Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 12/09/2019 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
For more than 20 years, I’ve been a huge Pokemon fan. Since I was in the first grade playing Pokemon Red and Blue, I’ve been crazy about the series. One of the things that most excited me was always seeing all of the new Pokemon to catch and train and fitting them into my team. With that in mind, I was rather nervous about Pokemon Sword and Shield. There were a TON of features for which I was extremely excited, but likewise, there were some design choices that upset me and that I still question. Every sequel will have that to some extent, though – some design choices that I love and some that I loath. The real question, then, is do the good changes in Sword and Shield outweigh the bad for me?
Clearly, Pokemon Sword and Shield is popular – in its first weekend alone, it sold over 6 million units, making the best selling game in the series – but popular doesn’t always mean good, and I had some reservations. My biggest concern (and still my biggest complaint) is the lack of National Pokedex. That means that the only Pokemon in the game are the 400 in the Galarian Pokedex. Normally, during the main game, you’ll go through that region’s Pokedex and then have the ability to transfer Pokemon from previous games in the post-game after beating the main story. That’s not the case here, at least not fully. Sometime in early 2020, a companion app called Pokemon Home is supposed to launch and will give players the ability to transfer Pokemon from the 3DS Pokemon Bank and Let’s Go but only if those Pokemon are in the Galarian Pokedex. Sorry, Blastoise and Mewtwo lovers, but those Pokemon aren’t supported. On the one hand, I do understand – with fully animated 3D models, that would be an IMMENSE amount of work, and 400 Pokemon to catch is no small number as it is. Still, though, for a series whose tagline has been “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” for more than two decades, it’s odd not having the ability to catch them all.
While the lack of National Dex may be a major letdown for me and for players who play like me, it’s not all bad news with Sword and Shield. On the contrary, I found the additions to the game to outweigh the flaws by a mile. First and foremost, like Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee, the game is a fully 3D adventure for the first time with random encounters scrapped in favor of overworld encounters (for the most part, anyway). Sadly absent is the follower mechanic from Let’s Go, but GameFreak made up for it somewhat with the camp mechanic where you can pitch a tent and either play with or cook for your team. This is a great way to boost your friendship with your Pokemon, a somewhat cryptic mechanic needed to evolve certain species.
Sword and Shield also add the “Dynamax” mechanic, this game’s version of the Mega Evolutions from X and Y or the Z Moves from Sun and Moon. With Dynamaxing, under certain conditions and in certain arenas, your Pokemon can grow to enormous sizes and get a big stat boost for three turns. Likewise, your moves change based on type. A select few specimens from a small number of species can change their appearance while Dynamaxing and gain a special, unique attack; this is called Gigantimaxing. For most battles, Dynamaxing won’t really come into play, but they do for the gym battles and the championship battles, and they’re the main focus of my favorite addition to the game – raid battles.
There’s a special area of the map called the Wild Area, and this is where the game goes from good to great. The Wild Area is basically the Safari Zone perfected. It’s broken into different zones, and the Pokemon that appear differ from zone to zone, and even within a single zone, different Pokemon will appear based on the weather. Thunderstorm? Expect to see dragon and electric types. Mist? Expect to see fairy and psychic types. Throughout this Wild area, there are clusters of rocks called Pokemon Dens. When a beam of light is pouring from a den, you know a Dynamax Pokemon is there, and there’s a slight chance that there may even be a Gigantimax Pokemon in the den. If you activate the den, you can trigger a raid battle. These raids can be done solo with three utterly useless AI teammates, but the fun really begins when you connect to the internet and team up with people from all over the world to take out these massively powerful Pokemon. When you defeat a Dynamax (or Gigantimax) Pokemon, you have the opportunity to catch it, but even if you fail to catch it, you’ll still get some awesome rewards. You’ll usually get some berries, some treasures to sell, some Exp Candy to level up your pokemon, and some TRs (items that teach moves like TMs but that break after a single use like the old TMs). Online raids are hands down my absolute favorite post-game activity. When you find a five-star raid, it can get TOUGH, and you’ve really got to bring your A-game and have a solid team on your side.
Competitive battle is another post-game aspect of Pokemon that I used to be HARDCORE into in college with X and Y, but it can be an extremely intimidating thing to get into initially. Breeding egg moves, breeding natures, breeding perfect IVs, EV training, perfecting your moveset, balancing your types…it can be overwhelming. Fortunately, Sword and Shield has made it a LOT easier to understand and get into. After you get to a certain rank in the post-game Battle Tower, you can unlock an IV checker to see at a glance how good your Pokemon’s IVs (or Individual Values) are for each stat. These are stats that the Pokemon is born with and never change. Or do they? If your Pokemon is level 100 and you have a bottle cap, you can go to a man in the Battle Tower and put your Pokemon through Hyper Training, artificially raising that IV to the maximum. That perfect IV can’t be passed down through breeding, but it can give your Pokemon an edge if they have imperfect IVs. The Battle Tower also offers an item that can change a Pokemon’s nature, something that affects the growth rates of certain stats. Like IVs, natures were something that couldn’t be changed prior to Sword and Shield. EVs (or Effort Values) are probably the least intimidating aspect of competitive battling, but even that has been simplified in Sword and Shield. In addition to the items that can boost EVs and the regular training you can do, there are PokeJobs that you can send Pokemon on for 24 hours that will raise their EVs for a certain stat. You can fully EV train a Pokemon without doing any actual training yourself in a week with the PokeJobs. Not everyone will like having it be easier to get competition-ready Pokemon, but it’s definitely nice for folks just getting into the competitive scene.
Pokemon Sword and Shield is definitely not going to please every long-time fan, and I still have my own complaints with the game, but it’s arguably the best point of entry for new fans save for maybe Let’s Go, and it’s definitely the most welcoming for newcomers as far as competition goes. The story is good, the visuals are great (even if lacking in anti-aliasing), the animations are awesome, and the new Pokemon are super cool for the most part. One thing I absolutely love is how few legendary Pokemon there are. Past games with NUTS with overloading legendaries into the game, but Sword and Shield only have three – the cover legendary for Sword, the cover legendary for Shield, and a third legendary central to the game’s story. That’s it. Well, you can get Mew, but that’s sort of a special case I won’t get into. Long story short, the game’s not perfect, but it’s DAMN close and a definite must-own for Switch owners.