Pokémon Sword (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Rudy Lavaux 24.11.2019

Review for Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch

The resurgence in popularity of Pokémon that was orchestrated with the release of Pokémon Go back in July 2016 cannot be overstated, as it is still being played daily by millions around the globe even today, in late 2019. This has certainly helped keep the series alive and thriving, even during the twilight years of the ageing Nintendo 3DS. Pokémon releases have been coming out at a yearly pace since with Pokémon Sun and Moon in late 2016, then Ultra Sun and Moon in 2017, then Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee in 2018, all culminating in the start of the eighth generation of Pokémon video games with this release of Pokémon Sword and Shield. What a time it has been indeed, to be a Pokémon fan. There was never any doubt that Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee was not the true jump to HD and home consoles that the series could have and deserved on the Switch, awaited by millions of fans. This was always felt like more of a stopgap designed to bring in new, beginning Pokémon fans that discovered the joys of the mons on their smartphones. As for older fans, this would keep them busy during the development of a much more ambitious and anticipated big leap forward for the series in terms of presentation, gameplay, and content... or so gamers were lead to believe. Does it deliver? Read on to find out.

The action this time is set in the all-new Galar region, very loosely inspired by real-life UK. In true Pokémon tradition, the hero or heroine sets out on a quest to become a Pokémon champion, accompanied by rival-living-next-door Hop. The latter happens to be the younger brother to the current Galar League Champion, Leon. This time around, no trainer can undertake the Pokémon Challenge of going around gyms, earning badges, unless they are endorsed by a figure of authority in the League. Think of it as a license of some sort, making the whole League feel like an officially sanctioned sport, more than ever before. There's no doubt a bit of inspiration taken from UK's prominent love of football there (talking about the soccer variety here, where the ball is actually mainly handled with the players' feet).

Hop and the main character are both endorsed by the current champion, but Hop will not be the only rival. Bede, another boy endorsed by the chairman of the League, a man named Rose, also frequently challenges the protagonist. Then a third rival named Marnie, an emo/punk-looking girl, joins the fray as well, though her identity, as well as her own endorsement remains a mystery, and she's followed by a group of thugs that act as this game's evil gang, called Team Yell.

Very much following what Pokémon Sun and Moon did before them, Pokémon Sword & Shield are a lot more story-driven than games in the series released before them. Important cut-scenes use panning camera shots and close-up on the characters' delightful anime style designs profusely, except now they look a lot cleaner and nicer. An expected upgrade from Generation VII that is not present however is voice acting. This is not yet quite the interactive Pokémon anime that some may have hoped for, in that regard. What did feel like a massive improvement, however, is how varied the soundtrack can be. There is a little bit of everything in there, and the music always feels on point. It's hard to tell if this is synth based or actual recordings that play, but the sound quality is also top notch as far as the music in concerned. This may well be the best Pokémon soundtrack ever, right here.

In terms of gameplay, the move back to the Gym-based progression formula, albeit now with mini-game like gym-challenges to take before facing gym leaders, feels like a nice return to form after Generation VII. Moreover, these feel like they are better integrated into the story itself than they have ever been, which again is a carry-over from the trend set by the Sun and Moon games, except applied here to the older concept of Gyms. Furthermore, experience distribution between Pokémon and overall yields in battles seems to make levelling-up Pokémon considerably less grindy than in the past. This means less time spent grinding levels to keep up with the level curve of wild and opposing trainers' Pokémon, which in turn means a game that, as far as the main story goes, feels somewhat shorter, but also more focused with its story-telling. This can be a point of divide depending on your own tastes for Pokémon training, but as far as this reviewer is concerned, this is perceived as an improvement.

Screenshot for Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch

For all intents and purposes, Pokémon Sword and Shield is not an open-world game at all in the same sense as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for comparison's sake. This is still very much segmented in routes, caves, forests, and towns, presented with a fixed camera angle, just like previous mainline entries have always been. However, right in the middle of the map, there is a vast open space called the Wild Area, which is made of vast expanses filled with lakes, trees, raid battle spots to fight Dynamaxed monsters (more on that topic further down), and, most importantly, big surfaces covered in tall grass filled with a wide variety of wild Pokémon species with level tiers varying between sections of the big map. In that area, if the online communication mode is engaged, other trainers can be seen moving around, playing their own game, and can also be interacted with. Trade and fight requests can be thrown out to others, or responded to accordingly and this all makes the game feel more like a MMORPG than any other instalment to this point. This is limited to the Wild Area only, and other players can't be seen in the same way everywhere else, but still.

This also somewhat explains why the Wild Area looks rather basic in terms of presentation, as the Switch, a glorified handheld console running a chipset dating back to 2015, needs the headroom to accommodate for a good number of player-controlled characters moving around the place at the same time. Being able to run around, catching such a wide variety of Pokémon almost right from the start, is elating. However, as always, there is a limit to the maximum level a Pokémon can be for it to be controlled by the player, based on the amount of badges earned so far. Therefore, weakening down a wild monster in order to capture it won't be possible if its level is too high at that given time. Furthermore, new to this release, is a new level limit also dependent on badges that restricts the level at which a wild Pokémon can be captured. Trying to capture a Pokémon above that level limit will be impossible as the game will report that the monster "won't let its guard down."

As for removals, Z-moves and mega-evolutions are gone altogether from Pokémon Sword and Shield. The special feature of this one is the Dynamax and Gigantamax function in battle. In specific locations in the game, chiefly raid battle locations in the Wild Area and during Gym and League battles, all Pokémon are allowed to Dynamax, once per fight and for a duration of only three turns. This makes the Pokémon grow to massive sizes, giving it a huge, but temporary, stat boost, changing all its moves to Max variants. Above this, still, is the Gigantamax which does mostly the same thing, except it brings along also a change in the Pokémon's appearance and its moves become G-Max variants instead.

Screenshot for Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch

The catch is that only a small selection of Pokémon species can Gigantamax and those found randomly in the wild won't do. They need to have been captured in raid battles or to have been obtained during special events. Whether this is a good change or not will vary depending on who you ask, but it is bound to somewhat shake up strategies when playing against other human players, that much is for sure. This is therefore bound to please some and irk others.

Another removal is the Global Trading Station service, which has been a staple of the series for 13 years, allowing players to look up from within the game available trades online to grow their collection of monsters, or offer their own for trade in exchange for a specific other. This, along with the ability to transfer monsters from previous game saves to Pokémon Sword and Shield, seems to be reserved for the Pokémon Home online service which is, as of the release of the games and the writing of this review, not available yet. This will only launch in 2020, and, going forward, will act as the new all encompassing cloud based Pokémon storage and trading system. In this, all captured creatures from Pokémon GO, Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee, Pokémon Sword and Shield, as well as the older games supported by Pokémon Bank... will be accessible in one single place. This will be available from any device like a smartphone or web browser, allowing trading Pokémon from outside the games themselves. At least, this is what is promised and only the future will tell if it all turns out exactly as announced - but Pokémon Home ties is with the elephant in the room.

This is obviously the omission of over half of the existing Pokémon creatures. A word of explanation is needed however for the uninitiated. Pokémon Sun and Moon and their "Ultra" versions already did away with what is called the National Pokédex, the Pokémon listing system which kept track of all Pokémon captured, and which upon completion, that is to say once the player managed to "catch 'em all," unlocked a special reward. Only a fraction of all existing Pokémon appeared in Sun and Moon, and therefore, completion of the game only meant capturing all of the species appearing in the Alola region, therefore completing that regional Pokédex. However, Sun and Moon being compatible with the Pokémon Bank system, meant that Pokémon from previous titles, not available for capture in the region, could still be transferred over and played with in those games, even if they would not keep track of those in their Pokédex. The problem is that Game Freak has already announced that the only Pokémon species transferable from older games to Sword and Shield through Pokémon Home will be those that exist in the Galar region.

Screenshot for Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch

This is where the backlash lies and dataminers' findings do seem to confirm that Pokémon models for missing species are indeed nowhere to be found in the game's data. This means it is very unlikely that there is any intention to add them in later, except maybe in hypothetical, separate Ultra Shield and Ultra Sword versions released at full price next year. Note the word 'hypothetical.'

Then, another slightly lesser cause for complaint from diehard fans is the technical prowess. Wild Area looks rather simple, but for understandable technical reasons. However, other areas in here, no matter how beautiful they may sometimes look from a pure artistic standpoint, fail to impress even by Nintendo Switch standards, on a technical level. At least this helps the game meet its dynamic 1080p resolution in docked mode most of the time, as well as its 720p max in handheld mode, without dipping too far below the rest of the time all while keeping its locked 30FPS for the most part. Still, other games on the Switch manage that while still being more impressive looking. A look back at the whole history of the Pokémon series' development however reveals that this is very much so always been the case. There is indeed a clear sense that improvements and upgrades, be it in the visual department or in terms of gameplay, have been incremental as generations of games have gone by. This proved true time and time again even within a given generation of hardware. There has never been and probably never will be a mainline Pokémon title that pushes its host hardware to the absolute limit.

Generation III games were nowhere near as good looking as Golden Sun, for example. Generation IV remained for all intents and purposes a 2D game despite the DS being capable of a lot more. Generation V pushed things a bit further but still didn't look nowhere near as impressive as Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2, a game in the same genre that really pushed the original DS. Generation VI used unfiltered textures and somewhat disappointing looking locales and characters coupled to map designs that still looked very grid based despite being made in 3D and despite the 3DS being capable of a lot more.

...Then, finally, Generation VII eventually evolved map designs and did introduce more impressive cut-scenes and truly good looking characters, but at the cost of unfiltered textures, stereoscopic 3D being removed and, on OG 3DS hardware, poor performance in places, despite the 3DS being capable of running the likes of Resident Evil Revelations. Therefore, yes, [i]Pokémon Sword and Shield[i] may not look as good as they could have, and going by that trend the next generation may still not look quite as good as we'd hope, and this is perhaps where a lot of the criticism comes from. It does however look cleaner than ever and can finally be played on a bigger screen without need of additional hardware for those that stayed away from the series for that reason. Moreover, the artists responsible for the environments and characters still manage to make the visual experience enjoyable even if not technically super impressive.

Screenshot for Pokémon Sword on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

In many regards, Pokémon Sword and Shield feel like they are not all that they could have been, whether that is intentional or not, to build anticipation for an even better potential Generation IX also on the Switch. This is indeed not completely the true jump to the HD generation that could have been expected for the series, given the capabilities of the Nintendo Switch, but history shows that this was likely to happen. What it is however is a definite, albeit expected upgrade from the Generation VII games in terms of visuals. It may lack more than half of the existing Pokémon, and it may not offer the simple convenience of the GTS that we've come to expect from every new release, but it does introduce the first glimpse into what a Pokémon MMO might feel like. The main story feels shorter overall due to it being a less grindy affair than ever before, but storytelling benefits greatly from this, because the main game ends up being a more focused and packed experience.

Developer

Game Freak

Publisher

Nintendo

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now    Also on Also on Nintendo eShop

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