Pokémon Sword & Shield (NS) - ReviewStephen LaGioia , posted on 15 December 2019 / 4,465 Views
There’s an odd duality when comes to Game Freak’s latest rendition of the beloved Pokémon RPGs. On the one hand, it's pretty awesome experiencing a full-blooded Pokémon adventure for the first time in a 3D space, in the colorful new Galar Region, and with a myriad of cool new Pokémon and the superior online capabilities of the Switch. You’ve also got some neat added features that spruce up and enhance the somewhat aged feel of prior mainline entries.
Some of these neat new features include the open-world “Wild Areas,” the epic, massive Dynamax Pokémon, the welcomed end of random encounters, interactable camping/cooking, and a slew of colorful new monsters to seek out. You’ve also got a more streamlined system of connecting/communicating with other Pokémasters-in-the-making through exciting face-offs, trades, and rewarding Pokémon Go-esque “Max Raid Battles." The latter can land you a list of goodies and allow you to catch these high-powered monsters.
And yet, given the high standards of this renowned RPG franchise, and the fact that this is the first home-console version of a mainline Pokémon game, Sword & Shield feels a bit underwhelming in a few areas. This is thanks in part to the smattering of odd limitations - like the restrictions on what you can catch before beating gym leaders, recycled Pokémon models, and the absence of over half the total monsters introduced to this point. So while I did get much of that familiar, rewarding feeling of catching and fighting monsters during my Sword & Shield stint, the overall result felt more akin to a marginal evolutionary step rather than an all-out revolutionary one.
The game’s highlights tend to be centered around the new Wild Areas, which take on the vibe of a more grandiose, Western-inspired RPG. You can roam sprawling fields, catch Pokémon ranging greatly in power and level, and take part in Max Raid battles of varying difficulties. These epic fights usually proved exciting, especially when teaming up with actual players that conglomerate in the designated locations. It definitely takes on more of a Pokémon Go vibe, coupled with the more elaborate mechanics and features we’ve known from past mainline entries. You’ll even be dealing with dynamic weather conditions in the Wild Areas, like snow and thunderstorms, which can alter the conditions of battles and vary which monsters make appearances. These are the primary areas where Sword & Shield does feel closer to a true revolutionary leap in the series.
Still, these portions unfortunately only make up one part of your Sword/Shield journey. They’re intermixed with the more typical, restrictive linear paths sprinkled with trainers raring to engage in battles - and chattering with mostly pointless dialogue. In fact, much of the dialogue is bland and uninspiring, as is much of the fairly stock narrative, at least until things pick up near the end. It doesn't help matters that your somewhat bothersome rival frequently interrupts you to battle or engage in mundane chats. Still, we don’t tend to play any Pokémon game for its plot or dynamic characters. Let's get back to the key element - the gameplay.
Outside of the glitzier presentation and the satisfying Dynamax power-ups, battles are fairly consistent with what you’d expect from the previous games. You’ve got the same turn-based fights, whose tactics largely revolve around countering your opponent’s elemental types with their weaknesses. These strengths/weaknesses are displayed on-screen in a convenient - albeit somewhat overly-simple - fashion. Indeed, between aspects like augmentative items you can hold, automatic XP distribution, and displayed elemental counters, the gameplay of Sword & Shield can feel a tad too easy at times. Just doing a bit of extra grinding and exploiting element match-ups allowed me to coast by with few Pokémon being defeated during my journey, even at some of the gym battles.
Speaking of gym battles - these do usually make for some fun and exciting romps, as you’ll be clashing with a slew of higher-level monsters from a number of trainers and nabbing badges. As part of some amusing added flair, you’ll also be completing random challenges such as wrangling a horde of rolling Wooloo in order to gain entry to the next part of the arena. These fun little events, coupled with the build-up and spectacle leading up to the final battle, makes for a fun sort of “end game” goal to shoot for throughout your quest. While the absence of hundreds of older Pokémon is disappointing, it’s still an entertaining, satisfying experience to venture out and stumble upon the array of over 400 unique monsters to collect. There are still a ton of amusing Pokémon to discover, capture, and battle, especially for those who are revisiting this classic series for the first time after multiple generations.
Your Sword & Shield journey has been made more streamlined and easy to get into - particularly by way of Game Freak’s wise exclusion of random encounters. You'll now be able to see the vast array of Pokémon that roam the areas of Galar in real-time. In a clever little compromise, though, you can still clash with random monsters whose identity reveals itself at the start of a battle by walking into exclamation marks that pop-up on-screen. You’ve also got a clean, organized map system which clearly displays your destination as well as points of interest, and can fast-travel to visited spots by way of the handy Flying Taxi. There are easily-accessible bikes for both land and water travel, which can further help you get around swiftly and conveniently. Features like the ability to swap Pokémon to and from boxes on the fly, and the seamless Y-Comm feature which allows you to jump into a quick trade or link battle further enhance and ease the experience.
Sword & Shield also contains a smattering of dungeons (really more like caverns) which provide some cool environmental backdrops and light puzzles that are fun to work through without feeling overwhelming. These are the moments where the more linear portions of the game tend to shine, despite their relatively simplistic layout and small size. Still, it certainly would have been nice to have seen more vast, open-ended dungeons in the vein of the Wild Areas. While rare, these dungeons tend to drip with a bit more character, along with some of the vibrant towns. That’s not to say the typical outdoor areas of the Galar region - largely modeled off of the UK - don’t hold areas of intrigue, but there do tend to be moments of blandness and emptiness when just trekking through "Routes."
The game’s aesthetics and overall presentation is similarly a mixed bag. While it’s awesome experiencing Pokémon in all its colorful, crisp, semi-3D glory, there are moments where the textures, animations, and models don’t quite measure up. Game Freak’s decision to recycle various models from their older games is one that’s been criticized, and for good reason. Still, the game usually proves at least competent on a technical level, and sometimes even quite gorgeous and smooth. It can be an enthralling experience to gaze upon the open fields of the Wild Area as you cross the Route 5 Bridge, or notice the towering gym in the distance as you trek towards it, especially on the big screen. Still, it doesn’t quite rise to the sky-high standards set by a similar modern JRPG like Dragon Quest XI, which is several months older.
While there are certainly moments that dazzle, and over two-dozen hours of joyful fun to be had here, Pokémon Sword & Shield feels fairly standard and lukewarm. This is a bummer being the first home console game of its kind (not counting Pokémon: Let's Go). In fairness, the new features like the open-world portions and Max Raid battles certainly do well to inject some life. However, the overall experience can feel a bit segmented, and it perhaps would have been nicer to have seen the whole game take the open-world approach, rather than this oscillation of old and new - a quality which also extends to the presentation.
Those revisiting the franchise after several years are in for an epic ride and a familiar but sleeker brand of Pokémon, complete with smoother, more modern sensibilities. Still, those coming directly off the enchanting journey that was Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon might find this to be a more tepid adventure that only sometimes manages to live up to its Dynamax-sized hype.
This review is based on a retail copy of Pokémon Shield for the NS