Pokemon Sword and Shield is both a return to the familiar for the Pokemon franchise as well as a tease of where the franchise can go on the Nintendo Switch. The new Pokemon games are both a milestone for the Pokemon franchise and a lightning rod of controversy. The games are the first "main series" Pokemon games to be released for a household console (last year's Pokemon: Let's Go games are seen as a separate line of games) and are also the first games in over 15 years in which all of the franchise's Pokemon aren't available. While players could at least transfer their favorite Pokemon species into a Pokemon game, Game Freak controversially announced that only Pokemon that could be caught in the game could be used in these new installments, meaning that a number of popular Pokemon species are left looking at the upgraded graphics and bigger Pokemon world from the outside. The controversy over the lack of the National Pokedex (referred to as "Dexit" by some Pokemon fans) at times seemed to crowd out any excitement expressed about Pokemon Sword and Shield, which is a shame as the games are probably the most enjoyable Pokemon games released since at least Pokemon Black and White or Pokemon HeartGold and Soulsilver.
While it's a shame that certain Pokemon can't be found in Pokemon Sword and Shield, players likely won't notice as they explore the gorgeous Galar region, which is filled with dozens of new Pokemon species and plenty of returning favorites. Pokemon Sword and Shield makes it very easy to get lost in the exploration and discovery at the heart of the Pokemon franchise, especially as the Galar region feels much more fleshed out than past Pokemon worlds. The Galar region wears its British influences on its sleeves, both in terms of its wonderfully designed Pokemon and its rolling hills, large stone monoliths, and its mix of castles and quaint architecture. While Kalos felt like a generic Pokemon region with only a few French flourishes, and the Alola region had a unique culture that was bogged down by a subpar Pokemon game, while Galar feels like the first region that's totally unique from the rest of the Pokemon world.
It helps that Galar is much bigger than past Pokemon regions, thanks in part to the Wild Area, a massive area filled with tons of different Pokemon and serves as an enclosed "open world" space that players have been begging for since at least the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, if not longer. While Pokemon Sword and Shield still employs the same linear storyline, with certain areas blocked off until gyms are beaten or certain people are talked to, that open-world feeling represents a tantalizing taste of what the Pokemon franchise could do in the future, if its directors are bold enough to take risks. While Pokemon Sword and Shield plays things a little too safe at times, you can see where the franchise can go and see foundations that future games can build upon. Moving to the Nintendo Switch was a long overdue and necessary change, and the Pokemon world has never looked this good before.
The new Pokemon themselves are some of the best designed Pokemon we've seen in ages, and Pokemon Sword and Shield players will come away with a lot of new favorites. There are also a couple of surprising choices in terms of what Pokemon were selected to get new Galarian versions, and what the type combinations of new Pokemon are. They're all a sign that Game Freak really did try to take some risks here, although some players will be frustrated that many aspects of the game stick to the well-worn (but also very successful) formula of past Pokemon games. If you're looking for a complex storyline or something radically different from the Pokemon games, Pokemon Sword and Shield will definitely disappoint you.
Pokemon Sword and Shield does learn some lessons from past Pokemon games. For instance, the Dynamax mechanic is limited to certain locations, so that the game experience doesn't solely revolve around it. This is a big improvement over Pokemon X and Y (with its Mega Evolution) and Pokemon Sun and Moon (with its Z-Moves), because Dynamaxing your Pokemon is a feature, but not the whole game. There's also some much-appreciated streamlining of play and quality of life improvements, such as players accessing their Pokemon boxes at any time (so you can swap out fainted Pokemon, or bring in new Pokemon at any time) and skipping over certain tutorials. Training Pokemon for competitive play is also much easier, and could lead me to actually trying out the competitive scene for the first time ever. These are small steps, but positive ones for the long-term health of the franchise.
Most of my disappointments in Pokemon Sword and Shield are that the game still runs into many of the pratfalls of past games. The post-storyline content is disappointing, the storyline is woefully simplistic (although it's in line with past Pokemon games), and there's not a ton of challenging battles. At times, I felt like Pokemon Sword and Shield was akin to bowling professionally with the guard rails up. While trying to keep the Pokemon games accessible for children is understandably important, the games have gotten almost too easy over time. Pokemon Sword and Shield doesn't have a moment where you feel joy after finally defeating Whitney's Miltank after 50 losses or after finally capturing that Mewtwo with your last Ultra Ball after tossing your entire 200 ball supply at it. The joy of discovery is still in these Pokemon games, but the challenge (especially during the storyline portion of the game) is unfortunately gone.
Once the dust settles from the controversies stirred up over the summer, Pokemon Sword and Shield will be looked upon by fans fondly. This is a great Pokemon game, one that, at times, pushes up against its self-imposed limitations and teases a new path for the Pokemon franchise. The real question coming out of Pokemon Sword and Shield is whether the Pokemon Company will build upon the newest innovations seen in the game and strive to keep the Pokemon franchise exciting and relevant, or if they'll just retreat to familiarity and disappoint a fanbase looking for reasons to keep playing for decades to come. Pokemon Sword and Shield is a half-step forward for the Pokemon franchise — we'll see if they put the other step forward with their next set of games, which could be critical to keeping some of its more jaded fans.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pokemon Sword and Shield hits shelves on November 15th. A retail copy of Pokemon Sword was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.