Pokemon is such an important franchise for me and one of my favourites of all time. Pokemon Red was one of the first games I ever played and it got me into gaming as a child. Its core formula has stayed the same over the 20+ years and that’s been fine as its stuck to handheld consoles with limited capabilities. I’ve wanted a home console Pokemon game for so long, where the series can really be pushed forward and make a big leap, expanding on the fun formula. When Sword & Shield were announced, I was instantly excited by the possibilities that could be realised. However, after spending 27 hours with the game, I can easily say that the game has pushed the series back in a number of aspects while adding very little. Lazy design choices and pared back content leave the game feeling empty and shallow, overshadowing the positives that are there, leaving the experience disappointing for the series’ first mainline game on a home console.
The game begins like every other, you start in your home town and we meet our friend/rival, Hop (an annoying boy who never really gets any less irritating) and are given our starter Pokemon. I chose the adorable Grookey, I typically go for the grass starter, while Hop chooses the one at a type disadvantage, starting the game off easier than usual. You then set off on your journey to challenge the gym leaders and eventually the champion to become the best trainer in the Galar region. Speaking of which, the region itself is brilliant, although I am a bit biased as its based off of Britain, my home country. Over the course of the game, we visit quaint little rural villages, industrial cities and snowy towns. There’s a good variety here to make the region very memorable.
The story, while has never been the most important thing for Pokemon, is very underused here with bad pacing. Throughout the game we will here a very brief snippet of information about some legends of heroes that saved the world way back when and is known as the ‘darkest day.’ However, we’re constantly told to not worry about it and to carry on with our gym challenge. It just sits in the background with next to no attention given to it. Then all of a sudden, right at the end all hell breaks loose and we have to stop the ‘bad guy’ from causing destruction to the region. It just ends up feeling out of place and the real world commentary climate ends up falling flat. More attention should have been given to fleshing out the story and having it paced better, rather than throwing every main, significant aspect right at the end.
There’s no real villainous group like Team Rocket. In this game we have Team Yell, who are just an obnoxious and slightly extreme fan club for a rival of yours. They don’t do anything serious other than trying to stop you going about your day and slowing down your gym challenge progression. They were comical at first, but just became a pointless addition for the sake of having another new group of people for you to fight. Your rival Hop does have some character development by the end of the post game, where he has some self-realisation about his role in life. He does become less annoying less annoying, but he still remains a forgettable character. Marnie is a bit more interesting but is more underused compared to Hop, which is a shame.
One feature that I was unsure of from trailers was the new ‘dynamax’ system. At first I thought it was going to be another poor gimmick like the Z-moves from Sun and Moon, but I was surprised by how good it was. Once per battle, (locked to gyms, some story moments and max raid battles) you can make your Pokemon grow in size, giving them higher health and access to more powerful moves. This means it never becomes overpowered and requires a bit of strategic thinking about when the best time to use it is. Using it at the wrong time could end up meaning you waste it, leaving your opponent with an advantage. While it wasn’t an amazing addition, it was surprisingly well thought out.
Sword & Shield offers some nice quality of life improvements that are much welcomed. The ability to skip the arduous tutorials is perhaps the greatest, but small change to the early moments. You no longer have to sit through explanations of how catching works for example. When you pick up items for the first time, it will give you a description so you no longer have to find it in the inventory to decide whether to use it. However, because Gamefreak are strange developers, they decided to lock sound settings in the menu behind an item in the game you find. You have to talk to a random guy in Motostoke and he will give you the hi-tech earbuds, allowing you to alter certain sound settings. This is something players could easily miss if they weren’t talking to every npc in the game like I was. Also, I don’t understand why they couldn’t just add these settings into the menu by default like any other normal developer.
The new Pokemon roster is, for the most part, excellent. Grookey is such an adorable starter and his evolutions are great. I wasn’t a fan of the other starter designs though, particularly Sobble’s evolutions. The electric corgi, Yamper and its evolution is perhaps my favourite. There are a few really ugly designs, but that’s the same for every generation, in general these new Pokemon are great. While the new and returning Pokemon look great, their animations in battle haven’t improved from the 3DS, where they can look honestly terrible. For a more powerful piece of hardware, you’d think Gamefreak would have taken the time to really work on animations to bring them to life since they are such an important aspect. It just ends up feeling lazy, where the models will just statically hop on the spot when using a move like ‘double kick.’ When they’re out in the wild, they’re better. They’ll chase you down and run about, however, there are still times they are simply bad. Wingull for example, simply hover on the spot without moving its wings, as if it’s a statue. Overall, the Pokemon look great, but are poorly and lazily animated.
The gyms are such an important part to all Pokemon games and for the most part, they don’t disappoint. You will be required to complete a mission before you can challenge the leader, and while this sounds different to older games, it really isn’t. You will need to solve some light puzzles alongside fighting gym trainers. These are fun little things to do before the main event. Fighting the gym leader in an actual arena never gets old and helps make the battle more exciting and atmospheric, especially with the dynamax implementation. The music will change when the leader is down to their last Pokemon and it really keeps you pumped till the end.
Speaking of music, this is another aspect where the game truly shines. Pokemon games always have some excellent music and Sword & Shield are no exception. Nice relaxing music plays in the quite towns, more sprawling tunes play while wondering the Wild Area, and intense, catchy music accompanies fights and the aforementioned gym battles. What really made the soundtrack go from great to brilliant was the inclusion of a battle song written by Toby Fox, who created and composed all the music for the amazing Undertale. It’s a brilliant song that is very recognisably Toby Fox in feel.
Perhaps the biggest draw the game has is the Wild Area, a reasonably big, more open world style section. The initial feeling of wonder was definitely there for me. Being able to walk around this large section and see lots of Pokemon wondering the map for you to catch was a great feature. The other thing for you to do in this area is max raid battles. As you wonder around you will come across stone structures or ‘dens’ where a dynamaxed Pokemon is waiting for you to fight it. These can be played with other players online (when it wants to occasionally work) or it will pair you with 3 AI controlled people. Some are easy, some are difficult and they give you rewards such as TR’s (one use TM’s) and other things like experience candy to level up your Pokemon. These offer a nice distraction but not for long. There’s just not a lot to do in the wild area and I found myself bored after a couple hours. The area is not very interesting to explore, where all you do is catch Pokemon, fight in raid battles and play a bike riding mini game. There are no real interesting npc’s or side quests/stories, hidden areas or places to explore. It’s just very empty and dull, and if you try playing with online turned on, then good luck, the frame rate is appalling and stays like that, especially with weather conditions.
Another new feature is the camping mechanic. This allows you to hang out with your Pokemon, play with them to become closer and cook food to heal your party and give some minor experience. It’s definitely fun at first, but like the Wild Area, it becomes boring and honestly redundant very quickly. While you can gain experience for your Pokemon, if you do raid battles, you get much more experience from the candies you earn as rewards. Similar with healing, the multiple TR’s you get as rewards can sell for so much money, making it incredibly easy to become rich, far more than any previous game. I ended up having over 300,000 by the 3rd gym and was able to buy so many healing items that I never needed to use the camping feature again. The balance of the games mechanics is very off, that features like the camping become useless and ,makes the game very easy.
Graphically, the game is pretty mediocre, especially compared to larger games on the Switch. While there are moments when the game looks genuinely great, such as in caves, interiors and some of the towns and routes, textures and assets can look abysmal. This is exposed the most in the Wild Area. The ground and water looks unappealing and the main trees honestly look as if no effort went into them and it’s just the same one copy and pasted around the map. It’s even more noticeable when they’re next to the berry trees, which look a lot better. It does seem to be these are likely old assets just brought over from the 3DS games without any rework. Compared to games like BOTW, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Skyrim (all larger games as well), it looks a generation behind in comparison.
Character models are actually great with lots of personality, however, the lack of variety and lazy placement can lead to glaring presentation issues. I walked into one of the clothes shops and 3 out of 4 of the npc’s were the exact same woman in a red top. Or in the second gym, all of the gym trainers were again the exact same model with just a different name. While this was excusable in the 3DS games and prior, for a game on the Switch, it’s simply lazy and low-effort. It really does stand out a number of times and breaks any semblance of immersion. Pop-in is another issue, where people and Pokemon just appear out of nowhere about 5 meters in front of you. In the Wild Area, this just breaks the illusion of Pokemon wondering the world, where there were so many times Pokemon would just spawn right in front of you or appear out of the void. It may still be one of, if not the best looking Pokemon games, but compared to other, bigger games on the switch, it’s not great.
There isn’t a real improvement in scale when it comes to the towns and cities, where at times they’re smaller than older games. While there are some relatively big towns, there are usually just a small number of buildings to enter and the interiors are all copy and pasted down to the smallest detail. Some towns are so tiny that it once again feels like little effort was put into fleshing out the world. One beautiful looking village in a mushroom forest has just a Pokemon centre, 2 houses and a gym. Another place is just a single street with just the Pokemon centre and gym. Lazy/rushed design like this really sticks out in showing the lack of scale and jump from the handheld games.
Perhaps the main issue that game has is that so much content and exploration has been reduced or removed from older games, (not just the pokedex) that make the game feel empty in comparison. First off, the routes and caves (only 10 and 2 respectively) are much more simple and linear than older games in the series, particularly the DS era and earlier. They are now mostly just a single path with very short connecting sections. There’s no real off-the-beaten path to other areas or hidden parts, everything just feels shorter and less complex, when in reality they should have expanded on these areas and made them more intricately designed. Furthermore, there are no dungeons whatsoever, these used to be challenging gauntlets to test the player and their team, yet they are absent entirely from the game. There is no victory road also, which used to be one of the toughest sections of the game, a labyrinth of difficult battles to help train you before the Pokemon League. In Sword & Shield, it’s just a short, mostly linear path with about 6 trainers on it, which took me 10 minutes to get through. This leaves the game feeling incredibly rushed and drastically easier and shorter.
What I do like is the changes to the Pokemon League to make it more in line with what it’s like in the show. There may not be an Elite Four, but instead you go up against other trainers who obtained all eight gym badges. I hope this continues and is expanded upon in the next game. Overall the game was more difficult than the last few entries and I was never hugely over levelled, but it still ends up being easier compared to the earlier games, where I never lost a battle and only struggled a few times. The lack of dungeons and a victory road greatly impacted the challenge.
In terms of post-game content, it is drastically minimal. There’s no new added part of the map or section, just an hour and a half of trudging back to nearly all the gyms again to defeat dynamax Pokemon before a few more final battles in Motostoke. Other than that, there’s just the battle tower which gets boring quickly. I still find it strange that despite being on very limited hardware, Gold, Silver & Crystal still have the most content and largest post-game in the series. There were a few nice little short moments that hint at what interesting side quests Gamefreak could have implemented, such as the mystery of a basket of berries and story of a ghost girl. These quick moments were some of the most memorable parts, but there isn’t enough there and it’s a real shame.
Pokemon Sword & Shield ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity, where glaring issues such as a lot of cut or pared back content aren’t compensated with anything substantial of value. While there are moments of potential and certain steps in the right direction, with regards to the Wild Area, it isn’t a generational or hardware leap in any real way. It can often feel like a step back for the series in many respects and with much less scale, especially compared to entries like Gold and Silver which released on hugely limited hardware. While it may not be the worst Pokemon game in the series, it’s far from being great.
Score = 5/10
Thank you so much for reading. These are obviously just my own honest opinions so I’d love to hear your thoughts down in the comments and your experiences with the game. For all things gaming, stay tuned to Honest Gamer.
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