Pokémon Sword and Shield Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Purugly
Welp, it’s finally here. On November 15, amidst torrents of controversy stirred up by fans worldwide, Game Freak released Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield for the Nintendo Switch.
After much internal struggle and research, I decided to go with Pokémon Shield, since the general player consensus favored Sword and I wanted to be different. Turns out most of the people I play with also bought Shield…so joke’s on me I guess.
I’ll be honest, though – the sheer amount of complaints and witch hunts brought against these games and Game Freak by the Pokémon community had me worried. There was a period of time prior to release in which I seriously considered not getting either one.
After 45+ hours in, however, I am so glad I took a leap of faith. While there are facets of the game that could use improvement or that just don’t work (more on these later), I can safely say this is a generation of pocket monsters you don’t want to miss.
What’d Sword and Shield do right, you ask?
A lot, actually.
Despite the grievances conjured up by a throng of Pokémon fans and critics, I found Game Freak’s latest entry in the series to be much better than predicted, featuring streamlined mechanics, interesting poké pals, and dynamax/raids.
Enter the player-friendliest game to date.
Streamlined mechanics, ease of use…call it by whatever name you prefer; just know that this new installment makes life as a Pokémon trainer a heck of a lot easier than what Red and Blue experienced.
To elucidate my point, let’s take a little trip down memory lane.
The year is 1998, and Pokémon Red and Blue just released internationally. Players around the world spend every waking moment relishing the wonderful world of Pokémon. Unfortunately, not all is perfect in paradise.
Tedium and inconvenience can be found around every patch of tall grass. HMs bar entry to certain areas and force players to saddle their team with worthless moves such as Cut and Flash. Fainting Pokémon require either a revive/potion or a trek/Fly back to a poke center. Raising your battle buddies’ levels involve grinding against the same enemies repeatedly with a single member of your team at a time. The list goes on.
Thankfully, Pokémon Sword and Shield has refined many of these outdated mechanics.
No HMs, no ride Pokémon, no problem.
Although HMs were technically done away within Generation VII, they were replaced by ride Pokémon which honestly only solved half of the problem. You were still required to push rocks out of the way; you just did so now with the help of a hired hand. In Sword and Shield, there are no trees to cut down, no waterfalls to climb, and no boulders to shove.
If you want to fly somewhere, you pull up your map, choose a destination, and two seconds later you’re there. Free of charge and free of needing a flying type.
Looking to Surf across some water? Your bike now doubles as a boat.
I can’t overstate my joy at not having to click on the edge of ponds and lakes to confirm that 1) yes, this is indeed water that looks like it can be Surfed on and 2) yes, I would like to Surf. Now it’s as easy as, well, riding a bike.
Pokémon center on the go? Yes please.
On your journey to the next gym, you decide to farm up some experience using the native population as fodder. Once the carnage has died away and you look back over the piles of fainted poké in your wake, you notice your own team is not looking much better.
You could take an air taxi via Corviknight back to the nearest Pokémon center, but a better idea strikes you. You pull out your tent and tear open a pack of sausages.
In Sword and Shield you have the ability to camp, a feature which allows you to entertain and feed your trusty party members. Not only does this raise the pocket monsters’ friendliness towards you, it doubles as a mobile Pokémon center.
By cooking curry (seemingly the only thing people eat in the Galar region) in a very Cooking Mama-esque minigame, you can heal your Pokémon’s HP, PP, status ailments, and even revive them.
While this does require berries and cooking ingredients to pull off, camping has made farming for levels and new teammates much less arduous. You’re not wasting materials that could be used mid-battle, such as revives or potions, and you’re not wasting time by flying back and forth between Pokémon centers and routes.
Plus, you can throw a toy Poké ball at a Sobble and have them carry it back on their forehead. It really doesn’t get any better than that.
We’re all in this together.
Try as we might, it’s impossible not to play favorites in the world of Pokémon. You may be adventuring with six in your party, but there will always be one or two that you favor over the others. This could be based on a variety of things: appearances, abilities, move sets; whatever your reasoning, it happens.
In the past, this biased behavior resulted in a sometimes sizeable level gap between your favorites and your other party members. This gap would be further widened when you relied on these favorites to tackle tougher challenges for you.
At first, Game Freak’s solution was to introduce the Exp. Share item, allowing the Pokémon holding it to receive experience without having to participate in battles. This solved part of the problem, but leveling an entire team of six Pokémon still took a considerable amount of time.
Starting with Gen VII and carrying into Sword and Shield, Game Freak decided to alleviate the grind substantially, turning the Exp. Share item into a constant effect that applies to all of your party members.
Such an expedited leveling system has given me the freedom to change up my team more as the game progresses because I know that any late addition will be caught up to speed quickly.
This is a huge draw for me, since leveling in Pokémon games has always been my least favorite part. Now I can favor Pokémon without my entire party suffering for it, all the while with a clear conscience.
Pokémon hunting has never been easier…
Whereas previous generations of Pokémon required players to move around in circles in varying patches of grass, bodies of water, cave corridors, etc. to find and catch Pokémon, Sword and Shield went for a new tangible approach.
As opposed to running around in grass hoping to find that elusive Bagon which has a 1% encounter chance, players can now see the Pokémon around them.
That’s right, see them. Eevees hop excitedly through golden wheat fields while Wailmers float lazily in the river nearby. A Pokémon fan’s dreams come true.
The advantages here are two-fold: you can now target the Pokémon you want to catch (encounter chance is gone if you can literally see them in front of you) and you can avoid anything you don’t want to catch.
If anyone remembers hunting for a Feebas back in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, you’ll understand why this is a big deal.
Plus, there are still random encounters signaled by an exclamation point and a tuft of thrashing grass, as well as fishing spots. Some Pokémon can still only be caught using this method.
…And there are Pokémon I actually want to catch.
I’ll be the first one to say that Game Freak has always done a phenomenal job at incorporating new Pokémon into the series. It’s not easy trying to dream up new fantastical creatures, especially when you’ve got such an epic original 151 that you’re constantly being compared to.
Have there been some misses in the past? Of course (Klefki and Probopass come to mind).
However, all considered, each following generation of Pokémon has managed to produce some seriously cool and memorable critters, with generation VIII being no exception.
Some of my favorites so far are Toxtricity, Grimmsnarl, and Grappleoct. There’s just something satisfying about a poison/electric punk rocker that plays their chest muscles to produce music.
And let’s not forget about the regional alterations to classic Pokémon.
Galarian Ponyta/Rapidash wins hands-down and I’ve never even seen an episode of My Little Pony. If you haven’t tried it already, use Dazzling Gleam on her – the animation is stunning. Galarian Corsola (or Cursola), however, is a very close second.
Dynamax and Raiding: We’re not in Kanto anymore.
It might be an unpopular opinion, but I never cared for mega evolutions.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought mega evolved Pokémon featured some of the most awe-inspiring designs to date (I mean, just look at mega Charizard).
But as a concept, I didn’t like it. Only some Pokémon were even able to mega evolve, and the work involved to get a single mega evolution stone was extensive.
Now enter Dynamax, a mega evolution-ish mechanic that any Pokémon can take advantage of.
It only lasts three turns, so it can’t really be used to sweep an entire team, but during those three turns you can access some powerful moves which almost always have additional effects. The health of your Pokémon also increases considerably for the duration.
There’s nothing quite like battling in a stadium full of fans while two gigantic Pokémon reenact scenes from a Naruto Shippuden fight.
Moreover, this mechanic transitions seamlessly into the new raid system, which pits four trainers against dynamaxed Pokémon of varying difficulties.
For those of you who have played Pokémon GO, this concept will be nothing new. After taking down the colossal Pokémon with the aid of your fellow trainers, you will be given the chance to catch it. Even if the Pokémon escapes, you are still rewarded with TRs, berries, exp. candies, and more.
To Game Freak’s credit, even the highest difficulty raid is possible with NPC trainers, but I suggest attempting these with actual players. Most of the time, the AI trainers will bring the worst Pokémon to the fight (a magikarp against a dynamaxed Jolteon) or force their Pokémon to use Counter seven times in a row despite never once being hit by a physical attack.
Despite these minor setbacks, raids are an excellent way to further fill out your Pokédex and stockpile items.
This all sounds good, but what’s the catch?
As I mentioned earlier, Pokémon Sword and Shield have a lot going for them. Eight generations in and the series is still going strong to be sure.
Despite some of these accomplishments, though, there are aspects of the game that could have gone better.
The Infamous Dexit.
Even if you’ve never played a Pokémon game in your life, I’m certain that you heard of the latest Dexit debacle.
Before the release of Sword and Shield, Game Freak announced that no, it would not be possible to transfer Pokémon from older Pokémon games up into this newest entry. This declaration sent the community into a rage-filled, scorched earth crusade that rippled throughout the internet and spread like wildfire.
I never was a big fan of transporting my little pocket monsters into each new installment, but I can see how this would upset players that have spent a mind-boggling amount of hours breeding, shiny hunting, etc.
I realize that it’s illogical to keep allowing every single Pokémon into each new game. We’re already at 800+ individual creatures as it is, and by permitting all Pokémon, all models and animations for each one of them would be required. To put it bluntly, this is an unmaintainable practice.
That being said, it is pretty depressing not seeing your favorites from past generations, especially when someone like Trubbish is kept in favor of say, anyone else.
Show me your (reduced) moves.
Likewise, Game Freak also cut the amount of moves available to Pokémon.
This again comes down to animation. With each move that is included in the game, you must have an animation for every Pokémon that is able to use that move. And, as more moves are added, this task can become quite insurmountable.
Regardless of the logistical nightmare, I miss my Sky Uppercut and Hidden Power.
However, I have also heard whispers of moves being removed for their negative impact in PvP. Whether there is any legitimacy to these rumors is beyond my knowledge, but it would be a worrying trend were they to be true.
If Game Freak threw out certain moves simply because they didn’t feel the need to balance them, what else could find itself on the chopping block?
While on the topic of animation, it could certainly be…better.
In Game Freak’s defense, it’s a Pokémon game; they have never been known for their graphics or touted them.
Nonetheless, Sword and Shield look only slightly better than Sun and Moon, which is somewhat surprising. I would have expected a bigger jump considering Sun and Moon is on an older handheld console.
My major complaint is really with the move animations. Take Brave Bird for instance. In Sun and Moon, you would see your Pokémon launch itself at the opponent at Mach speed, hurtling inches from the ground before slamming into their opponent. It was probably one of my favorite moves to use simply because the animation was so remarkable.
Now take Brave Bird in generation VIII, which has been reduced to a flying-type Flame Charge. The damage is the same sure, the move is still useful, but the impact just isn’t there.
And if you want to see something that will truly make you cringe, watch the cut scene where your character first meets Piers in his Spikemuth gym…few moments in gaming have made me feel more uncomfortable.
If you want a challenge, look elsewhere.
I’m all for games that appeal to the largest audience possible, but Sword and Shield have taken it a bit too far.
I can’t recall a single moment in the entire story where I thought to myself “Wow, this is actually pretty tough.” I don’t even think there was an instance where I thought I would lose (though the ease of leveling definitely helped here).
While Pokémon was never designed to be Dark Souls, the first several generations were genuinely challenging. Some trainer and gym battles required multiple attempts, a solid team, and even the occasional stroke of good luck.
While on my travels, I kept hoping to run into a truly demanding opponent. But, after beating Hop for the twelfth time, it occurred to me that Pokémon might never push players as hard as previous generations. I mean, even Sun and Moon, which was also fairly easy in Pokémon standards, presented a semblance of difficulty.
Unfortunately, it seemed that no matter who I ran into – trainers, rivals, even gym leaders – were swept aside with little to no effort or strategy, and it does detract from the story.
What’s the point of becoming champion if you are nothing more than the best of the worst?
Overall, I highly recommend playing Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Here we are in generation VIII of Pokémon and Game Freak is still capable of producing new mons and unique mechanics all while streamlining unwieldy gameplay. It really is nothing short of impressive, and it gives me hope that the Pokémon franchise will live on to see many more iterations.
In spite of some controversial design decisions, lackluster animations, and pushover opponents, Game Freak still manages to deliver a game that encapsulates the magic the originals possessed all those years ago.