Pokemon Sword and Shield Review — A Middle Evolution
Pokemon Sword and Shield are a lot of fun, even if the series is experiencing growing pains with the transition to home consoles.
Pokemon Sword and Shield feel like the middle evolution of most Pokemon lines. It’s pretty charming and has a solid base but looks and feels a bit off in some way, like Quilladin or Drizzile. This has been a title rife with pre-release controversy and shows the clear growing plains Game Freak has experienced in transitioning to console development. Pokemon Sword (which is the version I played) has a lot of great things going for it. Galar is an interesting and unique region, the Pokemon designs are better than ever, and the soundtrack is top-notch.
That being said, mechanics like Dynamax can be a little underbaked and many of the environments just don’t look good upon closer inspection. Some aspects of Pokemon Sword do stand out as only being possible on a home console, but the general look and feel still seems stuck in the 3DS era of the series. Like the second evolution of a three-stage Pokemon line, Pokemon Sword and Shield definitely seem like the precursor to something amazing, but we have to get through a quirky experience to get to that.
Addressing Dexit, #BringBackTheNationalDex or whatever you want to call it first, I do not mind that a noticeable chunk of Pokemon and moves have been cut. Still, Dexit is emblematic of the larger problems this game faced in being the first entirely original Pokemon game to be developed for a home console. A lot of legwork obviously went into the game’s increased scale in visuals and map design, and some beloved Pokemon had to be cut so the transition didn’t feel underbaked. Unfortunately, Pokemon Sword and Shield’s rough edges sometimes make that a bit of a hard sell.
Fittingly, all of the elements that pertain to this are double-edged swords. Starting with the visuals, some aspects are amazing. This may be my favorite new slate of Pokemon since Generation IV. Some of my favorites include Wooloo, Mr. Rime, Skwovet, Yamper and Falinks. Art Director James Turner and co. tapped into what makes the best Pokemon designs great – simplicity with a believable and quirky hook. Of course, some oddballs do exist like the aforementioned Drizzile and Eiscue, but even those are endearing in their own ways. Character models also look crisp for their cartoony nature.
Unfortunately, these visuals are deadlocked with textures that feel out of date. Many environmental textures look too “realistic” to be considered cartoony, but look so blurry that the style they are seemingly going for doesn’t come across well. The same style that looked good on a 240p 3DS screen does not work as well when blown up on large television. Even Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Eevee! looked a bit better in this regard and the frame rate in those games didn’t struggle as much at points.
This is disappointing because Galar is visually refreshing in some areas. I couldn’t help but smirk whenever I could see a town in the distance over rolling hills or as I was walking through a multi-layered city based on a castle. Unfortunately, poor textures still get in the way of these moments. While many fans will be quick to call Game Freak “lazy” for Pokemon Sword and Shield’s pitfalls, that is not fair to the developers as this is one of the most robust Pokemon games ever and improves the series in ways that have been needed for years.
Online play is shoddy connection-wise, but it is very fleshed out with some new quality of life features. Being able to finally adjust specific rulesets in online matches is a great edition. You have a lot of options in looking for battles, trades or Dynamax raids, so it feels like the Pokemon series is finally able to embrace online upgrades on a home console. Unfortunately, Nintendo Switch Online remains underwhelming so grouping up with friends can be a bit obtuse and, as I mentioned, the connection itself is fairly unstable.
If you’ve run into or caught a Pokemon before in Sword and Shield, you can also see information about them at the tap of a button in battle. This is great for newer players who need to get familiar with all of the Pokemon that made it into the game as well as the returning players who haven’t memorized the types of Galar’s new Pokemon yet. While the fact that all Pokemon gain experience after a battle is a bit divisive, it actually makes grinding more palatable and encourages catching Pokemon more so than earlier entries in the series.
Pokemon Sword’s gyms are also creative with unique challenge ideas, finding a balance between the series’ classic gyms and the trials of Pokemon Sun and Moon. This is a formula the Pokemon series should stick with going forward as the gyms are all more engaging than ever, even if some of them can be completed way too quickly.
Obviously, Pokemon Sword doesn’t do anything to shake the typical Pokemon formula to its core; in fact, it even strips some stuff away like Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves. Its replacement for those features being MIA is Dyanmaxing, which also plays an important role in the story and postgame, to mixed results. The Max Raid battles are a truly new take on the series’ tried and true gameplay and scratch a cooperative multiplayer itch that Pokemon has never been able to prior. It’s also nice that any Pokemon can Dynamax, so it isn’t limited like Mega Evolutions. It is worth noting that a middle ground is found between Dynamaxing and Mega Evolution with Gigantamax forms, which only certain Pokemon can do.
While this new mechanic does feature some novelty, it is a bit too situational. In the main game, you’ll only ever be Dynamaxing in important battles or raids, and doing so limits your Pokemon to preset moves shared between all Dynamax forms. The act of Dynamaxing can create some pretty exhilarating moments, but their entertainment is only skin-deep. Even though I don’t actively dislike Dynamaxing, it is obvious that the mechanic doesn’t pack the punch that Game Freak was hoping for.
The new mechanic I am most interested in is the Wild Area, the portion of Galar that gives players a tiny open world to explore and catch a variety of Pokemon within. While this area does accentuate a lot of the aforementioned technical issues, it’s a step forward for world design in a Pokemon game. Being able to see other players running about while online also makes Galar seem more lively. Though Game Freak is still hesitant to create an open-world Pokemon game, Pokemon Sword and Shield’s Wild Area is certainly a step in the right direction and has a lot of untapped potential.
Another part of Pokemon Sword and Shield I was pleasantly surprised by was the story. Narratives in Pokemon games are never really that spectacular and really live or die on their characters. Pokemon Sword seems to know that, featuring a laid back story but lovable cast. Hop and Professor Sonia are particular standouts and have a ton of personality all the way through the post-game. Pokemon Sword’s Team Yell continues in Team Skull’s footsteps by making fun of the villainous team trope earlier Pokemon games created. It’s also ironic that a game with such a vitriolic response from fans features a team mostly made up of overzealous and obnoxious fans.
The sports-esque approach to Pokemon battles is a great take and fits into the British theming well, and it’s all accentuated by a truly amazing soundtrack. Even in more lackluster moments of the game, the music was consistently enough to motivate me. A personal favorite of mine is the gym theme, which is absolutely exhilarating when it hits its climax. Even though other aspects of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s presentation falter, the soundtrack is one thing that stays stalwart.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are some of the most interesting entries in the series since the jump to 3D with Pokemon X and Y, for both good and bad reasons. Some things, namely the quality of life improvements, new Pokemon designs, and the soundtrack, are better than ever. The larger scale of Galar and the resulting Wild Area also show a lot of potential. Pokemon fans like myself will still get a ton out of these games, even though they have some notable caveats.
If you are already angered at the fact that your favorite Pokemon didn’t make it into Sword and Shield, then the poor visuals, shoddy online infrastructure, and underwhelming Dynamax mechanic won’t do much to win you back over. Still, many aspects of Pokemon Sword and Shield show promise, and if a future game in the series can feature this title’s best elements while having better graphics and every Pokemon, we may have the best game in the series on our hands. That’s why the middle evolution metaphor is very apt. We may be stuck with an odd-looking Fraxure right now, but it’s definitely close to cleaning house as an almighty Haxorous.