Review by KF91

Reviewed: 12/18/19

Half-Baked Adventure

Catching them all has always been a staple of the Nintendo handhelds, with a regular stream of Pokémon games that have been released since the debut of Pokémon Red/Blue/Green in 1996. After much speculation, rumors, and wishful thinking, the Pokémon series makes its way to the home console for the first time with the launch of Pokémon Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch.

The newest entries of the series take players to the region of Galar, which is based on the United Kingdom. Similar to the representation of Hawaii as Alola stemming in Pokémon Sun and Moon, Game Freak has done a great job in fleshing out the world without being in your face with the references. Small touches within building aesthetics, conversations dialects, and local food make up some of the ways that the game conveys some of its inspiration.

The most exciting part of the world is the backdrop against which the game is set. Galar is a region that is enthralled by the notion of the gym challenge, an annual event that Pokémon trainers prepare for. The challenge comprises of 8 gyms to collect badges, ultimately ending with a challenge against the Champion. The Champion is treated somewhat like a cross between an esports star and the regional protector in the game, with sponsors, a huge fan following, and the responsibility of having to respond to emergencies in Galar. Gym Leaders and the Champion are well-respected within the region, with trainer cards being something of a collector’s item as you play through the game. The little touches of being able to set your uniform number and having to change into them before each challenge are nice touches that keep the theme consistent throughout the playthrough.

With this premise at the foundation, Pokémon Sword and Shield does an excellent job in changing the core structure that the franchise has held on for so long. Similar to the trials in Pokémon Sun and Moon, Gym Challenges have been changed from a series of trainer battles to various tasks more fitting to the gym setting. Ranging from herding sheep for the grass gym to a water maze for the water gym, the game does a good job of maintaining a broad set of things for players to complete. Once players reach the gym leader, the game does a great job of supporting its world-building efforts by making each battle a large spectacle. Set in a stadium with thousands of fans watching and a pumping soundtrack, the gym leader battle is something that you could easily imagine taking place if Pokémon battling was taken seriously as something like FIFA or the NFL.

The culmination of all of this is the Champion Cup, which is a change to the Elite Four formula. With a single-elimination bracket comprised of all gym leaders, the Pokémon champion, and trainers that were able to collect all eight gym badges, the battles are something that exudes excitement akin to the playoffs of a sporting season compared to the lone endeavor.

With the arrival of the series to its first home console, Game Freak took the opportunity to add in quality of life changes that will increase the accessibility for a new crowd of gamers. Random encounters, although they exist, are much rarer in favor of visible encounters that will allow you to choose which Pokémon to battle. The online system, although not perfect, does a good job of making sure that you’re able to play with your friends. Changing your party, which previously required you to access a PC, has now been replaced with a UI that can be accessed at any time through the menu. Even for the serious battlers, there are a couple of changes within the EV and IV systems that take out some of the monotonous grind and luck factors.

Unfortunately, outside of its world and quality of life changes, Pokémon Sword and Shield indexes too hard concerning accessibility, which makes it feel like it’s holding your hands throughout the whole experience. The game tends to tell you exactly where to go to do what you need: routes are frequently blocked off and characters repetitively telling you how to progress the story. Each city has one effective method of entry with no room for freedom; you’re moved from story point to story point until the end. Other additions of a constant stream of NPCs that heal your Pokémon and a UI that shows which moves are the best ones to use game a relatively easy journey through its 20 hours of playtime. Game Freak was able to build the most enthralling world in the series, but the gameplay feels akin to watching an episode of the Pokémon anime.

On a technical front, the move to the Nintendo Switch was something that was a significant hype factor for most, but it’s disappointing that the game struggles with the same problems that the handheld titles have faced in the past. Even though graphics feel outdated compared to others on the platform, FPS drops are a frequent event even during scripted cutscenes. One of the main areas added to the game, the Wild Zone, is a laggy mess that renders it almost unplayable when moving around either your character or the camera. With high-fidelity games such as Astral Chain running at a smooth frame rate on the same hardware, it’s hard not to note some of the technical challenges that the game suffers from.

Although I mentioned many smaller changes that Game Freak has made to flesh out the world and quality of life improvements, Pokémon Sword and Shield feels a bit hollow at the end of the day. Dynamaxing, a new method of temporary transformation, feels like a reskin of the mega-evolution (Gen 6) or Z-moves (Gen 7) from previous entries. Raid battles, which pit you against a variety of Dynamax Pokémon, feel repetitive after the first few battles due to lack of variety. Even with the cut-down roster of Pokémon, attack animations tend to be hit or miss, ranging from custom animations for a Pokémon to a generic hop that ends with the damage being resolved.

The Wild Zone, as mentioned before, was one of the main additions of the new generation, along with its raid battles. Unfortunately, the area is pretty barren, with a sparse amount of raid battles that spawn. With weather conditions that change once a day in real-time, which dictates the spawn rate of the wild Pokémon, it's hard to justify spending a lot of time in a space that suffers from technical issues. Even the Pokémon Camps, which allow players to hang out with their team, and make curries to improve their friendships, serve no real use outside of completion.

Outside of the pure battle mechanics, there are many glaring holes as well. Although the introduction of the lobby system makes it easy to connect with your friends, it also brought the removal of the GTS (Global Trade System). This makes it hard for players to trade for a specific type of Pokémon without coordinating with someone outside of the game, which is precisely the problem that GTS had solved.

For players who thrive on the endgame content, Pokémon Sword and Shield is probably the most disappointing out of the whole series. After the credits roll, there are a few more hours of story to help you catch the respective legendary Pokémon of each version but leaves you to your own after that. With the removal of the National Dex, it means catching them all is something that could be done relatively quickly. The Battle Tower has been reduced to two types of battles (1v1, 2v2) with 11 ranks that can be achieved in less than a day with just a rental team. That leaves players with the online battling system, but with a severe cut to the roster and the overpowered nature of Dynamaxing, it doesn’t leave much room for creative teams and builds.

The arrival of Pokémon Sword and Shield was a turbulent journey, and it’s clear more than ever that Game Freak is itching to change the formula as it transitions to new hardware. Although a lot of its efforts went land well, the good points feel too shallow while there are glaring issues with the game that make it hard to stand on its own two feet as a complete entry in the Pokémon series. Ongoing updates may be able to sustain the player base past the initial release, but Pokémon Sword and Shield wasn’t ready to leave its mark for the franchise’s first home console outing.

Rating: 6

Product Release: Pokemon Sword (US, 11/15/19)

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