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Pokémon Sword and Shield Review -- The Great British Poké-off

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Earlier this month, Nintendo announced the two-part expansion pass for Pokémon Sword and Shield. Unlike previous generations, instead of a slightly different sequel entry, Nintendo is expanding on the existing games and giving players the opportunity to continue their journey to explore new areas and content with their existing Pokémon and teams. Given that I’ve poured nearly two-hundred hours into this generation over the past few months, I thought this would be a good reason to revisit and finish a review I intended to release back in November. And because the competitive grind has kinda consumed my gaming life lately..

As soon as you get through the introduction of Pokémon Sword and Shield and step outside your house for the first time, there is a moment of wonder. The first impression of the United Kingdom inspired Galar Region seems alive and full of life. There are groups of Wooloo (an adorable new sheep Pokémon) grazing in the fields in the distance and Butterfree and outlines of bird Pokémon flying in the sky. It is an incredible moment. Unfortunately, there are few visual moments in the game that reach that same level. There’s no denying that these two games have their flaws. There was no way that they could live up to fans’ massive expectations and there are a lot changes that upset fans. But that first moment encapsulates the sentiment that there some things that this generation does better than any before it. It is a pity that those great moments can be juxtaposed against moments that fall far shorter.

For instance, take the Galar Region and the world of Sword and Shield. The Galar region is essentially broken into two halves, and connecting those two halves is a sprawling free-roam zone called the Wild Area. The Wild Area is an experience fans have wanted for years. Although the game is still very linear, as soon as the Wild Area it is available (pretty much after the second town), players can go wherever they want and find a diverse selection of Pokémon. Different Pokémon are available in different parts of the Wild Area and the selection changes depending on the weather. Players can even encounter wild Pokémon that are significantly higher leveled and can one-shot your Pokémon with a single attack. Instead of random battles, Pokémon wander the fields and players trigger battles by running into a wild Pokémon, similar to the recent Let’s Go games. It’s a small but welcome change that makes the Pokémon feel more alive and distinct. Some Pokémon will run away from you to try to escape, while others will chase you down (which raises some questions about their intentions and what they’d do if they caught you and won, but those are probably better left unanswered..).

However, beyond the Wild Area, the rest of the game features some of the smallest and most linear routes in the franchise. I remember my early experiences with the Pokémon franchise and how traveling from one town to the next was a harrowing affair that would often leave my team nearly wiped out. The Pokémon games have been stepping the difficulty back in recent entries, and now most routes are essentially one screen. I would love to see Game Freak make every route resemble the Wild Area or, at a minimum, start swinging the pendulum back towards the length and challenge of those early games. That said, it’s worth noting that the upcoming DLCs look to embrace the Wild Area with both releases featuring their own Wild Areas which, if I’m not mistaken, will serve as a central hub with additional areas built around them.

Another issue with the Wild Area is that, as enticing as it might be to spend time there, it makes it incredibly easy to over-level the rest of the game. Given the diversity of Pokémon featured in the Wild Area, it is easy to find opponents that are weak to your Pokémon’s type and moveset. For instance, one of my friends found an area with Pokémon that had a four-times weakness to grass Pokémon and ended up fully evolving his grass starter before reaching the first gym. Even with the small routes and not spending a large amount of time in the Wild Area, I struggled to keep my team low enough that gym battles maintained some semblance of challenge. To make matters worse, Game Freak has made it even easier to over-level your team, even Pokémon you might not be using. For years, older fans have asked the games to provide a difficulty setting or even allow for level-scaling. Sword and Shield have gone in the opposite direction and instead made experience share a feature that cannot be disabled.

What makes this especially unfortunate is that this is the first time that the games have featured a gym challenge that feels as epic as the narrative suggests. In Pokémon Red and Blue, the gyms resembled themed martial arts dojos. And although they have become more stylized over time, they have stuck to that structure. However, this contrasted the narrative where gyms and the trainers who fought their way through the gym challenge were supposed to be a big deal in each region. Pokémon Sword and Shield tell a familiar story with players setting out on a journey to become the champion of the Galar Region. However, that largely cursory story in previous generations is at the heart of Sword and Shield and create an experience that twenty years of Pokémon games have failed to achieve. For the first time ever, gym battles are no longer small affairs, and if you’re going to fight your way to be the very best, you’re going to do it in front of cheering crowds in packed stadiums. Sword and Shield are the first games to really match the narrative idea of the gym challenge with their thematic appearance. As you play through and clear more gyms, more fans start to recognize you, say you’re their favorite, or comment how they saw your last match on television. When you make it to the final stadium, there’s even a kid who’s waiting around just for the chance to shake your hand.

Ever since the first generation, Pokémon games have featured two parallel stories, the gym challenge and a second story built around the region’s evil organization. In previous games, the gym challenge was mostly there to usher players from one town to the next while the second story actually had a storyline, conflict, and climax. While the gym challenge in Sword and Shield still directs the player’s journey, it also takes center stage with the other narrative coming in second to the point that I wish they had excluded it. I get that every Pokémon game has had one, but this one feels almost like an afterthought. Even Team Yell, the group presented as this generation’s “evil organization” in the game’s early promotional material, are just a group of rowdy fans built into the gym challenge narrative. In service to the gym challenge storyline, players largely play the role of a bystander for several of the events of the second story. I know some players were unhappy with this, but at the same time, it fits better with the narrative that you’re just another trainer in a region that already has a hero, the current champion, who is out there solving the crises. It would be hard to believe you’re just another challenger in the annual gym challenge if you were the person out there saving the world from calamity.

If you’ve played a Pokémon game before, you know what you’re getting from a game-play perspective. Pokémon Sword and Shield are still the same turn-based role-playing game, but the game features a number of quality-of-life changes and unique ideas. For instance, players will spend far less time backtracking and revisiting Pokémon Centers as players can move their Pokémon in and out of their parties anywhere in the world and the game’s camping and cooking allow for healing on the go. Sun and Moon’s Ride System has been simplified and streamlined which also helps the game-play experience flow better. A lot of the pointlessly restricting mechanics have also been removed, creating a much more enjoyable experience. Things like forgetting and relearning moves are now free and can be quickly done at any Pokémon Center which allows for a lot more experimentation in combat. Speaking of combat, the game features an easily accessible info panel that keeps players appraised of what is happening during battle. With the press of a button, players can view important information like changes to stats, status conditions, and weather effects, which is a great feature for competitive players. Long-time players will be glad to hear that much of the early hand-holding is reduced and experienced players can finally skip many of the early tutorials. While this is a welcome change, it’s also a little crazy that it has taken over twenty years and eight generations of Pokémon games to get here.

The recent Pokémon games have featured gimmicks meant to add a new dimension to battling. X and Y featured Mega Evolutions while Sun and Moon had Z-moves. Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing are Sword and Shield’s novel battle spin, and while it is definitely a gimmick, I think it is the best gimmick yet. When it was first revealed, I assumed the feature would trivialize combat like Z-moves in Sun and Moon, but that’s thankfully not the case. Any Pokémon can Dynamax, which increases its size and health and changes its move-pool for three turns, but only one Pokémon per battle. Some Pokémon can Gigantamax which makes them even bigger, changes their appearance, and gives them access to unique moves. For the most part during the campaign, Dynamaxing is reserved for battles against gym leaders which made the feature feel like a bigger deal. That said, gym leaders always saved it for their last Pokémon which made it fairly predictable and easy to work around. Still, the way Dynamaxing plays out during gym battles, with the music changing and the crowd cheering, was just another thing that fit perfectly with the tone of the gym challenge. Players can encounter Dynamaxed Pokémon in the Wild Area by visiting Dynamax Dens, rock structures scattered around the area. Players can battle with generic NPCs or invite up to three other trainers to join them in taking down these Pokémon (although the system could be more responsive), and once defeated, every trainer is given the chance to catch it. My only real complaint about the system was that there were no Gigantamax forms for the three starters, but that complaint will be resolved by the first DLC release.

While the Pokémon games have been criticized for being too easy, that complaint goes out the window for me when you add in the competitive ladder. I know that playing Pokémon competitively intimidates a lot of players, but it still surprises me how many people never participate in this aspect of the games, especially since so many players invest the time into breeding and training competitive Pokémon. Yes, there are players who use some super cheese-ball teams, but it is a lot of fun to construct and refine a team that can counter those compositions and compete with other builds. Dynamaxing also adds a great new dimension to competitive battles. Competitive battles face the same restrictions (three turns, only one Pokémon can Dynamax), but whereas you know it is coming on the last Pokémon during gym battles, players can Dynamax any of their Pokémon which creates some really interesting strategies and counter play.

Starting with Pokémon X and Y, the Pokémon games have taken more and more steps to make the competitive endgame experience more accessible to the average player and Sword and Shield have continued the trend, making it more accessible than ever. It used to be that you would pick a Pokémon, would hunt for the right ability, then go through a long and largely luck-based process to breed one with the right egg moves, nature, and individual values, and finally effort train it so that Pokémon could actually compete. Effort training requires minimal effort, although I still prefer the version offered in X and Y. In addition to X and Y’s ability capsule and Sun and Moon’s hyper training, Sword and Shield introduce items that change a Pokémon’s nature and wild Pokémon with egg moves. As someone who has spent countless hours breeding the perfect Pokémon, there’s a part of me that’s disappointed that they’ve simplified this process, but there’s a bigger part that acknowledges that process just took time and required no real skill. Additionally, one of my biggest complaints about playing Pokémon competitively was that I would play though the campaign, would be invested in my team, but then would have to build an entirely new team for competitive. With these changes, half of the team I used to reach max rank in the competitive ladder was the same team I used while playing through the game’s campaign. All that said, I would like if each season series was longer as I’m not sure if I’m going to want to grind to max rank every month.

And then there’s Dexit, the term Pokémon fans have for the fact that many Pokémon were cut from the games and only four-hundred Pokémon (including the news ones) can be caught. Around six months before the release of Sword and Shield, Game Freak announced that not every Pokémon would be available in Sword and Shield due to vaguely defined balance constraints. This naturally upset a lot of fans as part of the Pokémon experience has been the ability to bring your favorite Pokémon forward (whether it is the same one you’ve transferred between games or by breeding or catching it again), and cutting so many Pokémon ruins that experience for a lot of players. I can empathize with people who couldn’t use their favorite Pokémon, but it is hard for me to really relate because my top three favorite Pokémon all made it into Sword and Shield. However, the question I keep coming back to is, there are nearly one-thousand Pokemon (and possibly over one-thousand when you add in all the forms), so at what point is it okay to restrict the number of Pokémon? If not one-thousand, then what about two-thousand or five-thousand? At some point you end up with fifty or even one-hundred Pokémon on a single route, and I don’t think anyone wants to slog through that (yes, I’m making some assumptions about the longevity of the Pokémon franchise). Beyond that though, from a game-play experience, I think trimming the number of available Pokémon was the right decision. For me personally, last generation was the first time I didn’t finish a Pokémon game, but this time around, not only did I finish the game, but this is the first time since Generation II that I’ve bothered to catch all the available Pokémon and even constructed a living Dex. Just playing the game, I actually cared about the Pokémon I was encountering, even if it was a Pokémon I’ve been fighting for over twenty years. It’s also worth noting that each DLC region will contain over one-hundred Pokémon which will be available to all players, even those who don’t purchase the DLC, as a free update.

When Nintendo announced the Switch was going to be a home console that also fills the role of a portable console, fans knew that it meant, amongst other things, the next core Pokémon games would have to be released on a Nintendo home console for the first time. Look, I get that Pokémon Sword and Shield are controversial games and as I said in the beginning, there was no way that these two games could live up to fans’ massive expectation. While they certainly have their flaws, I don’t believe they deserve all the criticism they’ve received. If you like Pokémon, the core experience is still and is still great and there are a lot of things this generation does better than any before it. I’ve put in nearly two-hundred hours into the game over the past few months, and I imagine that will only continue to rise as I devote more time into training new Pokémon, grinding away at the competitive ladder, and when the two DLC packs release later this year. And for me, that's more than enough reason to recommend these games.

There are many players in the game, but only a handful of champions ~ Matshona Dhliwayo

All images owned by Nintendo.