This year has truly been dominated by the Nintendo Switch. With holiday bundles, record sales numbers, and even more retro titles coming to its surprisingly affordable Nintendo Switch Online service, December, in particular, has been very, very good to Nintendo. The Switch, meanwhile, has been equally good to gamers, as the quality of titles like Dragon Quest XI S, Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses assured continued critical and commercial success. Therefore it’s no real surprise that the system’s last major release of 2019, Pokémon Sword and Shield, continues this winning streak.
Put out of your mind talk of the dreaded Dexit—a veritable tempest in a teacup concerning the game’s lack of a full, National Pokédex—and its related boycott (the latter of which was a bona fide bust, as the game instantly proved the Switch’s fastest-selling title). But whatever you do, don’t put away your cherished Pokémon memories because, while Sword and Shield continue to refine the franchise, the heart and soul of Pokémon are still alive and well.
Taking place in the Galar Region modeled after Great Britain, Sword and Shield once again put players in the shoes of a young trainer out to prove themself by battling and collecting Pokémon. Continuing the modern tradition, you have a rival who is far more friend than foe, and as I neared the game’s end I was actually thrilled to see Hop living up to his potential as the brother of reigning Pokémon champ Leon.
Team Yell, this iteration’s Team Rocket analog, is also far from menacing, as they’re mostly painted as over-exuberant fans of one of the secondary players, Pokémon riot grrrl Marnie. (Call it Pokéhooliganism if you must.) The game’s gym leaders, from the athletic Nessa to mall goth Allister, are likewise less blustery than many of their forbears, with only the characters in the direct orbit of Galar Pokémon League Chairman Rose—I’m looking at your, Bede and Oleana—actually deserving the severe thrashings I tended to give them.
Said thrashings take place across various locales, each properly themed to the preferred Pokémon type of its resident Gym Leader, but rather than simply fighting your way through a Gym to take on its top banana, you’ll now typically undergo a special challenge—ranging from following mazelike paths with various environmental puzzles to simply catching Pokémon—often while simultaneously taking on all comers.
With your reputation secured, you’ll face the Gym Leader in a larger than life stadium skirmish, complete with screaming fans, dynamic camera angles, and, of course, uniforms. Not only does this provide a nice nod to European football culture, it also sets the stage for the game’s new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing.
Like the Mega Evolutions of earlier titles, Dynamaxing provides both added spectacle and short-term buffs as the selected Pocket Monster grows to enormous size—with super-sized hit points and attacks to match.
Dynamaxing (and the related phenomenon of Gigantamaxing) can only be performed in certain areas of Galar—for reasons that are explained in the game’s narrative—which keeps the mechanic from getting stale. Equally refreshing are Sword and Shield‘s Wild Areas, free-roaming zones full of common, more powerful, and even Gigantamax Pokémon where players can also participate in co-op battles and raids.
Wild Areas are also perfect for exploring the game’s Camp mechanic. While camping, you can play with your party Pokémon and cook them delicious curry (via the requisite mini-game) that can be eaten to restore HP and remove status effects. While not as involved as X and Y‘s Pokémon-Amie feature, it does offer the chance to calm things down and build camaraderie with your battling beasties.
In another nod to Pokémon X and Y, the Galar Region is absolutely packed with clothing shops, and I will fully admit that I spent far more of my hard-earned money on clothes than I ever did on Poké Balls, Potions, or other actual game-altering items. I was able to show off all my customization by continually re-doing my Galar League Card, though, so I still see it as money well spent!
Visually, Pokémon Sword and Shield are stunning, and the regional variants of the game’s soundtrack may be my favorite yet. More time and care seems to have been spent by the Game Freak team on things that matter—like character, attack, and idle animations—rather than drawing out rote exercises like trades and evolutions, which seem slightly truncated this time around.
That said, my single knock against its visual presentation is the noticeably short draw distance. In busy cities, particularly around the local stadiums, people and Pokémon tend to noticeably pop into existence as you approach. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s also hard to overlook.
My only real gripe, though, is that the local trade system seemed weirdly finicky. My son and I were able to trade easily at first only to lose the ability a few days in. We were still showing up on each other’s Y-Comm timelines, but even when using the Link Code system to find each other for trading, our Switches failed to make contact. This seems to have been ironed out with a recent update, but I still hold my breath everytime we decide to swap version-exclusive Pokémon.
Much has been made about Game Freak’s approach to the Switch’s first original Pokémon title, with some even going so far as to call it a step backward for the franchise. Personally, though, my family and I cannot get enough of the game.
Exploring this new region with its new gameplay tweaks and evolutionary variances has proven, for us, just as exciting as taking those first few tentative steps into its last big gameplay evolution on the beloved Nintendo 3DS. Whether you pick Pokémon Sword or Pokémon Shield, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience that feels perfectly at home on the Nintendo Switch, and while you may not be able to catch ’em all, I’m confident that your time with this game will be very well spent—especially if you share it with the ones you love.
Review material provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. I secretly hoped Opal would poison Bede.