The Pokemon series has never been an exhibition of radical change and bold new ideas. Its core concept—catch animals, cram them into small hamster balls, and make them fight—worked well enough to change the face of pop culture in 1996, and it still had enough stardust left to make us step into traffic with Pokemon Go in 2016.
Pokemon Sword and Shield for the Nintendo Switch is a solid reminder that Pokemon will probably never run out of the stardust that helps keep it an endearing franchise for old and young alike. It's also a solid reminder that Game Freak is unlikely to unchain itself from the "Three Starters, Eight Gyms" formula that launched Pokemon into the stratosphere to begin with.
Pokemon Sword and Shield is sweet, whimsical, and despite the fandom's weird fixation on trees, it generally looks good and sounds great. It's probably my favorite Pokemon so far, just edging out 2016's Sun and Moon. But it's not the "next-gen" leap we witnessed from, say, the compact, straightforward Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS to the massive, sprawling Fire Emblem: Three Houses on the Switch. It's more akin to the jump we made from the 2D plane in Black and White to the 3D space in X and Y—and still not quite as drastic. Depending on what you want from mainline Pokemon's console debut, the lack of a clear and significant "upgrade" from Sun and Moon to Sword and Shield might understandably disappoint you.
I say this with major caveat: This isn't a review. This doesn't contain my final thoughts, and everything here is subject to change. At the time of this writing, Pokemon Sword and Shield's servers aren't on, and no servers means no trading and no battling with strangers. That wouldn't be a huge deal, except no active servers for Sword and Shield also means I can't experience everything the much talked-about Wild Area has to offer.
For now, I enjoy wandering the Wilds by my lonesome. I've pumped more time into Pokemon Sword and Shield's post-game than I usually do because I like running into and catching all manner of wild Pokemon—plus camping all around the Wild Area is fun. I get the impression that Game Freak wants us to explore, fight, and camp around the Wild Area with other players, almost like a pseudo-MMO, so I'm curious to see what other players will add to the experience, especially since some of the Dynamax raids are indeed impossible to complete with the rando trainers Game Freak supplies you with when you're offline. Ain’t nobody taking down a giant five-star Pokemon with the “help” of a toddler and his Mudbray.
From my current point of view, however. I don't think a robust Wild Area alone will make Sword and Shield feel like a next-gen Pokemon game. Some weeks ago there was a misunderstanding that left the Pokemon community with the impression that we'll be able to take down 18 Gyms across the Galar region. In actuality, there are still eight Gyms, but some of the Leaders you face off against vary between Sword and Shield. This was a big let-down for me, because I still feel like facing off against 18 Gyms is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see for Pokemon's big console break-out.
What's more, Game Freak does its patented and baffling "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" approach to game development with Sword and Shield. I love the ride-on Pokemon in Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee; galloping through Kanto Region on the back of a Rapidash or Arcanine really makes you feel like you're part of the world. The Rotom Bike in Sword and Shield is fine, but not nearly as cool. Plus, imagine how much fun it would be if you saw other players in Sword and Shield riding their favorite Pokemon across the Wild Area, or even flying on Charizard. That would really help give Sword and Shield the "MMO-lite" feeling it sounds like it'll be trying for.
I'm also disappointed you can't decorate your camp's tent or furniture in any significant way even though you can furnish your very own secret base in the Hoenn and Sinnoh regions. But while you can't decorate your camp, you can see what other Trainers have named their Pokemon. Get ready for a deluge of Pikachus named Weed_Vegeta_69. It's what humanity deserves.
Still, I enjoy cooking curry by throwing random ingredients and berries into the pot, and I really like watching my Pokemon frolic (and fight!) with each other. I throw the ball. They bring the ball back. I throw it again. I'm not being sarcastic, this brings me great joy, especially since you can earn new toys by filling out your Curry Dex. Camping with your Pokemon feels like such a neat addition, yet it'd be even better—dare I say "next-gen"—if you could decorate your camp Animal Crossing-style. As usual, Game Freak giveth, and Game Freak taketh away, and it clearly has no big plans to upend the norm just because Pokemon's moved over to Switch. Take it or leave it.
Honestly, since I'm being forced to choose over a real next-gen Pokemon experience or no Pokemon at all? I'll take it. I've enjoyed my time with Sword and Shield a lot so far, even if it's lacking in huge surprises. I've currently dumped about 35 hours into the adventure, which includes mopping up the (frankly great) post-game story. Look for my full review on Monday after I go online and introduce myself to a Weed_Vegeta or two.