[Review] Pokémon Sword and Shield – Nintendo Switch

Written by Lachlan Bruce
  • Developer: GAME FREAK Inc.
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Date: 15/11/2019
  • Price: $59.99 / £49.99
  • Review code provided by GAME FREAK Inc.

Who’s that Pokémon?

One of my fondest gaming memories is the moment when my step brother and I received our copies of Pokémon Red and Blue for our GameBoy Pockets. The commercials of monsters packing onto a truck, along with the anime we were head over heels for sold us that this would be the greatest game that we would ever play.

That moment sent me down a path of adoring JRPG’s, and was the first game that truly had a community experience. Around the schoolyard, kids would talk about their teams and strategies, spread bogus Mew rumours, and bust out link cables to trade and battle.

Over the years, I began to fall off of the series, only dipping in to try a new entry here and there. Every time I tried to dip my toes back in, the games would lose me at some point. With Platinum, it was just after the seventh gym, where I just lost interest, Pokémon Y only took 3 gyms to lose me, and Pokémon Sun had me walking away after the second island.

I can’t quite put my finger on why those games lost me, beyond just saying that the magic I felt with the first two generations was no longer there. Moving on to more adult JRPG’s may have tainted my enjoyment for the simplicity of the Pokémon games, or maybe I was just sick of playing through that somewhat similar story each game tells.

Whatever pushed me away from those games, it is never enough to rid me of my intrigue of the release of a new Pokémon game. After thoroughly enjoying the admittedly simplistic Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu, I felt sold enough to give a new Switch entry of the series a shot. 

Unfortunately, there was a lot of turmoil surrounding the release of Sword and Shield in the community, but I won’t go into those here. So, without further adieu, let’s continue with the Nintendad review of Pokémon Sword and Shield.

Who plays Pokémon for the story?

Pokémon games always have a rather simplistic and formulaic story. You play a young trainer who battles with a rival to become the Pokémon champion. Along the way, a group of evildoers will try to enact some form of evil scheme, which you will thwart with your team of pocket monsters. Splash in some post-game content and that just about wraps up the story of every Pokémon game to date.

Sword and Shield is no exception to this formula, though there are a few tweaks that make this entry feel a little different. You end up having multiple rivals, be it an old friend, a complete jerk, or a friendly competitor. The evildoers this time are essentially superfans of a fellow gym competitor, and just want to slow you down. There is still a potentially world-ending threat to stop, but how that comes about is rather different to previous entries.

The post-game story is rather bizarre, and incorporates the legends of the region, as well as the legendary Pokémon, in some rather interesting ways. There is also the super endgame content, in the form of the Battle Tower, which is where you will want to go to face the toughest challenges the game has to offer.

Although this entry does some things differently, the story itself is still very basic, with it breaking down to you gathering eight gym badges, challenging a group of strong trainers, then taking on the champion to become the greatest trainer in the region. What is different though is the atmosphere, and that is where the game really hooked me.

Each gym battle is in a stadium, and emulates the feel of a sporting event in a packed-out stadium. You have your own jersey and number, and it all helps to make your gym battles feel like a big deal, almost like the world is watching. This was a nice touch, and had me excited for each of the gym battles, as well as had me pumped up during the end tournament to become champion.

Even though the story doesn’t shine, it certainly does enough to at least be engaging. The characters are largely forgettable, and aside from a few moments, the overall narrative is weak, but the Pokémon games aren’t really about the story. They are about the battles, training up your team, and catching them all (if you so choose).

I choose you!

For those who don’t know, Pokémon is a turn-based JRPG that revolves around building your team from the monsters that you catch. You level up your monsters by defeating enemies or catching Pokémon. You traverse the world in a somewhat isometric view for the most part, with some areas changing up the camera angle, and one area actually giving you control of the camera.

Each Pokémon has a type attributed to it, and those types can be strong or weak to attacks of other types. For example, a grass-type Pokémon is weak to fire attacks, but strong against water-type Pokémon. These type advantages really come into play when you build your team, as you want a wide range of attacks to cover as many type advantages as you can, while also diversifying your own types to limit your weaknesses.

As far as moves go, each Pokémon has access to 4 different abilities. They learn new moves as they level up, but you can also teach them new moves by using items that contain the ability you want them to learn, provided that the move is compatible with that Pokémon.

Overall, the systems in play here are mechanically simple, but there is a lot of depth and strategy to it as well if you want to dig in deeper. If you want to just teach big powerful attack moves, then you can do that, and you will likely be fairly effective, though come up against someone who uses a lot of different strategies and you may find yourself getting stomped, especially online.

Me, I like to load my team up with extremely annoying combos, such as thunder wave and confuse ray, or teach Pokémon moves that nobody would expect them to know to get a surprise type advantage they weren’t expecting. The number of strategies you can employ, the moves you can combo together, and the teams you can create that complement each other are quite staggering, due to the sheer number of Pokémon and moves available.

All of this comes together to create a fun experience, one that may not be as in-depth as other JRPG’s, but can be just as engaging. There are a bunch of added quality of life additions too that make map traversal easier, such as a fast travel system replacing the need to teach a Pokémon fly, being able to access the Pokémon not currently on your team at any time, as well as the bike doubling as a kind of boat-bike thing, which helps to streamline the whole experience. The best way to describe the gameplay is with a single word; fun.

That soundtrack is fire

The aspect of the game I found the most impressive was the soundtrack. If you are a fan of cheesy synth and slap bass, then these songs will really get you going. Each track is rather busy, and as such may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me it just plain rocked. Every new song is high energy, and remixes of old songs are made to fit perfectly with these newer tracks. I honestly can’t wait for a release of the soundtrack to add to my collection (fingers crossed).

Unfortunately, the visuals are a mixed bag. The characters, and especially the Pokémon themselves, look great, but the environments have some rather low-quality textures. The wild area especially, which is the new open-world environment, is rather sparse. There is major pop-in of characters and Pokémon, which happens from a rather close distance. Taking the good with the bad, I would say that the visuals are fine, if a little disappointing.

Is Sword and Shield, the very best…

Pokémon Sword and Shield does a lot of things right. From having a fresh spin on the narrative, to the streamlining of the games systems, this is definitely the best the series has felt in a long time. Even little things, like seeing the Pokémon walk around in the wild as opposed to random encounters is a great touch that adds so much life to the world. And that soundtrack is just incredible.

It’s a shame that the experience isn’t perfect though. The visuals can be nasty at times, with the distracting pop-in, and trainers disappearing and reappearing during battle, along with some other visual quirks that you just can’t escape. Thankfully, the overall experience is still fun, so if you enjoy the Pokémon series, there is little reason that you will not enjoy Sword and Shield.

Pros

  • Excellent soundtrack
  • Fun gameplay
  • Simple, with decent depth if you want it
  • Pokémon look fantastic
  • Atmosphere of gym battles is exciting

Cons

  • Uneven visuals
  • Disappointing performance and visual quirks

Verdict
Pokémon and JRPG fans alike will find plenty to love with these charming entries to the series. It isn’t perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement in the future, bu the overall experience is a lot of fun for those who enjoy light exploration and turn-based combat.
4/5

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