The Pokémon series, developed by Game Freak, has become a much beloved staple in Nintendo’s handheld gaming lineup ever since the release of Pokémon Red and Green back in 1996. After getting a first glimpse of the adorable Pikachu in all his pixelated glory, it was obvious that this game was something special, and it wasn’t long before people caught the Poké-fever!
Travelling together with your Pokémon on grand adventures, gathering more and more of the incredible -mon as you go, is an experience like no other. Nintendo caught lightning in a bottle with the Pokémon games, and they weren’t going to let it end with one entry. Instead, Nintendo has nurtured the series over 23 years and 8 generations into a gaming tour de force. The humble origin of the series, where to “catch ’em all” you simply needed to get your hands on 151 Pokémon, has become a thing of the past, as with the release of Pokémon Sun and Moon back in 2016, the series reached a whopping 809 unique creatures that everyone could catch and love!
What’s so incredible about the Pokémon series is its mass-market appeal. These games aren’t reserved for gamers, as Game Freak’s beloved franchise has long since permeated pop culture, drawing in ever-increasing audiences from far and wide with each subsequent release. No longer is Pokémon a simple game series – Pokémon means a lot to a lot of people, but despite the benefits that come from such an intense passion, so too can this become a double-edged sword.
With the 7th generation of Pokémon, the final generation to find a home on Nintendo’s 3DS family of consoles, there was a sense of dissatisfaction among fans. The formula had started to become stale, and Pokémon wasn’t as exciting as it was in its younger days. The inclusion of outdated and unnecessary mandatory tutorials, alongside excessive hand-holding, was beginning to seep through the sparkling veneer, and Pokémon was starting to show its age. Combining this with the alarmingly short interval between the initial release and the release of the enhanced edition in the form of Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon lead to many fans, myself included, feeling disappointed and disconnected from the 7th generation of games.
Fast forward to the 18th of February 2019, where the 8th generation of Pokémon is finally announced: Pokémon Sword and Shield are coming to the Nintendo Switch. The internet goes WILD. The starter Pokémon are revealed, and everyone is excited about a next-gen Pokémon experience.
But as is the case with most things, this excitement wasn’t to last. One by one, the shiny sparkling joy began to be chipped away with announcements and setbacks that plagued the shadow of Sword and Shield. The biggest hit came when it was revealed that the National Pokédex would not be returning in this entry and, worst of all, that many Pokémon would not be returning for this entry, leaving fans confused, sad and angry.
This was only the beginning, however, as Pokémon Sword and Shield found themselves the target of an unprecedented amount of negativity in the lead-up to launch. Some were more trivial issues, like a fixation over a bad-looking tree, while others were more warranted, like the controversy of “Dexit” (no… I don’t like calling it that either…). However, these all fell short of the terrible moment when the complete Galar region Pokédex was leaked in its entirety, mere weeks before launch.
Never before has the player base been split so definitively by a Pokémon game. The games have been review-bombed by players, while review sites have generally come back with relatively positive reviews. But the verdict is still out. Having just finished Pokémon Shield a few days ago, this week on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, we’ll be looking at the Pokémon Sword and Shield experience, both the good and the not so great.
This review will remain as spoiler-free as possible for those who what to play the game as fresh and uninfluenced as possible, but be warned there will be some minor story spoilers. Don’t worry, though. Pokémon may be one of my favourite series, but I won’t be holding back when I answer the question of how Pokémon Sword and Shield REALLY hold up when compared to their sister entries. With that being said, let’s jump right into it, and brace yourself – there’s going to be a LOT of Pokémon puns!!
Let’s Chatot About the Story
The story in Pokémon Sword and Shield is pretty basic and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It introduces the same tried and true formula where you take on the role of a silent protagonist on their journey to become the Galar league champion, only with a shiny new coat of paint. On the way, you will encounter the traditional evil team and unravel a villain’s plot to destroy life as we know it, all with the power of your Poké pals.
It’s nothing that we haven’t seen numerous times before in other Pokémon adventures, but it’s executed remarkably well. It’s simple yet effective and quickly gets players invested.
The Champion this time is Leon. Beautiful, charismatic and undefeated, this trainer is the final prize that awaits you at the end of your journey, and the entire game is set to build towards this climactic confrontation! Your rivals are generally fun and likeable, but what’s great in Sword and Shield is the fact every character, regardless of whether they’re a rival, a gym leader or professor, has a unique charm to them that really helps sell the overall experience and is a refreshing return to form after the more in-depth (and somewhat boring) story from Pokémon Sun and Moon!
New Gameplay Goodies
Where the Wild Pokémon Are
If you’ve seen or heard anything about Pokémon Sword and Shield, you’ll undoubtedly know that there is now an open-world area within the game, where wild Pokémon can roam – aptly named the Wild Area. This introduces a fully controllable camera for the first time in the series’ history and an environment that is subject to weather fluctuations that, in turn, dictate the Pokémon that can appear at a given time. The Wild Area is also home to the new Max Raid battles where players can battle Dynamax Pokémon alongside their friends or AI companions, with the opportunity to catch these Pokémon should you defeat them. There’s so much to be found in the wild area, in fact, that it’s very easy to get lost in the exploration and battling. It’s a tonne of fun to experience, and the free-roaming Pokemon that make a welcome return from Pokémon Let’s go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee help make the world feel more alive than any Pokémon game before.
The Wild Area is by far one of my favourite new additions in Sword and Shield thanks to the innovation and sheer amount of Pokémon you can find and discover. It’s a real pity then that when you really dive into it, the wild area is only explored twice as part of the main story, and as such it’s VERY easy to skim over this pretty incredible new addition if you’re just rushing from point A to point B. I wish the game had been integrated better into the overall narrative as, had that happened, then the Wild Area would have felt far more organically integrated into the region.
I genuinely love the Wild Area, and for any new players, I would highly recommend exploring it fully and getting your paws on some brand new Pokémon for your adventure, as there’s a lot to uncover. However, for all it does well, it does have a pretty big drawback.
The expansive wild area does put the rest of the game into a rather harsh perspective, as the game still plays host to several routes that, after experiencing freedom, feel as though the developers are locking you back away once again. The routes are visually impressive (more on that later), but they’re basically gilded hallways – think Final Fantasy XIII, but with a cuteness factor turned up to 11. Make of this what you will, but it does make an impact, for better or for worse.
It’s Time to Roggenrola with the New Gym Challenges!
The staple gyms from Pokémon games past make a return yet again, but in a brand new form that I believe is the most fun incarnation yet! This time around, the gyms have merged the puzzle-like gameplay from the Alolan trials with the more structured formula from traditional gyms.
Most of the gyms have their own special gimmick to help set them apart from one another. Some of my personal favourites are the Grass, Ghost and Ice gyms thanks to their really fun and unique challenges, but not every gym is as excellent as these. Sadly, some gyms boil down to a series of battles with no other incentive to keep them from becoming stale.
The fact remains, however, that Game Freak finally seems to have struck the right balance between fun and functional in their Pokémon gyms. The gym leaders play a role in the story that makes them feel more important than a throwaway and forgettable cast, and they work well as likeable and interesting characters in their own right, which is further complemented by their puzzles and challenges. It’s not absolutely perfect yet, but there’s a seriously solid foundation laid by Sword and Shield that hopefully can easily be built on in future entries.
The Real Staryu’s of the Show
Going back to a point I raised earlier, back when the full Pokédex was leaked, I was unlucky enough to come face to face with a large number of the leaks, and when I saw it, I initially felt… underwhelmed. I was disappointed in what I saw and even felt like some of the designs were a little unnerving. But, I didn’t want to judge the Pokémon prematurely and decided to go into the game with an open mind.
And I am so glad I did. Seeing a design in isolation is one thing. Seeing it in game is something entirely different, and Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s new Pokémon, on the whole, are incredible with some really inventive and unique designs.
I chose the adorable Grookey as my starter and didn’t regret my decision at all (and I highly recommend you getting one too!). He’s unbelievably adorable and his evolutions are really cool and deceptively powerful. As I progressed further, I came across more and more of the new Pokémon, and as I did I found myself falling in love with the Galar Pokémon and their unique charms, as well as some Pokémon from previous generations that I’d never thought much of before. It was at this moment that I finally fully understood the decision to remove the National Pokédex.
The selection on offer in Sword and Shield is a still-impressive roster of 400, filled with a diverse lineup that lets each and every Pokémon shine. When coupled with the ability that allows players to access the PC box at any time without needing to go to a Pokémon Center, this diverse pool of Pokémon promotes experimentation and led me to switch my Pokémon in and out until I found what fit, all the while coming to appreciate each Pokémon’s set of strengths and weaknesses.
Now, let’s answer the questions you really want to know about the National Dex.
Was I sad that my favourite Pokemon didn’t make the cut for this generation? Yes. Would I change Sword and Shield just to accommodate the National Dex? No way!!
The truth is that, despite the negativity surrounding the removal of the National Dex, this decision and the more modest selection of Pokémon has allowed less popular and lesser-known Pokémon to finally step into the spotlight. With a smaller selection, it’s harder for certain Pokémon to become lost in the crowd, and getting to use Pokémon I probably wouldn’t have chosen naturally resulted in many pleasant surprises and a team I was more attached to than I’ve had in many a Pokémon generation!
Visuals That’ll Make You Weepinbell (That One’s a Bit of a Stretch…)
A mainline Pokémon game has never before found a home on one of Nintendo’s home consoles. As such, with Sword and Shield being the first Pokémon games on Nintendo’s flagship console, the Nintendo Switch, there was a high expectation for this game to stand head and shoulders above what came before, visually speaking. Well, in some respects they succeded, and in others failed miserably.
When you approach Pokémon Sword and Shield, it’s immediately apparent that the character models and towns are absolutely stunning. Despite its linearity, the routes and towns have an incredible attention to detail and totally stay on theme without becoming kitsch. Ballonlea is one town in particular that really stood out during my playthrough. It isn’t the biggest or most grand of towns you visit, and definitely isn’t a town with a lot of things to do, but it totally nails the enchanted fairytale forest vibe and is one of my absolute favourites because of how unique it is within the confines of the game.
However, for all the beautiful and impressive visuals, there are the few problems that stick out like a sore thumb. The reused Pokémon models are something many players have brought up as a major issue, and honestly, while they weren’t exactly a deal-breaker for me personally, I can totally understand that seeing recycled assets from the 3DS games is a little disappointing. Worse still is the fact that, while many attack animations have been completely redone, and new attacks dazzle with flashy animations, other moves feel… cheap. Tail Whip is one of the real standout moves for all the wrong reasons, just turning the Pokémon’s booty towards the enemy and shaking it like a child shaking its teddy bear at their parent. It just feels so lazy and contrasts dreadfully with the rest of the game that plays so well, and I really hope that this issue is resolved in the next game, as it’s such a minor issue that can really impact the user experience.
I don’t want to linger on the bad, but the Wild Area is SUCH a missed opportunity. At first glance, the Wild Area seems quite visually appealing, but as soon as you take a closer look, then the illusion is shattered. Visuals are akin to what you would have expected in a game from the PS2 era. Muddy and undetailed textures are EVERYWHERE, and the trees – yes, the trees that fans were ripping into pre-release – look pretty bad. It’s far from game-breaking, but ultimately it’s a disappointing sour note to an otherwise great experience – it could have been so much better if only it had been given just a little more polish.
Turn the Music up Loudred
There’s only one thing I can say about the OST in these games – it’s mind-blowing!
The music is stunning, by far the best Pokémon soundtrack in my opinion. It’s diverse, lively and even haunting in certain tracks. The theming is unbelievably tight throughout the soundtrack, constantly switching between the relaxing tracks that blanket the more exploration heavy segments that are filled to the brim with more subtle nuances depending on the region (e.g. when it’s cold, the instrumentals reflect this) and the battle themes that are suitably hyped with a greater focus on getting the player’s blood pumping. Both Hop and Marnie’s themes do this incredibly well, with Hop’s theme, in particular, feeling reminiscent of the excellent Mirror B’s theme from Pokémon Colosseum – a personal favourite of mine!
Despite the incredibly well-executed soundtrack being an absolute dream, the standout track has to be the phenomenal gym battle theme. From the first trailer where this track was featured, it gave me shivers, but the final track is just SO much better. As the battle builds towards its climax, so too does the track build in intensity. Before you know it, the crowd is cheering along and really helps set the tone, and it just oozes intensity – seriously, it’s that good.
Pokémon Sword and Shield is a difficult one to pin down. They innovate with one hand but sadly hold back on the finer details that could have elevated them to an entirely new level. Despite this, I had an absolute blast with Pokémon Shield, and even now I’m enjoying playing the game, as it keeps drawing me back again and again.
They’re far from perfect games, but the overwhelming negativity that still muddies the waters is certainly unwarranted. I would recommend these games to fans new and old as there’s a lot on offer here that helps refresh the Pokémon formula just enough to excite a long-time fan like me that had become disillusioned with the franchise and has even ingrained this generation among my favourite Pokémon generations of all time.
Do these games redefine Pokémon as we know it? No, they don’t, and that’s OK. Instead, Game Freak has successfully recaptured the magic of Pokémon in their newest entry and explored some unique ideas that I hope they build upon in the next mainline entry.
Ultimately, this game is what you make of it. If you’re a Pokémon fan that wants to enjoy the next generation on a new console, then this game will tick all the right boxes. If you’re among those who are still upset following the removal of the National Dex, I would still recommend you try Pokémon Sword and Shield – they’re a tonne of fun and may just surprise you!
With all that being said, thanks again for joining me on this week’s trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here. If you did, that’s amazing, and please consider sharing. If you didn’t, then please get in touch and let me know why. I would love to hear your thoughts! Thank you all once again and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!