Technology has always been a hurdle for Pokemon. For all its forward-thinking concepts, the franchise has had to adapt its games for the science of its decade. Players began trading with wired Game Boys in the 1990s and they moved on to wireless transactions with the Nintendo 3DS in the aughts. As Game Freak built an ecosystem around the portable systems, the internet and online gaming emerged as a potential and inevitable arena for play.
In the 2010s, the franchise would have to make a wholehearted jump to a world of smartphones and high-powered handheld consoles, and that process would be messy and cumbersome. Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield is a leap into that uncertainty.
The entries give players a new generation of Pokemon, something the series hasn’t had in 1,092 days. The release removes the national Pokedex, meaning that not all the Pokemon in the series would be represented. That’s a major disappointment for hard-core fans, who have been keeping their Pokemon since they were kids themselves. Looking toward the future though, this will be the chapter that will likely take the most advantage of Pokemon Home, the cloud storage solution for all the pocket monsters that players have collected across all the main series games and Pokemon Go.
Suffice to say, it’s a pivotal chapter for the franchise, one that offers a conventional adventure in the Galar region, a setting inspired by the United Kingdom. Like the previous titles, Sword and Shield have their own ecosystem and society. Galar is a place where Pokemon battles are the equivalent of soccer and the mania for pastime fuels the national economy. (I have no idea how this is feasible but one accepts a lot with Pokemon.)
Players take on the role of a challenger picked by Leon, the Champion of the Galar region. Joined by a childhood friend and rival, Hop, they take on a tournament called the Gym Challenge, in which aspiring trainers battle eight leaders around the country. After choosing from one of three starter Pokemon – Sobble, Scorbunny and Grookey – players set off catching wild Pokemon, filling out their Pokedex and assembling their own team.
It’s a straight-forward setup. Players go from town to town completing a gym leader’s mission and challenging them for a badge. That rote journey is the disappointing part of Sword and Shield. Fortunately, Game Freak breaks the mold of the narrative toward the finale and post-game adventures, but for the most part, it’s a predictable adventure.
The major differences in the new releases lie in format. Because it’s on more powerful Nintendo Switch hardware, the team could flex more of its muscles when it came to world building. Game Freak built the standard caves and grassy areas, but sites such as Glimwood Tangle, Ballonlea and Spikemuth show creative world-building that will impress fans.
Those locales and their surrounding dungeons have their own travelers to battle and Pokemon to catch, but the big addition in Sword and Shield is the Wild Area. This is where the developer tries to create an open-world that players can explore and catch Pokemon. It’s where they’ll find many of the rare species and where they’ll be spend plenty of free time when not pursuing the main quest.
It’s a decent attempt at creating a detailed environment. Players will find plenty of landmarks and interesting corners. Many will be filled with different types of Pokemon depending on the weather, but it doesn’t feel like a cohesive ecosystem as in games such as Monster Hunter World. In that title, players can follow ants that eat honey or come across monsters stalking other prey.
That sort of behavior could have been incorporated with Pokemon, but instead, players just wander around the Lake of Outrage or Axew’s Eye looking for pocket monsters to fill out their Pokedex. The creatures don’t interact with one another and just wander around aimlessly in their designated spots. Not enough thought was put into how these Pokemon would interact with each if the open world was a true ecosystem.
Although the Wild Area is a lost opportunity in that aspect, it does succeed in making the grind more palatable for trainers. Leveling up Pokemon to beat bosses is often a mundane task in the series, but the option to look for important or rare Pokemon gives that part of the process some purpose and fun. Players never know what creature could lurk in the tall grass or what rare stone or item they may pick up. The pull of exploration is a major incentive to power through that grinds and crafts a Pokemon team that will be victorious in the end game.
That also ties into the new twist to Pokemon battles called Dynamax. Available in Stadiums and certain dens in the Wild Area, this ability makes a Pokemon enormous and powerful for three turns. It’s comparable to Pokemon X and Pokemon Y’s Mega Evolution, but it’s not as flamboyant. It turns a match into a kaiju battle like one would see in “Godzilla” movie.
Because it can only be used once per battle, players have to use it strategically. Even more interesting though is how Game Freak incorporates Dynamax battles into raid-like confrontation when up to four players can take on one super-powered Dynamax Pokemon. It creates a team element as the group has to work together to beat a powerful foe. The reward is a Pokemon with a hidden ability or even more powerful form called Gigantamax. The concept is comparable to raids in Pokemon Go and it’s something that completionists and hard-core fans will spend hours tackling.
With such a pivotal title, Game Freak doesn’t give fans a radically different Pokemon with Sword and Shield. For better or worse, it sticks to the formula that has established the franchise’s success, but it innovates enough around the edges. With this generation, the series leaps toward the future, but whether it can stick the landing will depend on whether the infrastructure the developers built around the game can support it in the years to come.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield
3 stars out of 4
Platform: Nintendo Switch