I’ve been trying to write this review pretty much since Pokémon Sword and Shield came out back in November. I honestly don’t know why it’s been so hard for me to get it done and out there, or why I’m deciding to revisit it now after my time has been dominated by an infernal raccoon and his mortgage bubble schemes, but here we are.

The lead up to the latest releases in the mainline Pokemon* RPG series is the most toxic that I’ve seen Nintendo and/or Pokemon fandom get. I mean… the Pokemon Company and Game Freak have never really been above criticism; people were right to get frustrated with what happened with Ultra Sun / Ultra Moon. Released about a year after Sun and Moon came out, they were basically just remixes that felt more like DLC than a game, despite adding a lot of “content.” Had they been spaced out more, or just a single game (like Yellow, Crystal, or Emerald), it would have felt different… but this just felt more malicious and greedy.

*Yes, I know it’s supposed to be Pokémon, but that’s such a butt to keep typing.

The Danger of Buzz

I’d normally say a 2-on-1 fight isn’t fair, but very few of the random challenges were ever actually challenging

The initial buzz around Sword and Shield was actually pretty positive. There hasn’t been a Pokemon game on a home console in ages, and there hasn’t been an RPG on it in… ever. Well, kind of… we had Pokemon Let’s Go, which was a remake of Yellow, but designed around the Pokemon Go mechanics. Let’s Go is actually a very polished and incredibly fun game to play, but I totally get not being able to get into the game because of everything that’s missing.

The initial reveal of Sword and Shield looked nice, we were getting a different sort of setting in pseudo-Britain, and the ability to pick up and go, or sit down and play, with your Switch is still a huge draw. The starters all had a charm that Sun and Moon starters not named Litten really lacked (and I’ll admit that my adorable Fire Kitty’s evolutions were junk). That it was all on a more interactive world than Let’s Go had, but had the same aesthetic and styles, set any fan up to get excited.

Then… we got the biggest bombshell to drop on a Pokemon release in recent memory: that these games would be the first in the series to get rid of the National Pokedex. Not just “not available in the game” to catch, but not available to transfer in with Pokemon Home ( the replacement for Pokemon Bank). This situation wasn’t at all helped by the fact that Game Freak and Nintendo never bothered to clarify what it was going to be like, what would be missing, etc.

The assumption was that it’d be mostly later Pokemon cut… they had, after all, 3D and high-res models of the first generation, and the focus would be on moving more over and introducing the Galarian versions we saw in the preview. Unfortunately, as we got closer to release, we learned this wasn’t the case. The new Pokedex came in with just over 400 in early leak, and let’s just say that things were gutted. More than half of all Pokemon, including a lot of the first generation which had been done for Let’s Go, were gone. Squirtle was your favorite of the starters (as he should be)? Too bad, he’s gone. Oh, you like Ekans, cool because he’s just snake backwards? Nah, you’re going to get a snake that looks like he’s turtleheading and seriously needs to see a doctor.

The biggest improvement over Sun and Moon has got to be making the evolutions of the starters not suck

Of course, since that point (and well after I started writing this review), we got news that there were expansion passes coming to Sword and Shield that would be restoring around 200 of the cut Pokemon. That’s since come out, and it’s not perfect, but Pokemon Home has replaced Bank, and allowed for a one-way move that restores the “national” dex in Bank, and lets you import forward any of the restored Pokemon into Sword and Shield. The downside, which I’ll talk about more later, is that the moves right now are all into Home from Bank and Let’s Go, and only Sword/Shied can move in and out of the game.

Almost immediately, there was a loud backlash from a minority of fans that see it as the obligatory “slap in the face” – look, let’s just get rid of that phrase in regards to any product – which drowned out the legitimate concerns about the Bank. The top of those legitimate concerns is absolutely the price; while the new app introduces a new “free” tier, it’s about as close to useless as one can imagine. You can place a grand total of 30 pokemon in storage, you can only participate in room trades, but not host, are you cannot transfer them in from the old Pokemon Bank (i.e., no moving forward your old ones).

This guy was my favorite leader in the game, and the most interesting part of the story

The price to remove these limitations? $15.99 USD for a 365 days (they specifically call that out… or 12 months), $4.99 for 90 days, or $2.99 for 30 days (it says 1 month there, but 30 days would only cover 4-ish months, or give you a couple of bonus days in February). Compared to Pokemon Bank, which ran $4.99 for one year, it’s a sharp increase in price.

This, unfortunately, seems to be how Nintendo is going to work going forward with things like DLC, services, or the like. A mixture of “you have no choice,” “it’s not that much,” and exploiting FOMO. That’s how it works for Online, which still doesn’t really feel “worth it,” it just carries a more acceptable price than other online services. To be clear, I don’t expect Nintendo to just give away legitimate online services for free, but this feels especially odious for what you get.

Another Pokemon Game

If you’ve played a Pokemon game in the past, you’re not going to be shocked at the general story: kid goes to be a trainer, has a rival, there’s a champion, and someone is up to no good. At a high level, it plays on the same beats that Pokemon always has, and it won’t really knock your socks off with how the story unfolds or the world just exists. I’d love to see Game Freak actually get creative with the stories and take a chance, but I don’t see it happening until they see sales drop compared to a previous generation.

I honestly never really got tired of the fight introductions for Team Yell

That being said, it does do a number of things which shift the story more than titles have in some time. The biggest one is in the “generic baddies” that we get in the game, Team Yell – dating back to Team Rocket, they always have to be teams. They’re typically lumped under the title of villainous teams, but that honestly doesn’t apply here. It unfolds about halfway through the overall story, but they’re basically just superfans of a particular challenger and not tied to the big bad. Once you get past that gym and challenger, they fade to the background, and once the bigger story with the “bad guy” comes into play, they’re going to be on your side.

The big bad… honestly isn’t that big, or all that bad. He’s misguided, not evil, and Pokemon Sword and Shield take an oddly anti-corporate and pro-environmentalism stance, while at the same time, leaning hard into the idea of corporate celebrity and lifestyle. The whole thing that Chairman Rose is concerned about is making sure that the Galar region can keep generating enough power and maintain their way of life.

There was a surprising amount of variety in gyms between the editions

Fun fact… when I wrote that paragraph above, I was fresh playing the game at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The most notable thing was that Australia was on fire and there seemed to be a lot of bad things that lined up. It was before anyone ever heard “Coronavirus” or we started to talk about the economy in terms of the great depression, so, wow, way to talk about accidentally destroying to planet and somehow managing to be understated compared to real life.

I’d love to say that this takes as strong of a stance as, say, The Outer Worlds does in going after it’s core message, but the problem is that when you’re taking an environmental message and you don’t have “what if we change our way of life some” in the mix, it’s always going to fall flat.

While none of these things add up to making something that will just knock your (presumably pokemon-themed, like mine) socks off, they are different enough. It won’t surprise you for the most part… Chairman Rose is sickeningly nice throughout the story but you still know that he’s going to end up turning on everyone. You’re going to beat the unbeatable champion, and best your rival, because that’s what Pokemon games are all about.

Don’t buy into all the comments that the graphics don’t cut it. This game looks as nice as any 1st-party Switch game

That’s not to say that it’s a dull experience, not in the slightest. A big thing that helps, especially with gym challenges, is the music really draws you into it. Within those gym battles, or Dynamax battles in the Wild Area (more on that later), the music just ratchets up with the fight. If you’re like me, you really look forward to those fights just for the moment when you get the gym leader down to their last Pokemon (who they will dynamax without fail), the whole gym is cheering for the fight.

Ultimately, the base game is the base game. If you like the gameplay loop of literally every mainline Pokemon game, you’re going to like this. If you don’t, well, you’re probably not all that interested in this game or review anyway.

Game Beyond the Game

Pokemon has always been defined by what happens “after” the game. There’s the underlying focus to catch them all and complete your Pokedex. Normally, that means you are going to do a whole lot of wandering, and hatching, and all sorts of things like that. That’s still in Pokemon Sword and Shield, though the general mechanism for catching and finding is a fusion of what Let’s Go added, along with the classic game. You see a certain portion of Pokemon running around in the over world, and can just run up and initiate a fight with them.

The professor and researcher in the game is one of the NPC highlights.

There’s also a classic “tall grass,” though they aren’t random encounters, per se; you see where the movement in the grass is and can choose to avoid it, or try to grab it and roll your dice. Weather, time of day, and other factors play a part in what you can catch and where, but generally, you can be a bit more focused in what you chase down.

Once you beat the various somehow undefeated people, the trials open up where you can go and grind out all sorts of battles with leveled teams and things like IVs and nature have meaning (and people like me have to go google them every time). If that’s your thing, more power to you, but it’s never been what brought me back.

The new feature introduced in Sword and Shield, though, hits well before the endgame, and just keeps unfolding: The Wild Area. In the map, it’s a huge section that is inside the normal route loop, and is a pseudo-open world where you run around and can catch all sorts of Pokemon. They are area specific, and in the area, weather has far more of an effect on what you can find.

You also see a whole ton of other trainers running around in the “not really multiplayer but come on we’re trying” system, and they hand out food (used in the camping curry cooking mini-game) or useful items. You can also find normal stuff, shake trees for berries, or collect a special energy currency from Pokemon dens.

This bike basically on magic

Those dens are the real draw of the Wild Area after you get far enough in the game, because they are what drive raid battles – your chance to catch powerful pokemon, and often special pokemon that have unique Gigantamax looks (they appear different when you Dynamax them, like a Snorlax lying down and a forest growing on his belly). These are the main ways to farm items and XP candies, which greatly improve the grinding process.

Once you hit the endgame, the Wild Area is just a fun way to waste time and hunt for stuff… but it’s not without it’s frustrations. The biggest issue is that the weather that controls when a lot of the Pokemon spawn, is typically connected to the month you are in, not random effects. It looks like it could just happen, in how the messages pop up, but only one weather can really happen in any given month. Ultimately, this means you either have to wait a lot to finish your Pokedex, or do what most of us do and just go change the clock on your Switch to find the ones you want.

More than the timing, though, there is an added frustration with the Wild Area that was introduced in addition to the “pokemon don’t obey you” mechanic that was in place from previous games. For those who aren’t familiar or don’t trade, if you had a pokemon above a level you could control from outside your game, it would randomly just ignore you. Getting badges is how you got around that, and by the time you had all your badges, you could use any Pokemon you want.

In the Wild Area, the badges also prevent you from catching the Pokemon above a certain level as well. It won’t even let you throw a ball at them, even should you weaken them down or slug one out with your team (which, if you’re playing in the Wild Area much, will be over-leveled for whatever point you are in the story very quickly).

By the time you can capture everything in the Wild Area, you don’t need to capture anything in the wild area

I understand that they didn’t want a bunch of low-level trainers running around and grabbing a Pokemon a few dozen levels above with some lucky throws, but keeping the disobey mechanic in place for that would have worked just as well, and still let you complete your Pokedex. Given the rarity of some spawns, it’s disheartening to see a Pokemon, only to start a fight and needing to run away.

Beyond that, though, there is an upcoming DLC packs that is going to extend the experience (and also reintroduce a lot of the old Pokemon back into the game – including some old legendaries). This likely spells the end of the “remake” versions of the game, but it has also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way for the price and how old pokemon are now behind a paywall…

… sort of. In what is kind of a nice move, the new Pokemon (and those that come in through Home/Bank) can be pulled in by those who own the DLC, but traded to anyone who has the game – even if they haven’t purchased the DLC yet. It will be tougher, especially without Home, but it is possible.

Let’s Talk Camping

Every Pokemon game has some little thing added in as a weird minigame or flavor-piece that has comes up an inordinate amount of time. Sun and Moon had the island you could drop your Pokemon at, where they could passively level and get you a whole bunch of berries. It also had a grooming system where you could smudge your 3DS screen up a ton to get your pocket monsters to like you. You have the farm, or hatchery, or things like that (the nursery is still in Sword and Shield)… and they’re often forgotten in the next title.

With Sword and Shield, we saw early on that there was a camping system with the Pokemon, a way to gain happiness that seemed to be an extension of the grooming system. It is that, in a way, but instead of focusing on one Pokemon at a time, it lets you do things with the whole team. You can throw a toy, get new toys and throw them, or “talk” to your Pokemon, which is really just a way for you to check your affinity.

The real WTF moment in the early reveal, though, was the introduction of the “Currydex” and a cooking minigame. Cause when I think Pokemon, I think… curries? It was just bizarre, and the way they pitched it, it was some sort of ground breaking reveal and huge part of the game. In truth, it’s “optional” except it sort of isn’t, because it’s the easiest way for you to heal up and rest your Pokemon outside of hitting a Pokemon Center.

More than that…  the most insane thing is that the stupid little curry cooking minigame is just a little gameplay loop that’s fun. Really fun. Much like that little visceral feedback of Breath of the Wild’s cooking, except far more involved, it’s a dumb thing in the game that for some reason I enjoyed every time I ever did it.

I played the curry game a lot more than I’d care to admit…

It tied into the social settings of the game more than anything, because if you were online, you could put down your camp and others could join, and the more people that joined in to the cooking meant you could potentially get higher rankings for your dex, and better effects from it. There are five levels, Koffing is the worst and does little, Wobbuffet above that heals up half the teams’ HP, Milcery refills everything and removes status conditions, Copperajah heals and restores PP, while Charizard, the best, does all that and grants a huge XP bonus (each tier gives some XP and affinity bonus). In general, doing everything well hits Copperajah, which makes the minigame essential to long sessions trying to grind or capture without having to run back to a center to heal up.

Pokemon Needs to Evolve

The new stuff added to the game is all pretty great; the fusion of Let’s Go “show the Pokemon on the overworld” and the classic running through the grass really feels like a best of both worlds solution. I’ve spent a whole ton of my life playing random encounter RPGs, and the more I play games that are messing with that formula (like Final Fantasy VII remake, for example), the more I find that I’m just over RNG battles.

There are some decent quality of life improvements as well, but so many little things are starting to feel dated and tired. The menu interfaces and organization has some improvements (like being able to access your boxes anywhere), but other things, like having to click through a half dozen prompts to do anything, are just tired. Inventory management continues to be a chore, and there are just too many steps to do much of anything.

At least it was only one button click to rest the pokemon, rather than 2-3 of previous titles

More than that, though, the formula is just starting to feel stale. The game did little to surprise you, and it takes absolutely no risks. I’m not expecting this kid’s game to suddenly starting going in insane directions, but once upon a time, the story did do interesting things (like say in Black and White).

It’s kind of sad how little of the base game has actually changed, since Sword and Shield are ultimately the start of the next era for Pokemon games. It’s no longer strictly a handheld title, it’s entered the home market. To be fair, it isn’t just Pokemon… the dated feel permeates almost all of Nintendo’s games (come on you stupid Dodo, you saw the Nook Miles ticket, just give me that option). But it feels especially hard here.

Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, but every time I hear talk about “slaps to the face” or “being stabbed in the back” by fans of a series I am not going to have a lot of sympathy for the person complaining. Ultimately, the reality is that this is a product, and that’s all. They don’t owe us anything past delivering a game, and we don’t owe it to them to buy it. In the end for Nintendo and Game Freak, and they are looking for how to continue it and keep it going. There was no promise that was broken, customers aren’t entitled to their specific vision, and the companies aren’t owed any money.

I’ve obviously talked about this before, both with LEGO and in gaming. Much like the backlash and anti-backlash to films and games, this is exposing some of the ugly side of fandoms out there. In truth, the companies bear a great deal of the blame… they stoked the “gotta catch em all” and systems that set a certain level of expectation, and traded on FOMO to get people excited. When they stepped away from that, people felt hurt, because that was the sort of relationship that was set up and exploited.

Even the world of Pokemon has been taken over by “influencers”

At the same time… fans take a sense of ownership that is kind of undeserved, and then lash out when it doesn’t meet their own personal expectations; but no two people will have the same expectations, and anger doesn’t make any argument valid. It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed, and to not buy the game, Pokemon Home, or any of the DLC.

All of that being said, and all the frustration with Nintendo’s pricing, or even the repetitive plot don’t change the fact that, at it’s core, Sword and Shield still make for a satisfying game. The reason that Pokemon works is because the gameplay loop is just that good and it works even when they phone in so much. The things added, and the game after the game is still fun to play.

Is Sword and Shield the best Pokemon game ever made? No. Is it still fun and worth playing? I’d say yes. There is so much I want to have changed, but none of it kept me from having fun. I like the DLC coming up, and look forward to it, even if my efforts to catch them all kind of fizzled out when new games distracted me (I owe that raccoon a lot of bells).

I understand the criticism that this is just a theme done so many times, but it’s not as fair to say this is just “the same” game again. It’s the same in the way that Sun and Moon were the same as X and Y, and X and Y were the same as Black and White. There’s so much to the game that still works, and I’m torn between a 3 and a 4 out of five. I had a ton of fun playing it, and both my daughter and I sunk a ton of time into playing it. That seems more than enough to call it a four out of five. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t regret purchasing or playing the game, and given how the world is right now, it’s a great game to escape into when you’re tired of waiting for Flick to come and buy all of those spiders and scorpions from you.

Buy Pokemon Sword and Shield

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