[REVIEW] Pokémon Sword and Shield Improve Franchise, But Leave a Lot to be Desired

Let’s get things straight: Pokémon Sword and Shield are fun games. It is an elevated Pokémon experience in many ways and I would go through some of my days excited to see what new Raid Battle I’d encounter. Yet, let’s also get things straight: I’d describe my experience as disappointing. It felt that it missed out (or left out) several things that define the Pokémon series.

And there’s the great conundrum of Sword and Shield: how could a Pokémon game be good and bad because it both is and failed to be fundamentally Pokémon?

To be fair to the game, there were several things that it did right to innovate on the well-worn formula:

  • Quality of life changes like quick access to “Fly,” permanent escape rope, access to your box of Pokémon anywhere, labels marking how effective moves are, “judge” mode to view the IVs of stats, etc. removed some of the unnecessary hassle of playing Pokémon games.
  • The Wild Area introduced trainers to an open world environment, a first for main series Pokémon games. Players could wander the Wild Area in any way one wanted, capture Pokémon and Pokémon types (fire, grass, water, etc.) they typically wouldn’t until a later stage.
  • Dynamaxing/Gigatamaxing offered an exciting new way to battle. These definitely were the highlight of the Gym Battles and added a weight to the battles that they never had before.

Even a Pidove looks menacing in a Raid Battle!

  • Raid Battles in the Wild Area utilized Dynamaxing, as well as team play, in a unique way. It wasn’t always perfect – when I’m paired up with CPUs who only raise their own stats instead of attacking – but it did bring a challenge (albeit optional) often missing in Pokémon games.
  • The music was often spectacular. My favorite is probably the Gym Theme, which crescendos as the Gym Leader brings out their final Pokémon.

The Gym Challenge and build up added much needed atmosphere to the Pokémon series.

  • For the most part, random encounters are gone! Rather than fighting 10 level 2 Rattatas just to make it to the first town, you can see which Pokémon are in the route/area ahead of time. There are still “random” encounters, but you trigger by walking into exclamation marks that appear in the grass.
  • I appreciated some of the new Pokémon designs. The Hatenna/Hattrem/Hatterene line could compete with the Ralts/Kirlia/Gardevoir line for best Psychic/Fairy, Galarian Ponyta and Farfetch’d are awesome, and Dragapult/Duraludon continue the Pokémon tradition of powerful and well-designed Dragon Pokémon. I will admit, though, that Galarian Meowth is not my favorite.

Sobble was my starter Pokemon and I think the later evolutions also look pretty great!

  • Character customization is probably the most extensive it has been in the series. Not only can you pick skin, hair, and eye color, but you also put on an assortment of different shirts, pants, hats, bags, gloves, and more. There’s even a Trainer Card to truly show off your personality.

All that said, much of what Sword and Shield had to offer felt like one step forward, one (or even two) steps back. Truly, it felt like the game wanted to do interesting things, but could never commit to or think through what it wanted to do. Thus, gamers end up with a product that feels hollow in many ways. For example:

  • Always-on EXP Share and EXP gained when catching Pokémon means your party with be incredibly over leveled, even without any grinding. This results in absurdly easy gameplay and no sense of accomplishment. Defeating Red at the top of Mt. Silver or even Whitney’s Miltank felt satisfying; beating undefeated champion Leon did not.
  • Pokémon animations are incredibly lacking. While some show creativity and effort – Cinderace’s Pyro Ball or Zacian’s Behemoth Blade come to mind – most are dry. The aforementioned two highlighted unique aspects of the Pokémon or the move whereas most moves are copy-paste from one Pokémon to another. While individually animating every move may be a big ask of the Game Freak, at least creating a system of animation that is more dynamic, more specific to the move would be appreciated. Lunge, for example, turning Pokémon to a green ball isn’t creative and really not indicative of the move itself.
  • The overworld does not look that great. Definitely a step up from previous main line Pokémon games, Sword and Shield still are lacking in the graphics department. Pokkén Tournament DX looks several times better than Sword and Shield, even as Sword and Shield were specifically made for Nintendo’s newest console.

The overworld looks better than it has before, but could definitely be better.

  • Not only does the overworld lack polish, there isn’t much to do in it. The Wild Area is certainly nice, but the routes were so short. Especially when compared with the Wild Area, the routes between towns felt empty.
  • The story is non-existent. While something does go on behind the scenes, you as the player are not allowed to know about it until the very end when you’re asked to save Galar from “The Darkest Day.” With no build up, no development, no plot in general, this “lore” felt empty and failed to convince me as the player that I was integral to this moment. While I’m not the biggest fan of each new Pokémon game thrusting the character into a “save-the-world” moment, this one could have been foreshadowed better.
  • The Gym Challenges didn’t feel as challenging as they were made out to be. At least battling in a stadium felt invigorating.

Some of the animations really helped build ambiance, but then the Gym Challenges didn’t always match that hype.

  • Truly no post-game. I did appreciate how the world does change a little after you become Champion – Nurse Joy saying “Hey Champion!” was a nice touch of world building – but after about a 2 hour Dynamax boss rush, the post-game ends.
  • A lot of Pokémon were cut from the game, being the first in the series to not include all currently available Pokémon.

This gaming generation for Nintendo has been about innovating; while the Switch revolutionized what a home console could be, major first-party games have been working hard to redefine themselves as well. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild completely radicalized the series, turning a fairly linear, dungeon-oriented series into a completely open world experience. Super Mario Odyssey added Cappy, vastly upgrading how one moved in a 3D Mario Game. Fire Emblem: Three Houses not only gave players multiple different playthrough experiences, but also fleshed out “My Castle,” creating opportunities for deeper connections with the large cast of characters.

Pokémon Sword and Shield, on the other hand, stuck to its traditional roots. The Wild Area may be a unique addition, but it doesn’t change the fundamental game experience; players still level up Pokémon to fight turn-based battles, earning gym badges along the way to ultimately become the Pokémon champion.

While fun, the Pokémon series missed their chance to truly innovate. Why weren’t all routes like the Wild Area? Why are we still stuck to turn-based battles instead of more a Pokkén Tournament DX-esque fighting experience? Why is the story still so empty? Why is it so easy for players to just pick the highest attack move to win?

As I’ve said, Sword and Shield are fun games. But they are fun because of the legacy, nostalgia, and expectations that come with any Pokémon series game. The Pokémon Company has a formula that works and based on this game, are not interested in changing it.

But I hope they do. Here’s to hoping the Pokémon Company listens to its fans rather than sales numbers and creates a Pokémon game that truly breaks expectations.

At least, it should be fun. Not just because it’s fundamentally Pokémon. But because it tries something new, tries to be something different for the first time since Pokémon Red/Blue. 

My rating: 7.1

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