People have wanted a console Pokemon game for over 20 years now—going all the way back to when Pokemon Red and Blue first captivated an entire generation of kids around the world on the original, monochromatic, 8-bit Game Boy. It’s been a sort of that unattainable ideal that we can but collectively fantasize about. There have been times when it has looked like we might be close to getting something like that in the past—the GameCube Pokemon games, as well as last year’s Let Go, both come to mind—but they have all been spin-offs or deviations from the core series of games we have come to know and love in one way or the other.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are, then, the very first time that ideal is made tangible. This, right here, is the full-fat Pokemon experience on a home console, on the big screen, that people have been wanting for 20 years. And in spite of all the controversy and fan furore that Pokemon Sword and Shield were mired in ahead of release, they more or less manage to deliver on just that. Make no mistake, they are extremely flawed games, and in some ways they feel disappointingly conservative, when this move to console could have been accompanied by a radical rethinking of the series’ now 24 year old formula—but they are Pokemon games, through and through, and now, on your big screen. That fantasy has been realized.
There’s so much to talk about Pokemon Sword and Shield, and their merits and accomplishments, as well as their flaws and shortcomings, that it can be hard to know where to begin. So let’s start at the most obvious place—the Pokemon themselves. Sword and Shield introduce what is hands down the strongest batch of new monsters to the overall roster that we have ever gotten. If that praise sounds familiar to you—we did declare the very same for X and Y and Sun and Moon after all—then that’s more to the series’ credit, as, after a few generations of some questionable designs, Game Freak has really stepped their game up when it comes to the monsters themselves. The actual visual design of the new Pokemon is absolutely fantastic, with even absurd propositions like a teacup Pokemon or an apple Pokemon made memorable thanks to the sheer overwhelming charm that these games are dripping of, and made even more unforgettable thanks to some extremely interesting mechanical design quirks given to them too (with the Pika-clone Morpeko’s two-faced ability being a particular standout).
"The actual visual design of the new Pokemon is absolutely fantastic, with even absurd propositions like a teacup Pokemon or an apple Pokemon made memorable thanks to the sheer overwhelming charm that these games are dripping of."
And yes, the charm and the cuteness. Let’s talk about that, because I find it unbelievable that Game Freak is able to constantly top itself and up the ante on this front year in and year out. I honestly thought that last year’s Pokemon Let’s Go games, which focused on embellishing Pikachu and Eevee constantly, had reached the maximum amount of personality and cuteness and charm that Pokemon games could achieve. I was wrong, because Sword and Shield somehow top those games. They do so by lavishing the same amount of detail and care and attention to not just one Pokemon each, but to all the 400-odd Pokemon they feature. From the adorable and frankly hilarious camp interactions that have now gone viral, to the amazing ways the Pokemon the overworld react to your presence—some run away from you, some are curious, and some just rush at you to attack you—these creatures have never once before felt more alive, more real, more tangible. You can almost imagine them existing as real creatures.
Which neatly leads us to the next big thing—following on from Let’s Go, Sword and Shield eschew random encounters entirely, with Pokemon now showing up on the overworld screen. But unlike in Let’s Go, where they just sort of hung about, or repeated a canned animation on loop, the Pokemon here are, as mentioned already, reactive to your presence, which adds a thrill to each encounter—in the overworld, or otherwise.
That overworld also represents the single most daring step this series has taken in a very long time—though in the interests of full disclosure, it is only a half step. I am talking, of course, about the Wild Area. The Wild Area is an open world hub that connects the early areas of the game together, and it is absolutely massive. More than that, however, it is completely open to the player from the get go. You can go anywhere that you see, you can encounter Pokemon that are far above your level, you can do what you want, when you want to, and how you want to. This marks a major change from the philosophy the series has followed since the 3DS era, which has been to deliver increasingly railroaded and prescribed adventures, a trend that reached its nadir with Sun and Moon, and their literal collection of four straight lines with actual roadblocks that were masquerading as a region. While Sword and Shield are still very tightly controlled, linear stories, the Wild Area exists, in all its open glory and its emphasis on player agency, available not just to you from the get go, but always to return to—and you’re expected to return there often, because so many Pokemon spawn only there.
"The Wild Area is an open world hub that connects the early areas of the game together, and it is absolutely massive. More than that, however, it is completely open to the player from the get go. You can go anywhere that you see, you can encounter Pokemon that are far above your level, you can do what you want, when you want to, and how you want to."
The Wild Area is also a systemic open world, in a manner of speaking. Its multiple biomes and areas are all affected by the weather and time of day, meaning that, for example, different Pokemon will spawn if it is snowing and night time, than there would if it was a rainy morning. This adds a level of dynamism and unpredictability that makes you want to keep returning—what other new Pokemon will you run into next? The Wild Area holds the answers.
The Wild Area is also host to the other major innovation these games introduce, something I have been wanting in the main series for a very long time now—full co-op in the form of Max Raids, which are battles against supersized, superpowered Pokemon that you engage in with up to three other players, with a chance to catch that Pokemon if you manage to defeat it. I cannot stress how amazing an addition Max Raids are!
But those Max Raids are absolutely worth it, and I hope, I really hope, that they are here to stay. They are such an obvious addition to the series’ core formula, and add so much longevity to it, that it would be truly perplexing if they were removed from the next games in the series. Max Raids aside, the Wild Area also acts as a culmination of other long held Pokemon dreams—for instance, that of a Pokemon MMO. Because now, yes, you can see other players playing the game on screen, in your instance of the game, running around, and you can go up to them and talk to them, and they may even give you rare items or treasure.
For as much praise as I have for the Wild Area, it is important to note that this is only a first step, a transition. In an ideal world, the entire region would be a Wild Area, not just a part of it. There would be dungeons and caves hidden away for the player to discover (dungeons and caves appear to be in perilously short supply in Galar as a whole). There would be more biomes (though there already are a lot of them). NPC trainer encounters in the Wild Area would be possible. More nuanced interactions with player characters populating your instance of the Wild Area would be possible (right now, you can only get items with them—to actually fight or trade with them, you have to use the Y-Comm, which we will get to shortly).
"These gym battles are electric, and charged with atmosphere—they take place in massive stadiums, there are crowds in the stands, and they are cheering and chanting, gasping when your Pokemon land an attack, in shock when they faint, and it truly elevates the whole experience."
How you take to the Wild Area, and all it has to offer (including the Max Raids) largely determines how much you will like Sword and Shield, because this aside, they are fairly standard Pokemon games. Galar, of course, is a marvelously well realized setting, dripping with British charm, and featuring some of the best designed cities (at least visually) the series has ever had. In another stroke of inspired genius, Game Freak has taken the central gyms conceit of the series, and tied it into the whole British theme—so while Britain is crazy for soccer, in Galar, Pokemon battles are a national sport that everyone follows obsessively, with the gym challenge, which sees a lot of promising trainers take on the eight gyms of the land in sequence, followed by the national championships, being the star attractions.
These gym battles are electric, and charged with atmosphere—they take place in massive stadiums, there are crowds in the stands, and they are cheering and chanting, gasping when your Pokemon land an attack, in shock when they faint, and it truly elevates the whole experience. It truly and absolutely feels like you are right there, in the stadium, fighting Pokemon, and the whole world is watching. Much like the tangibility and sense of reality added to the Pokemon themselves, Pokemon Sword and Shield make Pokemon battles feel real.
Arguably the best thing about these games, in my opinion, is their lack of a story. There barely is one—the driving motivation this time is not for you to stop some evil team in their evil plans, and take on a Legendary Pokemon, it’s simply… to win the Pokemon League. It’s refreshingly honest, and adds to the sense of ownership over the journey and adventure, along with the Wild Area. This is your story. Your journey. Your adventure. You decide where you go, when you go there, and it’s about charting your rise to the top of the Pokemon League.
Ultimately, there does turn out to be a larger plot, but it’s honestly extremely rushed, and while there are some strong themes it touches on, it botches the landing. This would be a far bigger knock against the game if it actually emphasized its story as much as, say, Pokemon Sun and Moon do. Thankfully, as I have mentioned, the story mostly stays out of the way, so ultimately this turns out to be a rather insubstantial failing.
"Pokemon is the world’s biggest media franchise, and its flagship release should be among the best looking, best produced game on its console, but Sword and Shield are categorically not that. It’s a big missed opportunity, because Galar, and the Pokemon, and all the charm and the atmosphere I have talked about, deserve far better."
What is a bigger failing for these games is their overall lack of polish, which is, perhaps, best exemplified by the graphics. Don’t get me wrong, the art style is absolutely charming (which takes the games a long way), and in handheld mode, they look fine. But the simple geometry, low resolution textures, and comically short draw distances make you wonder—why? Why exactly do these issues exist? Pokemon is the world’s biggest media franchise, and its flagship release should be among the best looking, best produced game on its console, but Sword and Shield are categorically not that. It’s a big missed opportunity, because Galar, and the Pokemon, and all the charm and the atmosphere I have talked about, deserve far better. The strong art style of the games goes a long way—but as games like Breath of the Wild and Luigi’s Mansion 3 have shown us, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, you can have strong art and great technical graphics.
Other, smaller failings in the games include, obviously, their removal of the National Dex—though I have personally never found this to be a problem (I have actually caught more Pokemon in Sword and Shield than I ever have in any previous games in the series), but for those of you who do care, that indeed is still a thing here. The Y-Comm, which is this game’s suite of online functions, is also a mixed bag. I love the social media style feed, and I like how seamless it makes random trades, or Max Raids, or battles. Matchmaking is a breeze, and if these random battles and trades are all you want, you shouldn’t find it wanting much.
Unfortunately, much like most other games on the Switch, things start to fall apart when you try to play with friends. There is no way to directly access your friends list directly from the Y-Comm, and to set a private session (for anything), you must set up your battle or trade, and lock it behind a numeric code that keeps everyone except for those you have shared it with out. And in what might be the game’s most baffling cut, the Global Trade Station, which allowed you to trade with random people across the world, making specific requests for Pokemon, while fulfilling others, is also gone.
Like I said, then, there’s a lot these games do well, and a lot they do not. How well they stick the landing for you ultimately comes down to how meaningful you find their accomplishments to be—to me, the sense of wonder and adventure that I felt as I first stepped into the Wild Area, and saw a high level Steelix slowly skulk away into the distance, finally fulfilling the promise of open world Pokemon, was more than enough. That the Wild Area is such a great hub, that I keep returning to and spending time in, only added to my sense of ownership over my adventure. The Max Raids, the de-emphasized story, the charm, atmosphere, the great music, the fantastic art style, the great online interactions, the fantastic region, and my sense of slowly becoming a national star as I worked my way through the Gym Challenge—at last, I had the Pokemon game I have wanted ever since I first saw the anime all those years ago.
"If you don’t take to the Wild Area and the Max Raids, then the game’s other shortcomings will stick out to you more. The online features maybe now seem antiquated, rather than a frustration you have to work around, and the art seems infantile given how technically deficient the games are."
But if you don’t take to the Wild Area and the Max Raids, then the game’s other shortcomings will stick out to you more. The online features maybe now seem antiquated, rather than a frustration you have to work around, and the art seems infantile given how technically deficient the games are. And the smaller scale of the adventure, and lack of story, make you wonder what exactly the justification for all the cuts, National Dex or otherwise, was. That, too, is a fair takeaway from these games, after all.
But as far as I am concerned, these games represent a return to form after the disappointments of the last few years. Pokemon Sword and Shield don’t fully deliver on any of their promises—open world Pokemon, MMO Pokemon, systemic Pokemon, console Pokemon, HD Pokemon—but they deliver just enough, while delivering on other things in sheer abundance, that they represent the best games the series has seen since the start of the 3DS era, and a promising foundation for the franchise to build on with future games.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Wonderfully designed Pokemon; beautiful art style; Galar is a great region, dripping of charm and atmosphere, with some incredible cities; the Wild Area is a stroke of genius that legitimately represents a step forward for the franchise; great soundtrack; Max Raids represent one of the best multiplayer additions to the series; the electric atmosphere and stakes added to gym battles kick things up a notch; online play with random players is mostly seamless
The games lack polish; the graphics are technically extremely lacking; online functionality when playing with friends is a chore; removal of series staple features, such as the National Dex