Let me start off by saying that this is not a review of Pokemon Sword/Shield. I certainly have some thoughts about the game that I’m going to share, but I won’t call it a ‘review.’ I made the decision not to do reviews on this platform, mainly because I’m not an expert, reviews are subjective, and I’ve never been comfortable assigning a numerical value to my experience with something.
Maybe I’ve just been put off by the book industry, but I find it really hard to come up with a system that can adequately capture my feelings about a movie, game or book. Instead, I prefer to have open discussions and talk about what I liked or what I didn’t like. I’ve been anticipating this game since it was first announced, and as the first core title on the Switch, I had some high expectations.
I mentioned in my Galar Dex wishlist that I’m a huge fan of Pokemon, and I’ve been playing the games since they were first released. And as much as I loved the games, the 5th generation (Black/White) left me really uncertain about the franchise. The game came out in 2010, and while Game Freak had obviously perfected the 2-D pixelated Pokemon experience and tried to introduce a deeper plot and characters, I wanted something new. It always felt the same, and it always looked kind of the same too. Beautiful, don’t get me wrong. I have an incredible appreciation for pixel art. But it felt…repetitive.
Even though X and Y had me excited, it was still the same concept, with a fresh coat of paint. It didn’t grab me the way I thought it would. But then Sun and Moon came out, and I was hooked again. They changed up the world map and the gym system, introduced regional forms and upgraded the graphics even more. It remains one of my favourite 3DS games.
Maybe that’s why I’m so willing to forgive some of the drawbacks of Sword & Shield. It’s the first main title on the Switch, and it’s pretty clear they’re trying to give the Pokemon franchise a serious refresh.
A ‘Refined’ Pokedex
Unfortunately, big changes don’t come without growing pains. With this new instalment there have also been a few controversial choices, the biggest of which being the number of pokemon in the game. After Sun/Moon we broke 800 pokemon, which is a ridiculously high number of collectable critters, and with Sword/Shield that number would only increase even more. I was one of many who weren’t too thrilled at this announcement, but I understand why they did it.
A little backstory, in case you didn’t know, in previous pokemon games there would be a ‘regional pokedex’ and the actual pokemon that were available would be limited to around 300 or so. Once you beat the pokemon league, however, it usually opened up the national dex, which allowed you to trade pokemon from previous games and allowed you to use and of hundreds of pokemon from any previous games. But Sword and Shield removed that concept completely. There is only a regional dex, which is larger than normal, but even after completing the game, you can’t use pokemon that aren’t in the Galar pokedex.
Once you play the game you realize why they might have pulled back on the number of Pokemon – they’re making some pretty substantial changes to the battle system. They’ve changed moves, abilities, and methods of evolution. For one, many Pokemon now have a species exclusive move. They’ve abandoned Mega Evolution in favour of the new Dynamax system.
It’s clear they’re trying to change what the Pokemon games have always been, and there’s going to be resistance. Not everyone has grown as bored with the Pokemon games as I had in recent years – remember how everyone panicked when Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee were released? Some people worried that they would be abandoning the classic system in favour of something that was easier to get into.
And I think they’re still trying to do that, and Sword/Shield are that happy medium between a classic Pokemon game and a more newbie-friendly experience. Am I happy that some of my favourites aren’t useable in the new game? No, of course not. But I’m glad their trying to give a refreshing take on a franchise that is 20 years old at this point. Games are different now, and the culture around it is different now. The Pokemon series is adapting, whether we want it to or not.
But enough about the controversial changes – time to talk about what I liked, and what I didn’t.
What I Enjoyed
The Wild Area
I absolutely love open-world games. I love exploring, I love finding hidden treasure and those obscure bits of lore. The wild area was what excited me the most about Sword/Shield, and as soon I hit that point in the game I spent hours wandering around, dodging the powerful Pokemon and hunting in the grass. I went back every time I beat a gym to see what new Pokemon I could catch, and it’s exciting to see which Pokemon appear every day.
The Gym Battles
One issue I had with previous games, and that I felt Sun/Moon tried to improve upon is the gym battle system. They were getting stale, let’s be honest. They felt more like hurdles to overcome to get to the rest of the game rather than something you were excited to do. The atmosphere around gym battles now actually makes them feel significant. The massive crowds, the cheering – they’re exciting and I actually look forward to the gym battles now. Also, the Dynamax element is way more fun than it first appeared.
I wasn’t sure about these at first, but they’ve turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the game. They’re a lot of fun and the higher tiers are surprisingly challenging without some non-AI help. I look forward to booting up my game each day to see which raids are available, though I do wish there were more gigantamax versions out there – it would definitely make it more exciting. I can only hope that they patch some in as time goes on.
I love the interactions you have with your Pokemon – I like that they aren’t just collectable pit fighters that I capture and throw out to battle others of their kind. It makes me that much more invested in my team. And it’s cute! It’s great to be able to set up camp anywhere, make some curry to heal up my team, and get back out into the wild area for some Pokemon hunting and raid battles. I don’t have to worry about finding a Pokemon center, and they get some experience, so it’s rewarding as well!
What I Didn’t Enjoy
Despite having an open area that gives you the impression of an ‘open world’, it’s actually a really linear experience, with areas and routes being very obviously blocked off. This is par for the course with a Pokemon game, but I can’t help but wonder why they included the wild area in the first place if they weren’t trying to create the sort of open-world Pokemon experience that some fans (read: me) have always dreamed of. It’s a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. I kind of hoped for something like Breath of the Wild, where the towns were in the open world, and not connected by those tried and true routes. Not a bad thing, per se, but I was looking for something a bit less linear.
The Online Experience is Frame Rate Hell
Again, this is the first core title for the Switch, and the first Pokemon game to use the Nintendo Online experience. I’ll forgive it some issues, and for the most part, it does work really well. But when you’re in the wild area, there is such an obvious frame drop it reminds me of when I tried to play MMOs with crappy internet. It’s choppy, and honestly a little frustrating, especially when people and pokemon randomly pop in and out of the screen. Kinda ruins the point of having an immersive ‘open world’ where you play with friends.
My internet is not the greatest, but it’s definitely not bottom tier, so I know it’s not an internet issue. Additionally, I don’t really play the game docked – I like my Pokemon handheld, so I’m not sure how much having it docked helps with those sorts of issues, but it’s not a very smooth playing experience. I only go online when I’m actively looking to raid, and that’s a little unfortunate. It’s cool seeing other trainers running around the world, but they very quickly vanish and then you never see them again.
It’s not perfect, and I’m sad we don’t get to play with all 900 Pokemon. But I’m really enjoying this game. I don’t know if it can dethrone my favourite: Pokemon Moon, but it’s up there, and it’s a whole lot of fun. More than that, I’m excited to see what future Pokemon games are going to look like. Despite the dumpster fire that is the Pokemon fan base right now, I’m glad Game Freak is still trying to innovate a 20-year old franchise.
Did you play Pokemon Sword/Shield? What are your thoughts on the new game? Did you like? Did you hate? Do you miss the other half of the Pokedex? Let’s chat in the comments!