Hello there! Welcome to this review of Pokemon! My name is Ian. People call me the Pokemon blogger (actually I don’t think anyone calls me that). This game is inhabited by creatures called Pokemon. For some people, Pokemon are pets. Others use them for fights. Myself, I write about Pokemon as a hobby.
The Pokemon series is one that has been around since my childhood, and I’ve read some variation on the above introduction more times than I can count. My relationship with Pokemon has been complicated at times. I played the first three games religiously but never played fourth gen at all. Fifth gen I picked up and then put down again as I had hit the point where I found the level grinding boring and pointless. In sixth gen, the improvements to the mechanisms for leveling up your Pokemon as well as my introduction to the Nuzlocke challenge one got me reinterested in Pokemon with a vengeance. This lasted until seventh gen, where my dislike of Sun and Moon led me to finish the game one time and then duck back out for awhile.
There were a few core issues I held with Sun and Moon. I didn’t enjoy the trial system as it removed the gym puzzles and replaced them with silly minigames that felt a lot less interesting or challenging. Totem Pokemon were more challenging than gym leaders but not in a way that I found fun – giving one Pokemon a big stat boost as well as the ability to outnumber you isn’t as interesting to me as having an opponent with a name and a personality. The game felt oversaturated with legendaries between the Tapus, the box legendaries, and all the Ultra Beasts. Sun and Moon held your hand for a significant amount of time in the beginning, making it more frustrating to revisit this Pokemon game compared to others in the series. And perhaps the biggest hurdle of all was overcoming the game’s marketing – by following all the official coverage of the game, any surprises in the form of new Pokemon to see were already gone, making the actual experience of playing through Sun and Moon less adventurous and exciting.
During the buildup to Pokemon Sword and Shield it seemed like a lot of these issues were going to be addressed. Dynamax Pokemon appeared to be more balanced than totem Pokemon and in the game’s story would still be used by gym leaders. Gyms were back with a vengeance, receiving a greater focus due to Galar being a sports-crazed region. More Pokemon were kept secret in the official marketing (there were still leaks, but those were much easier to avoid) and the Pokemon we did know about suggested a much smaller number of legendaries to deal with. And once I started playing the game for myself, it was clear to see that they listened to complaints about hand-holding in Sun and Moon’s early game. Sword allowed me to skip through tutorials that were familiar to me as a Pokemon veteran, and once you hit the opening ceremony the game begins to move at a breakneck pace through all of the gym battles.
Mechanically, Sword and Shield introduce a number of new features that either push the game in new directions or streamline processes that used to be more complicated or burdensome. In the Wild Area, you encounter a large number of Pokemon in a zone where you can move around openly. Different sections of the wild area unlock as you get access to more tools throughout the game, and each section has unique weather patterns that cause different Pokemon to spawn. Pokemon who are too strong for your current level roam around freely with Pokemon that are eligible for you to catch, adding a degree of challenge as well as showing you what you have to look forward to as you advance and gain badges.
With the wild area comes camping, the ability to play with your Pokemon in order to build their happiness levels and gain experience points. Cooking them a meal will restore their health and sometimes their status and PP, too. These aren’t free actions like caring for your Pokemon in Sun and Moon, though – cooking costs ingredients that you forage from the wild, encouraging you to watch out for berry trees as you explore the wild area or different routes throughout the game. Of course, one of the biggest features of the wild area are the Pokemon raids, multiplayer battles against Dynamax Pokemon which you can then capture. Investigating the dens where these Pokemon live give you watts that you can spend on Pokeballs or technical records (one-time devices for teaching moves to your Pokemon), and defeating a Dynamax Pokemon gives you candy that boosts experience to help your Pokemon to level up.
Of course, the core of Pokemon remains the same at the end of the day. During battles, you select from as many as four moves to make attacks against opponents. Moves range in function from sheer damage to inflicting debilitating status problems to improving your Pokemon’s capabilities to blocking attacks. If you’ve fought a specific Pokemon before, you’ll be able to see which of your current moves are effective or not, a great way for newcomers to the series to learn the surprisingly complex typing system of the game. You can switch to a different Pokemon if your current one has a disadvantage or use items in order to give yourself an edge via healing, status boosts, or other helpful effects.
During battles you’ll generally have one of two goals: defeating your opponent or capturing the Pokemon. In wild battles, you capture Pokemon by throwing a Pokeball and praying to Arceus that the Pokemon doesn’t break out. You can manipulate your odds in various ways: lowering the Pokemon’s health, inflicting a status problem, and using a Pokeball that is designed for the current situation. Catching can be frustrating when you are a lot more powerful than the Pokemon you are trying to catch as knocking them out will end the battle, but running weak moves or moves specifically designed for catching (like False Swipe) is rarely appealing when you want your monsters to be battle-ready. And as in previous Pokemon titles, rarer Pokemon have capture rates that seem to defy the very rules which supposedly make it easier to capture a Pokemon. This is intentional as there is supposed to be a random element to capturing, but it can be deeply frustrating to fail multiple times in a row when you’ve already done everything you are supposed to do in order to make a Pokemon easier to catch.
Winning battles earns you experience points which allow you to level up and get stronger. There is no experience share in Pokemon Sword and Shield like in previous Pokemon games. Instead, all of your Pokemon gain experience from every battle and capture. However, unlike previous games where it’s possible to turn off experience share, the game is balanced for this in quite a few ways. First off, enemy levels are generally higher with even the wild Pokemon on route one being anywhere from level 5-7 instead of 2-3 like normal. Second, Pokemon who don’t participate in the battle directly get reduced experience, meaning a Pokemon you keep in your party but never send out will lag behind the rest of the team. Third, experience is weighted by level, with lower level Pokemon receiving the bulk of the experience while higher level Pokemon receive less. This makes it much faster to quickly level up a new Pokemon that you want to catch up to the rest of the team, but keeps your stronger Pokemon from becoming more and more overleveled unless you spend a lot of time grinding. It’s a good balance that keeps the game at a decent level of challenge if you don’t go out of your way to gain a lot of levels.
There’s a downside to that, though, when it comes to the pacing of the game at the end. Pokemon Sword and Shield have a weak endgame compared to other titles in the series, both from a story perspective and a mechanical one. This comes from the unusual decision to shove all of the game’s storytelling into the final moments of the main campaign. I’ve heard theories that this came from the fact that many people found Sun and Moon’s storytelling to be intrusive to the core of the game. Regardless of why, what matters is the how. In Sword and Shield, you charge through the core game in a predictable pattern of route, gym, route, gym, route, gym, over and over in a path that is painfully linear compared to the freedom of the wild area. From the beginning moments almost until the end of the game, the game is focused exclusively on your participation in the gym challenge.
Suddenly during the semifinals, the rest of the story decides to make an appearance, and it’s a story that I consider to be the weakest in Pokemon history. Pokemon isn’t known for its storytelling generally, but in my view Sword and Shield went from mediocre or predictable to actively bad. While the villain is present throughout the game, their motivations are not, and the way in which all of a sudden you’re facing their minions during a situation that honestly doesn’t have much tension or stakes (you’re literally waiting on someone to come to dinner) is jarring. Then there’s the villain’s motive: their goal is to solve an energy crisis in Galar which could lead to region-wide disaster in the next thousand years. The allusion to climate change is obvious but the stance that the game takes – one where the bad guy is the one trying to stop the crisis – is utterly tone deaf in our world’s current climate (pun intended). The message very much comes across as “let the future worry about the future because right now, it’s time for sports!” It’s a message that our world does not need because unlike in Pokemon, the real-life climate crisis is not 1000 years away or even 100.
My issues with the ending don’t just deal with the game’s wonky message or the way that the final conflict is very suddenly crammed into the last two hours of gameplay. Mechanically, shoving all the story moments into the very end creates a situation where the difficulty scales from battle to battle with no opportunity to develop your team by progressing the story. During the rest of Sword and Shield, as long as you engage regularly in the available Pokemon battles and make efforts to capture Pokemon on the various routes, you’ll stay even with the game’s difficulty curve and not have to do any grinding. At the end, though, there are no routes left. The quarterfinals, part one of the villain’s plan, semifinals, part two of the villain’s plan, and the finals all just happen on top of each other with nothing to explore in-between. From a level perspective, this is a jump from opponents who are level 47-49 to opponents who are level 62-65. Now of course your team will level up during the course of the matches that take place during this time, but there are no new opportunities to capture Pokemon and no new territory to explore. In order to keep pace, you’ll have to return to an old route or zip off to the wild area to take a grinding break, especially if you want to change up the Pokemon in your team in anticipation of any of the battles. From a pacing perspective, the ending becomes a crawl after a full game spent sprinting.
These elements don’t make Pokemon Sword and Shield a bad game. They are flaws, and all games have them. But what it does is take Sword from a game that promised to be a new tier of quality for the series and knock it back down to “just another day in the world of Pokemon.” What is arguably the most important new feature of the game – the wild area – is front loaded into the early game and effectively an optional feature once you get to the fourth gym. The game focuses exclusively on the gym challenge right up until the end and then dumps a poorly-constructed story into your lap. In the real-life sport of running, pacing yourself is key to victory. Run too fast in the beginning and you’ll burn out in the end, stumbling across the finish line as those who managed their pace more effectively in the beginning whiz by you with a final burst of speed. That is the Pokemon Sword and Shield experience – they tried so hard to streamline the early game that by the end they burn out, and the final moments are a painful slog.
In the buildup to this game a lot of people wanted the Breath of the Wild of Pokemon – a game that redefines a series that some believe has become too stuck in a rut. Personally I would settle for a Dragon Quest XI or a Fire Emblem Awakening – a game that does not necessarily redefine a series but combines its best elements into the peak experience possible with what the series has been up to this point. Pokemon Sword and Shield are neither of these things. At the end of the day, Sword is a Pokemon game, with all the flaws and weaknesses that this has come to mean over the years but all the strengths too. Many of the folks who play the game – especially the kids who are ultimately the game’s core audience – won’t care two shakes about any of the issues I have with the game, and that’s okay. Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether or not we want Pokemon to remain what it has always been or if we want it to become something different, and manage expectations accordingly. That’s a lesson that I certainly plan to take into the next title of the series.