Release date: November 15, 2019
Rating: E (Everyone)
Platform: Nintendo Switch
What's It All About?
Even if you've been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you've still probably heard of Pokémon somehow. It's the entry-level role-playing game on the market, as well as a television show, card game, toy line, Hollywood film, and voter registration slogan.
In all fairness, I've been a fan of this series for two decades now, which works in both ways. On one hand, I'm admittedly predisposed toward liking these games. Nostalgia is a heck of a drug. On the other, Sword & Shield has to stack up against every almost-yearly release in the series since 1996 (yearly since 2016) and their franchise-fatigue-based baggage.
Pokémon isn't exactly notable for shaking up its formula too much with each iteration; in fact, one of the games' common criticisms is their “if it ain't broke” mentality. And, while it's got its fair share of nits to be picked, Pokémon Shield & Sword know what ain't broke. That's where it doubles down hard.
There are three main things that you want to do in any good Pokémon game:
- Catch Pokémon
- Train Pokémon
- Battle Pokémon
Gratefully, Pokémon Sword & Shield have all three on absolute lockdown.
The critter-collecting process is definitely close to Pokémon's heart, and here it's arguably the best that it's ever been. There's a staggering 400 of the buggers available (plus many distinct variants), so you'll still be turning over rocks to find some bizarre fist-fighting octopus right up 'till the end. While a good spread of old favorites are around, I found myself regularly impressed by the inventiveness of the newcomers. Rarely do you see a video game directly call out coral bleaching, the forged-antiques market, or 1800s paleontology. But but this game has 'em all, right there in the creature design. Don't let anyone tell you that the monsters have gotten less imaginative.
I don't think it's ever been quite so much fun to go off and catch them, either. There are all manner of little nudges that massage the process along, from your Pokédex pointing out the wild critters you're still missing to the return of monsters spawning in the overworld, letting you mostly pick-and-choose which ones you want to engage with.
Then there's game's Wild Area, a less-structured stretch of map that you reach early and uncover more of with time. The weather there changes day by day: you may find Fire Pokémon on an arid afternoon, Electric-types during a thunderstorm, or Ghost-types when fog rolls in, so you're encouraged to come back to see what new Pokémon have turned up for you to catch today. And I've done just that, coming back for short sessions most evenings just to stoke my “caught” list with another half-dozen monsters.
Rotating cast aside, the Wild Area has plenty of loose treasure to root out each day, as well as portals to the game's Raid Battles. Raid Battles aren't unlike the concept of raids in massively-multiplayer games: a team of players take on a “boss” together for loot rewards. And – since this is Pokémon – you also get a chance to capture that boss for yourself. These can even give you access to some Pokémon not natively found in your version of the game, and the host player even gets a guaranteed chance to capture the target under normal circumstances. No more rolling of the dice on those rare, capture-resistant monsters!
The process of raising up the Pokémon is given some little improvements, too. The more frivolous-but-adorable one is camping, where you can cook a curative lunch for your super-powered pets via mini-game, or just hang around playing fetch with them. Pokémon always makes time to underline the inherent charm of owning a friendly dragon or sentient plant. But you also get little foot-holds that make the gameplay aspects easier, especially the kind of stat management that many players would otherwise avoid.
Even just within the single-player campaign, this is a huge boon. Move-teaching items, tutors, and breeding are all significantly more accessible, which really blows up your team-building options. You'll naturally amass a healthy stock of items to optionally skip experience grinding, and even that is less necessary since the wild monsters are usually pretty close in level to nearby NPCs' teams. There are even easy ways to re-train your existing team members, just in case the monster haunting your tea-set was more inclined toward offense rather than support this whole time.
The turn-based battles have settled into something of a steady state since 2006, hitting only minor (often temporary) updates. And, frankly, that's because it just works. Formulating a six-critter team to cover for a range of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock situations is still a fun little over-arching bit of strategy, but leaves the space for certain story-important opponents to get the drop on you (albeit rarely fatally).
And those important battles have never felt more important. The series has always pitched its monster-battling as a form of competitive sport, in no small part to distance itself from that poisonous “fantasy dogfighting” moniker. Moving the setting to a the home of the biggest sport in the world primes it to underscore this loud and clear.
Every Gym Leader battle takes place in a massive
football soccer battling stadium, with all the set dressings to sell the atmosphere: flying drone shots of the action, crowds cheering at every move, and fans rowdily chanting along to the game's music. A bit silly? Perhaps, out of context. But it really does set the stage in a way that even the series' other console titles haven't up until this point.
There's also the “Dynamax” and “Gigantamax” features, which inflate your Pokémon to towering, skyscraper-scale heights for a temporary health boost and bolstered attacks at the expense of their secondary effects. It's highly situational – usually as a competition set-piece or to turn the aforementioned Raid Battles into a Godzilla-style kaiju fight – and going full-attack isn't an equal upgrade for all Pokémon, but it is kind of a fun spectacle. It definitely feels better-considered than the series' previous attempts at a “power-up” mechanic, at least; it's accessible to every single Pokémon, is by no means forced on you, and is restricted to specific contexts, which keeps it from becoming a “push-to-win” button.
And, taken as a whole, Pokémon still makes for a pleasant little adventure. As one particular bright spot in your campaign, your many “rival” characters split the difference quite nicely between being friendly and foe-ly. The most helpful is such a perpetual loser that he has to heavily rebuild his team multiple times after repeated defeats. The adorable fan-favorite is more subtly supportive, though her own fans regularly make themselves a nuisance. And the third may just be the most bratty, spiteful antagonist in the entire series, which should satisfy those nostalgic for the cocky “smell ya later” rivals of the 1990s games. Even the Professor goes on her own adventure parallel to yours, completely separate from the “fighting monsters” hook. The ongoing presence of multiple other travelers, all with their own little character arcs, really helps the setting feel like doesn't only exist to cater to your player character.
A lot of the nit-picks don't show themselves immediately, but they wear on you over time. Chiefly, the game suffers from irritating technical issues. The draw distance for people and creatures is fairly low, with wild monsters cheerily popping in and out twenty feet way like popcorn. Much of the Wild Area is drawn at a lower resolution – something I barely ever notice with games, but that stuck out enough that I did in this case. And, while things generally run smoothly, the “feature” of adding other online players to the open Wild Area as NPC doppelgangers is as charming as it is murderous to the game's framerate.
Less cut-and-dry is Sword & Shield‘s stance on camera control: namely, that you still can't control the camera outside the Wild Area. Personally, I prefer it; the camera moves around very sensibly through the game's more structured areas, making it one less thing to think about. I just know from experience that steering the view around myself often feels tedious rather than freeing in RPGs. For others, the forced perspective could create the feeling that you're visiting the “playset” versions of towns rather than fully-realized environments. To each their own.
And for all that the Wild Area adds in exploration, the rest of the game takes away, with the routes and dungeons between towns all being remarkably brief. On one hand, it's nice to be in and out of each area in a clean fifteen or twenty minutes. On the other, there's a certain delight to getting lost and having to feel your way back through a half-familiar cave. You'll have to find that delight in a different game.
And yes, these mark the first main Pokémon games since 2004 where you can't collect all of the series' monsters on one cartridge. That is, if you don't count Let's Go Pikachu & Eevee, of course. That may sting if you're long-time a devotee of the series and have to leave behind your trusted Sandslash.
But from the seat of somebody who keeps a “living Pokédex” – one of each creature in the entire series to date, plus a their variants: this isn't quite the deal-breaker that it may seem. A few of my own favorites aren't around, sure, but there's so much variety in the over-400 that are present that you could never reasonably explore every single one. At times, it can still feel like there are too many monsters in this game, not too few.
Speaking of nitpicks particular to series veterans, there's still a few spots where the game goes on-rails to guide you through an area. It's not quite as bad as, say, Sun & Moon – but it's still there, and still irritating. Gratefully, you're allowed to skip sections of this; you can outright tell NPCs that you already understand certain features, and using the handful of Pokéballs you're silently given early on will let you skip over a certain tutorial. Just not all of the scripting around it.
For as much as the core gameplay loop shines, it stinks to have it sidelined against your will. I'm hardly a fan of the series' attempts at big, JRPG-ish plots, but Shield & Sword are cursed with the worst attempts yet. Most of the world-threatening B-plot (now there's a combination) happens off-screen, with adults urging you to move along and not worry your little head about it. Then, it swings back around hard and kills all the momentum of the game's final hours. Never once have I been more annoyed to have to drop what I'm doing to go stop some eco-terrorist from leveling a city or whatever.
But more persistently, Pokémon suffers deeply from an all-to-familiar Nintendo plague: anemic online capabilities. For all of the company's attempts to cut online toxicity off at the past, the back-handed result is that there are hardly any meaningful ways for players to interact at all unless they're in the same room (or at least the same Discord chat). Here's a list of fairly simple-sounding things that I've wanted to do online, but were not an option:
- Actively search for an open raiding party
- Offer a Ponyta and ask for a Farfetch'd in return
- Ask a friend if they want to trade
- Join a friend who's camping, to let our Pokémon play together
- Look at a list of friends who are currently playing online in the game
There's no getting around it: this would look embarrassingly restrictive for a game made in 2012. In 2019, it's plainly abysmal, especially considering how much player interaction is baked into the series' core appeal.
Pokémon Sword & Shield are in a weird place. Their core is incredibly strong, making for some of the best “kick-back-and-play” sessions I've had with the series in ages. But the more you look at it under a lens, the more its seams will show.
If you're looking at the game with a more serious or even competitive eye, you'll be more apt to notice the missing features and assets, which are the areas where it really stumbles. But if you're a player who's more in it for the atmosphere and new monsters to catch and befriend? Pokémon Shield & Sword is all about delivering on that experience in the best way.