Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield, the two latest entries in the long-running monster-catching series, signal a passing of the torch from one generation to another, all while bucking as many old trends as possible. Does this new direction work as intended? Not always. Will there be some resistance from the seasoned Pokemon crowd? Most likely. Are the games better as a result? Unequivocally, yes.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are what Trainers who started the series with Pokemon Red and Blue back in 1996 dreamed about, both in style and substance. The tale of Sword and Shield follows a young trainer through the region of Galar, a world taking much influence from the United Kingdom, replete with sprawling countrysides and major metropolises. The trainer enters the Gym Challenge, where hundreds of would-be Galarian monster catchers try to defeat eight Gym Leaders and earn their way to a match with the unbeaten Champion, Leon. There is an underlying story involving the history of Galar, but, honestly, it all boils down to the core goal of being crowned Champion yourself.
The real star of the show, without question, is the Galar region itself. The many regions of the new locale truly impress, from massive hillsides forming the horizon to quaint towns that are just as visually striking. The scope of these areas makes Galar a personality few other regions in Pokemon have managed to become, clearly showcasing the level of care the development team put into its creation. That sense of majesty is bolstered by the game’s incredible soundtrack, as every score sets the scene beautifully, specifically the theme that plays during battles with Gym Leaders. Listening to the crowd chant along with the track is a wonderful touch that accents the pageantry of the stadium-based showdowns.
Pokemon Sword and Shield’s massive open map, the Wild Area, is where Trainers will spend the bulk of their time. The location, made strictly for catching wild Pokemon, is divided into smaller sections, each with its own set of monsters to catch and terrain to match. Factors like the weather and time of day play into what Pokemon will appear, either directly in the world or in shuffling grass. This area succeeds on every level, giving the Trainer ample opportunities to catch as many Pokemon as they can find before moving onto the next story beat. The monsters also scale to the player’s current level, meaning they grow with your character.
What makes this Wild Area so interesting is the variety of battles a Trainer can run into and, more important, whether they’ll be prepared for the challenge. Occasionally, a powerful Pokemon will appear, one that cannot actually be caught by the player as they have a level higher than the Trainer’s current number of badges (a leveling system that is attained by defeating various gyms throughout the world, of which there are eight). But just because they can’t be captured doesn’t mean these monsters can’t be battled, and running into one of these titans will more often than not result in the player’s team getting thrown around. However, proper strategy and patience could result in a few victories for massive experience points and the challenge is sometimes simply too enticing to pass up.
Tracking down various creatures is where the game really shines, but, unfortunately, battling them isn’t quite as engaging. That’s not to say the battle system is bad, there’s just not much new here; it’s the standard Pokemon turn-based system we’ve come to know and love since the good ole days of the Game Boy. In a game with so many new things happening all around it, leaving the foundation of familiarity in the battle system may be a smart choice, but it’s also very safe and doesn’t always jive with the more “change things up” nature of the games.
The games do offer one significant new battle feature, however: Dynamax. Dynamaxing a Pokemon means calling it back into its Poke Ball, imbuing it with some sort of magical energy, then rereleasing it as a giantized version of itself ready to throw down. This new enhancing ability, only available in certain matches, is certainly flashy, but not overly deep. Moves are different for Dynamax Pokemon, switching to supercharged maneuvers based on the attack’s type, but otherwise the battle structure remains. For an innovation that seemed so revolutionary when it was first revealed, it would have been nice if there was more to it.
Max Raids out in the Wild Area are a far more interesting use of the new mechanic, sending a Trainer and up to three companions (human or CPU) down into a Pokemon Den in order to fight a Dynamaxed Pokemon. The battle carries out as usual, but the wild Pokemon has a lot more tools up its sleeve. It can generate shields that take multiple attacks to break, nullify stat changes and, in higher-level raids, it can attack multiple times at once. Max Raids are the toughest and most rewarding challenges in the game, effectively shaking up the routine.
Outside of battle, there are many shake-ups to the Pokemon formula in Sword and Shield, each with its own effect on the experience. Being able to access PC boxes (where excess Pokemon are kept once the player fills their inventory of six monsters) and change up party members on the fly is a terrific addition that will help Trainers build their teams much more quickly — all with the simple press of a few buttons. Building effective teams on the fly, especially in moments right before a major battle, is a time-saver worthy of its own trophy.
Pokemon Sword and Shield clearly want to be the genesis of a new age of Pokemon, setting the course for a long and productive run on Nintendo’s flagship Switch console. Hard choices were made in order to achieve that goal, but in the end those tough decisions were absolutely worth it. The beautiful Galar region is a joy to explore — even if the story told within it is far from revolutionary — and there are hundreds of Pokemon to find, train and battle. The core mechanics of the game play it safe for the most part, but the new features make a big impact. It all amounts to a total package that will delight Pokemon fans new and old, as it’s an experience seemingly plucked from the minds of the Trainers of yesteryear. Pokemon fans should be sure to take up this sword and shield as soon as possible.