Pokémon Sword & Shield: God Save the Nidoqueen

I’ve rewritten this opening paragraph several times. Each time I come up with the perfect line, the perfect bon mot to summarise my thoughts on Pokémon Sword & Shield, but I keep backspacing it, and it’s because voicing my true, honest opinion on this game is like yelling at your dog, and I can’t help but feel awful about it. I mean, it’s your dog, you know? You’ve known it its entire life; you’ve spent so many of your important, formative years with it; and imagining a world without it just feels… wrong.

But it did just shit in the corner of the room.

So now that, right there, is the preface to this review, and I’m sticking to it.

The release of Pokémon Let’s Go! Pikachu & Eevee last year was a curious experiment because it sought to meld the traditional gameplay of the mainline Pokémon series with its mobile spin-off, Pokémon Go. The end result was something that felt a little unwieldy and threadbare — demonstrably a step back from what we were used to — but there were certainly the makings of something wonderful interwoven throughout the other, more baffling design choices.

Your Pokémon, for the first time in several generations, followed you in the overworld — many of them rideable. Wild Pokémon would appear as actual encounters in the overworld, making the unsettlingly sterile landscapes feel busy, lived in, and bursting with life. And the move to the Switch obviously presented Gamefreak with an opportunity to give its seminal title a facelift that would bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded Pokémon fan.

In short, Pokémon Let’s Go was a relentless charm offensive, unashamedly relying on weaponised nostalgia to make an impact. So perhaps in spite of its austere approach to the tried and tested formula, most people walked away from the experience satisfied, but not overwhelmingly so. The great light on the horizon was the much-touted “main series” game that would be arriving the year after, which would later be revealed to be Pokémon Sword & Shield, and with Let’s Go fresh in our memories, we at least had some concept of where Gamefreak would begin their march to the next title.

And so, whether good, bad or indifferent, Pokémaniacs the world over sat, content, and waited, until recently, when more information about the games came to light, and the rumblings beneath the surface have became a cacophony of overwhelming negativity and positivity alike, as internet discourse is wont to do.

So, in the least, we know what to expect, but how does the game measure up?

Life On Galar

From the outset, Pokémon SwSh feels different. Sure, you’re still a young upstart from a conveniently remote town who has to remind themselves of who they are and what they look like, and sure, you have to visit the Pokémon professor to receive your first little monster from a selection of three, and sure, they’re the same fire-beats-grass-beats-water-beats-fire trio that you’ve always known. And, sadly, yes, you’re still railroaded into endless tutorialising (which, at least somewhat mercifully, you can now skip to a degree). But that’s where the similarities end. From the outset, the game does its utmost to thrust upon you basically every Big New Thing more or less straight away with little to no preface, and it’s up to you to find your feet as you’re reeling from the whiplash.

Consider this: where previous titles would have you meandering through small towns, running meagre errands for shopkeeps, researchers or even your own mother, this time around, you come face to face with the poster boy of the game within minutes of starting, you’re force-fed Charizard propaganda via the region’s Champion in the next town over, and are thrown face-first into the largest single area the Pokémon franchise has ever seen — ever — within the first fifteen. Somehow those old days spent with the old man and his Weedle seem so far away now.

This tremendous shift in approach is, on one hand, a revelation, but on the other, oddly enough, deeply unsatisfying.

One of the most wonderful elements of Pokémon games past, no matter how formulaic, is how relationships between you and your companions form and evolve over the span of the game. Your starter, once a plump little Rowlet, is now a sharpshooting assassin who carried you to victory in the championship match. Or maybe your Butterfree, while not a mainstay in your team, earned its retirement in your PC box after you caught it as a level 2 Caterpie, and it came in clutch during one of your earliest gym battles. And let’s not forget your Bibarel: everyone laughed at him, including you, with that goofy face of his, but without him, you wouldn’t surf the high seas, smash those rocks in your path, or cut down those trees in your way. He was important.

So, at the end of the game, while you may have ended up with a team of ace Pokémon, it would be wrong to neglect the contributions of so many others who helped you get there. That kind of emergent storytelling is the kind of thing that makes games great, and it’s something that ultimately ends up being completely unique to each player.

Wild Thing, You Make My Yamper Sting

To circle back, the reason the Wild Area is such an unsatisfying slog is because of the sheer breadth of Pokémon that it presents to you from the outset. Before even thinking about reaching the first gym, I had cobbled together a full box of completely different Pokémon, as well as a well-rounded team with a plethora of useful moves, and suddenly, I didn’t feel like any of it mattered. What was my team’s story? That I found them, I weighed them up, and found them to be more versatile than the other 20-something in the box?

The game’s overeagerness to give you everything doesn’t leave enough room for nuance, and Pokémon that can’t, and won’t make the cut in the long term are almost immediate grist for the mill before you can even make them impactful on your playthrough. It’s highly likely that you’ll cobble together the core of your team within the first hour or two, all from that one area, and leave it at that. It’s an embarrassment of riches that I found myself unexpectedly uneasy with.

So you might be saying: “well then, perhaps you should battle less and play more!” — fair point! However, it’s important to note that I avoided every single optional battle in the game. In other words, I never fought a wild Pokémon unless I intended to catch it, never caught more than one of each, and I never battled a trainer I didn’t have to. There were two reasons why.

Firstly, EXP Share is on, by default, and can’t be turned off. This means that it’s far too easy to overlevel your party, and parts of the game that would otherwise be challenging become completely trivial. Moreover, it means that Pokémon you’ve found that need some TLC to get them up to speed end up leveling the rest of your party anyway, leaving you, again, either horrendously overleveled, or resigned to having a 20+ level gap between your party members. There is EXP Candy to compensate for this, but to compare notes here, there’s a big difference in an experiential sense between the Pokémon you painstakingly trained to level 100, and the one you force-fed Rare Candies until it couldn’t stand anymore.

Secondly, level scaling in the Wild Area is extraordinarily arbitrary, and an absolute terror to navigate without prior knowledge. Pokémon of all shapes and sizes litter the place, and there’s no way of really knowing, at least, on your first outing, whether the little beastie you see is level 10, 20, or even higher. Sure, there are notifications of sub-regional changes, from, say, the Rolling Plains to Lake Axewell, but the only way to know what that means is to dip your toe in and find out. There were numerous occasions where my party was wiped out specifically because I’d unknowingly drawn the ire of a Pokémon vastly beyond my capabilities, and my Pokémon were so slow that every attempt to run away was a failure. Sure, you live, you learn, but for folks out there who are doing Nuzlocke runs and the like, I can see this being a proper nightmare.

When The Level Breaks

As an example, each region of the Wild Area has a “featured” Pokémon that seems to spawn in an identical location no matter the circumstance — the first you see being an Onix just after broaching the gates — and having gone into the experience blind, I couldn’t help but laugh when it, at level 27, proceeded to body slam my poor Grookey into oblivion on the first turn. I can’t help but feel as though that Onix is going to be the bane of new trainers the world over, with that smug, satisfied grin it has. “Welcome to the wonderful world of Pokémon!”, says the giant rock snake, while crushing your poor fire rabbit into dust.

The obvious pandering to a young audience is to be expected — it is, after all, the target demographic — and yet some of these early obstacles, previously absent, are so at odds with this hand-holding that it’s simultaneously patronising and brutal in all of the worst ways.

What’s more, the restrictions in place regarding the Pokémon that you can catch are such that even if you were to whittle down that Onix to within an inch of its life, primed and ready for capture, the game arbitrarily insists that you aren’t able to do that because you don’t have the requisite badges. It’s a riff on the old idea of traded Pokémon being unable to be controlled until certain thresholds were met, but even then, you could use them — just not well — and moreover, you had them ready until you were ready. In Sword & Shield, you’re simply barred from access; so I weep for the first poor soul who comes across a shiny that the game simply will not let them catch.

All of this being said, the Wild Area itself is a massive step forward for the series conceptually speaking, and there are the makings of something properly revelatory here. It is, for all intents and purposes, the closest we’ve ever come to the vaunted open-world Pokémon game that lives on in the collective imaginations of a generation, and while it’s a far cry from what we may have envisioned, it is, at least, on the right track.

But while we’re talking about the Wild Area, we need to talk about model pop-in. I’m here to tell you: there is no pop-in. The sudden appearance of Pokémon, NPCs and other miscellany is intentional; the draw distance in Sword & Shield is so poor that rotating the camera is enough to phase certain objects in and out of view: berry trees are especially prone to this, frequently appearing on my screen as a floating green blob, but with a complete shadow underneath. And I actually think that this might be the deepest cut when it comes to the Wild Area. The initial buzz of seeing the Wild Area in living colour was enough to give me a genuine moment of shivery pause, but that atrocious draw distance, low quality textures, and the bizarre flatness of the terrain itself almost betrayed its own intentions: I was meant — told, even — to be in awe of this tremendous valley, bursting with life at every turn, but all I could see was an Onix that wanted to kill me, empty stretches of lifeless grass, and the same, awful tree, with the same, awful texture, over and over again. If the platonic ideal of my initial exposure to the Wild Area is the big reveal in Jurassic Park, this felt more like the melodica remix. And don’t even think to compare it to Breath of the Wild.

Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into Galar

From teacups to ravens, whipped cream to corgis: the world of Poké-England is alarmingly well-realised. Linguistic markers are everywhere to be found: “mate”s and “telly”s are abound, and your mother is charmingly referred to as Mum, and not Mom; and the local flora, fauna and architecture are mostly tasteful, if sometimes baffling. A lot of this could largely be owed to Englishman James Turner, Sword & Shield’s art director. Where in the past he had designed select Pokémon like Golurk, Vanilluxe and Trevenant, in this generation, his influence can be seen everywhere.

Whether his designs will land with you is a matter of taste: in my experience, for one, this generation is certainly more miss than hit, but the hits hit strong. Pokémon like Yamper, Corviknight, Centiskorch and Wooloo feel utterly inspired, and they feel right at home amongst old favourites.

To wit, the Galar region itself is wonderfully designed, with blood red brick work and sprawling ivy plants belying its British roots; and the more freeform routes, replete with side roads and lush vegetation being a tremendously welcome change from even the most recent prior release. Where Let’s Go was every bit its Game Boy counterpart with blocky, right-angled environs, Galar feels much more like a current-gen game world. Compared to the Wild Area, Sword & Shield’s town centers are streaks ahead.

Another ‘Mon Bites The Dust

So, let’s talk Dexit. The announcement that the newest Pokémon title in the series would be the first to cut Pokémon from the game was possibly the most controversial move in the history of the franchise. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and you can no longer “catch ’em all”, as the song goes.

On one hand, it’s understandable. There are, admittedly, too many Pokémon, and some of the previous inclusions are proper head-scratchers. “But it’s an ice-cream,” bay the big-brains from beyond the sidelines. I don’t care. It’s stupid.

But, then, to take one step back, that stupid ice cream just might be the Pokémon plastered on someone’s walls, their phone wallpaper, or their Switch: so I’m content to concede the point that none of them should be snapped out of existence, no matter how absurd I might think they are.

Competitively speaking, the metagame will shift sharply with a lot of top Pokémon no longer around, but players will adapt. In terms of the main story, aside from the first few generations, no Pokémon game has given us access to a full complement, so nothing new there. And to a degree, many players simply won’t care that certain Pokémon did, or did not make it across the Galar border. The crux of it is that the culling of Pokémon from the game smacks of corporate hand-wringing; a decision borne out of ignorance of the fanbase; out of convenience, and ease of development. It’s a decision that is uncharacteristically anti-fun, and anti-Nintendo.

Worse yet, the implication that these Pokémon are being New Coke‘d as DLC bait or a bullet point on the key sell sheet for the potential third release, while not farfetched, would complete a pointless redemption arc. We could have simply, y’know, not gone there at all.

The Battle of Garbodor

Pokémon Sword & Shield’s Dynamax phenomenon lets your pocket monsters get big. Like, real big. Some Pokémon, like Alcremie, Meowth, and, yes, Charizard, have unique Gigantamax forms in this state, which are generally an interesting riff on their base designs: some yet to be announced are absolutely wonderful, and given the creativity at play with regards to how they’re presented, it’s a shame that there aren’t more to be had.

You can find them in the various Gym battles across the region, and in the Wild Area, too: likewise, your Pokémon can Dynamax, offering them an increase in base stats and a new movset for three turns. Gigantamax Pokémon, in particular, get special G-Max moves which are even more powerful.

In theory, it’s super cool, albeit absurd, to see your Sobble blown up to be the size of a house, but in practice, the Max moves remove a lot of the subtleties of battle, and boil down to “massive elemental damage of X type with one additional effect”: whether that effect is a stat increase, stat decrease, or stadium effect. If your Pokémon’s moveset is a carefully crafted Swiss Army Knife of complementary skills centered around a core concept, its Max moves are a giant sledgehammer crafted out of an even bigger sledgehammer.

Battling Dynamaxed Pokémon in the Wild Area is an odd experience. If you’re online, you’ll be paired with players from around the world who are similarly wishing to battle (though it should be noted that the online servers were, at the time of writing, offline); and if you’re on your own, a handful of CPU trainers will come to your aid. Generally, the trick for these battles is to guess the silhouette based on the typing it hints at, and picking a suitable counter. From there, it’s a simple matter of Dynamaxing yourself, picking the big move with the big hurt, and hoping that the three meatshields in front of you take the brunt of the damage.

They’re a neat addition, not too dissimilar from the raid battles found in Pokémon Go, but they do feel rather rote if you have your head around type advantages, even in the more difficult encounters (though admittedly, with CPU allies, you get unerringly close to failure more often than not in the higher starred encounters).

My main impetus for competing in Dynamax raids was ultimately TRs — the close cousin of TMs — that teach powerful moves as a one-off (the game even goes so far as to describe them as “old school”, in a nice nod to the good old days). We’re talking Tri-Attack, Shadow Ball, Aura Sphere levels of powerful, here, so finding a Pokémon with egg moves, and augmenting it with the right TRs means you could plausibly end up with the world’s strongest Magikarp before even hitting the first gym.

Compared to Mega Evolutions, or Z-Moves, Dynamax sits somewhere between: unlike Mega Evolutions, Dynamax has a finite lifespan in a given battle, and unlike Z-Moves, Max moves can be used multiple times. Though I still think that Mega Evolutions offered the most strategic value, I also concede that they were frequently a source of much consternation from the competitive crowd.

In short, Dynamax is fun, and it’s totally fine, but it does feel like this generation’s gimmick, and I wouldn’t expect to see it return for the next generation.

Good Times, Bad Times

Ultimately, Pokémon Sword & Shield is a game of binaries: big changes aside, it’s an amalgam of clever, future-forward decisions that finally bring the Pokémon series in line with its contemporaries, and baffling oversights and concessions that make it feel undercooked.

Fast travel is presented early, and conveniently: various key locations — not just towns — are unlocked as you pass through them, with a Corviknight ready to taxi you across any of them at your convenience; gone are the days of having to trudge from location to location, and what little on-foot travel there is, is complemented nicely with the bike, which you’ll also receive quite early in the piece, and not having to fiddle with sub-menus to get to either is extremely welcome. Menus in general, really, feel much better than previous iterations.

Not having to rely on Pokémon Centers to switch out your party is a welcome change, too; box access is instant, so whether you need to change your team for a particularly difficult battle on the fly, or simply need to conduct some maintenance in the field, no backtracking is necessary.

Berries are plentiful, thanks to trees that — although onerously reliant on repeated text dialogs — drop plenty of each, all across the Wild Area. You can stock up on them with ease, which is a pleasant change from previous releases, which basically saw you playing off-brand Stardew Valley and running thrice around the block just to get by. The obvious culprits are still the only relevant ones in terms of battle, but the Currydex is the obvious other use — though the less said about that, the better.

Y-Comm is a properly excellent feature that basically acts as a shorthanded social media feed; your, and your friends’ catches are displayed in the bottom left corner of the screen, effectively keeping you up to date with your peers’ activity. It’s entirely superfluous, and could have easily been left out, but it adds a really pleasant sense of community that permeates a great number of features in Sword & Shield.

And of course, it’s Pokémon. At the end of the day, if the only thing you want out of a Pokémon game is for it to be a Pokémon game, well, this is one of ’em. The brand capital that the world’s most popular media franchise carries simply cannot be understated, and even for a surly curmudgeon like myself, I can’t help but be enamoured with my little drummer monkey, and my determined little bird squire, and that damn lightning corgi. Pokémon is basically Japanese mascot culture writ large, and it’s frighteningly effective, even in the most dire of circumstances.

With that being said, that this is a Pokémon game just might be the only thing that saves Sword & Shield from total disaster. Remove the cute fantasy animals from the picture and replace them with something more pedestrian, and you’re confronted by a sub-standard RPG replete with bugs, visual quirks, an asinine and contrived storyline, and a post-game that feels like a shell of its former self.

Exit Music (For A Game)

Shigeru Miyamoto, Mr. Nintendo, said it best: A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad. And while the seeds of a good game are certainly there, Pokémon Sword & Shield, with underdeveloped systems, misspent resources on superfluous ideas, bizarre excuses in light of baffling exclusions and a lack of polish simply fails to shine amidst so, so many other excellent games.

On a system that offers RPG experiences such as the incomparable Breath of the Wild, as well as games like Ni No Kuni, Fire Emblem, Octopath Traveler, Skyrim, Dragon Quest XI — not to mention classics like the old Bioware RPGs, Final Fantasy, The World Ends With You and the Secret of Mana — Pokémon Sword & Shield isn’t in the same league as any of these. It’s so many steps behind that if not for the creatures — once many, now fewer — that floated the franchise, this game would quickly be forgotten at the bottom of the e-Shop bargain bin.

And yet, if, at the end of the day, you asked me if I enjoyed my time with this game, despite everything, I’d say yes. Because, y’know, it’s Pokémon.

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