Pokémon Sword & Shield review: (Almost) king of pocket monsters

Pokemon Sword and Shield promo art a
PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch
DEVELOPER: Game Freak
PUBLISHER: The Pokémon Company, Nintendo
NO. OF PLAYERS: Single player, multiplayer

PROS

  • new region of Galar is expansive, inspiring
  • still has that entertaining core Pokémon experience
  • Wild Area and Max Raids add new gameplay variety
  • lots of things to do in and around Galar

CONS

  • plot progression can be a little sluggish
  • new Pokémon starters potentially underwhelming
  • version-exclusive Pokémon still a pain for completists

Pokemon Sword and Shield screenshot

Finally marking the main series’ real debut on the Switch (the Let’s Go games shouldn’t count, honestly), Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield also introduce the series as home console titles for the very first time. With a new region, new generation, and new battle elements, this year’s journey to be the very best also looks the most promising—even if it doesn’t get quite a few things right out the gate.

Top of the food chain

The story of Pokémon Sword and Shield takes place in the new region of Galar, heavily inspired by the United Kingdom and its industrialized cities, quaint little towns, and lush, vibrant countrysides. The plot mainly sees you entering the Pokémon League to become the next champion, which is very straightforward to a fault—at least on the surface.

Pokemon Sword and Shield

Throughout the game you’re basically prodded and motivated to pursue the Pokémon League path, entertaining your rival Hop and making new friends (and sometimes enemies) along the way. Unbeknownst to you, however, some sinister happenstances are occurring behind the scenes concerning the faded history of Galar that could spell doom for everyone in the region. So while the plot may seem like a bit of a slow burn in that regard, it’s relatively worth seeing to the end.

By the numbers

Speaking of slow burns, this year’s rack of starter Pokémon are probably the most underwhelming trio yet. Don’t get me wrong, I was hyped about them ever since their initial reveal, but as soon as I started capturing other Pokémon, my chosen starter soon hit the bench and then a box (I picked Grookey, by the way). There are just other, better Pokémon out there worthy of a spot on your sixcreature party.

On that note, the rest of this new generation of Pokémon are of a welcome number and provide ample variety, although nostalgic trainers may lament the minuscule inclusions of previous generation favorites. We can all agree, though, that version-exclusive Pokémon does make completing your Pokédex more difficult than it should be and is something we wish wasn’t still a thing.

Living extra large

The game’s core combat and capturing mechanics are essentially the same as prior Pokémon games, with perhaps some nice liberties taken from Let’s Go like seeing actual Pokémon wandering in the tall grass. A couple of new elements in Sword and Shield, however, have increased their range. The open-world Wild Area, for instance, offers new hunting grounds for capturing untamed Pokémon of various levels in a random environment. More importantly, the Wild Area contains a battle mode called Max Raids, which adds a few new elements to the combat experience.

Pokemon Sword and Shield screenshot

Max Raids pit you and three other trainers (online or offline) in a four-person team against Dynamax Pokémon—giant sized Pokémon of Godzilla proportions. Max Raids can be quite epic due to their scale and size, and managing to capture a Dynamax or Gigantamax Pokémon as a result is quite the satisfying payoff. The same scale applies as well to the Pokémon League Gyms and your battles against their respective Leaders—Pokémon Gyms are now massive arenas filled with spectators reminiscent of a FIFA football finals match—and often end with a Dynamax battle for a finale, making each battle for a badge a climactic finisher for each leg of your League journey.

Pokemon Sword and Shield screenshot

Pick up and play

Aesthetically, the game looks great in either handheld or docked modes, with the latter more preferable when doing Max Raids or fighting Gym Leaders, if only to appreciate the size, scale, and proportion of Dynamax Pokémon all the more. You can also play with a variety of controller styles, including one-handed with the Joy-Con.

Another highly accessible feature in Sword and Shield is its local multiplayer, relegated to single menu you can open at any time. Selections include the usual list of Link Trades, Surprise Trades, and Link Battles, with an added option to swap League Cards. You can also connect to the internet, which lets you see real-time activity from other trainers in the form of stamps as well as their actual avatars in the Wild Area. Link battles are sure to be the most enticing multiplayer mode, though, with matches for singles, doubles, and four-player battle royales.

Speed says

Pokémon Sword and Shield walk the fine line between familiarity and innovation with veteran trainers, while trying to offer the core Pokémon experience to new players—and for the most part, it does a decent job. What makes the Pokémon Sword and Shield enjoyable are the little things here and there that you can do in Galar, like camping out with your entire Pokémon party or customizing your League Card along with your avatar’s fashion choices.

Words Erik Paolo Escueta
First published in Speed January 2020 issue

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