's Games of the Year: Pokemon Sword and Shield

Since 1996, every Pokemon game has followed the same basic plot: a child receives their first Pokemon and travels through a region, astonishingly beating seasoned professionals in their meteoric rise to champion, all the while foiling the plot of some nefarious villain with a harebrained scheme that threatens the entire world. It's both a strength and weakness of the Pokemon franchise-- when you sit down with a Game Freak-made Pokemon game, you know what you're going to get, and looking for a radical departure from the games' traditional framework only leads to disappointment. Maybe that's why Pokemon Sword and Shield is one of the most enjoyable Pokemon experiences we've played in years. While the game certainly sticks to time-honored Pokemon tradition, it also takes some bold new steps that pushes the franchise towards a bright future.

The newest pair of Pokemon games were released in November amid a storm of controversy involving several decisions made during the development process. For one, only about half of the franchise's 900 or so Pokemon can be used in Pokemon Sword and Shield, with other species left out due to a stated desire for better competitive balance and to focus on other aspects of the game. While an unpopular decision when first announced, the move lets players fully appreciate the 90 new Pokemon species brought into the franchise, and it allows some less popular Pokemon to enter into the spotlight.

And the new Pokemon are one of the biggest strengths of the game, as they represent some of the best we've seen in recent generations. Many of the Pokemon have a decidedly British flavor due to the Galar region's English influence, and there are dozens of adorable and frightening Pokemon in the vein of the original games. The Pokemon franchise got delightfully weird again with Pokemon Sword and Shield, as the games feature everything from bleached coral to a penguin with its head encased in an ice cube to a bear trap meant to ensnare Pokemon trainers. This generation of Pokemon is wild, and should go down as a pair of fan favorites for years to come.

More importantly, Pokemon Sword and Shield feels different because Game Freak took time to breathe life into the Galar region, the setting for the new games. The gym leaders all have distinct personalities and great designs, the rivals have their own motivations and exist to do more than narrate your own rise to the top, and the world itself feels truly different than any area of the Pokemon world we've seen before. This is definitely the most fleshed out Pokemon region we've gotten in years, even if a few of the cities are nothing more than glorified hallways with neat window dressing.

Pokemon Sword and Shield also keeps some of the recent innovations we've seen in past Pokemon games. Pokemon appear in the overworld once again, chasing down players, and the game blissfully remains free of HMs. There's also some cool new additions to the franchise -- particularly the Wild Area, a massive, semi-open world filled with hundreds of Pokemon species, changing weather, and interactions with other players who also pop up exploring the world. There's also the Dynamax and Gigantamax mechanics, the games' new gimmick that mixes Mega Evolution with Z-Moves. While I like the Dynamax mechanic and the multiplayer Max Raid Battles that come with them, the most important thing the game does is preventing Dynamaxing from being available in every battle, so that it doesn't take over the game the way that Z-Moves or Mega Evolution did in past games. It's a smart choice, and it keeps the mechanic feeling special.


All said, Pokemon Sword and Shield is not just a strong Pokemon game; it also represents a new beginning for the franchise. With Pokemon moving to the Nintendo Switch, we can now finally see what the franchise and Game Freak are capable of when not shackled to an admittedly inferior handheld console. We saw glimpses of where Pokemon as a whole could go with Pokemon Sword and Shield, and I'm curious to see if the franchise will keep pushing and innovating as it moves forward. In the meantime, I'll enjoy wandering through the Wild Area, playing with my new Pokemon, and waiting for that next Gigantamax Raid.