It's a testament to the power of the Pokémon brand that this year's Pokémon Sword & Shield are huge releases. This is the year where Hideo Kojima struck out on his own to deliver the divisive Death Stranding. It's also the year when Star Wars fans finally got the single-player, story-driven game of their dreams (sort of). And that's only in the past month! 2019 also saw the surprise debut of Apex Legends, Kingdom Hearts III actually releasing, and so much more. Sword & Shield know that the charm of Pokémon and a few new tricks are all they need to take their place among the other powerhouse releases of 2019.
That swagger is mostly earned, as the new creatures, animations, and setting bring that special nostalgic joy that only Pokémon can. But as a longtime fan, I can't shake the sense that Sword & Shield could be more. In a series about evolution, why haven't the first big console Pokémon games made important changes?
Adorable And Classic, Like Charmander
The setup and basic gameplay are everything we've come to expect from Pokémon. You're a surprisingly mature preteen in a world where animals are magical. You go on a journey to capture these magic animals, grow them into bigger forms, and fight other peoples' magic animals to prove you're the best. Along the way, there'll be a story about gods or aliens that also happen to be magic animals, and you end up saving the world from bad guys who want to harness the gods or aliens. But really, the core of the journey is catching and battling magic animals.
Sword & Shield keep the formula intact while also adding some small twists to the usual tropes. This time, you're in the Galar region, based on the U.K. Visually, this means gorgeous pastoral landscapes and cities that churn with large industrial-era machinery. The people also dress a bit more sensibly and not in the exaggerated anime way they did in past games. Not that anyone was looking for Pokémon to be more realistic. It's more that Sword & Shield show that the art team at developer Game Freak celebrated the jump to console with a distinct look.
Previous games were on handhelds, necessitating the simple, expressive art style. Now that Pokémon is on the more powerful Switch, the environments can do some of the storytelling. Sword & Shield's locations take advantage by really letting Pokémon loose in the world. City walls have ads for Pokémon products, or use the critters as mascots. Townsfolk walk (or fly, or swim) their Pokémon in the park, and most homes have little cat beds for pet Pokémon. The wilderness is teeming with wild Pokémon who will attack players, run away, or hide based on their known habits. Sword & Shield are second only to the Detective Pikachu movie in showing just what a world full of Pokémon would look like.
In terms of story, Galar introduces a new way to look at Pokémon battles: they're sports. The well-worn quest to get eight gym badges and eventually take on the champion is reframed through the lens of soccer. It makes total sense, and it makes the gym sections of the game a blast to play. Finally, we see other hopeful trainers and learn why only us players and our rivals make it to the championship. Gym battles are also incredibly epic now that they take place in a stadium full of roaring fans. The battle music even incorporates fans chanting, which riled me up every time.
Yet for all of this clever production flair, it's still about the Pokémon. As it should be. New Pokémon have been added to the almost 1,000 creatures in existence. Whether you like cool Pokémon, silly ones, or cute ones, the Sword & Shield crew have you covered. The fact that some, like a dragon worm in an apple, are already stars shows that the design team hasn't lost its touch. Pokémon battles are still Pokémon battles. Each area is full of Pokémon to catch, with many hidden ones. Overall, Sword and Shield take the experience of catching, battling, and just being with Pokémon and make it look the best it ever has.
Awkward And Unfinished, Like Charmeleon
I feel like most people have an odd habit of looking at Pokémon in a vacuum. We forget that, as much as a creature collector was a revelation in the 90s, the games are really standard RPGs. I wish to break away from this narrow view for a moment, and look at Pokémon Sword & Shield as two $60 Switch games.
When I think of other Nintendo series on the Switch, I'm amazed. Breath of the Wild opened Zelda up in a way that defined the series. Luigi's Mansion 3 is a shining example of polish while also adding something new to a series. Fire Emblem: Three Houses had some embarrassing graphical issues, but still pushed the series forward. Unfortunately, I can't say that Sword & Shield represent the same kind of evolution for the Pokémon series.
There's a lot of baffling, antiquated design decisions Sword & Shield. NPCs still show up at the beginning and end of almost every route and town to tell you where to go and what to do. One time a guy literally insisted on escorting me to the building right next door to where I was. Online trading via the GTS, a staple since the DS games, is gone. In its place is Link Trade. Link Trade, and its accompanying menus, seem to want to be a sort of social media for Pokémon. You get updates on what other players online are doing. No one asked for this, and the system is actually less intuitive as a result. You also need to get items for essential menu functions, like the sound options.
A lot of little gripes could be forgiven in the grand scheme of things. This is the first major Pokémon game on Switch, after all. However, there were also bigger corners cut. Yes, it's time to address the infamous National Dex. The short story is that Game Freak eliminated over half of the Pokémon from Sword & Shield. These are the first games were you can't "catch 'em all." Again, this could be understandable. Animating and modeling hundreds of Pokémon for the big Switch debut sounds like a daunting task. So, why not cut some out in the pursuit of making a more polished product?
Sadly, Sword & Shield are not the most polished products. Animations are the exact same for the Pokémon that existed on 3DS. Textures for people and Pokémon look great in close-ups. Environments? Well, look at that tree in the photo. And that's from the Wild Area, the game's touted open-world zone. The Wild Area is fun to run around in, but visually, it's very bland. On the other hand, the animation for the new Dynamax (where Pokémon grow huge) is stunning. There are other weird little hiccups, like when I fished a Pokémon out of a lake only to end up having a land battle. Yes, there are worse things going on in gaming right now, but it feels like a step backwards for Pokémon. Especially when I consider that previous games actually did have me fight water Pokémon in the water. And consumers are paying more for this. $20 more than the last Pokémon games.
Not Quite Charizard Yet
Pokémon Sword & Shield are like a Charmander holding an Everstone. They're still the same adorable games we love. Going out into the hills, caves, and forests of Galar and encountering the menagerie of bizarre critters carries the same sense of wonder as always. More so now that they roam around away from tall grass. Galar's reimagining of Pokémon battles as sports lends them an epic flavor and an excuse to pull out some wild new animations and music. Pokémon's still got that fire.
But this Charmander is holding an Everstone, so it won't evolve. Despite being on the Switch, it doesn't take full advantage of the console's power. Some textures look unfinished, animations are pretty much the same as last time, and none of the new mechanics are particularly breathtaking. As a longtime fan, it's a little frustrating. Luigi's Mansion and Fire Emblem are evolving, but Pokémon doesn't seem to want to. And as long as it stays fun and lovable, it doesn't have to. Enough people will come back for nostalgic joy, and take Charmander as it is. Everstone included.
A digital Switch copy of Pokémon Shield was provided by Nintendo for this review. Pokémon Sword & Shield are both available now for Nintendo Switch.