case – valuable because they are the product of real issues.
Galar is thin because Sword and Shield lack substance in a few core points. For starters, even if it does have a meaningful epilogue that players can go through after they are done becoming the local champion, that extra meat is guilty of being short in length and of lacking any exclusive locations. In other words, following the achievement of the title’s ultimate goal, Sword and Shield – differently from many of their predecessors – do not unlock any new places that can be accessed, save for the traditional and exciting Battle Tower: a building in which players take on series of increasingly challenging CPU-controlled trainers in order to ascend in the ranks and gain points that can be exchanged for items that are extremely valuable to those looking to polish their team to the greatest heights.
Moreover, while previous Pokémon games had no shortage of caves, facilities, forests, and other settings brimming with dangers (be them various wild monsters or a gauntlet of trainers), Sword and Shield notably dial down on that front. The caves, which are the closest asset this role-playing saga has to the dungeons that are a staple of the genre, are short and not at all maze-like, meaning they can be traversed quickly and without leaving any room for players to either get lost or desperately crave for the exit thanks to the poor state of their battle-weary partners. And that same complaint applies to pretty much all places that provide separation between the adventure’s towns and, subsequently, the battles against the gym leaders.
It is hard to say exactly what lies at the origin of that notable absence of muscle: it could be a result of Game Freak actively seeking to give a more approachable lean to Sword and Shield as an attempt to please a wider audience brought in by the Let’s Go games; it could be a feeling that, due to some significant positive additions pulled off by the new versions, they could afford to go lighter in a few other areas; or it could even be a simple desire to change the gameplay balance of the saga. However, as far as what can be seen in the game goes, the main culprit behind that exaggerated simplicity has got to be the plot.
Usually, Pokémon games have two treads running simultaneously towards the goal line: the main character’s standard quest to be the best trainer and a complementary, but usually quite epic, tale that starts with minor confronts against an evil team with sinister purposes but that winds up escalating to the protagonist having to save the world from an enormous threat that usually involves some folklore and the legendary monster that appears on the game’s cover.
It is a formulaic approach, but one that has yielded at least a couple of noteworthy stories and a pleasant cast of memorable characters. To a point, Sword and Shield follow that recipe, because they involve a concurrent pair of storylines that respects that mold; differently from all of the titles that came before them, though, these games are particularly focused on the first issue: that is, on collecting the badges from the gym leaders and overcoming the champion.
Throughout the quest, it is pretty obvious there is some fishy business going on: explosions happen, earthquakes are triggered, monsters go on rampages, and characters with foggy second intentions emerge. Sadly, to a degree that is so large it can become humorous (or infuriating, depending on the player), the protagonist is repeatedly pushed away from any sort of trouble, an action that is usually accompanied by the arguments that: they are too young to be caught up in dangerous situations and they should dedicate their energy to gaining access to the Pokémon League. Surely, a few details and revelations are punctually leaked to gamers; some characters have interesting arches; and, as the quest reaches its end, the starring trainer will discover what is going on and will have to save the world.
Still, it is utterly ridiculous how the game actively blocks players from being involved in an element that should be one of its central components. The practical result is that Sword and Shield are blindly focused on gym leaders and on the Pokémon League, effectively cutting away half of the essence of their very successful predecessors. Thereby, with no need to visit any facilities or other places where the evil team of the region is stirring up trouble, Galar is able to make do with a diminutive set of locations, giving birth to a world that is glaringly small and to a quest that can be completed within twenty hours, which is a low threshold for the Pokémon franchise.
Fortunately, not all of the changes brought in by Sword and Shield are totally negative. Borrowing an excellent page from the Let’s Go duo, the game makes most wild Pokémon be visible in the overworld, with the few who are not shown appearing as equally noticeable ruffling grass. Together, the two measures have multiple benefits: they turn minor encounters into easily avoidable affairs; they give an extra layer of life to the scenarios, as the creatures are relatively free to roam about; and they make it easy for one to find the monster they are looking for, since the feature almost completely eliminates the need to walk around aimlessly praying that the next random battle will be against the Pokémon that is being sought.
Meanwhile, obviously influenced by the Mega Evolutions introduced in Pokémon X and Y, Sword and Shield present their own unique twist on those transformations. Called Dynamaxing, the metamorphosis – which makes the monsters become giant and gain a considerable boost in their stats – lasts for just three turns, can only be used once in each battle, and is solely possible to be performed in certain locations, usually the gyms.
Although qualifying as a nice little twist that gives the adventure’s most important duels an extra strategic component, Dynamaxing is partially wasted because – without exception – all of the rival trainers that are able to trigger it will do so when they send their last Pokémon into battle, which makes it all ridiculously predictable to say the least, as players can easily counter the Dynamaxed creature at the right time by making their monster go through the same process. In matches against humans, however, the transformation delivers on its promise entirely, because activating Dynamax at the right time can give trainers an edge or even completely turn the tide of the duel.
The biggest positive change implemented by Sword and Shield, however, is another: more specifically, the piece of land called the Wild Area. Reached quite early in the quest, the place is a free-roaming natural park made up of fields, trees, bodies of water, islands, rolling hills, and other features. Even if it is, by the standards of modern gaming, somewhat small, as it can be easily traversed in its entirety within ten minutes by a trainer riding a bike, the location is – up to the release of Sword and Shield – the closest the saga has ever gotten to the much desired open world Pokémon title the universe has been expecting for quite a while. And although the Wild Area’s existence does not truly compensate for how Galar is, in size and meat, a considerably feeble region, it does do a really great job at using its space to give players something to do besides chasing the Pokémon League trophy.
First and foremost, it goes without saying that the Wild Area is the ultimate paradise of Pokémon-catching. The variety of monsters it contains is stunning, since pretty much all of the creatures present in the game can be found walking around its patches of grass, swimming in its lakes, or even attached to the dozens of berry trees scattered over its fields. Moreover, given the creatures that are available not only cover all levels that range between five and sixty, and also change according to variables like the weather, the period of day, and the passage of time, the place is just begging to be visited continuously as the protagonist advances in their quest.
Capturing an eye-popping variety of Pokémon is, though, not all that there is to do in the Wild Area. The stars of the show, in fact, might as well be the dens. Refreshed at regular intervals and appearing as rocky formations on the map, these caves will have a visible flare coming out of them and reaching for the sky if they are active; and if that is the case, players can approach them to trigger yet another addition of Sword and Shield: the raids.
Clearly inspired by a similar functionality implemented in Pokémon GO, these encounters have four trainers – with one of them being the player and the three others being either CPU-controlled characters or gamers recruited via the titles’ online functionality – facing off against a monster that besides being permanently Dynamaxed, can attack more than once in every turn, and will occasionally deploy a shield to protect itself from damage. If the group succeeds in completely draining the energy out of the Pokémon before ten turns pass or their partners faint four times, the beast will be defeated and the participating trainers will have a shot at catching it.
These epic battles are a must for multiple reasons. Firstly, they carry a cooperative kind of gameplay that simply did not exist in the Pokémon games that preceded Sword and Shield. Secondly, winning them yields a mountain of awards that will certainly appeal to devoted trainers, as the loot includes TMs that will teach Pokémon especially powerful moves, berries that can be used to manipulate the creatures’ stats, and piles of candy that will give the monsters loads of extra experience. Finally, and standing as the raids’ more valuable rewards, there is the fact that the higher the difficulty of the skirmish is – a characteristic that is revealed through the amount of stars, between one and five, attached to the Pokémon – the better the Pokémon’s IVs (which determine their genes and stats) will be.
Therefore, to those looking to build an extremely optimized team whose members are so battle-ready even their stats are close to perfection, the raids effectively turn a process that – in the past – involved a whole lot of grinding and breeding into one that can be partially done through battling. It is not only a far more interesting perspective to those that dedicated hundreds of hours to coming across creatures with perfect or nearly flawless IVs in the past, but it is also a much more welcoming sight to gamers who ran away from the climb because it simply looked too much like a boring task.
That contrast between undeniable quality and painful faults is pretty much what defines Sword and Shield. The Wild Area is a delight, but it is also an effort that feels shy in comparison to the standards of contemporary gaming. The game’s visuals and music are solid and occasionally quite beautiful (even if it is obvious the Nintendo Switch could do much better), but the way the title visibly avoids developing cutscenes or animations to depict pivotal moments in its storyline is maddening and especially shameful considering these versions mark the franchise’s leap to home consoles.
The quest is generally very engaging but its excessive linearity – which culminates with characters blocking the protagonist’s way for no reason whatsoever, therefore forcing players to follow the predetermined path at all times – is both awkward and outdated. And the abundance of Pokémon wandering around the caves, forests, routes, and the Wild Area is appealing, but is bitterly hurt by the fact Game Freak decided to limit the available creatures to 400 out of the currently existing 890, consequently excluding a lot of monsters that were beloved by many.
Such duality is also visible in the game’s online component. It shines in how seamless it is to jump into battles against strangers (be them ranked duels for points, casual encounters for the fun of it all, or even temporary competitions) and how the cooperative nature of raids adds a brand new gameplay format to the table. However, it is mercilessly hurt by the dumbfounding absence of a Global Trade System, which is replaced by random surprise exchanges or one-on-one trades in which one side has no idea what the other is willing to offer; by how the process of looking for raids to jump into is slow, shallow, and cumbersome, as neither is the list of available battles refreshed quick enough nor is the game very thorough in its search; and by how joining friends involves a completely unnecessary link code.
In spite of the massive pile of disappointments that they are bound to bring to those who are familiar with the saga, it is simply impossible not to recommend Pokémon Sword and Shield. The features they present, whether new or old, are flawed in multiple ways, and numerous of those problems are considerably aggravated by how – as the first versions built from scratch over the power of a home console – the games simply do not take advantage of the jump to either expand their ambitions or get rid of old vices that should have been eliminated a while ago. Notwithstanding those sometimes infuriating stumbles, Pokémon Sword and Shield stand both thanks to a formula whose capacity to hook has not been eroded in the slightest and nice punctual evolutions that enhance the overall experience; yet, with so much evident retreading and standing still, one cannot help but worry which way the franchise is going if the trend is not reverted.