Ever since I played “Pokémon Pearl,” I’ve been enamored with Nintendo and Game Freak’s monster-catching RPG franchise. The humongous list of creatures to catch, the easy-to-grasp yet darn near impossible-to-master battle system and the surprisingly decent storytelling, all combined together into a highly accessible and deeply rewarding RPG experience. Needless to say, 7-year-old me was hooked from the start. Since then, I’ve played every single mainline entry in at least some capacity, and while they haven’t all been home runs (“Pokémon X” and “Pokémon Y” stand out as a personal low point for me), the series as a whole has managed to keep me invested to the point where I get all giddy whenever the newest installment is revealed. So, here we are in 2019 with not just a new entry in the storied franchise, but the first mainline generation of “Pokémon” to be released on a home console, (well, mostly). Yes, if you weren’t already aware, the main “Pokémon” installment has finally made its way to our television via the Nintendo Switch. This seems set up to be an absolute home run, as Switch presumably has the capability to supercharge the Pokémon art style and allow for more design possibilities while simultaneously keeping the series’ portability and convenience factor healthily intact. Last year’s “Pokémon Let’s Go” was an enjoyable spin-off that gave fans a sneak preview of what Switch-powered Pokémon hunting could be like, but it left the more dedicated fans eager to find out how the next main entry would build upon the framework established by both that game and the rest of the series’ past, and with the release of “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield,” that time has finally come.
“Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” introduce players to the U.K.-inspired Galar Region, a land of lush countrysides and stark mountain ranges with Pokémon both old and new inhabiting it. You take control of a customizable avatar (canonically named either Victor or Gloria) who has their eyes set on taking the title of “Galar League Champion” from its currently undefeated holder, who is known affectionately by his fans as “The Great Leon.” The game opens on you and your best friend Hop receiving a visit from the Champion himself, who awards you with both his official endorsement for the Gym Challenge as well as a starter Pokémon to begin your journey with. After this, you’re sent on your way, allowing players to get straight to adventuring almost immediately. Sure, the first couple of routes of the game are rather dialogue-heavy, but this dies down fairly quickly, letting players explore more at their own pace without the constant interruption of pages and pages of text.
That’s not to say that the story isn’t enjoyable when the characters do decide to speak up though, as the tale on offer here represents a sort of deviation from what has become the series standard. The presence of any kind of plan to take over/destroy the world or use Pokémon as tools in some evil scheme is heavily downplayed here in favor of a story that focuses almost exclusively on the Gym Challenge itself and the characters who join you on your journey to make history. The fact that Leon is the first regional Pokémon League Champion who is directly mentioned to be completely undefeated instantly gives him a lot more presence than some other series champions, due to the previous assumption that the League Champion in other regions is changing constantly. It doesn’t necessarily make him a threat, but rather it goes a long way to making the coming battle with him feel more like an underdog affair, as beating him means you’ll go down in history as Galar’s first trainer ever to dethrone the original champ. It’s a streamlined approach to storytelling that allows the focus to be put squarely on the cast of characters that you encounter along the way. Hop, for example, ends up feeling a lot more substantial as a character than I feel many rivals have in the past. I won’t spoil the details here, but suffice it to say, Hop has much more to his personality and development than simply being someone who gets in your way to battle you occasionally. In addition, the other supporting characters, the mysterious and standoffish Bede or the professor’s studious granddaughter Sonia, each come with their own personality quirks, motivations and character arcs as well. This all combines together to deliver a “Pokémon” story where the tone is defined more by its characters than by the situations those characters are put into, and in my opinion, the games are all the better for it.
As for the Galar region itself, the design of the environments and the clear inspiration taken from real-world locations in Great Britain, Ireland and the surrounding areas make for an incredibly compelling world to explore. Routes and caves start off incredibly linear, but as I progressed through the game, I found that they started to open up more and more. Sure, there is always a linear direction to follow should you simply want to blaze through to the next town, but after the first five or so areas the routes begin to branch off and present multiple windy and wiggly paths through them, with each one leading to different hidden goodies along the way. Hidden passages or ladders will often be present along a route or in a town, with the fixed camera revealing just enough of an inconsistency in the scenery to let players know that the area might be worth investigating. It really is a situation of “the more you put in, the more you get out” as you can easily blast through a route in five minutes or spend up to 30 exploring every nook and cranny of it for hidden items, with the latter method obviously helping each area to feel much more substantial and memorable.
Despite the region itself being mostly brilliantly designed, the presentation can occasionally show some signs of struggling. Certain areas look absolutely gorgeous, with grassy fields and dense forests stretching far into the distance and the return of the overworld pokémon mechanic from “Pokémon Let’s Go” making the routes feels as if they are teeming with life. At other times though, the game can, frankly, look downright hideous for a 2019 Nintendo Switch title. The game seems to operate on a dynamic resolution scale, and while it doesn’t seem to deviate from what you would expect too often when it does decide to dip, it REALLY dips. This seems to be especially prevalent in tablet mode, where the resolution has a tendency to fluctuate wildly between a full, native 720p and something that would’ve been more acceptable in the Wii-era. Docked mode is much more consistent with its resolution by comparison, and both modes do a fairly decent job of holding their target 30fps, but it should be noted either way that this game is responsible for some of the blurriest gameplay I’ve come across playing Switch in tablet mode. It’s hard to tell what exactly would cause these performance issues, as the game is by no means the most complex visually on Nintendo’s hybrid system. The models for the characters and the Pokémon themselves are all fairly well done and detailed, but certain objects and textures in the overworld environments can look straight out of 2004. Bottom line, this game can look absolutely stunning one second, and then make you wonder if you accidentally started playing your old Gamecube by mistake the next. It all makes for a sort of inconsistent style that can simultaneously dazzle and disappoint players depending on what areas they happen to be in.
So, the visuals may be a little shaky, but one aspect of this new “Pokémon” generation that remains absolutely rock solid is the series’ tried and true battle system. For any who may not be aware, Pokémon battles are the central mechanic of these games and the system in place here is just as excellent as ever. From what I can tell, there doesn’t seem to have been any major revisions or changes to the fundamental formula of battles, such as the introduction of a new type, meaning that players who are familiar with the ins and outs of type matchups will feel right at home here. The game also remains as accessible as ever to newcomers, with guides as to what moves are super-effective or not-very-effective to your opponent being present throughout the battles to help new players memorize the type matchups as they play (though an option to turn this feature off for more experienced players would have been appreciated). While the main battle system remains largely untouched here, the Galar region does bring with it the introduction of a brand new battle mechanic, the “Dynamax” phenomenon.
Only available during certain boss battles in the story, this mysterious power allows one of your Pokémon to temporarily grow to an insane size, a process which has a number of effects such as raising their stats, giving them access to ultra-powerful “Max Moves,” and even allowing certain Pokémon to change form entirely. While this can certainly give you a competitive advantage, it’s by no means a win button, as the opponents can also Dynamax their Pokémon. That being said, even a regular Pokémon can take down a Dynamaxed opponent with skillful play and strategy, meaning that if you have a Pokémon that’s at a terrible type disadvantage, Dynamaxing it likely won’t do much to help you. Even with Dynamaxing at play, strategy and type matchups still play the biggest part in deciding who comes out victorious in a battle, which is sure to be a relief to those who may have initially been concerned about the mechanic rendering all strategy and consideration when battling completely useless. Now yes, it may be true that not every Pokémon is obtainable in the Galar Region, the first time such a thing has happened in a main series entry. Thankfully though, the new and returning Pokémon that are included in the game are incredibly diverse in their typing and strategic roles, meaning that there are still a multitude of possibilities for players to build teams that suit their playstyles or focus on their personal favorite type combinations. Sure, it may be far from ideal to have nearly half the existing Pokémon completely inaccessible, but the ones that are here seem to be well thought out choices that ensure that no one Pokémon type or generation is overrepresented, meaning that there is still plenty of room for experimenting and finding your favorites from the still fairly sizeable selection of Pokémon at your disposal.
“Pokémon” just wouldn’t be “Pokémon” without multiplayer, and this game provides all the usual multiplayer staples while also taking some risks, once again leaving some mixed results as the end product. The standard local battles and trades are all present and accounted for, and work perfectly as far as my testing goes. However, the newest and arguably most exciting multiplayer feature presented here comes in the form of the “Wild Area.” For the first time in series history, this area offers an open-world, online-enabled experience in which players explore a large map searching for wild Pokémon to fight, wandering trainers to interact with and special raid battles to take part in. It all works well enough, although the matchmaking system can sometimes be a little wonky, but the Wild Area also manages to be compelling all on its own. It really stinks that the Wild Area undoubtedly presents some of the weakest visuals in the entire game, but the small glimpse of what a true, open-world “Pokémon” game could be like is sure to engross many players who travel through this part of the Galar Region. While there is the ability to play the Wild Area fully online, connecting locally to explore with a group of friends in the same room is where this part of the game really comes into its own, as traveling around together hunting rare encounters, searching for hidden items and fighting powerful raid bosses gives this part of the game a real sense of adventure.
Unfortunately, though, the side content in “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” seems to take a complete backseat here, which is odd considering that this is coming after the introduction of systems like Generation Six’s “Super Training” and Generation Seven’s “Poképelago,” both of which offered tons of side content for players, and both of which are completely M.I.A. here. In place of these mechanics, we have the “Pokémon Camp,” a mode in which players can set up camp along routes or in caves and take time to play with their Pokémon, cook various curries using ingredients and berries found throughout their adventures, and… that’s about it. The Pokémon Camp system feels a bit like an overly stripped-down combination of various other side modes from past games in the franchise, leading to a mode that doesn’t retain any of the charm or replayability that those past mechanics originally had. The Pokémon interaction isn’t nearly as in-depth as what was on offer in “Pokémon Sun” or “Pokémon Moon,” or even the Generation Six games, for that matter, and the cooking mini-game gets old very, very quickly. The fact that this is the only real instance of side content in the game (other than the “PokéJob” feature, which basically amounts to a menu and nothing more) can sometimes leave the game feeling as if it lags far behind past entries in terms of overall content on offer, and it feels like an odd step backwards in a game that tries to break series conventions in so many other ways.
Another odd quirk that I feel the need to mention comes in the difficulty. You see, many past “Pokémon” games have included an optional item known as the “Experience Share,” which was a way to train up members of your team without them actively participating in a battle. That item no longer exists in Generation 8 and is instead the main mechanic of the game that is always active, meaning that every member of your team gains experience points and at the end of each battle. As far as I can tell there’s no way to turn this off, and it may not actually bother most people. However, for those who are looking for a challenge, I want to say that you need to be very mindful about this mechanic. Essentially, the more exploration you do (especially in the Wild Area), the more battles you’ll end up getting into, and the more over-leveled your team can become. It’s not impossible to find yourself with a full team of Pokémon that are 10 to 15 levels higher than what your competition will be using, removing practically all challenges from the fights. This certainly isn’t guaranteed to happen by any means, it’s just something that players should be mindful of if they want to spend a lot of time in exploration without throwing the game’s difficulty out of whack, and the fact that this sharing mechanic isn’t optional seems like a huge oversight in my eyes.
So, taking all of this into account, are “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” my favorite games in the series? No, not by a long shot, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a lot of what developer Game Freak has put together here. The occasionally shoddy presentation, the odd difficulty balancing and the hugely lackluster side content hold the games back from true greatness in my eyes, but what “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” get right, they absolutely nail. The story focus is refreshingly different for the franchise, the graphics can really dazzle in the right circumstances and the series’ time-honored battle system is still just as fun and rewarding as ever. I personally hope that this isn’t the last we see of the Galar Region or of “Pokémon” on Switch, as I think a follow-up to these games could potentially retain what works and tweak what doesn’t in order to deliver a truly great end-product. However, at the end of the day, these games lay the foundation for a fantastic presence of main-series Pokémon on Nintendo’s hybrid machine, and despite their flaws, they are still worth your time. Just make sure that you haven’t Dynamaxed your expectations beyond reason before jumping in.