For such a controversial title, Pokemon Sword and Shield are exceptionally ordinary. That’s not to say they’re bad or not worth your time, just that they’re identical to the wholly beloved titles before them. I’ve already bought my “Rise of Skywalker” tickets, so that truth hardly impacted my enjoyment of the game. That said, if you’re someone searching for content that takes creative risks, you’d best look elsewhere. Rumors of Pokemon’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, but Sword and Shield’s failure to innovate expose long-standing issues with the series stagnant formula while creating a few of their own.

Game Name: Pokemon Sword and Shield 
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Publisher(s): Nintendo
Developer(s): GameFreak
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Price: $59.99 per game, $119.99 for both

Welcome to Galar

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Pokemon Sword and Shield take place in the Galar Region, a Pokemon-filled take on Great Britain. This isn’t the first time the quest to be the very best has brought players to Europe. Pokemon X and Y’s Kalos region featured a brilliant take on France that gave the region a strong sense of identity.

While Galar doesn’t feature anything as memorable as Lumiose City, it’s still an imaginative spin on the source material. Routes in rural areas feature dirt roads with rock walling, grass stretching as far as the eye can see. The lighting effects chill these places, and characters generally are bundled up to thrive in the cool climate.

Throughout the story, you’ll spend a lot of time revisiting two major cities: Motostoke and Hammerlocke. Motostoke captures the industrial spirit associated with Britain, while Hammerlocke pays homage to medieval history with a castle and dragon theme. Both of these cities visually impress, though they’re a lot smaller than they appear. In Motostoke, there are only two main roads to explore, with a large portion of the city rendered inaccessible. The same goes for Hammerlocke, where most of the action happens on one long strip.

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The small towns and routes you’ll explore during the Gym Challenge are no different. While there’s plenty of detail in the backdrop, Pokemon Sword and Shield never allow players to roam off the narrow trail. For long-time fans, this probably won’t hamper the experience much. While not particularly memorable, the routes are generally fun to traverse. I particularly enjoyed the farmland in Route 4. The sunsets over the hills, and the tall grass waves in the wind. Still, it feels like Game Freak missed an opportunity to do something really special here. All of the cities and routes could have been made for a 3DS title, and I found the islands of Alola to be more memorable.

Part of that stems from the removal of the Pokeride system. You won’t be able to call a Tauros to dash across the sprawling bridges connecting the various villages. When you want to fly to a new town, there’s no fun animation of the Corvinight taxi coming to scoop you up. Instead of riding a Lapras through the sea, your bike transitions into a water ski. The change seems small, but it highlights an apathy that plagues Sword and Shield.

Pokemon Sword and Shield‘s Inconsistent Presentation

Pokemon Sword and Shield aren’t as breathtaking more creatively stylized Switch titles, but overall they’re a big step forward for the series. The color palette does a lot on its own. Their vibrancy brings certain Pokemon to life and adds an inherent joy to environments. Ballonlea, home to the Fairy-type gym, is without a doubt the most stunning location I’ve visited in the world of gaming this year. It looks like a town pulled straight from a Pokemon fairytale. I wish there was more to do there because I would spend hours getting lost in the woods if I could. I’m no expert, but it feels like the dark lighting masks the poor textures that drag the game’s visuals down in most locations.

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Animations, both in battle and out, disappoint, though expressions have been improved and are more dynamic this time around. Your “rival” Hop’s frustrated look every time you smoke his team will bring back memories of simpler times. That said, your trainer remains generally devoid of emotion.

Pokemon battle animations have barely been touched since the 3DS days. It’s strange because some Pokemon do have awesome animations that showcase their personalities. Scorbunny stands out in particular. Through each of its evolutionary phases, it does this little jog towards its opponent before unleashing a kick. It’s adorable and high energy. I have no idea why Grookey and Sobble didn’t receive this same love on their moves. Cinderace, Scorbunny’s final form, learns Pyro Ball. It kicks up a flaming pebble, bounces it around like a soccer ball, and sends it flying into an opponent. If every animation had the love and care of Pyro Ball, Sword and Shield would be a visual marvel. Unfortunately, most of the moves animations have been ripped straight from the 3DS games. Double kick still uses an orange foot that slaps against the enemy twice, multi-hits feel stiff, and elemental moves look largely unimpressive.

Still, the soundtrack is excellent. It took me a while to appreciate it, but there are some tracks that rank among my favorites in the series. You won’t find a tune as memorable as the S.S. Anne theme, but Sonia’s theme and the Gym battle theme are excellent. Team Yell’s music will make your ears bleed though. While that’s kinda the point, it doesn’t make for a fun listen.

Never Play Pokemon for the Story

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Everyone knows what to expect when it comes to a Pokemon story. You’ll get a rival, meet a few colorful characters, and set out to become the very best. Pokemon Sword and Shield don’t stray from that formula at all, and the result is one of the weakest stories in the series.

When you first meet Leon, Galar’s current champion, something seems amiss about him. He makes a comment about his brother’s height that’s oddly specific – so odd that I thought he might be cheating in the Pokemon League. Unfortunately, I was reading into things far too much. Nothing that cool happens in this story.

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For the most part, the core characters are fine. I like Leon well enough, and Sonia’s a good companion throughout the journey. But Hop, your rival, could not be more insufferable. He follows the new trend of friendly rivals. Apparently Hop is your childhood best friend, which frankly is hard to believe. The guy never shuts up about wanting to be like his brother. He won’t go two seconds without telling you that he’s going to be the next champion. He constantly flags you down for a battle or just to remind you that he exists. I’ve seen Hop defenders online recently, and they all point to his character development as a major pro. It’s true that he develops more than Hau, but that doesn’t make Hop any less annoying.

Pokemon Sword and Shield Play a Little Too Safe

If you’ve ever played a Pokemon game, you’ve basically played Pokemon Sword and Shield. Outside of the Wild Area (more on that in a minute), Sword and Shield play identically to previous mainline titles.

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Aside from the new Dynamax mechanic, there are no big changes to battling – each Pokemon can learn four moves, you can have a team of up to six Pokemon, and mashing your strongest move will get you through the story battles. The Dynamax mechanic serves as this game’s version of Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves. The idea will appeal to a younger audience. When you Dynamax, your Pokemon become gigantic and extremely powerful. I can’t say I like the mechanic much though. Game Freak was wise to limit it to Gym battles and Max Raids. The spectacle of seeing your Pokemon grow into a stadium-sized behemoth gets old and fast, but does add to the intensity of gym battles. The moves’ animations aren’t special, as each type has just one Dynamax move. Some of them don’t even seem like they’d hurt. I get how a puny Charjabug getting crushed by a giant rock would do some damage, but having an abundance of healthy plant life grow around you doesn’t seem very painful.

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Sword and Shield do bring a slew of quality of life changes outside of combat though. For starters, you can now access your Pokemon Box whenever, allowing you to switch out fainted Pokemon for healthy ones without returning to a Pokecenter.

The biggest, and best, change is the revamping of random wild encounters. I cannot stress enough how nice exploring the many caves of Galar is compared to past games. Random Zubat ambushes are a thing of the past, as you can now see wild Pokemon strolling about. Touching one will start an encounter, so it’s easy to avoid fighting if you just want to dash from point A to point B. Shy Pokemon sometimes run away from you, and aggressive Fighting-types charge towards you. To maintain the series staple, “random” encounters still exist in a sense. Now, an exclamation mark appears in the grass as a rustle moves through it. If you touch the rustle, you’ll enter a random encounter with an unknown Pokemon. Some can only be found this way, so they’re not entirely worthless. Still, all you have to do is walk away from the rustle to avoid combat.

I wish Pokemon Sword and Shield made more quality of life changes like that. For some reason, Game Freak insists on making some Pokemon an absolute nightmare to locate thanks to a bafflingly low encounter rate. It’s a good thing I liked the scenery of Route 4, because I spent 2 hours running around the grass looking for an Eevee. Eevee has a 1% chance to spawn, so if you want to catch one you’d best start praying. I appreciate the idea that some Pokemon should be rarer than others, but running around in a literal circle waiting for one to spawn for 2 hours just isn’t fun. Game Freak should bump the encounter rates, but a more elegant solution would be to hide certain Pokemon behind environmental puzzles or quests. I’d love to see dens of rare Pokemon unlock through completing side quests. It would make catching the Pokemon feel rewarding. When I caught that Eevee, I wasn’t happy or proud. I said “thank god” and turned the console off.

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My biggest complaint about the moment-to-moment gameplay is the archaic capture system. The catch rate for certain Pokemon should be higher. There is no creative solution here – when you knock a non-legendary Pokemon down to one healthy with paralysis, an Ultra Ball should be a guaranteed catch. At the very least, your odds should improve significantly after each failed attempt. Another Route 4 styled time sink happened when I tried to catch a Mawile in the wild area. I went through 40 Ultra Balls trying to catch one, paralyzing them each time. Hail would knock the Mawile out after two turns with low HP, so I was constantly having them faint on me before a capture. Call me an entitled millennial – we both know Pokemon constantly escaping a capture is not fun. I still haven’t caught a Sigilyph because they whirlwind my Pokemon successfully before the RNG gods bless me.

 

A New High Watermark for Gym Battles

Pokemon Sword and Shield integrate the new and exciting Island Challenge from Sun and Moon with the gym battle system, and the results are excellent. Gym Battles carry an intensity never before seen in a Pokemon title, as a massive crowd gathered to watch trainers face off. The music hits, the crowd chants, and Pokemon grow massive through the new Dynamax mechanic. The spectacle takes your breath away. The gym leaders themselves stand out as the best in the series, each with a cool style the suits their personality. Like the rest of the world, I love Nessa and Bea.

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Before facing off with these titans of Pokemon, players must complete a challenge of some sort. Along the path, gym challengers break up the puzzle-solving with Pokemon battles. The two that I enjoyed the most were Nessa’s water faucet puzzle and Opal’s quiz. Gordie’s rock challenge was the only real clunker, with a few others being merely inoffensive. Still, they’re by and large fun and a great way to continue to innovate while respecting tradition.

The Wild Area Succeeds, But Leaves Plenty of Room for Improvement

The Wild Area feels like a microcosm of the entire Pokemon Sword and Shield experience. It’s undercooked but still effective.

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You’ll visit the Wild Area for the first time about an hour into the game. The space is home to hundreds of Pokemon species, and you can start catching the low-level ones right away. I was thrilled to find dozens of Vulpix scurrying about some tall grass right in front of the first big city. Ninetails, Vulpix’s evolution, is my favorite Pokemon, and having one join my team so early in the game was delightful. Not every Pokemon found in the wild area can be caught right away, but popular monsters like Pikachu, Oddish, and Ghastly are just some of the monsters you’ll be able to add to your party right away. There’s a wide range of typings available as well. While ice-type Pokemon tend to be reserved for the second half of the game, you can catch a few right away in the wild area. Vanillite fans, you’re in luck!

As you collect gym badges, the level cap on Pokemon you can catch in the wild area rises. After every gym battle, I felt encouraged to revisit the Wild Area to catch Pokemon that were previously too strong. A lot of these are evolved forms of other Pokemon, which saves time for those trying to fill out their Pokedex. I didn’t have to waste any time getting Wingull up to level 25 just to stuff it in a box once it evolved into Pelipper.

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The improvements the Wild Area makes to the pacing of the Sword and Shield journey far outweigh its negatives, but Game Freak didn’t bring out the full potential of the idea. It’s called the Wild Area, but the Orderly Area may have been a better name (ba-dum-tiss). I never felt like I was exploring a Pokemon ecosystem. You don’t find Beartics lurking around a pond filled with delicious Goldeen. Ghost Pokemon appear during all hours of the day, and for some reason, hundreds of Vanillish love floating around in sandstorms. The Wild Area lacks vibrance. Everything feels too stiff to create the whimsy the developers were aiming for.

Sword and Shield’s occasionally underwhelming visual design and performance are at their worst here as well. As is the case with the rest of the game, the vibrant color palette brings the visuals up to acceptable. Still, there are no memorable sights to see. The textures are incredibly plain, making it even harder to overlook just how devoid of personality the whole space is. If you connect to the internet, be prepared for constant frame drops and random characters loading in well after they should. Some people won’t mind this, but I found it unbearable. I almost always preferred to play with the internet off.

Online Offerings

Pokemon Sword and Shield’s online offerings, more than anything else, are what stop the games from living up to their potential. The online services in Pokemon Sword and Shield are the worst in any first-party Switch game, and that’s saying something.

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Game Freak removed the Global Trading System that made trading for Pokemon you wanted simple. In that system, players could post a Pokemon they wanted to trade online, and set the Pokemon they wanted in return. Players could search through these requests, resulting in trades that were always optimal for both sides. Even better, the GTS ran behind the scenes. You could play through the game while waiting for a trade partner, making for seamless trading experience.

In Sword and Shield, that convenience is gone. Replaced by a Link Trade system that forces you to open the online menu, hit search for player, walk around Galar for a few seconds, match with a player, and hope and pray they are looking for the exact trade you are. I tried for two hours to trade my Flapple for an Appleton, its Shield counterpart. 30% of the trades went like this:  I select Flapple, my link partner picks Wooloo (an extremely common early-game Pokemon). I say no. I select Flapple again, and my partner picks Wooloo. I wait for them to say no, and they don’t. I say no. I select Flapple again because they probably want Flapple based on not denying the trade. They select Wooloo. I quit the trade. I go back to the menu and do it all again.

This happens all the time. The person on the other side is probably a young kid who doesn’t understand the concepts behind trading. It’s not their fault that the trades are so frustrating; it’s all on Game Freak.

I theorize they made the choice to remove GTS purely for selfish reasons. I’ve opined on the Nintendo Entertainment Podcast that having two versions of a Pokemon game was no longer relevant. The GTS made it easy to get whatever version-exclusive Pokemon you wanted hassle-free. Why buy both games when the experience is completely identical? By removing the GTS and replacing it with an objectively worse system, Game Freak has brought back the archaic and contrived purpose for having two games. That leads to a whole lot of extra money.

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The other big online feature, Max Raid battles, can be moderately enjoyable. You can connect with up to 3 additional players to take on a powerful Dynamaxed Pokemon. Winning nets you a wealth of rewards, as well as a high chance to catch the defeated Pokemon. Still, these battles are crippled by a lack of communication options. There’s no way to strategize with your teammates. All of my Max Raids have followed the same flowchart – I spam my super-effective moves until the beast is felled.

Conclusion

I feel as though I may be ragging on this game and creating the impression that I didn’t like it… here’s where I tell you the opposite: I like playing Pokemon Sword and Shield a lot. The gameplay doesn’t do anything meaningfully new, but I love Pokemon games. Spending time with Pokemon both old and new is still fun for me. I love searching the grass for new Pokemon, and filling out the Pokedex may be more fun than actually battling other trainers. Despite clear blemishes, I can’t imagine a Pokemon fan disliking these games.

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They’re fun, and at the end of the day, I would recommend them to anyone who likes the series. When I scored this game, I based the number on the game’s objective merits. Had I based it on my pure enjoyment, I may have gone a click higher. Pokemon Sword and Shield aren’t extraordinary. Still, despite what you may have heard, Pokemon is still fun!

Summary

Pokemon Sword and Shield meet expectations, but don’t take advantage of the chance to evolve into something special. These games are generally quite fun, though terrible online offerings and a lack of innovation make one wonder if the series is going stagnant.

Pros

  • The New Pokemon are Fantastic
  • Wild Encounters Revamped
  • The Wild Area, particularly in the early game
  • Best Gym Battles ever

Cons

  • Meh presentation
  • Regressive online offerings
  • Archaic systems have not been updated
  • Bland, predictable story
Overall
3.5

About The Author

Tyler Kelbaugh
Nintendo Writer

Tyler Kelbaugh is a Nintendo writer for The Outerhaven Productions. He fell in love with gaming at the ripe young age of 4, a passion born from years of consistently failing to survive Marble Zone. If you mention the words "Fire Emblem" around him he'll talk your ear off. He's also a pretty competent Smash Bros. player, and a passionate sports fan.