It’s been some years since a game has had so much discussion – both good and bad – around it before release. With Pokémon Sword and Shield finally out in the wild, and installed on our Switch, it’s time to see how much of it was warranted.
As a quick recap of the whole thing: When the new games were announced they were met with a general sense of malaise from the community who felt that they didn’t do enough to advance the series when compared to the 3DS games or even the Let’s Go games from last year. This was especially apparent as Nintendo properties like Super Mario and Legend of Zelda had seen such dramatic upgrades when they made the jump to the Switch.
Things got worse when an interview with developer Game Freak revealed that not all Pokémon would return to these new games, apparently citing the need to create better quality animations and the fact that all Pokémon models needed to be remade. This spawned so called “Dexit“, riffing on the real life Brexit as Sword and Shield’s region, Galar, is based on the UK.
Then an absolute flood of leaks swept over the internet, met with legal action to take it down. These leaks revealed many things about the game including the fact that the Pokémon were not remade, but were instead reused from previous games. The GameFreakLied outcry then happened.
We’re leaving out a lot of the details there but that’s the TL;DR version. There’s no shortage of outrage and outpouring of support for these games if you look for it.
Putting that all aside and booting up the game in the traditional sleepy starting town and it becomes apparent that this may be the best Pokémon game yet in terms of aesthetics. We’re not talking about fidelity here, because Sword and Shield looks very rough even at the Switch’s low resolution, but in terms of design.
Just about everything here is pleasing to the eye and there’s no wonder that it has inspired countless, pieces, of, fan art, before release. Everything here is pleasing to the eye from the large open fields of Galar to all the Pokémon and people who inhabit here. The artists deserve a nod here.
Unfortunately it’s not long before Sword and Shield hits you over the head with the old Pokémon formula: long cut scenes with atrocious dialogue, tutorials for the most basic elements, annoying characters and a basic set of mechanics that has changed very little over the years.
After a few dozen battles, a gym or two and many kilometres of travel, it becomes very apparent that little new is being done in these games. Game Freak has clearly settled into a rhythm and it’s not doing much to buck it. There’s just a new coat of paint on things, but it’s obviously a coat that they’ve spent a long time on.
While some may argue that there are new things in these games, most of what’s “new” is just a re-imagining of what we’ve seen before. Camping is just Pokémon-Amie / Refresh with Pokéblock mechanics thrown in. Dynamaxing (in which Pokémon grow to enormous sizes and become stronger) is just a different skin for Mega Evolution. The Wild Area is akin to many such spaces like the Safari Zone, but a bit different, and so on.
Everything in this game is either a reskin or slight upgrade over what we’ve seen before. Even the characters are like this. Aside from falling into stereotypes, a character like your rival Hop is just Hau 2.0, something not helped by the aforementioned drama around model and animation reuse.
Despite all of this change is welcome and some of it is great. Dynamaxing actually feels grand, like an event every time you do it, and the Raids made around them are always a treat. Camping can be fun if you don’t see it as a chore and the Wild Area is a blast to run through, especially as it’s not gated so you can run into highly levelled Pokémon right from the start.
All of the over world and your travels directly feed into battle. While Dynamaxing does factor into this as temporary powerups, it’s frustrating how easy these games are. Even when we intentionally handicapped ourselves there’s just no challenge here. We don’t want Pokémon to be some gauntlet which is a sign of pride when you beat it, but we do want some kind of obstacles in our way.
In our playthrough – 22 hours including the postgame – we were only beaten once when we decided to try and beat one of those aforementioned over leveled Pokémon, despite the game telling us to avoid it.
This breezy nature is exasperated by the fact that Sword and Shield feel like a railroaded story instead of a grand adventure. You have checkpoints to get to with very little room for navigation between them, and you can’t walk more than a few steps before an NPC jumps you to exposit something about the cookie cutter story that doesn’t really have any impact until the eleventh hour.
All of this isn’t to say that Pokémon Sword and Shield isn’t fun. The core Pokémon formula is solid and some players just want more of it every year, which this provides. The problem here is just that there isn’t much new or truly exciting.
It’s worth looking at it this way: what does Sword and Shield have to offer someone picking it up? New players get that adventure with collecting and battling, and if they look at the old games they’ll say “oh hey, they do that in the new games too! But maybe a bit different”. Returning players get a couple of dozen hours of comfort food that has a new spice thrown into the mix.
At the end of the day this is still Pokémon and Pokémon is a good time. There’s no egregious misstep here but there’s nothing truly new either. Sometimes things are exactly what they say on the tin, and this is the newest slight improvement in a franchise.
Pokémon Sword was reviewed on the original Nintendo Switch using a code provided to us