|Dev: Game Freak|
|Release: November 15, 2019|
|Players: 1-4 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 720p-1080p||Comic Mischief and Mild Cartoon Violence|
by Jenni Lada
2019 is a big year for Pokemon. For the first time in the series, a mainline installment has appeared on a console. In the process, Game Freak is using it as a chance to try new things. Pokemon Sword and Shield adds new Pokemon, cuts out some older ones, adds an open area, and shows off a new battle gimmick. But, while there are some experimental elements, it doesn’t feel that different and still remains fun.
Pokemon Sword and Shield begins as all entries do, with a dream. Every person gets to make a new avatar ready to try and become the very best. They live in a small town in Galar, a region inspired by the United Kingdom, and happen to live next door to the current champion’s younger brother, Hop. When Leon, the champion, comes home for a visit, he brings along three starter Pokemon. He sees potential in you and Hop, and the two of you get a chance to join the Gym Challenge, fight leaders across the country, catch all sorts of new and old Pokemon, face rivals, and perhaps become a new legend.
Going to gyms feels different here, but it really isn’t all that revolutionary. Pokemon Sword and Shield takes inspiration from both classic entries and Sun and Moon, which involved different sorts of activities before fighting a leader. For example, before fighting the grass gym leader Milo, you need to herd some Wooloo sheep Pokemon. Walking towards them makes the 20 characters roll into obstacles, clearing the path to the main event. Once you do get all 20 to the end of the course, perhaps fighting some other trainers along the way, you go into a one-on-one fight against a gym leader. This is a traditional battle, though with Dynamaxing or Gigantamaxing guaranteed.
Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing are this installment’s gimmicks, replacing the Mega Evolution concept. If you’re in a fight and able to use the ability, your Pokemon will become more powerful, grow dramatically in size, and have all of its moves turn into stronger Max Moves. In some situations, it might even get a special Dynamax form or a Gigantamax form with a unique G-Max Move. The gym leader you are facing will always have one of their Pokemon do this, for example. It only lasts for three turns and doesn’t make a character invincible, but it does provide a tactical option. Granted, it is also a little frivolous and unnecessary, but at least some of the special forms some characters have are especially cute.
As with past games, Pokemon Sword and Shield adds an array of new characters. Some are entirely new, while others are regional variants of existing creatures. A couple of these Galarian critters even have evolutions only available in this installment. As usual, there aren’t any that are definitively “good” or “bad.” How people feel about them will come down to personal preferences. For example, I hate the whole Blipbug line of characters and love the Applin line, but others might find the new bug cute and hate the idea of an apple dragon. It also adds new sorts of evolutionary paths, with a Galarian Farfetch’d needing to land a certain number of critical hits in a fight to evolve or a Milcery needing to hold a specific item, then be spun to evolve into Alcremie. The only real downside is that not all Pokemon and moves came forward from past generations, which could mean favorites have been left behind on the DS or 3DS.
All of the Pokemon are littered throughout the world. There are standard routes like you’d expect from any entry connecting certain cities. However, Pokemon Sword and Shield also introduce the Wild Area. This huge space appears between certain cities and offers different kinds of biomes. You can see characters walking around, often much stronger than you can immediately fight and catch. Different weather effects will trigger. You’ll see other people who are playing locally or online, if you have connections turn on. Here’s where you’ll also see Max Raids you can participate in to catch Pokemon.
Max Raids feel like Pokemon Sword and Shield’s take on Pokemon Go’s Raids. You’ll see dens littered around the Wild Area, and sometimes they will have light pouring out of them. Approaching one allows you to fight the larger than usual Pokemon within with either three AI or actual allies. You take one Pokemon from your party or box in with you and have ten turns to defeat it. This Pokemon is in its Dynamax or Gigantamax form, is typically stronger than usual, and might even be a rare spawn, lending a sense of community while playing and accomplishment if you defeat it.
Camping is another means of making people feel less alone in Pokemon Sword and Shield. When you set up camp, you can talk to the creatures in your party, throw or wave a toy at them, or cook some curry in a minigame alone or with any other actual players who stop by your tent. While it is rewarding, with curry cooking that can boost relationships with Pokemon and give them experience, it also doesn’t feel as satisfying as the Pokemon-Amie system. Instead of actually petting and being one-on-one with characters, we engage in some frivolous conversations and chuck a ball at them.
Unfortunately, an element that Pokemon games have normally gotten right goes rather wrong in Pokemon Sword and Shield. In the series, there used to be a trading system that involved specific matches and searches. While the Battle Stadium exists for Casual and Ranked Battles and Official Competitions, the Y-Comm system is used for other interactions. You aren’t specifically connecting to one person; you’re entering a four-digit code and hoping no one else took it. If you decide to camp, you’ll only be guaranteed to see a friend’s camp if playing locally. If you battle or trade through Y-Comm, it can take some time to wait for the game to process the interaction and make it happen.
While it sounds like a lot of changes are present here, and a lot is new, Pokemon Sword and Shield doesn’t really feel all that different. The Wild Area does change things up quite a bit, but it isn’t completely revolutionary just yet. The Dynamax and Gigantamax elements aren’t all that special. This feels like a series in transition. Pokemon Sword and Shield is paving the way to the future. It isn’t perfect, with some characters who might look a little too familiar from past appearances, an incomplete Pokedex, but it is still has the same satisfying gameplay loop, array of characters to collect, and a series of gyms you’ll feel compelled to challenge. Pokemon Sword and Shield are a lot of fun and will get people thinking about things to come.