For over twenty years the Pokemon franchise has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide with Game Freak holding the reins through every main title release on Nintendo’s most popular handhelds. Through the years we’ve seen various spin-offs in different forms, a few of which have landed on Nintendo consoles, but through the years Pokemon has been a handheld franchise with an ever growing roster to capture and train. Now with Pokemon Sword and its counterpart Pokemon Shield being the first brand new games in the series to arrive on an actual console, as portable as it might be, how has the company handled the transition to the Nintendo Switch?
Players take on the role of a trainer that they create right out of the gate and find themselves beginning their journey in the Galar region. Here the gym challenges are treated like a festival event with every Gym Leader being a popular celebrity that battles against challengers in a massive stadium in front of a packed audience. With matches broadcast across the region the current “Unbeatable Champion” Leon has grown incredibly popular and garnered a massive amount of sponsors that he wears on his cape. Even with his popularity Leon isn’t one to forget where he came from and it is here that the player’s journey begins as Leon’s younger brother, Hop, happens to be your close friend and neighbor. With Leon returning home, the champion chooses to sponsor both the player and Hop and allow them to take on the Gym Challenge and even gives the player their first pokemon, choosing between the fire type Scorbunny, grass type Grookey, and water type Sobble.
After obtaining their starter and returning home to say goodbye to their mother, a local Wooloo smashes down a gate leading towards a mysterious area where dangerous pokemon are said to roam. Despite the warning, the player and Hop venture into danger and after encountering a mysterious untouchable pokemon in the wild, the pair pass out and are rescued by Leon. Despite this odd encounter the Gym Challenge begins as players travel through the Galar region where they encounter a variety of other gym challengers besides Hop and learn of a myth that happened in the past called The Darkest Day where pokemon suddenly turned giant and rampaged around the land only for a hero wielding a sword and shield to put a stop to it all but there may be some truth to this legend.
Pokemon Sword doesn’t really try to break new ground when it comes to telling its story here though it does make a few scratches that are unfortunately only left at surface level. The core story focuses entirely around the player taking on eight different gyms and obtaining their badges before progressing to face off against the champion but these scratches come in the form of character development and some world building that never really develops deeper than simply being mentioned outside of the aforementioned “Darkest Day.” Numerous Galarian pokemon variants have references to the environmental destruction happening in the world but outside of a few Pokedex entries it takes quite some time for this topic to even be mentioned and even then is left unresolved in any form.
With no real “rival” group to face off against players only deal with other gym challengers, one of which happens to have some obnoxious fans that follow her that even she scolds when getting in the way but we see many of these gym challengers, especially Hop, grow a bit over the course of the story as they deal with a few of their problems but rarely do these sections actually shine as they generally end on a weak note. One thing that is nice to see is that the gym leaders in the game also do appear in various parts of the core story as well, sometimes taking direct action, allowing them to appear more as actual characters rather than one and done boss battles.
In many ways Pokemon Sword plays similar to any standard Pokemone experience as players are initially set on a route path where various other trainers can be battled and wild pokemon hide in the tall grass, though this time around pokemon do appear in the overworld on their own and can even chase after the player in standard routes. In a rather unique fashion, some pokemon in various routes only appear through random encounters in the grass compared to the overworld appearances so those looking to catch certain types will need to explore a bit further. Speaking of exploration, Pokemon Sword only follows the standard pathing formula for a bit before players are introduced to one of this entries’ biggest new features, the Wild Area.
Before players even reach the first major town they are treated to the Wild Area and given nearly full reign over what they want to see. Players will find wild pokemon roaming around grass, popping up in the middle of a pathway, swimming around the various ponds and waterways, and even a few occasionally appearing in the sky. The Wild Area feels like what fans have wanted for quite some time and while it does manage to deliver in many regards, it also falls short in quite a few others.
When connected online in the Wild Area players will see other trainers traveling around the area, popping in and out of the game while riding bikes on land and water, inside camp tents where they can be visited by the player, and waiting for raids but being online with others also leads to a severe performance drop. While traveling alone the game runs fairly well in the Wild Area with only a few random hiccups happening here and there, or a Pokemon spawning on top of the player, but online the game will suffer from extreme slowdown at one point turning the game into a slideshow for a few moments before catching up.
That being said, Pokemon Sword opens up an entire area to the player nearly right out of the gate and gives them a chance to potentially build a team with more variation than ever before in the early game. Yes, Game Freak has removed over half of the Pokedex from the game but this doesn’t really become much of an issue, at least at first, since so many pokemon types, both brand new and old, are introduced so quickly. Even the aforementioned Galarian forms of returning pokemon have a breath of fresh air to them compared to some of the more standard Alolan forms we have seen in the past, especially since more than Gen 1 has been given time to shine in that regard. In fact there are even a variety of new ways that some Pokemon need to be evolved this time around that players wouldn’t expect so the excitement of venturing into a new route or area in the Wild Area is still quite prominent even with there being less to actually find this time around thanks to how varied the type introductions are and how many pokemon are initially available for capture.
For the most part, battling in Pokemon Sword remains the same as ever before, though there is the nice addition of having moves labeled whether they are effective or not if the player is fighting a known pokemon. The biggest change comes in the form of the new mechanic that combines a few others that have come before, Dynamaxing. In Galar pokemon are able to Dynamax to a massive size but can only do so in gym battles, in Max Raid battles, and fights against other players either online or locally. Dynamax, or Gigantamax for a select few pokemon, lasts for three turns and comes with a massive stat boost and transforms every move the pokemon knows into a powerful move of that elemental type. Unfortunately if a fire type pokemon only knows fire moves, this does mean that every attack will do the exact same thing, though the aforementioned Gigantamax pokemon do gain access to special G-Max moves which is a nice touch.
Another nice touch is this game’s take on bonding with your Pokemon. While previously players could interact with one at a time and feed various treats, Pokemon Sword has a camping system where their entire party is allowed to roam free while the player’s camera is in first person. Here they can play various types of fetch, dangle a feather toy, and simply talk with their party members as well as make curry. As for why curry was chosen as a dish in a game that is so heavily steeped in the United Kingdom is beyond me but players can cook various types of curry using different ingredients and completing a couple of short mini-games and depending on how well they’ve done, the better the curry will be in not only increasing your pokemon’s bonds but also healing them at the same time.
Of course there are a number of downsides in regards to the choices that Game Freak has made this time around. While previously only traded pokemon would not listen to the player if they didn’t have enough badges, the actual pokemon players can even catch this time around is also hard locked to how many badges they have. While there is some sense in this, as they wouldn’t want players catching a level 50 Snorlax by luck before fighting the first gym, it is frustrating that even if the player’s own pokemon are strong enough to beat a higher level opponent, they are impossible to actually catch. Along those same lines, there is an unfortunate side effect to the Wild Area being so open and the Pokedex being limited and that is there is basically no real exploration outside of the extremely linear story pathway.
While it is fun to travel around the Wild Area, there are no optional dungeons or caves to explore, puzzles to solve, or even random encounters and once the player beats the game, there is almost no end game worth talking about outside of the Battle Tower where players can test their mettle against an ever stronger group of trainers. There are “Max Raids” that players can take part in in the Wild Area that they’ve already had access to before but these come with their own problems that can be attributed to the poor online service. This means that Pokemon Sword, alongside Pokemon Shield, have probably the weakest amount of actual content found in a mainline entry in many years.
The online service itself has more than its fair share of issues as well and they are at their worst during the aforementioned Max Raids. Now a Max Raid is triggered by approaching one of many glowing rock formations scattered throughout the Wild Area and players will form a team of four to take down a massive Dynamaxed pokemon with there being a time and faint limit on the player’s party. Unfortunately thanks to the game’s atrocious online mechanics players will almost always need to rely on randomly selected NPCs (who can occasionally bring Magikarp) to fill out the roster. Only one time throughout my lengthy time in Pokemon Sword did I ever manage to have other people join a raid despite trying countless times and waiting the full three minutes and don’t even bother trying to join someone else’s Max Raid as an error message will always appear.
The “Y-comm” that is used for the game’s online system is quite annoying more than helpful as any time the player is connected to the internet they will see various notification badges appearing in the corner. These represent other players performing various actions such as performing “Surprise Trades” that trade a pokemon from your party and randomly trade it with another stranger, a standard Link Trade, or even whether they’ve camped, cooked curry, or caught a Pokemon. They also feature the aforementioned Max Raid notifications but just like before, trying to join one through one of these pop ups is a fruitless endeavor and even if you try to filter results, it doesn’t work anyways. This leaves players with an online connection that often feels like it takes away from the game, both in performance and immersion, than anything else.
Visuals & Audio
Many have wondered just how Game Freak would manage on a stronger platform and now that Pokemon Sword has been released, the results are something of a mixed bag. The design of the world itself during all of the linear paths and routes is gorgeous, with towns being a real highlight here, and some of the brand new pokemon designs are really great to see, with some nice variety mixed into the bunch and there is no slowdown in actual fights anymore, even when players are fighting in the middle of a gym with two Dynamaxed pokemon.
On the other hand, traveling through the Wild Area and witnessing many Pokemon actually fighting can be a rough looking affair. Despite there being different biomes and weather types in the Wild Area much of the environmental designs in these areas are incredibly rough and simplistic at best. Pokemon animations are also a bit on the rougher side when it comes to some of the moves they unleash. Most moves look fine and a few even have some special animations but more than a handful of very common attacks have the most barebones animations possible that look almost worse than their original 3DS appearance.
Thankfully the game does feature an amazing sounding soundtrack with plenty of familiar tunes that have been remixed and upgraded for release on a home console. Pokemon cries are familiar and clear sounding though that is the only semblance of talking in the game as there is still no voice work of any kind.
Many wondered just how Game Freak would handle a full blown console release and Pokemon Sword shows that they need a little more experience when it comes to a console RPG. The same experience and joy of training up a fresh team of pokemon including plenty of brand new faces and interesting variations of familiar forms and taking on gym battles that have some unique challenges to them is still there and at times feels better than ever, even if it is the easiest it has ever been. Unfortunately some of the worst online implementation the series has seen so far, an anemic amount of content outside of the storyline, and plenty of graphical issues drag down the experience as a whole. Leaving us with a game that still hits many of the favorite notes that Pokemon fans have loved throughout the years but also a fair share of problems that hamper it from being the great console debut that they had hoped for.