Review by Hickiebenz
An Incredibly Conflicting Experience
A few disclaimers before I begin this long review; this review is my first ever, but I feel so strongly that objective opinions are needed on these games that I felt compelled to write one. Second, I am a Pokemon veteran, and have played every single game in the main franchise (sometimes even both versions or multiple times, including Colosseum and XD on Gamecube) and usually clean out all the single player content available in any given game before moving onto to competitive (although I have only played on Showdown since Gen 6). I should also note, I liked Black and White, which seems to be very divisive in the community, and some comparisons will be made to these games. Also, I played this on a Switch Lite, but that shouldn't be too consequential other than I can't say how this looks on a TV versus in handheld mode. Anyway...
It's no surprise that if you have been on the internet in the last year, Sword and Shield are easily the most divisive and controversial games in the entire franchise, even more so than Black and White. It is very difficult to draw up an objective opinion; "professional" reviewers seem to be completely blind to the flaws in these games, slapping the 9's and 10's on their scores, while many users give such enlightening opinions as "0/10 absolute trash". So where is the line drawn? My opinion is this; Sword and Shield are okay games in their own right, but completely inexcusable entries in the main line of the largest grossing multi-media franchise ever on the most powerful hardware they have ever had available. Here's why:
I'm assuming you know the main premise of Pokemon already; collectible monsters that grow and learn moves for turn based battling, with hundreds of monsters to catch, train, breed, etc. It's a fantastic core premise and still fun today, although it is definitely beginning to show its' age. This game sees the return of Gyms after their omission from Gen 7, and the pokemon league is all anyone in the new region of Galar seems to talk about. Game Freak makes some attempts to revitalize the battles this generation through such features as Dynamax (which is too overpowered for competitive) that essentially is a three-turn mega evolution that almost any pokemon can use, giving it way more powerful attacks and as much as doubled health for the duration. However, this comes at the cost that mega evolutions and Z-moves were both removed, which is also a shame (these omissions will be a recurring theme). In addition to battles, there are features present such as camping and cooking curry to become closer to your pokemon and gain little boosts to make battles easier. Now, onto the review itself.
Let's get this out of the way first; graphics do not make a game, but boy oh boy, they are still important and should be discussed. Sword and Shield do suffer from an incredible lack of polish. While many elements of the game look fantastic (highlight for me was watching my Cinderace, the final evolution of the fire-starter, use his signature move), the amount of eyesores are very disappointing. Objects such as people, pokemon and trees pop into existence at embarrassing render distances right in front of your trainer. Some textures look okay while others are abysmal, especially stuff such as trees in the wild area. The pokemon models themselves look pretty good, they are certainly an improvement over their 3DS counterparts for returning pokemon, but are obviously very similar and similarly quite lifeless in battle. Some attack animations are fantastic, especially signature moves, while others are completely laughable, especially the painful over world and character animations (just youtube "H I G H Q U A L I T Y A N I M A T I O N S and you will be treated to such).
This graphical infidelity screams a lack of effort. Game Freak made excuses for omit content to give them time to focus on the graphics and models, but this game is not impressive compared to other RPGs even from the PS2 era (I swear Final Fantasy X has more life than anything in this game) let alone by today's standards. These honestly still feel like 3DS games despite being on home-console hardware. Many of the battle backgrounds are simply pitiful and quite often incorrect for the setting. However, some of the cities are very strong designs and look quite nice, as do the backdrops on some of the routes. Regardless, graphically these games do not impress. This is the same hardware that runs such games as Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, both of which look fantastic, furthering how dismal this really is; even the gamecube pokemon games felt more epic and alive than this. Anyway, this section is a fail, onto the gameplay.
As mentioned, the core pokemon loop is intact, and these games... really don't add much of note. Dynamax is gimmicky at best and really fails to impress the way Game Freak were clearly hoping it would. It is also limited to basically just the gym battles and a few other key moments. Another big new feature is the wild area, the series' first foray into an open space with free camera movement. I admit, this area is fun, and I've enjoyed running around, finding powerful pokemon, and engaging in "max raid battles", co-operative four player raids against strong dynamax pokemon. However, this is next to it for new features, other than the aforementioned camping and curry cooking, which I guess at the very least is a much improved version of Pokemon Amie / Refresh, but still is maybe fun for ten minutes at best.
Gym battles themselves were the highlight for me this time around; while the Pokemon series has never actually had challenging main games, Sword and Shield had one or two brief moments that challenged me a little. Some later gym leaders actually employ some semblance of strategy, and the final battles against the other finalists were quite solid, especially the champion, except they heal you for free between battles (but you could always heal with items between these battles in previous games so this really is not a big deal).
However, my praise mostly stops here. While the main game was solid, the story and characters were bland at best. Your rival Hop is insufferable, and once again takes the starter WEAK to yours. This time his team shuffles around a fair bit making battles with him a bit more interesting, but ultimately he is still a pushover. The experience share is forced on you, leveling your whole team, but I found the level curve mostly okay as long you don't grind at all. The routes between towns are dismal, there are only ten of them, they are extremely linear, and dungeons are essentially non-existant, and by no means does the wild area make up for this, the Galar region still feels tiny. Pokemon appear in the overworld similar to Let's Go, which is definitely a nice and needed update, but this is still a very small step up in quality at best. Ultimately Sword and Shield have okay main games, I'd say roughly as good as Sun and Moon which were also okayish, but the post game is extremely disappointing and even worse than sun and moon (more on this later, but sun and moon did not have enough post game content).
Here is a short section where I mention anything else I though was good before I tear these games a new butt hole. Many of the Galar pokemon designs are actually quite good, I especially like Zacian as a boxart legendary and there are certainly some other highlights in this new region. I particularly like Corviknight, the region bird, and the electric puppy Yamper. The final evolutions for two of the starters, Grookey and Scorbunny, are quite solid, and I really love Toxtricity. Some of the Galarian forms of old pokemon are also quite awesome, especially Corsola and the Zigzagoon family. The music in these games is okay as well, but definitely far from the quality we should expect from this series known for fantastic music (but I don't think we will ever reach the quality of music we saw in generations 1-5 again, I particularly love the Hoenn soundtrack). As menioned before, the towns have great designs, and overall Galar is a well themed region. Oh, and trainer customization is back and better than ever, although I still think there aren't quite enough options and wish you could vary the height / age of the trainers a little, but it's overall still nice to have. I guess the last thing is the battles run very smoothly at least on the Switch hardware as compared to the incredibly sluggish 3DS battles, but this really isn't a selling point as it's to be expected of any decent game. But that's really it for the good, so onto...
The Truly Bad and Ugly
Here we go... I don't even know where to start other than by saying the amount of content and features cut are completely inexcusable. I got maybe 30 hours out of my copy before feeling like I've done everything single player has to offer. After a brief scenario that ends with you catching the boxart legendary right after becoming champion, the game punched me in the gut with an offensive message box that essentially said "go catch Pokemon and fight battles", but I read it as "that's it, there's nothing else to do". You can maybe run around the wild area fighting max raids and go to the battle tower, but that's about it for single player content. There is no battle frontier, there are no other legendaries to catch. There are no new areas in the post game, and truly nothing to do other than train up a decent team, which is I suppose is easier than before, but...
The single biggest problem with these games is the fan-dubbed "dexit". There are now 890 pokemon in total, but only 400 are available in these games. This. Is. Awful. Some great pokemon made the cut like Toxapex, Hydreigon, and the ever present Charizard, but the omissions sting beyond words. These are pokemon games without Salamence. All the old starters are gone (save the Charizard line), and instead we get such treats as Basculin and Maractus. In other words, what on earth was game freak thinking? Their claim was it was too much work, but the final products fail to display this so called "work" they put into these games. Again, this is utterly inexcusable, and many players cannot access their favorites. Some other notable omissions are Garchomp, Gliscor, and Greninja, just to name a few, that have quickly become series staples. Truly this is pathetic, and will make for a far less interesting meta game for competitive players due to the lack of options.
And again, no battle frontier. Like come on, Game Freak, this one feature would make the post game feel complete, yet has been absent since Generation 4. You can also use any pokemon, so feel free to ruin literally every trainer with Zacian in Sword who is hilariously overpowered. To make matters even worse, online play is now restricted to the Nintendo Switch Online service, and trading / battling has been downgraded yet again from the wonderful Gen 6 and 7 implementations. Gone is the player search system and the GTS. What remains is an okay ranked online system, but I feel like we shouldn't have to pay for it considering the base games are so expensive now and online features were always free before, especially if what we are left with is stripped down.
Factor in again that these games are incredibly unpolished graphically. Just because several Galar pokemon designs are solid doesn't mean they are all good. In particular I hate Sobble's evolutions, it's second form looks dumb and Inteleon is simply hideous, even speculative fan art was better. The fossil pokemon are also quite bad this time around, albeit with a unique combination concept, but it ends up looking awful. Overall the number of new pokemon is still disappointing as well, and they are clearly using Gigantamax and Galarian forms to try to look like they have come up with more than they have. While I mentioned way back that there were a few sparse moments the game was slightly more challenging, these are still laughably easy games. Honestly, I don't even know if I have touched on everything bad there is to say about these games, there is simply too much.
Honestly, I think the best way I can summarize this is that Sword and Shield are somewhat okay video games in their own right, but completely lackluster Pokemon experiences for a home console. It has been painfully obvious since Gen 6 that Game Freak does not care much about the quality of their games, but never has it been this dismal. It is made even worse by the fact there are the first main line games on a home-console system, and yet are by the far the least polished, and boast the lowest amount of content the series has seen since the original Red and Blue which were for the freaking Game Boy. The worst part? The games have sold stupidly well (yes I recognize I bought Sword, but mainly to hope it would be okay) and Game Freak will get away with this again and again, and make further millions off of merchandise and kids being brought up in this new era of dismal Pokemon games. These games are not quite the "0/10 absolute trash" that some users may lead you to believe, there was some fun to be had, more than anything there just was not enough of it for a full price AAA game. I walk away from this review giving the games a 2/5 "Poor" rating.
Game Freak, do better, except we know you won't.
Product Release: Pokemon Sword (US, 11/15/19)
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