Very few things in life can make me as happy as a great Pokemon RPG, and Sword and Shield repeatedly left me in a state of pure, child-like joy. The elated surprise of not knowing what’s coming is something this series does extremely well if you can manage to play it relatively unspoiled (fear not, this review won’t deprive you of that), and I’m glad that sense of wonder is still alive and kicking in Sword and Shield. With every new game in this 23-year-old series, changes big and small are always made, but I’ve never been willing to declare the latest entry the new gold standard for Pokemon because they’ve consistently been a balance of better and worse. But the first mainline game on the Switch has changed that: though there is still no “perfect Pokemon game,” the 40-plus hours I’ve spent with Sword and Shield have left me comfortable with calling them the best Pokemon games I have ever played – and I’ve played ‘em all.
Experiencing the avalanche of improvements made me realize just how complacent I’d become with Pokemon mechanics that were, in hindsight, less than ideal. While this series has always been great about introducing new players with thorough tutorials, it seems crazy that experienced players have never been able to skip them until now. Just tell the NPC you know what’s up and they’ll get out of the way and let you get down to the business of catching and training – you can even catch Pokemon without being told how, and doing so automatically skips the tutorial. Likewise, travel across the map has been made fast and convenient, and even connecting with other people is as simple as pressing the Y button. And perhaps most overdue of all, Sword and Shield have killed the sacred cow of the traditional random encounters that have all too often made exploring feel like a slog. All throughout, Sword and Shield feels like it respects your time.
Sword and Shield manage to fix all of these problems while leaving Pokemon’s signature charm not just intact, but enhanced by the Switch’s huge graphical leap over the 3DS. I never want to go back.
Early Stance Change
Sword and Shield are extremely familiar and comfortable thanks to a pretty traditional setup: you pick one of three starter Pokemon and then head off across the Galar region to capture and train more, defeat eight unique and exciting gym challenges, and become a Pokemon master over the course of about 40 hours. As always, the deep turn-based combat benefits from the crazy variety of these elemental Pokemon, from their vastly different and shamelessly bizarre appearances to the huge selection of moves they learn to the stats they inherently have. It’s just as wholesome and accessible as ever during the campaign, but hidden stat mechanics and a “secret” end-game of breeding and battling perfect Pokemon give those of us who want to get hardcore with it nearly limitless depth to explore. That’s a difficult balancing act Pokemon has been largely great at handling.
[Note: Here’s how long it took to beat Pokemon Sword and Shield – three players give their experiences.]
All of this is the same old song and dance we’ve seen for the past 23 years, but Sword and Shield roll out some immediate, noticeable changes that make the whole thing just… better. It starts with basic stuff; you can finally skip tutorials if you know what’s up. And you can even start catching Pokemon before being taught how.
While previous generations already made the excellent decision to remove HMs, the systems that replaced them have been improved even more here. I thought I’d miss Sun and Moon’s rideable Pokemon when it came to getting around the map, but Sword and Shield’s Rotom Bike and Corviknight Taxi service are so quick, easy, and seamless that they leave the old system in their dust. The Rotom Bike works across both land and water automatically, and the fast-travel system (a giant, scary bird taxi) is unlocked right after the first gym. Using it is as easy as checking the map and choosing a point to go to, with no drawn-out animation involved – your destination is just a brief loading screen away. Plus, there are many more travel points to choose from than usual, as there are multiple Pokemon Centers in larger towns and spots to travel to, both in the middle of routes and the new open-world-ish Wild Area. Backtracking is a breeze.
All of these quality-of-life improvements, though fantastic, barely hold a candle to the game-changing new approach to wild Pokemon encounters. Traditional random encounters are gone, replaced by Pokemon who are actually visible and inhabiting the overworld as they do in Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee – something I’ve wanted in a major Pokemon game for what feels like a decade. (Oh, wait, it has been a decade.) If you don’t touch them, you don’t fight them; simple as that. No longer is every walk across the map like putting on a blindfold and taking a stroll through a minefield.
Of course, if you crave the thrill of a random encounter, an exclamation point will occasionally appear in the grass and present you with the option to initiate a surprise battle. Some Pokemon can only appear in this kind of encounter, so there’s still an incentive to roll the dice every so often. But the ability to pass them by if I wasn’t interested at the moment made getting through areas, exploring, and back-tracking significantly more fun and rewarding. I will not miss the unpredictable punishments in the form of a neverending assault of Zubat.
Speaking of Zubat, there is no theoretical “Zubat problem,” per se, in Pokemon Sword
Even without going out of my way to seek out everything available, by Route 2 (one of the very first areas in Pokemon Sword and Shield) there were already plenty of Pokemon to encounter, brand-new unrevealed ones and returning faces alike. By the first gym, I was already having a hard time choosing between all of my exciting options. This is usually never a problem for me, but it’s one I’m happy to have now. Let me emphasize, too, that I really love a majority of the new Pokemon, even when some of them elicit this sort of reaction:
Big Areas, Bigger Pokemon
A big reason for all this choice is the incredibly early introduction of the awesome new Wild Area, which also opens up within the first two hours. It’s a large, open space enclosed by steep cliffs and peppered with groves of trees, lakes, and tiny islands. It’s a little visually bland, but there are some (decorative) ruins to be found and, deeper within, a sandy area with huge rocks. And I was immediately struck by the fact that, for the first time ever in a Pokemon game, the camera here can be freely controlled with the right joystick. That may seem like a ridiculously basic thing to praise in a 2019 video game, but the freedom it offers really is that exciting for long-time players like myself. It’s something I’d like to see in the entirety of the next Pokemon game.
The real draw of the Wild Area is its great variety, which is created by the fact that the weather of each of its microregions differs and changes daily, along with the Pokemon that inhabit them. For example, it may be rainy in the Rolling Fields, but snowy in the Dappled Grove right beside it. The extra-strong, over-leveled Pokemon wandering between and above tall grass patches are usually the most interesting – like a huge Snorlax on the other side of a bridge, or a Gyarados in a lake – but these are sometimes so high-level you can’t even catch them, since Gym Badges now determine that cap instead of geographical barriers like in previous games. I once found a level 25 Onix when my team was only around level seven and felt a little robbed. So, I found myself avoiding these Pokemon until I’d earned enough badges, but there were still plenty of cool, catchable finds in the grass – like Gastly, Electrike, and Machop, to name a few.
Berry Trees and useful items also respawn randomly each day, along with the new weather and Pokemon. These items, marked by sparkles on the ground, are really useful: they include rare evolutionary items, treasure that can be sold for high prices, curry ingredients, and more. There are even NPCs with a cycling selection of goodies to sell and new Max Raid Battles that pit four trainers against one giant opponent, of which there are multiple new ones each day.
All of this flux and dynamic change made me want to revisit the Wild Area often, with each new day and after every new Gym Badge I earned. This natural, voluntary urge to dive back in also meant I seamlessly leveled up appropriately on accident, not because I went out of my way to grind. It gave progression through Sword and Shield a more balanced and smooth feeling than most Pokemon games.
The Wild Area takes excessive grinding out of the equation in another way, too: the introduction of Exp. Candy. These items grant – you guessed it – experience points to the Pokemon they’re fed to, and range in sizes from XS to XL. They aren’t too uncommon, either: NPCs in the Wild Area will hand some over occasionally for Watts, the Wild Area’s currency, and they’re earned each time you win a Max Raid Battle. This made experimenting with my team so, so much easier. It’s the type of flexibility I’ve never had in previous Pokemon games, because getting low-leveled Pokemon up to par with a high-leveled team was always such a time-consuming chore. Sun and Moon had the Poke Pelago, but that still took a lot of waiting. Exp. Candies gave me the satisfaction of being able to try out a new Pokemon right now, which let me change up my team with an excitingly unexpected frequency without feeling like I was sacrificing something else to do so (except some effort values). And if I didn’t like the new team member? I could just feed Exp. Candy to the Pokemon I benched and get it caught up again.
This exact scenario occurred when I caught a Pokemon I had never seen before in a Max Raid Battle. It was only level 25, compared to my team’s current 45, which isn’t a small gap. For a moment I dreaded the thought of grinding to get it to the point it’d actually be useful, but then I remembered the Exp. Candies and brought it up to speed in moments. It was able to start pulling its weight just a few battles later, and remained on my team through the very end of the campaign.
Max Raid Battles were neat little optional sidebars to my adventure, and I always looked forward to seeing what new battles awaited me each time I visited the Wild Area. Raids are categorized with a one- to five-star difficulty rating (or more – five is the highest I’ve seen so far), and those four- and five-star Max Raid Battles can be genuinely challenging. Thankfully, you can retry Max Raid Battles, so if I failed the first time (and I have), I could reformulate my approach for the next attempt.
One raid against a Lanturn required me to use a Rhyhorn’s Lightning Rod Ability (yes, I know Manectric would have been better, but I didn’t have one at the moment) to protect my team members from the Lanturn’s Electric-type attacks. In Max Raid Battles, you have to do enough damage to knock out the raid boss in 10 turns, but also only have four faints total between all four Pokemon on your team before you’re knocked out of the battle entirely. This is also why, for this particular battle, I used a Focus Sash to protect my Rhyhorn from the one-hit-KO that was sure to happen with Lanturn’s super powerful Water-type attacks and special abilities. Dynamax Raid Bosses can put up damage barriers, negate stat changes, and sometimes even attack multiple times in a row, forcing you to really prepare for each fight.
Frustratingly, I sometimes realized I was simply ill-equipped for a particular challenge – whether I wasn’t a high enough level or I didn’t have the right Pokemon, I occasionally encountered Max Raid Battles I simply couldn’t beat. It’s annoying in the moment, but does create a great incentive to continue leveling up a variety of Pokemon.
Since I couldn’t link up with others online like you’ll be able to after release, my Raid parties usually included me, one local friend, and two NPCs. These NPCs were randomly chosen each new battle, which means sometimes they’re entirely useless and other times come in pretty clutch. Unfortunately, what you’ll get is unpredictable, but I look forward to connecting and coordinating with other real people once the servers are live.
It’s Better Together
While I can’t speak for the online functionality, connecting locally is easy and intuitive. It’s comparable to X and Y’s Player Search System, but maybe even better (it’s been a while, y’all). The Y-Comm, used for linking up with other trainers, earned its name because bringing up its menu is as simple as pressing the Y button. From here, you can broadcast a request to battle Pokemon, trade Pokemon or League Cards, or search for a Surprise Trade (similar to previous gen’s Wonder Trade.)
You can go about your business after putting the request out in the aether and will be automatically linked once someone else puts the same request up. Notifications of local player’s activities and requests will appear as “Stamps” in the lower left of the screen as you play, too, so you’ll always know if someone is looking for a trade, battle, or Max Raid Battle partner – which you can then respond to with the Y-Comm. You can do any of these activities from anywhere in the world, too, not just the Wild Area.
However, in the Wild Area you can actually see other nearby players in your game, which is pretty damn cool – but unfortunately, there is a lot of latency and connectivity is pretty limited. Interacting with another player you see in your game only nets you a free item – if you want to trade or battle, you’ll still have to use the trusty Y-Comm. I assume this will work the same way online because of the “Connect to the Internet” option in the Y-Comm, but can’t confirm that yet. Online functionality being down also prevented me from checking the Wild Area Forecast… whatever that is.
Challenging the Galar Region (In Style)
I had plenty of fun just progressing through the world of Galar outside the Wild Area. Though the routes aren’t quite large or expansive enough to get lost in (that’s what we have the Wild Area for!) its United Kingdom inspiration is evident from the architecture of the buildings and bridges, and even the geoglyphs etched into the hillsides. While exploring, you can see towns and other points of interest far in the distance, and sometimes there are buildings and spectacles speckled into the backdrop just to make the world feel more fleshed out. I always found myself stopping when crossing bridges to appreciate the landscapes in the background. I wish I could talk specifically about my favorite town and the area leading up to it, but just know some of them are just so delightful and unique to explore with memorable scenery and music to go with it.
Battle music, on the other hand, isn’t very memorable at all. The gym theme doesn’t feel tense enough, though to its credit it is dynamic. When your opponent is down to their final Pokemon, the music changes to include a melody carried out by the fans shouting from the bleachers. The transition is reminiscent of an EDM drop, but it lacks the weight and satisfaction that usually comes after it. Some of Pokemon’s old music are the most memorable tunes in gaming history, and it’s disappointing gen 8’s doesn’t live up to those standards.
The gyms, music notwithstanding, are delightful hybrids of challenges and battles, pitting trainers against unruly herds of Wooloo, puzzles, and more nerve-wracking plights while also battling rookie gym trainees before finally reaching the Gym Leader inside massive stadiums. Each of these challenges are wholly unique and memorable, and like usual, the mono-typed Gym Leaders made it easy for me when I had decent counters, and substantially more difficult when I lacked them. I really appreciated one in particular who was a nod to competitive play if I’ve ever seen one.
These Gym Battles were one of the few places I could experiment with Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing my Pokemon, and I’m glad for the limitation. Being able to play with these gimmicky new systems whenever would be too tempting, and I’m sure I’d get bored of the animation sequence fast. There’s only so many times you can see your character throw a giant ball and your Pokemon get big. But I do like the mechanic more than I thought I would.
Because Dynamaxing doesn’t require a Pokemon to hold an item, it makes my team more flexible than Mega Evolution or Z-Moves did (though, personally, I like the aesthetics and wild changes Mega Evolution offered to Pokemon more than Dynamaxing does, though at least Gigantamax Pokemon can still look just as cool.) This flexibility also makes predicting your opponent more difficult, but since it only lasts three turns, a lot of thought needs to be put into when and what to Dynamax. I’m not exactly a competitive player and only fought in Sword and Shield against other real people a few times, but I think I see the potential and I’m looking forward to see what the pros come up with for Dynamaxing this season at Play! Pokemon events and in online tournaments.
Though of course I looked forward to each gym, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as Ash because I always wanted to stop at each town’s boutique first! Man, the clothes, hair, and makeup options in Pokemon Sword and Shield are incredible. With multiple colors and patterns to choose from for each piece of clothing, there’s a huge variety that allows you to customize your trainer to a highly personal degree. For makeup, you can choose wild contact lenses that make your eyes look like flames or rainbows, and it even goes as far as letting you get eyelash extensions.
Once I fixed my hair, makeup, and wardrobe I edited my League Card to my liking – essentially a baseball card that trainers carry – which also had its own abundance of cosmetic options. It doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose beyond sharing with friends and others online, kind of like a Guild Card in Monster Hunter without the tiny gameplay benefits, but I still had fun making mine just how I wanted it.
Each Gym Leader and rival has Guild Cards, too, with a little bit of extra info about each of them on the back. These side characters all are more fleshed out than usual, some with complementing character arcs, and even though these micro-stories are certainly sides to the main dish, I enjoyed them all the same. Sword and Shield’s overarching story, which runs parallel to your personal quest of conquering the Galar region’s Gym Challenge, had a few twists that surprised me, but not enough time was spent on developing it to make it a marquee feature – as is usual with Pokemon. I was at least glad that there was more to discover about the story after the credits roll, roughly 39 hours in!
Nitpicks – Not Very Effective
While Sword and Shield aren’t among the best-looking games on the Switch, the first mainline Pokemon games you can play on a big-screen TV certainly don’t look bad, either. In fact, compared to previous Pokemon games, they look fantastic – and there’s no sign of the framerate stutter that was so common on the 3DS during battles. Some of the new unique attack animations are really damn cool (Nintendo doesn’t want us to talk about them in detail quite yet, but take my word for it). They really stand out against some of the older moves, which can be stiff and plain.
And while the cutscenes are nice enough, I’m disappointed by the continued lack of emotion in not only your own character’s face, but on those of your rivals and companions as well. The stakes of this story get pretty extreme, but your character is just mindlessly smiling along with it all? The animations can also be stiff, like they are in older attack animations. So while the graphics are undoubtedly the best we’ve ever seen in a Pokemon RPG, they still haven’t quite matched up with other RPGs on the Switch and elsewhere. On top of that there’s some noticeable pop-in of wild Pokemon and items, and other small quirks that, still, never disrupted play. All things considered, gameplay and charm are more important to me than raw visual pageantry, and those are qualities Sword and Shield have in spades.
Pokemon Without the National Pokedex
There’s been a lot of consternation in the community over the fact that Sword and Shield are the first Pokemon games not to include the “National Pokedex.” That means you won’t be able to transfer some of the 800 or so total pre-existing Pokemon from every previous generation into this one after you’ve beaten the campaign. While that’s a bummer, especially for the completionists out there, we should be clear about what the difference means: if it were to work the way it did in previous games, it wouldn’t affect your initial playthrough at all. Previously, the National Dex was exclusively available in the endgame, either due to story progression limitations or late introduction of the Pokemon Bank or Pokemon Bank patch.
As evident in the video above, my initial reaction was also negative to this news, but after having played, consider my mind changed. Of course, I’m still super disappointed I can’t transfer the shiny Absol that’s near and dear to my heart to Sword and Shield and see it in the much-improved Switch graphical style, but not having my beautiful red disaster Pokemon in the post-game isn’t a dealbreaker for me. There are plenty of Pokemon in Sword and Shield, and the rest of my Pokemon can wait in their old games, Pokemon Bank, or in Pokemon HOME once it launches in early 2020 (where, yes, they will still be stuck). Maybe there’s something to be said about Ash leaving his previous team behind when he moves on to a new region.
Beyond that, there are countless little touches that, as a long-time Pokemon player, I wholeheartedly appreciate. Tiny things, like my team being healed automatically after each gym battle so I could seamlessly continue the story, being able to switch Pokemon out of the Box mid-route, and being able to connect so seamlessly with others using the Y-Comm make a big difference when you add it all up. Tweaks like this make it feel like Pokemon is finally adapting to player behavior and removing the tediousness behind many of its long-standing mechanics, such as forcing you to heal with items between, for example, Elite Four matches in the past. I always stocked up on items and healed between matches unless I was challenging myself in the post-game, anyway. I also was over-the-moon thankful for the free Move Relearner in each and every Pokemon Center. I no longer had to anxiously agonize over which move to keep every time my Pokemon leveled up. Thank Arceus. Heart Scales could be used to change moves near the end game in the past, but the new system is just so much less stressful and more flexible.
Some of these changes could be seen as making Pokemon “easier,” but in practice Sword and Shield are on-par with previous games’ difficulty. What’s been removed is just monotony. Whenever I wanted to up the challenge in a meaningful way, I could always switch the Battle Style to “Set” in the Options, which prevents you from getting a free, calculated switch-in whenever you knock out an opponent’s Pokemon. But, even without making it harder for myself, the final stretch of Sword and Shield were satisfying. Knowing my type match-ups was imperative to succeeding on my first try in these battles. I could see a less experienced trainer without the knowledge needed to strategize needing to over-level their Pokemon to get by. And even when you do beat them, Max Raid Battles, whatever the post-game has in store, and PvP are there to offer a real challenge.