By Isaac Espinosa
Equip your Pokeballs! Take up your town maps, and travel through Galar for a brand new Pokemon adventure! Pokemon Sword and Shield, the newest entries in the Pokemon franchise, were developed by Game Freak and published to the Nintendo Switch by The Pokemon Company. But unlike most Pokemon games, Sword and Shield faced widespread controversy from fans, partly because numerous Pokemon had been cut. The Pokemon community had become extremely divided about the quality of these games, and whether these latest were worth buying. So, do Pokemon Sword and Shield deserve your money?
Pokemon Sword and Shield both begin in much the same way as the other titles in the series. After meeting your new rival Hop, who’s got quite the energetic and friendly attitude, you go to the next town to meet Leon. Leon is the undefeated champion of the Galar Region, and he’s also Hop’s brother. As a way to introduce your partner Pokemon, Leon shows you and Hop the starter Pokemon of Galar: he’s Grookey, the grass-type Pokemon, Scorbunny, the fire-type Pokemon, and Sobble, the water-type Pokemon. After you pick your starter and battle against Hop for the first time, Leon decides to personally endorse you and Hop for the Gym Challenge, where you’ll fight all eight of Galar’s Gym Leaders, and then earn the right to challenge Leon himself. As you make your way through the Gym Challenge, you also begin to unravel the secrets of Galar’s history, and the malicious schemes that are the region’s new way of accessing a Pokemon’s power, Dynamaxing. Dynamaxing is a new powerful addition to Pokemon battling, in which Pokemon expand to massive sizes to unleash some powerful attacks.
No one has broken the mold here, but that’s not a bad thing. You catch brand new Pokemon, battle Pokemon trainers, and make your way across the region to conquer every Gym. However, the Sword and Shield games introduce a brand new way to find Pokemon while also providing an exciting new form of battling. These both come from the Galar region’s Wild Area, an expansive and large field, consisting of many different types of environments for Pokemon to live in: deserts, grassy terrains, and bodies of water as far as the eye can see. And although some of the Pokemon are too strong at this point for you to be able to catch them, completing the Gym Challenge will soon allow you to access any type of Pokemon, no matter how high-leveled. This means you can easily fill up Galar’s Pokedex, and becoming closer and closer to catching them all.
Taking a page from the mobile app Pokemon Go, Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield introduce Raid Battles, a new form of battling. There are small dens in the Wild Area that sometimes emit a red or purple beam of light. This signas that lying in that den is a large Dynamaxed Pokemon, ready for battle. By combining the might of four other trainers that you can find either online or with NPC trainers, you can slowly take down the giant Pokemon’s HP before catching it and claiming it as your own. These Raids, and the Wild Area overall, were my favorite aspects of Pokemon Sword and Shield. Having the ability to fight massive Pokemon alongside other players online, and having the ability to catch and find all of these wild Pokemon in one large area, gave me a sense of fulfillment that I hadn’t found in any other Pokemon games.
However, Pokemon Sword and Shield are not perfect, and there are flaws with the game as a whole. The story, which has always been important to me, could use some work. Since Pokemon Red and Blue, the games have followed the same formula of visiting all eight gyms and facing the champion. Yet the story was often moving despite the formula. But Sword and Shield don’t have the same feeling and emotion as the other stories. In previous Pokemon titles, players had a sense of importance since they were responsible for helping the respective region whenever it was in trouble. This is very much lacking in Sword and Shield. At some points in the story, Pokemon will randomly begin to Dynamax uncontrollably and rampage around the area. And Leon, not you, is always the one called upon to handle that situation. That does make sense, since he’s the undefeated champion, but it’s strange to be so disconnected from the action. At the end of the story, when you’re finally able to step up and deal with this major problem, your involvement ends so quickly that it seems like an afterthought.
Despite my gripes with the story, there were many things I enjoyed. For example, I do like that the game actually treats Leon like a strong champion. In previous Pokemon games, each champion does little but stand around when it comes time to save the region. Some champions, like Diantha from Pokemon X and Y, barely show up at all. Leon, however, uses his strength and skill as a Pokemon trainer to get things done, and is therefore constantly demonstrating why he’s undefeated. It makes him much more believable as a champion, and it makes the inevitable fight with Leon all the more satisfying. Speaking of which, the Gym Challenge itself is handled in an excellent fashion. In Galar, the Gym Challenge is comparable to a popular sporting event, like football or soccer, and acts as a test of skill in addition to strength. Even the gym leaders themselves all have unique challenges. And each gym leader has his or her own personality and quirks, ranging from the calm and collected Nessa, who uses water types, to the confident and eager Raihan, who uses dragon types.
All in all, it was disappointing to learn that some areas of the game didn’t display the same level of passion as others, such as the new Pokemon in the region, the Wild Area, and the Raid battles. Plenty of people play Pokemon for the story alone, so it’s unfortunate that that story often feels disjointed and uneven, with plot points messily thrown together at the end. As a Pokemon fan, I enjoyed most of Pokemon Sword and Shield, but it’s not a surprise that my opinion isn’t universally shared.
Isaac Espinosa is a New York Videogame Critics Circle Intern. He’s the Founder of the Lehman College Videogame Critics Circle.