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Pokémon Sword and Shield review – gonna miss ‘em all

The most controversial new Pokémon game ever is finally here but what’s new, what’s wrong, and what’s missing in Sword and Shield?

Anyone that’s been a fan since the early days will have their own idea of their dream Pokémon game. At first, simply being on a home console was enough, but as that aspiration was diluted by spin-offs we, at least, began to imagine a cross between an open world MMO and a friendlier version of Monster Hunter. Needless to say, Pokémon Sword and Shield is nothing like that. In fact, while it has been promoted as a major milestone for the franchise that’s highly debatable, in a game that takes away as much as it adds.

Thanks to Pokémon Go, the general concept of Pokémon has never been more popular than it is now, even if many fans have never played a mainline entry in the series. That’s a gap in experience last year’s Pokémon: Let’s Go tried to bridge, as it attempted to reconcile the complex and system-filled gameplay of the core titles with the much more simplistic mobile app. Since it also doubled as a remake of the very first Pokémon games we felt it worked very well in its role, as well as giving developer Game Freak some useful practice at creating games on a home console (or hybrid as the Switch is).

But despite all the talk of this being a major mainline entry, with new open world environments, the core of Pokémon Sword and Shield is still very similar to Let’s Go and indeed all the proceeding Pokémon games. You do have to catch pokémon properly now, by battling them, and there’s a greater depth of features – but not as many you might be expecting. That means it’s still perfectly accessible for those that only play Pokémon Go, but an inevitable disappointment for longer-term fans.

Sword and Shield are sold separately (we played Sword) but there’s very little difference between the two. Normally, no-one is expected to buy both versions and the few differences, primarily a small number of unique pokémon in each, are to encourage trading. That’s standard for any Pokémon game (this is essentially Pokémon 8), although this time three of the gyms are also exclusive, which crosses a line because it means there’s something substantially different in each game that can’t be shared just by trading.

The gameplay basics are the same as always, as you tour the new land of Galar capturing and training pokémon to battle for you, in your attempt to become the gym champion – a post currently held by your best friend’s older brother. There’s even less story than usual for the series though and for almost the entirety of the game there’s no real villain or any plot point more complex than vaguely researching a historical event that left Galar pokémon with the ability to transform into giants, via a process called dynamaxing, for short periods of time.

Dynamaxing is one of the main gimmicks of the game but only comes into play during gym battles or four-player co-op experiences, similar to Pokémon Go raids, where you and three others, human or computer-controlled, gang up on a giant pokémon. This ends up making dyanamxing feel rather disconnected from the rest of the mechanics, at least in terms of the single-player story, but it’s still a fun novelty.

The pokémon dens where dynamax battles happen are found only in the Wild Area, the first time the series has had a modern open world environment. It’s rather small though and filled with nothing much else other than wandering pokémon and a few berry trees. And yet as simplistic as it is, it is the most forward-thinking part of the game as, like Let’s Go, you can see pokémon just going about their business rather than appearing at random in long grass (although that does happen too, if you choose to investigate moving grass, which seems a good compromise).

Some Wild Area pokémon are much too strong to battle until several dozen hours into the game, so while it doesn’t have much involvement in the story the Wild Area is somewhere you constantly come back to train pokémon (aka level grind), catch new ones, and gain an in-game currency named watts that is used to acquire unique equipment. You can also camp wherever you want and cook your pokémon a curry, but it’s not a terribly useful or interesting process – although you can invite online players as well, even if that’s not something we’ve been able to test before launch.

None of the online options were switched on while we were reviewing, which means we can’t tell exactly how the online multiplayer works. You get little stamps appearing in the bottom of the screen, telling you when you’ve done something interesting, like evolve a pokémon, and we believe you’ll also see those from other people too. Worryingly, GTS (global trade system) doesn’t seem to be in the game though and while there is the option to Link Trade we haven’t been able to test it and don’t know its limitations.

Judging by the options, you can definitely also battle online and there’s a ‘link code’ to ensure you do it either with a specific person or someone random. Whether that’s enough to satisfy the potential of the game though we can’t say at the moment.

The biggest problem with Pokémon Sword and Shield is that it is incredibly easy to take issue with, not so much in terms of its intrinsic flaws but the enormous potential it has to be so much more than it is. We don’t want this review to turn into a shopping list of faults, because overall we did enjoy the game, but given the response before launch (which included actual death threats) it’s obvious that fans are going to rip the game to shreds once it’s out.

Their main complaint has been that for the first time, Sword and Shield does not include every single pokémon, ‘only’ around half of the total number, which is now pushing 900. That has clearly become an unwieldly figure, even if Game Freak’s explanation for the cuts have been rather vague and poorly framed. A number of moves have also been removed from the game though, which is not going to go down well either. Although Game Freak told us in an interview that cut pokémon could be added back in post launch.

The problem is that Game Freak is actually a very small developer and with Sword and Shield it’s obvious that they’re getting out of their depth. They’re only used to making portable-only games and for most of the time that’s exactly what Sword and Shield looks like. Some areas are better than others, but the majority of the game just looks like an upscaled 3DS game, with very simplistic textures and geometry. It’s never quite as visually bland as something like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but it seems impossible to believe that it’s running on the same system as the gorgeous Luigi’s Mansion 3.

Given its popularity and the potential of the concept Pokémon deserves – one might say demands – to be realised with the highest production values possible. This should be the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, or at least a big-name Western role-player, in terms of budget and online options but most of the time it looks and operates like a mid-budget indie game.

We’re still not convinced there’s any real artificial intelligence in the game and bizarrely, despite it being so well suited to the Switch Lite, there are no touchscreen controls at all. The lack of voice-acting alone is acutely embarrassing, as characters’ lips flap about uselessly during cut scenes, whose lowkey music often leaves you watching the game almost in silence.

Game Freak’s excuse is that they don’t have time to sort out all the different languages and voice-actors in time for a global release and we’re sure from their point of view that’s true. But money should be no object here, and yet this gives the impression of being one of the most cheaply made Switch exclusives so far.

Pokémon is such an intrinsically entertaining concept it’s infuriating to see it not reach its full potential. On portable consoles it usually did but it is not making anything close to full use of the Switch. Even if you ignore the technical issues there’s a distinct lack of new features beyond dynamaxing and the Wild Area, with no other major gimmicks or complications.

There are a few interesting options in the post-game, and semi-hidden concepts like fossil hunting, but too much of the game seems just like vanilla Pokémon with very else little on top. This is especially true given so much of the game has been streamlined, almost to the point of trivality, with a name rater in every Pokémon Center, an infinite use escape rope, permanent Exp. Share from the start, and no HMs or the ability to use pokémon in the overworld – just one multipurpose bicycle.

There’s also something called Box Link now, that allows you to swap any captured pokémon into your party at any time outside of battle. All these things are useful quality of life improvements but the rough edges they sand off also remove a lot of texture from the game, especially as they’re not replaced with anything else. Although at least the game remains relatively difficult if you don’t train your pokémon up properly, so it’s not like Game Freak are trying to dumb it down in that respect.

And yet, as we said, we have enjoyed the game. Catching and training pokémon is as entertaining as ever and a lot of the new designs are really good. We particularly approve of the high number of unique pokémon that have their own gimmicks and gameplay quirks that means they’re not just a new visual design with interchangeable moves.

We can’t name most of them due to Nintendo’s review restrictions but ones like Morpeko, that switch type mid-battle, or Cramorant, that spits out a fish it captures while using a different move, are great. Ironically, given the controversy, we often became frustrated at constantly running into old pokémon, from previous games, when we just wanted to see the new ones.

Galar region itself is also fun, as it’s inspired by the UK and filled with British slang, as characters are told to ‘jog on’ or sit down to watch the ‘telly’. It’s laid on a bit thick at times, but between the endless curries, frequent rain, and teapot-haunting ghosts this is, rather oddly, one of the most authentically British video games we’ve ever played. Which, of course, says more about the others than it does about Sword and Shield.

Despite all the controversy, Sword and Shield’s place in the franchise is something that will only be judged by hindsight. With luck it will end up being a stepping stone between the handheld games and more technically ambitious titles on more powerful hardware. The worst case scenario would be that this becomes the new norm and it continues from here with only incremental improvements, when really the series needs a major revamp.

Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t come close to offering that and while it is still a perfectly entertaining experience it’s impossible to play it without constantly thinking about what you’d wish had been done better. If Game Freak, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company don’t buck their ideas up then it’s inevitable that someone else is going to come along with a better take on the same premise, because Pokémon is much too good an idea to be serviced only by underdeveloped games such as this.

Pokemon Sword and Shield review summary

In Short: The furore over Dexit may be overblown but even without it this is an underwhelming and unambitious attempt to modernise Pokémon and expand its horizons.

Pros: The core Pokémon gameplay is as engrossing as ever and the Wild Area is a small but important step forward. Some great new pokémon designs and surprisingly fun script.

Cons: Low tech values and production values. Too few new features and too many old ones that are removed or smoothed over to the point of irrelevance.

Score: 7/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: 15th November 2019
Age Rating: 7

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