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May 2021

Pokémon Sword

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2019


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Switch Review - 'Pokémon Sword'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 18, 2019 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are the newest additions to the main series of Pokémon role-playing video games.

Buy Pokémon Sword and Shield

The Pokémon franchise seemed to be a fad at first, but the Game Boy titles have spawned a seemingly unstoppable multimedia franchise. Of course, the games are still the most important part, and as reliably as the sun rises in the east, a new Pokémon title has arrived. Unlike last year's Pokémon: Let's Go, which was a remake, Pokémon Sword and Shield is a full-fledged entry in the franchise. Does it succeed? Yes and no.

Sword and Shield takes you to the Galar region. Effectively the United Kingdom of the Pokémon universe, Galar is a small nation whose primary sport is the Pokémon Gym Challenge. It's a giant soccer-like spectacle that's screened on televisions across the world. The player-made character sets out to take on the challenge but ends up wrapped up in the history of the Galar region. A long time ago, a hero saved the region from a mysterious evil, but that evil seems to have returned.

The story is pretty standard Pokémon fare. It has some twists and turns, but you'll generally know what to expect. It has a surprisingly likeable cast of characters with some good narrative arcs. My biggest surprise was Hop, who began as the most annoying rival/friend character in Pokémon history but slowly changes over the course of the game in a way that I ended up enjoying. It's not going to blow your mind, but it's a pretty fun Pokémon story.

Sword and Shield stands well on its own merit, but it's impossible to discuss the game without discussing its most controversial aspect, which is the trimming of the Pokedex. Unlike the games since Gen 3, Sword and Shield doesn't allow you to get every Pokémon in one game, even via trading. Instead, it looks like developer Game Freak is moving toward a rotating roster of older Pokémon in addition to new ones. There are still hundreds of Pokémon, both new and old, but not the complete roster of over a thousand. This is disappointing, but it isn't noticeable within the game itself. You can find and catch an overwhelming number of Pokémon, and you don't feel a lack of them in the game. It's disappointing to fans who liked having a full roster, but it doesn't break the game unless you transferred every Pokémon from previous gens.

Sword and Shield has one of my favorite collection of new Pokémon. There are a lot of incredibly creative and adorable new Pokémon in the lineup. Among my favorites are Falinks, which is actually six tiny adorable armored soldiers who form a combination armored formation and centipede, and Nickit, a little fox that was clearly based on the Reynard the Fox stories. This is in addition to the return of regional forms that transform older Pokémon into new shapes. For example, flaming horse Rapidash has become what amounts to a psychic My Little Pony, while the toxic Weezing has become a dapper top-hatted smokestack. There are plenty of new Pokémon to discover, and I enjoyed them all.

The core combat mechanics in Sword and Shield haven't changed much. It's still a competitive one-on-one battle system where players take turns fighting each other's Pokémon until one falls. There are some nice additions to the system. There are new items, including one that negates entry hazards (such as Rapid Spin); it's a tremendous boost to Pokémon who were previously rendered invalid because of it. A lot of Pokémon have seen tweaks to stats and moves, which should hopefully them better for the endgame player-vs.-player combat.

The biggest change is the introduction of Dynamaxing, which is similar to the Mega Forms from previous generations but not quite as overwhelming. In certain areas of the game — such as gym leader fights, PvP battles, or special areas — you can Dynamax one of your Pokémon to turn it into a gigantic version with massively inflated stats and HP. In addition to this, all of its moves become super moves that are tied to the attack element . There are also certain Pokémon who can Gigantamax, which makes them huge, changes their appearance, and unlocks a unique G-Max move. These absurdly powerful transformations only last for three turns.

I was skeptical about the idea of Dynamaxing, but it works extremely well while playing the game. A big part of it is the spectacle of it all. Dynamaxed Pokémon feel relevant and awesome, and when one comes into play, it feels more like a natural disaster than a transformation. They're fun to use, and while I think they're too much power over polish, it's still a very neat feature. The fact that it is limited to the story make the transformations feel significant instead of using it at the start of every fight.

Dynamaxing also plays into the idea of Raid Battles, which I think are the single best addition to the Sword and Shield. Raid Battles are battles that bring four players (either actual players or one player and three AIs) into battles against huge, super-powerful Pokémon. Unlike regular Dynamaxed ones, these Pokémon are always huge, always powerful, and have special abilities beyond the norm. All four trainers have to work together to take down the behemoth monsters, and if they succeed, they earn special prizes and a chance to catch the smaller form of the Pokémon they just battled.

It was great to work together with other trainers in Raid Battles; teamwork is something that Pokémon didn't have enough of, and this is exactly why Sword and Shield shines. It adds a neat challenge and also showcases Pokémon builds that were previously extremely limited, such as supporting Pokémon. Many of the Raid battles are pretty easy, though.

Raid Battles take place in the Wild Areas, a large section in the middle of the map that is packed with Pokémon. Think of it as a mega Safari Zone. It's nice to have a large, free area to explore after the normally cramped routes. Pokémon of all shapes and sizes appear here, with the Wild Zone divided into multiple areas with their own Pokémon. Pokémon of all levels are here, so you can fight Pokémon above your level for experience points, but the level you can capture is determined by the number of badges you have.

One of the other really nice elements of Sword and Shield is the tremendous amount of quality of life updates. Many of them are small, but some are game-changing. As in Pokémon: Let's Go, Pokémon are visible in the overworld now, though some will also appear as hidden "!" encounters in tall grass, effectively giving it both random and non-random encounters. HMs are entirely gone. In fact, you're given the game's equivalent to Fly extremely early on, which makes it a breeze to backtrack to the Wild Areas. Tutorials can be largely skipped, which helps to skip through the area. Pokémon's stats and natures can be changed, so you're not forced to grind through a dozen "weak" Pokémon to reach the one whose nature you want. You can even access your Pokémon Box anywhere instead of having to go back to town. Overall, it's a great selection of features that make the game a lot more fun to play.

With that said, Sword and Shield have one big problem. The two titles don't feel particularly different. While this is technically the franchise's first main game on a console, it feels like an updated version of the handheld games. If anything, it reminds me more of the new Link's Awakening, feeling similar to a handheld game that was ported to the console. If this had been the newest entry on the 3DS, it wouldn't have been worth a comment, but as the first big entry on a console, it feels unavoidably disappointing because it isn't anything new or special.

This is exacerbated by the lackluster visuals. The game is nicely animated and in a cute cartoon style, but it has many unimpressive elements. There's massive slowdown and pop-in in the Wild Area, some of the textures look bland and boring, and the Pokémon animations still haven't improved much over what they've been since the days of the first 3D Pokémon. Again, it feels a lot like a handheld title here but without the excuse of being handheld. Fortunately, the soundtrack rocks. It has some of the best music I've ever heard in a Pokémon game, and in particular, the Gym Leader battle theme is perhaps my favorite in the franchise. The game still lacks voice acting, which makes some of the cut scenes feel awkward, but that's my only real complaint about the audio.

Pokémon Sword and Shield is at once a really fun game and a disappointment. It has a lot of great new features, excellent new Pokémon, some much-needed quality of life improvements, and is generally a solid Pokémon title. However, the first console outing feels like it should've been more impressive, especially given the reduced Pokedex. If you're a fan of Pokémon, you'll enjoy Sword and Shield a lot, and if it's your first Pokémon, it's a good way to experience the franchise's high points. If you're a longtime fan hoping for the Breath of the Wild of Pokémon games, you'll be disappointed.

Score: 7.5/10

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