Pokemon's transition to home console is a solid one, despite stumbling blocks.
You’d think with the constant turn out of Pokémon titles that fatigue would inevitably set in, but here we are and I still look forward to them each and every year. I find battling trainers, exploring a new world and uncovering every nook and cranny is some real exciting stuff. That being said, no Pokémon games have yet to match the benchmark of the franchise that is HeartGold and SoulSilver. Not only are they top-notch remakes, but they added to the modern flavors of Pocket Monsters. The Nintendo 3DS generation was quite an enjoyable one, and I maintain that the Hoenn remakes are really great. Now we've arrived at the franchise's next destination: GameFreak's first big Pokémon RPG on a home console. While you could argue that the formula needs a change, for me this still feels like an evolution of previous iterations. Sword and Shield definitely lives up to the hype, but I would be amiss if I didn’t address some gripes with the latest instalment of this fabulous franchise.
I’ll just flat out say it: I really don’t feel that Pokémon Sword and Shield has much of a story. An argument can be made that a game about capturing pocket-sized monsters doesn't need a story, but I disagree. One of the reasons why the previous Pokémon games were so enjoyable is because of the stakes involved. Each iteration involved a big evil team, and rivals that would really push you with some other surprises along the way. Sword and Shield is a pleasant game with characters that I like, but nothing plays into the grander scheme of things. Sonia's segments where you learn about the history of Galar feel few and far between, and rival Hop mostly has one big character arc. The build up of these segments is fine, but you can see the end result coming from a distance. The legendaries on the box come in second place to a power struggle that is stopped shortly after it begins.
With that being said, what an enjoyable ride Pokémon Sword and Shield proves to be. The novel concept of traveling across a land, hopping into various towns and collecting Pokémon is still fun as ever. From very early on, you start collecting monsters and can have a full party even before receiving the Pokédex. That is what really helped me to stay engaged as new monsters are thrown in at regular intervals. In fact, I would argue that the first seven hours contains the majority of the Pokémon that remain in your party. After a quick opener, you are quickly thrown into the Wild Area, which gives you access to various Pokémon types and attacks that you end up using later.
Speaking of the Wild Area, that is likely the biggest new selling point in Pokémon Sword and Shield. It’s a widespread area, allowing you to pick up creatures in ever changing weather conditions. At every chance, I would hop in and ride my bike around to see what new monsters would appear. The Pokémon come in three flavors, with each more neat than the last. The regular wild Pokémon that roam the overworld and walk around in the grass are receptive to your movement, making it easier to see what monsters are available to catch. Other Pokémon appear on the roads and are mostly evolved forms of monsters you can find elsewhere. These are extra powerful, and might be very much above your current level. I got a Monster Hunter vibe from these, and I regularly had to decide if fighting them is the best idea.
My favorite new inclusion are the Max Raid Battles. By going in alone or fighting with up to three friends, players battle an enlarged Pokémon that is ''Dynamaxed''. The creature is an incredibly enlarged version of itself and every attack in their arsenal is massively more powerful. Luckily, one player can Dynamax their own Pokémon as well, allowing you to fight fire with fire. By combining both offensive and defensive moves across the board, you can down and catch a monster with a unique moveset that wouldn't be available otherwise. While connected online, random players or friends can freely join these raids, making for stellar moments in the process. In addition, you get access to rare items like one usage Technical Machines to teach your pals new moves.
Speaking of Dynamaxing Pokémon, this comes into play in another factor of the game, namely the Gym Challenges. At first glance it may seem like going back to the old gym format comes off as very stationary, but new challenges succeed in keeping the format feeling fresh. Similar to Pokémon Sun and Moon, not one gym feels exactly the same, and each offers a unique set-up with battles in between. In one moment, you might be moving around in a teacup while another challenge focuses on your Pokémon catching skills. After the initial challenges, you are presented with a battle inside a large stadium, filled with swaths of adoring fans. The stadium battles include the option to Dynamax your Pokémon for three turns, adding another layer of strategy to the competition. These battles are so incredibly entertaining, and really made the journey of playing through Sword and Shield worth it. Unlike Mega Pokémon and Z-Moves, they add an extra dimension to the battle flow.
Prior to release, the debate of how many Pokémon were to be included irked many people the wrong way. While I empathize with losing a Pokémon you personally desire, I have zero problems with the monsters they decided to include. Game Freak did a fantastic job of striking the right balance of including creatures you could potentially need. It’s evenly spread between a variety of types, allowing you to make a team that can hang with the best. Including Galarian forms, Sword and Shield offer 94 new Pokémon and 400 creatures in total. The early routes give you instant access to a brand new team, which I honestly preferred during my first run. In my second run, I relied on a combination of old and new, which still make for a diverse team. I adore the new starters and their evolutions, with each getting moves unique to their lineage.
The overall difficulty of Sword and Shield is very palpable. While there is some challenge depending on how you handle battles and challenges, the game is just overall very pleasant. Sword and Shield keeps the leveling of your Pokémon in check with the Experience Share permanently activated. While some will miss the days of grinding your Pocket Monsters to absolute perfection, it made it easier for me to just enjoy the ride. None of the game felt particularly challenging, but due to the changes made I was more inclined to stay excited. The Galar region's routes and locations have a really great atmosphere to them, and the arena styled battles add to the overall stakes in the Gym challenges.
The biggest moments of joy in the latest Pokémon title comes from the little things, like interacting with the monsters in Pokémon Camp. I felt more of a connection with my squad after playing with them or cooking a delicious curry for my team. While it isn't as in depth as Pokémon Amie, its usage felt far more effective and fun. The Wild Area opens up more as you progress through the game, so seeing the other side of the water streams made me instantly excited. Some really cool monsters and items await for you on the other side. That being said, I can't truly recommend playing the game twice. While the differences in Pokémon and Gyms between versions is fine, they aren’t as different as you may think. The Gym Challenges are exactly the same, with the only differences being in the trainers that you will face. Look at the Pokémon available, and decide on that front. One has unicorn, the other knightley duck. Take your pick.
Pokémon Sword and Shield looks quite nice on the Nintendo Switch. I wouldn't call it the best on the platform, but it is a big step up from Game Freak's previous work. The environments are larger and more pleasing to explore, and the character models are really nice with colors that really pop. Regardless of whether on the television or in handheld, entering new areas is very exciting. That being said, the Wild Area becomes sluggish when you connect to the internet. Once players begin roaming about and populate your game, it weirdly becomes janky and isn't as smooth as usual. The Y-communication system has no problem keeping up, but the many players make the Wild Area way less impressive. The music is the usual, terrific work that’s expected from the developers. I absolutely adore Hop's theme, and whenever I enter a battle with the guy, I get pumped all over again. It is that good.
Overall, Pokémon Sword and Shield is yet another entertaining Pokémon game. The story is way less impactful than in the last couple of games but the adjusted tempo made it more fun to progress. The experience went quickly travelling from gym to gym, which is fun but didn't leave enough time to give Galar more character. That’s a shame, because as a location, I really enjoy what this region has to offer. The Wild Area in particular is fun, though I mostly stayed offline due to it slowing down ever so often. What the new Pokémon does right is battling and in the smaller details. There are many little tweaks that keep the experience lighthearted, which I wouldn't have any other way.