Pokemon Sword and Shield herald the eighth generation of Pokemon games. They are titles which come with a lot of expectation and baggage. As the first mainline Pokemon game to appear on a home console, many players expected Pokemon to be revolutionized. Comparisons to Breath of the Wild ran rampant before the game was ever properly revealed or discussed, and perhaps because of these comparisons many were surprised when it turned out that Sword and Shield are just business as usual for the Pokemon series. Some folks are fine with that and some aren’t – I personally don’t care where you fall as long as you’re not making death threats. For me, the leadup to Sword and Shield was an exciting time, and now that I’ve played about two or three hours of the game there are a lot of things I love about it.
First of all, while the PR around the issue of the National Dex was perhaps a little lackluster, I think they handled the rest of the game’s advertising perfectly. During the buildup to Sun and Moon, the Pokemon Company implemented an advertising strategy that involved the unveiling of nearly every single new Pokemon that would appear in the game. We learned about Ultra Beasts and met many of them before ever taking our first steps into Alola. We knew Galar forms, we knew starter evolutions, we knew the villains and side characters – by the time Pokemon Moon was actually in my hands, there were essentially no surprises left for me.
Pokemon Sword has been quite different in that regard. If you only followed the official coverage of the game and didn’t look at any of the big Pokedex leaks, you enter this game with a ton of surprises still very much in store. The moment I hit start and Rose delivered the typical Pokemon introduction, I was shocked when I had no idea what the heck Pokemon came out of his Pokeball. The game’s early routes had plenty of Pokemon that I hadn’t seen in any trailers. Now some of them I recognized as pre-evolutions of Pokemon that have been shown off, but even so the fact that there are forms of these various Pokemon that were left for the player to discover is really exciting for me.
Pokemon is a series that changes incrementally rather than drastically, and Sword is consistent with that history. Sure, the game’s introduction is given by an announcer instead of the professor and you get your Pokemon from the game’s champion, but the early beats still feel exactly like any other Pokemon game. After you choose your partner (I of course chose Sobble because he needs to be protected) you explore some small routes where you learn about encountering and catching Pokemon, finding and using items, and battling other trainers to gain experience points and increase the levels of your Pokemon. What’s special about Sword is the way in which these features bring together some of the best changes incorporated in recent Pokemon games.
In Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, you could hear a Pokemon rustling in the grass and then slowly approach them to avoid scaring them off. In Pokemon Let’s Go, you could see Pokemon moving around the overworld so you knew what you were about to encounter and could adjust yourself accordingly. Together these features work to create a living environment where you can see Pokemon out and about, carefully sneak up on them to begin an encounter, and then capture them to add them to your team. Being able to see your encounter helps you to avoid repeatedly encountering the same Pokemon over and over again (I’m looking at you, Spearow) and also makes it easier to get an idea of when you’ve caught most of the Pokemon in an area.
Battles are a great combination of accessibility and complexity. Like Let’s Go, every Pokemon gets experience points when you battle or capture a Pokemon – there is no experience share toggle for the game. However, unlike previous entries the difficulty seems to be balanced for a level progression where you whole team is leveling pretty much evenly. Like Sun and Moon, once you’ve already battled a Pokemon you will start to see the effectiveness of your moves against it, helping you to learn about the typing system if it’s something you don’t have a lot of familiarity with. These features make the game easier to approach for newcomers and younger players, but unlike Let’s Go, Sword isn’t missing classic features from mainline Pokemon games. Natures, abilities, held items – all of these features are back and even in the early game they are adding complexity to battles. I’ve had attacks with 100 accuracy miss due to a Snow Veil Vanillite in the hail, or been unable to use a held berry due to Unnerve from a Rookidee. As a strategy gamer who is drawn to the more competitive side of Pokemon, it feels good to be juggling these aspects of the game again.
Sword doesn’t just bring in familiar features from previous games, though. The biggest addition to the game is the Wild Area, an open world (ish) segment of the game where you can wander around to your heart’s content catching Pokemon, making curry, and playing fetch with your teammates. This is also where you’ll get to meet and battle against Dynamax Pokemon for the first time, an activity which introduces an online raid mechanic for teaming up to battle against these massive foes. I won’t be exploring Dynamax or raids in depth in this article since that feature is the main one I haven’t experimented with yet, but I will talk about the other cool things that the Wild Area brings to the game.
The Wild Area is broken up into clearly defined regions (very convenient for a future Nuzlocke playthrough!), and each region has different weather patterns and terrain as well as Pokemon to catch. In the first area I explored, hail chipped away at my Pokemon and gave advantages to ice types who had abilities that interacted with the weather. In another region, rain dampened my fire attacks while electrical terrain crackled beneath my feet and kept everyone awake. In still another area, the burning sun reduced the power of Sobble’s water-type moves. It’s a great opportunity for new players to start to learn about game mechanisms like weather and terrain, and thanks to the nifty info button during battle you can see all of the active effects with the push of a button! Regardless of the kind of environment you are in, the levels of Pokemon you can encounter vary quite a lot. If you see a Pokemon in the distance that looks big and powerful, you’ll want to be careful in approaching it. The Poke Doll, which guarantees escape from a wild encounter, is suddenly a highly valuable item in the world of Sword and Shield.
The Wild Area also opens up the ability to go camping with your Pokemon, and while camping you can play with your Pokemon as well as cooking for them. Playing is an activity that I imagine many “serious” players will probably engage with one time and then leave behind – it primarily raises happiness level and not much else. Still, watching Sobble run to you in slow motion is probably the most adorable and hilarious thing I have ever seen in Pokemon, so that alone makes it worthwhile. Cooking, on the other hand, has more mechanical advantages. Using berries as well as curry ingredients, you can prepare meals with a little minigame which impart healing and experience points onto all the Pokemon in your team. If you’re out of revives, it can also be used as a way to revive Pokemon who have been fainted during a wild area battle. It’s a nice way to break up the action, and being able to see your party all running around in the open does help the game world to feel more alive.
There are a few other quality of life changes to the game that I am already greatly appreciating. Some of them are long-requested changes like the ability to skip tutorials. I’ve been able to avoid the capture tutorial as well as avoid having the Pokemon Center explained to me, and it’s so nice to speed things along when you’re already a seasoned veteran of the Pokemon series. Other features are more hidden and niche – for example, you can turn off the prompt that asks you if you want to nickname your Pokemon if you’d rather just have every Pokemon’s name be their species name. Hidden items are now indicated by a small flash (which I am assuming will rid us of any kind of itemfinder/dowsing machine nonsense) and when you pick up an unfamiliar item, the game gives you a nice description in the field so you don’t have to navigate to a menu.
One thing that made me happy was the expanded customization system for the player character. In previous entries the outfits were limited to major pieces: something to cover your torso, something to cover your legs, a mandatory hat, and a pallet swap for your boring adventure bag. Sword and Shield adds layers (literally) through the use of coats and sweaters, as well as adding accessory pieces like gloves, socks, and shoes. I ended up choosing a girl protagonist as the clothing options for girls are generally more aesthetically pleasing, and I had a pretty good time sorting through the different outfits at the first boutique to find a style that I liked. You’ve gotta look at this protagonist pretty much constantly while you’re running around or engaging in battles, so you may as well like how he or she looks!
Overall, my first impression of Sword is quite positive. It’s a Pokemon game, but until some folks decided that the first console entry should be Breath of the Wild: Pokemon Edition, that was never a bad thing. Features from the last few games in the series have been skillfully blended together for an experience that finds a good balance between accessible and challenging, and new features add fun activities to the game as well as enhancing the verisimilitude of the setting. I’m excited to dive deeper into Pokemon Sword, and so far this game feels way more up my alley than the last couple of entries in the series.