When you review a game that has a couple of decades of history behind it, you’re not really reviewing the game itself. You’re reviewing how far the series has come in the past several years, the changes made, and whether or not they’re for the better or worse.
This will not be that review. I’m a new fan of Pokémon, and this is the first time I’ve played a current game in the core series. My experience with Pokémon is limited to Pokémon Snap, Pokémon Go, and Pokémon Let’s Go. But even for me, the idea of playing Pokémon on a console is exciting. The small screens of Nintendo’s handheld devices were always a deterrent for me. This release may be one of the more significant for the Switch, but it also has a lot to live up to. As a series that relies on bulk (the Pokédex roster is over 800), what is Pokémon like on a platform with less technological limitations? Does the game make the most of its new freedoms? How does it live up in its new home?
In Pokémon Sword and Shield, we follow the adventure of a young trainer as they take on the eight gyms of the Galar region and explore the land’s dark history, including two powerful Legendary Pokémon who may be the center of a mystery surrounding a long-held local myth. As with previous games, the trainer you choose battles through each town and its gym, challenging its lead trainer for badges, culminating in a final championship. And of course, your friendly rival Hop pushes you to be the best by embodying the positive spirit of friendly competition along the way. It’s a familiar formula, this time embellished by fun Galar-specific variants of Pokemon and Scotland-inspired flourishes like bagpipe music, sheep, and pastoral lawns and wheat fields.
The first thing that strikes me aboutPokémon Sword and Shield is their size. The linear, compact paths that personify the series’ history on handheld are still a part of the game, offering structure on the player’s way from novice to champion. But it’s the Wild Area, with Pokémon spawning in their natural habitats according to their preferred weather patterns, that makes the game feel like an open, live world. In combination with the game’s sweeping orchestral soundtrack, the Wild Area, where most of the game’s Pokémon are caught, feels like roaming the fields of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time. Pokémon prowl in the grass, hover in the air and dip through the water, and the sense of discovery as you explore unfamiliar pockets and find new Pokémon is delightful, like watching animals on a safari. Pokémon feels fresh with a little room to breathe.
The new Sword and Shield features add value to the Wild Area’s open expanse. Pokémon Dens are scattered across the Wild Area, allowing players to team up in Max Raid Battles to win the game’s most powerful items, like berries, XP candies, and TMs. There, the players can use the new Dynamax power, a wristband that lights up and turns their primary Pokémon into a giant version of themselves. Some Pokémon can even Gigantamax, an additional ability within Dynamaxing that turns the Pokémon into an elaborate and previously unseen form. It adds an exhilarating new dynamic to Pokémon gym battles, especially with the catchy stadium music, imbuing each showdown with the irresistible energy of a live sports event.
Camping, an on-the-go method of healing up your Pokémon, is a more elaborate take on the Play Mode from Let’s Go. An open field gives your Pokémon space and toys to play with and also provides a spot where you can cook curry to feed and heal them. I sank a lot of hours into this feature, treating my Pokémon like pets by playing ball and dangling a bell toy to earn additional XP. It’s a pleasant way to bond with your party, and the relationships you build with them will affect their efficiency in battle. A Pokémon who is your best friend, for example, may rally and make it through an attack that would otherwise kill them, or they may be distracted by their desire to play or eat curry. It’s a mechanical flourish that gives your Pokémon some extra personality.
I appreciate the smaller things about Pokémon Sword and Shield the most. The game is full of cute little flourishes, like the disco spin my character does when I twirl the analog stick, or the Switch in her bedroom, whose controllers are always painted the same color as mine. I like the games’ commitment to diversity, especially the broad age range of Pokémon trainers and the adults’ supportive attitudes towards the young trainers. While some characters are tired archetypes, their pluck and persistence are endearing.
But with the good comes a lot of blandness and bloat. Sword and Shield are very safe, and the plot and dialogue are unbearably dull. While the series is largely aimed at children, the difficulty seems to be watered down even for kids. Performance boosting items, especially the wide range of novelty Pokeballs (like the Loveball, for Pokémon of the “opposite gender,” or Net Balls, for Water types), are unnecessary in light of how little they are needed to actually win. Sure, holding a PP-restoring berry in battle may provide a slight edge against a difficult enemy, but what does it matter when you can just grind for a couple more minutes, match your types well, and kill everything in one shot anyway? For all the characters who declare their desire to be “the very best!”, none of them actually seem to try very hard. I only stay a few levels ahead by catching Pokémon in the Wild Area, and I’m still wiping the floor with every trainer I meet. I’m the One Punch Man of Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Visually, Sword and Shield could be a lot better, too. While I like the open expanse of hunting ground in the Wild Area and some of the prettier compact levels, like the glowing mushrooms of Ballonlea, the games fail to provide a compelling visual experience. I enjoy the dramatic animations of big attacks like Waterfall and Earthquake, but the games could stand to have a lot more of them; it’s hard to lament the roster (which is less than half of the full Pokédex) when there are so few opportunities to enjoy what makes each Pokémon unique. The sky and water effects are also limited, and the weather patterns aren’t particularly sophisticated. A big open world should have a stunning landscape and be a place you want to spend time whether you’re grinding or exploring. Sword and Shield don’t deliver.
The visuals and difficulty level aren’t the games’ only problems. The most severe issue has little to do with the games themselves. Nintendo’s failure to adequately address the malfunction of its controllers is a huge problem. Whereas many games I play aren’t necessarily affected by the drift on my left Joy-Con’s analog stick, in Pokémon Sword and Shield, it’s a disaster. There are countless scenarios where an unexpected tug of the controller can lead to wasted items, fleeing Pokémon, and unfairly lost battles. It also causes issues with the map, as the map marker often fails to latch onto targets for fast travel. Given the broad age group that comprises the Pokémon audience, which includes young children, there’s going to be a lot of angst and frustration ahead.
Pokémon Sword and Shield is a fair beginning to a new era of console-based Pokémon games, but one that needs significant improvement in the quality of the graphics and the design of its open areas. As much as I’d like to see the full Pokédex in a Pokémon game, what would be the point? Every Pokémon deserves a detailed treatment, and Sword and Shield don’t achieve that. It’s nice to hunt Pokémon in a more expansive playfield and I plan to completely fill out the rosters on both games. But its potential remains not entirely realized, as tantalizingly out of reach as our ability to catch ‘em all.
Pokémon Sword and Shield were developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. It is also available for the Switch.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.