Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: The Promising Dawn of a New Generation

Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: The Promising Dawn of a New Generation

After all the controversy, it turns out that Pokemon Sword and Shield is actually pretty darn good.

I've never been quick to predict popular trends or latch onto them in a timely fashion. I once wore a pair of neon-laced L.A. Gears four years after they'd fallen out of style, and I'm still not sure how I escaped high school without getting my ass kicked. But when I first read about Pokémon Red and Blue in some distant, dusty issue of Nintendo Power, I said, "I'm getting that day one. It's going to be huge."

That was the only time in my life I rode the crest of a hype wave before my peers even considered paddling out to meet it. I never climbed down from the swell, either: I've been a Pokémon fan for well over half my life. It turns out roleplaying as a kid who ditches their responsibilities in favor of catching monsters and travelling the world only becomes more appealing as you get older. Who knew.

Maybe it's a sign of my age, but I can't help but notice how Pokemon Sword and Shield for the Switch really captures the joy of setting out into the big world and exploring everything it has to offer. The game's much-hyped "Wild Area" is a big reason for this sense of wonder, and it pairs well with the general premise for Sword and Shield. No longer are you a lone child who bounces from gym to gym to take on leaders who stand and patiently wait for you. Between seeing your peers run around you in the Wild Area and partaking of the stadium culture that defines the Galar region, Sword and Shield really does feel like the kind of huge journey no kid should be allowed to undertake without adult supervision. (Not that their parents deter them.)

I played through the game with all the National Dex controversies and fan complaints at the fore of my mind, but in spite of them, I dumped dozens of hours into the game, and I'm still going. Despite its imperfections, I enjoy Pokemon Sword and Shield a whole lot. There's a great sense of adventure at its core, and several quality of life improvements to team-building make it possible for nearly anyone to participate in the meta.

Last week, I put up my impressions of Pokemon Sword and Shield in lieu of a full review because the game's servers weren't yet on. I suggested Sword and Shield was a great Pokemon game, but that I wasn't sure whether it was a "next gen Pokemon experience." Having since spent lots of time online with it, I'm still hesitant to slam the "It's next gen!" vote because my judgement criteria has changed since going online.

Pokemon Sword and Shield's graphics manage to be a clear step up from those on the 3DS. | Nintendo

I still want to see the single-player Pokemon experience break the mold of "eight gyms, four Elites." But at the same time, there's no way the Wild Area experience would be possible on the Nintendo 3DS. And whereas I usually put down a Pokemon game pretty quickly after the story is done, I've been keeping busy in Sword and Shield. I team up with other players for Dynamax PvE (the rewards are good, and it's the best way to catch a Pokemon with "Great" stats), I exchange trading cards, I visit other people's campsites and play with their Pokemon, and I engage in PokeBattles with other players.

The traditional Global Trade System has been replaced with Y-Comm, a single-button option that whisks you to a menu of Sword and Shield's online options. This makes it easy to act on your inexplicable whims to get stomped by a grade schooler and their Pikachu. It also makes it easy to trade Pokemon (though you can't search for specific requests yet) and engage in Wonder Trade, renamed "Surprise Trade" in Sword and Shield.

Other notable quality of life improvements include the ability to access your Pokemon box from almost anywhere (no more running back to a Pokemon Center PC), the ability to rent teams for PvP fights and Battle Tower (no more agonizing over your own team builds for hours), and the surprising new option to change your Pokemon's nature via "mint" items. Your Pokemon's stat growth is determined by its nature, which means Sword and Shield theoretically makes it possible for you to whip your suckiest Pokemon into fighting shape. This is excellent news for those of us who build teams based on cuteness, not stat growth, and tend to get annihilated because of it. It's just a shame the cuts to the National Dex mean some Pokemon fans are certainly going to miss the opportunity to conquer Galar with their favorites.

Yes, it's time to address the Copperajah in the room: Pokemon Sword and Shield's truncated National Dex. There are about 400 known Pokemon running around Galar region, and while dataminers have found evidence more are on the way, we're probably not going to see anything close to the 800+ Pokemon that carried us to Gen 8. Some people are mad about this omission—very mad—and I can't deny them their irritation, or even their refusal to take part in Sword and Shield. I never transfer Pokemon from one game to another, but there are fans out there who've dedicated years to training up certain teams that are now barred from the Galar region. I also won't deny I'm definitely missing some of my best friends (RIP Dragonite and Nidoking). Still, Galar region has lots of cool new Pokemon and regional variants, and it's honestly refreshing to hit Route One and see a whole mess of new Pokemon wiggle out of the weeds.

Much ado has been made about the Sword and Shield's supposedly lackluster graphics and animation, but the visual flourishes on these new Pokemon indicate Game Freak wasn't "lazy" in its approach to Sword and Shield's development. I love details like Boltund's tail turning into a lightning bolt seconds before it pounces, and Toxtricity strumming the "strings" on its chest before launching an attack. Intelleon's "Snipe Shot" animation will strike fear into your heart if you're wielding a Fire-type Pokemon, and Cinderace's knee-slide is precisely the kind of victory pose you'd expect to see in the tournament-crazy Galar region. It's true the Wild Area isn't the most visually stunning area I've traversed in an RPG, but Sword and Shield still looks better than Fire Emblem: Three Houses-and the latter is rightfully on-track to wind up on a lot of "Game of the Year" lists regardless of its "meh" visuals.

The hype cycle for Pokemon Sword and Shield has been exhausting and depressing. I went into the review with lowered expectations; if you're bombarded by enough negativity about any one thing, you're compelled to pick out all its imperfections whether you mean to or not. But as I played through Sword and Shield's main story, journeyed through its short but sweet endgame, and pored over the populated Wild Area, I gradually ascended from "I don't hate this" to "I really like this."

I can't force anyone who's wounded over the loss of the National Dex to love Pokemon Sword and Shield, but I had a good time with it. I'm excited for the possibility of Game Freak building on this Switch adventure the same way Nintendo added to Splatoon 2 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. If this is to be a new era for the series, then it's begun with promise.

Pokemon Sword and Shield's single-player experience is filled with neat characters and a new region that's brimming with personality, but running around the Wild Area with other players offers a special kind of fun. Quality of life improvements to the metagame, including the ability to change your Pokemon's nature and rent teams for fights, gives you good reason to stick with the game after you're crowned the new champion of the Galar region. Despite the controversy, Sword and Shield offers a great time.

4.5/5

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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