Pokémon Sword and Shield become quite the divisive game, something that I haven’t experienced in a long time. When news broke out that not every single Pokémon was going to be included in the game, alongside the latest generation of creatures to discover in the game, this caused quite the outrage and backlash from fans. The hype and lead up for Sword and Shield felt very different. One side of the fanbase being very excited while some turned off from buying the game altogether and calling for the game to even be delayed so more work could be done to include all Pokémon. And yet, I have to admit that despite not every single Pokémon having make the cut and other several features be changed up and some ditched, I found myself having a ton of fun with Sword and Shield.
Pokémon Sword and Shield introduces us to the 8th generation of Pokémon to discover and find in the brand new Galar region. The story is mostly the same from previous entries, you are tasked with competing in all eight gyms scattered across Galar and then going up against the Pokémon League Champion and dethrone their title as the Pokémon Champ. Unlike other games in the series, Sword and Shield places a heavy emphasis on these gyms and The Pokémon League as a tournament that all trainers must partake in to earn the prestigious title. Gigantic tournament stadiums are the basis for each gym where people in the Galar region watch you battle against Gym Leader after Gym Leader.
I really love this idea of making these gyms feel like they matter and that they’re almost like a part of Galar culture, like attending a sport match and watching teams try and win. It really makes you feel like every decision you make in battling count and it’s very refreshing. While in previous games it started to feel stale with the typical “beat the gym, soldier on to the next gym and reach the league and win” rinse and repeat feel, Galar’s tournament makes you feel like you are really participating in something grander, fun and exhilarating. It’s easily one of the best features of Sword and Shield and I hope future games follow this same kind of idea or straight up repeats this.
Pokémon Sword and Shield offers a new gameplay feature called ‘Dynamaxing’. Dynamaxing allows Pokémon to grow exponentially on the battlefield to fight against opponents in battle, however this only is allowed during certain areas in the game such as gyms and the Pokémon League. While only given three turns in battle before shrinking back to their normal size, Dynamaxing gives you the benefit of winning a battle especially if in a pinch, giving you the upper hand, and it makes for some very satisfying wins. Your moves are also upgraded to much stronger power moves too. Certain Pokémon also are given special forms while Dynamaxing simply called ‘Gigantamax’, giving them a different gigantic appearance to their usual form. I wasn’t fond of this idea at the first reveal, but playing and participating in Dynamaxing is fun. I love watching my Togepi grow from the tiny baby Pokémon it is to a gigantic intimidating creature, destroying anything in its path. It makes for some very amusing moments with any other tiny Pokémon Dynamaxing, too!
One of the most appealing places in the game you will spend lots of time running around is the Wild Area. Very early on you will have the chance to explore this Wild Area, a huge area that is home to plenty of wild Pokémon that you can find either roaming the field in the overworld (very similar to Pokémon Let’s Go) or rummage around in the grass to encounter and battle. Depending on the weather in certain areas, you can encounter plenty just walking or flying around. However, some Pokémon you may find in the overworld can be incredibly over-levelled and as a result, you are unable to catch them and can also be at risk of having your entire team defeated. The game informs you of this and the only way to overcome this is to earn Gym Badges, which increases your ability to fight against higher-levelled critters, but by bit until you win every badge. I really liked this feature and also found myself coming back to this area for more fights and captures every time I earned a badge. Challenging but fun!
Aside from the wild Pokémon, there are dens scattered throughout the wild area. These are ‘Max Raid Battles’ that allow you to battle against (and capture after defeating) a wild Pokémon that is Dynamaxed. You can request up to three other people online or nearby to help fight with you in these battles for extra help or if no one, NPC’s will instead aid your battle. Depending on the beam of light the den offers, you can Dynamax up against a potential rare Pokémon not found elsewhere (red beam for a normal encounter and Pink beam for a rare encounter). It’s a cool feature I really liked, and I found myself constantly riding my bicycle around the wild area finding dens that offer up rare Pokémon for battle and capture.
In terms of the game’s visuals, Sword and Shield are very pretty and lovely to look at in Galar’s rather gorgeous setting. One place that comes to mind straight away is the Galar mines. Inside you are greeted with an array of colourful gems sprinkled throughout the place over the walls, as you venture through and battle trainers inside. It’s colourful and nice, although this also leads into an issue I have with Sword and Shield. While the game looks pretty and nice, the Galar region feels kind of… empty. There are interesting places and locales in this game (such as the mines) and while the wild area is the biggest and most explorable area in the game, it’s mostly only made for just wild Pokémon. I wish we could have ventured into more unique places aside from just a cave or a simple pathway forward.
For example, in the game there are some huge mysterious geoglyphs on the hills of Turffield, a town you will encounter early on in your playthrough. While these hills are shown to us through story-related cutscenes, we can’t explore them or even go near them. How awesome would it have been to frolic on these hills to uncover potential Galar secrets or maybe even hidden and rare Pokémon not seen anywhere else? It’s things like these I feel are missed opportunities that I would have liked to have seen, especially since the Nintendo Switch is a much more powerful piece of hardware compared to the Nintendo 3DS we have been accustomed to these last several years. I unfortunately feel like they did not or were not allowed to properly explore Galar very well, which is a shame as I have really grown to love Galar in such a short time. I don’t wish for Pokémon to suddenly become The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild open-world style or anything like that, but being on a much more strong and capable gaming system, I would have loved some more locales to adventure through. A pretty game but with some missing substance.
Story-wise, it’s a shame that I must admit that out of every Pokémon game I have grown up playing since the very start, Sword and Shield easily takes the top spot for most disappointing and anti-climactic story so far in the series. While the game sets up a very interesting story relating to an event called the ‘Darkest Day’, a black storm that took place 3,000 years ago in the Galar region, the more the game revealed to me, the events relating to this the further I played felt so poorly presented to me. At one stage I didn’t even really know what was happening anymore and just went with the flow, battling trainers and gym battles to become champion without really thinking what happens next story-wise, because I kind of didn’t care.
Certain character motivations and their goals just became really ridiculous or just did not make any sense to me. I also wish some characters had more development to shine or be more of a focus on the story, as many felt incredibly underutilised. The setup for an incredibly intriguing story is all there, but the game provided a very poor conclusion, that I honestly didn’t care much for by the end. Pokémon games aren’t known for their ground-breaking stories, but it doesn’t mean they can’t offer something that can be impactful or memorable. The Black and White games still remain to be the best stories told so far. Unfortunately with this new entry, you won’t remember much of what happens, nor will you care to by the end.
And yet, despite the inconsistent story and empty-ish setting, Sword and Shield is by far the most fun Pokémon game that I have played in a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and actually found myself unable to put my Switch down (something I did not feel with the previous instalments, Sun and Moon). The thrill of hunting down plenty of wild Pokémon in the Wild Area, (whether they are over-levelled or not) player customisation with your clothing and appearance, along with the fun additions of Max Raid Battles and Dynamaxing in gyms made me feel incredibly engrossed in my playthrough. Even updating my League Card with fancy colourful stickers and backgrounds while making a funny pose with my trainer character is fun. Completing my Pokédex felt like a much easier and fun task to do this time around, instead of feeling overwhelming and exhausting. I made much more of an effort to do so, instead of normally looking at my Dex and thinking “I’ll worry about this another time, there’s too much to catch right now.”
To aid my fun journey, it helps greatly that the soundtrack provided in this game is upbeat and quite addictive to listen to. Specifically, the town and city themes are among my favourites in the game to listen to, with Wedgehurst, Motosoke and Turffield having the most memorable impact on me. There is also a trainer’s battle theme included in the game, which you will hear much later on that I cannot stop listening to but due to spoilers, I won’t say who. But I will say it’s become one of my favourite battle tracks in the entire series. Sword and Shield has a great soundtrack that will provide you with memorable city/town themes you’ll find yourself humming to.
In the end, Pokémon Sword and Shield is a fun game with some interesting new gameplay mechanics but let down by a shoddy story and setting that could have had some extra places for exploring. But if you enjoy catching Pokémon and completing your Pokédex as a completionist, you are bound to find a lot of fun here. There’s something here for everyone.