For many, the Pokemon games are reason enough to own a Nintendo handheld. The series has maintained popularity for as long as I can remember, yet the last title in the series I played properly was over a decade ago. While I've fallen out of touch with what is going on in the franchise today, it still holds a special place in my heart, and I was one of the many folks out there eagerly awaiting the first mainline entry making its way to a Nintendo home console. Like many, I expected huge things with the increased power of the Switch, hopefully taking the series to all new heights.
While Game Freak have certainly taken advantage of the hardware in many ways, Pokemon Sword & Shield feels like a small step forward for the series in some ways and a side step in others. I had hoped Sword & Shield would take some risks and break the mould in some ways, but instead, this entry feels like one of the "safest" moves I've seen in gaming this year. Barely any risk is taken, and the formula remains mostly unchanged, and in many ways Sword & Shield suffers for the worse because of it.
During the opening hours, when the story should be getting its hooks into you, it instead plods along with very little importance. You quickly leave your hometown with your best friend and rival as you set out to make a name for yourselves and conquer the eight gym leaders across the region. That's about the gist of things as the game takes hours upon hours to form an overarching plot. And even when the groundwork is laid, I felt very little attachment to any of the story. Even Team Yell, the new antagonists come off as one-dimensional baddies of the most basic type and pale in comparison to the likes of Team Rocket.
Another hugely missed opportunity that I noticed throughout the game is the total lack of any voice acting. If you were expecting this entry to really take advantage of the increased performance of the Switch, you'll likely come off disappointed, as outside of the mostly-beautiful 3D models, there's very little here that feels brand new. The game, unfortunately, feels like many corners have been cut as some of the animations for the numerous Pokemon are genuinely absurd. Seeing a Pokemon attack another by simply moving up and down, with no other animations outside of this up and down 'jumping' motion, feels lazy and quite frankly a bit of a joke. Something tells me there are an absolute tonne of re-used assets from both models, animations and sounds. Considering how long fans had to wait for this entry in the series, you wouldn't expect this amount of re-used assets.
On the graphics front, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. I can't help but feel like Game Freak went the wrong route for the art style with the cartoony character and Pokemon models, but then go for a strange semi-realistic look for the environments. I would have preferred this cartoon-style throughout the game as it can be a bit jarring seeing your anime-inspired character walking across the grass with low-res, semi-realistic textures. It's a strange design choice, but then again, the game is packed with them.
Thankfully, it's not all bad. Battling and collecting Pokemon is still as fun as ever, although many fan favourites haven't made the cut. Not having watched the show for many years now, I'm not entirely sure if these new Pokemon are loved by fans as I encountered a lot of unusual Pokemon that felt a bit like a practical joke. Take, for instance, Klink - this Pokemon is two metal gears with faces that spin against each other. It's hard to care about Pokemon like this when so many of my old favourites are nowhere to be found. I may just not be the target market here, but I can't see how some of these newer Pokemon could ever be more popular than some of the classics. That said, there are still a lot of adorable ones to capture and battle with. It just feels like for every great Pokemon included in the roster; there are two duds thrown into the mix.
It's still as awesome as I remember catching new Pokemon and taking them to battle to improve their stats, unlock new moves, and in some cases evolving them into more powerful versions. I grew pretty attached to several of the Pokemon I caught during the opening hours and ended up sticking with two of them for the duration of the story.
The core of the game still revolves around collecting new Pokemon and battling them against other trainers and Pokemon in the wild. Battles still play out in turn-based fashion with each Pokemon having a handful of moves at their disposal. Different Pokemon types work better against certain others - like water Pokemon always having a one-up on Fire Pokemon. You'll have to build a well-rounded team if you plan on challenging the Gym Leaders as each one specialises in a specific type of Pokemon. I initially went up against the Fire Gym Leader with only one water and three grass-type Pokemon in tow. Needless to say, he quickly wiped the floor with me as he char-grilled my nitrogen team in minutes. I quickly realised that I had to spend more time capturing a more well-rounded team, so set out to catch some more water-type Pokemon before attempting the fight again. Needless to say, my second attempt was much less humiliating as I promptly doused his fire-types with a barrage of water attacks.
It's very satisfying building a perfect team and levelling them up and unlocking new moves and abilities. When this happens, you'll have the option to either forget an old move or replace it with a new one. If you ever do want to change it after the fact, it's as easy as visiting the local Poke-Center to re-jig your move-sets. During your journey, you'll also collect a wealth of items. These range from buffs to healing aids and new moves, which can be equipped to your chosen Pokemon for an extra leg-up during tough battles.
With any new Pokemon title, there's normally a new mechanic, or two added to the fray. For Sword & Shield that new mechanic is Dynamaxing. Dynamaxing allows you to turn your Pokemon into a Godzilla-sized version of itself, with epic special moves that will devastate your opponents (provided they haven't hit the Dynamax switch too). It was awesome seeing my little Pokemon grow into a building-sized beast during these moments, but the novelty does wear off a bit quickly. You'll also encounter Raids out in the wild. These are challenging battles against a Dynamaxed Pokemon, in which you can attempt to tackle it alone, or team up with two other players to help you defeat these challenging battles.
While out in the wild, you'll also encounter a bunch of rare and powerful Pokemon. Trying to catch these when your level is low will almost always lead to disappointment, and if you do manage to capture them, you won't be able to use them until your level is high enough. I loved seeing Pokemon wandering around the games world and the complete lack of random battles is also a much-welcome change to the formula. However, one major annoyance I found was the game's camera in certain areas. When out in the wild, you have free control of the camera, but when visiting certain dungeons and towns, the camera is often in a fixed position. This lead to me walking towards the bottom of the screen several times, only to walk into a Pokemon I couldn't see as it was off-camera. I can't for the life of me figure out why camera control is taken away from the player during these areas.
The world also feels a bit small in general, with long stretches of empty area and towns with only a few buildings of note. The Wild area feels a bit more interesting, but still feels a bit barren. Still, the ugly textures and conflicting art style of the inhabitants and the environment pulled me out of the experience many times.
I had hoped that Pokemon Sword & Shield would be the best Pokemon to date and that it would reinvigorate my love for the series. Instead, the game left me wanting more and questioning whether Game freak has what it takes to elevate the series to the next level. As it stands the game will be fun for newcomers, but I can't see serious fans sticking with it for the long run. Game Freak is going to have to go back to the drawing board for the next entry, and I hope they step outside of their comfort zones even slightly on their next attempt. If I were Nintendo, I'd be eyeing up some other developers right now to give the series the shake-up it so desperately needs and deserves.
+ Collecting and improving Pokemon is as fun as ever.
+ Battle system is still a lot of fun.
+ I grew genuinely attached to my Pokemon.
+ Raids and Dynamaxing are fun for a while.
- Conflicting art style between characters and environment feels off.
- Lots of terrible animations (if you can call them that, in some cases...)
- Story feels completely unimportant.
- Bad guys feel super one-dimensional.
- No voiced dialogue at all.
- Takes no risks and doesn't do anything really new.
- World feels very small.