By now, you’ve probably heard all about Pokémon Sword and Shield. When the games were first announced back in 2019, fans were excited! We were going to receive our first high-definition main series Pokémon game. And then the folks over at Nintendo Treehouse streamed Sword and Shield for a while, and after that… Let’s just say things were never the same. When the game’s developers revealed that over 400 Pokémon would be excluded from Sword and Shield, the world was set ablaze with fury. After this revelation, the Twitter mob set out to raid every official Pokémon-related tweet with the aptly-named #BringBackNationalDex “movement”. Though, at the time of writing, the movement hasn’t been as impactful as fans had hoped, because the decision to eliminate Pokémon has not been reversed — and may never be.
And the controversy doesn’t end there. Have you heard of the random tree that looks like it’s from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Well, those trees were famous for a while — and for good reason. Like such trees, much of Sword and Shield’s contents are… kind of sad. But as if that weren’t enough, it wasn’t just Pokémon that were cut. The developers, generally speaking, cut almost every corner they could. Alas, everything that can be said about Pokémon Sword and Shield has probably already been said somewhere, somehow. In other words, we’re just going to say it all again. Let’s get started, then.
Thanks to Andro for writing out this elaborate Pokémon Sword and Shield review! We’re releasing this in celebration of the recent Crown Tundra DLC. With that in mind, do note that this review only covers the base game. We’ll have more Sword and Shield reviews and content coming up in the future, so stay tuned!
Pokémon Sword and Shield are the first mainline Pokémon games capable of being displayed on the big screen – that is, a TV screen. That being a revolutionary advancement considering what we’ve been used to in previous titles. Additionally, since the Nintendo Switch doubles as a portable console, you can catch and train your Pokémon anytime and anywhere. One might wonder, then, how incredible a Pokémon game can be if using the full processing power of the Switch. After all, it is the same console that brought us gems like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with its gorgeous graphics and massive open world.
Another major difference between Sword and Shield and the previous Pokémon games is the introduction of the never-before-seen Dynamax phenomenon — the power to turn your Pokémon into their own supersized versions in battle. While Dynamaxed, a Pokémon’s attacks become powerful Max Moves, which deal tons of damage and have secondary effects that can change the tide of battle. Dynamaxing only lasts for three turns, though – and thank goodness that’s the case – because Dynamax can spiral out of control quickly.
But there is one more major difference that has never been seen before in prior Pokémon games: about 450 Pokémon were completely cut from Sword and Shield. Yes, the game’s DLC pass is bringing back at least 200 Pokémon, but at launch, about 450 were missing. Give or take. On top of that, the developers confirmed that the games to follow will retain a limited Pokédex, and this was a considerable letdown for fans of the series worldwide. Can the game make up for these cuts in other ways, though?
The traditional gameplay remains.
Pokémon Sword and Shield looks very much like Pokémon Sun and Moon, in respect to the overworld and battles. You can travel the region of the British-like Galar, discover new places, catch wild Pokémon and go on a quest to become the Pokémon champion – the ultimate position and aspiration of all trainers. To accomplish such a thing, one must travel around Galar and defeat all eight gym leaders — special trainers that possess above-average battle skills that will surely prove a challenge, and also defeat the unprepared. To accomplish such a thing, a Pokémon trainer must catch and raise their Pokémon by having them battle, so that their Pokémon will gain experience points and grow stronger.
This has always been what the mainline Pokémon games are about, and this game is no different. So, if you enjoy the long-standing formula that all mainline Pokémon games have carried, then this aspect of Pokémon Sword and Shield should prove satisfactory to you since it doesn’t deviate much from the usual. But if you are coming into the game expecting a different formula, you’ll be disappointed. Being a matter of personal taste, I can say I didn’t mind it.
As per usual with the Pokémon games, in-game battles remain somewhat uninteresting because of how difficult it is to consistently predict an AI opponent’s move choices, throwing many opportunities for strategizing out the window. Even so, the game is made exceedingly easy (for experienced players) by the always-on, forced Exp. Share — a gameplay element that enables your Pokémon to grow simply from being present in your party during a battle without the need for any engagement.
A few neat things can be observed in Sword and Shield, such as the ability to control the game using only one Joy-Con in one hand. This is good news for all the shiny hunting enthusiasts because they can now hatch eggs for 40 hours in the background and barely recognize that they are playing an A-button simulator! Sadly though, compared to Sun and Moon, there are not as many ways to hunt shinies in this Sword and Shield, as SOS battles are no longer a thing. As a result, the only remaining options for shiny hunting is to find wild Pokémon in tall grass or hatch Pokémon eggs.
What’s more is that Dynamax – in my opinion – is not up to par with the Mega Evolution mechanic that existed in the three games before Sword and Shield. Even though the concept of Mega Evolution wasn’t universally liked, each of those new forms had a unique design that furthered the idea of forging a bond with your Pokémon, giving you the feeling that you just raised your partner to become even stronger. This is different from Dynamaxing, though, as your Pokémon just increases in size. Gigantamax-form Pokémon have creative (though occasionally over-the-top) designs, but in a general sense, Dynamax Pokémon feel more like a ship being steered by its captain than a friend the trainer has raised and spent time with. In other words, Dynamax sort of muddies the perceived relationship between Pokémon and trainer — it’s as if the Pokémon turns into a machine to be obeyed by its trainer rather than their partner.
Unsurprisingly, Sword and Shield do not improve on the NPC dialogue of past iterations, continuing the tradition of having NPCs with boring and repetitive dialogue. The dialogue is packed with choices that don’t have any real repercussions in the game. To put it into perspective, there are two ways these silly “choices” can go like. The first way goes like this: Imagine that an NPC asks you this: “Hey, would you like to have a cup of tea?” and then you receive the options “Yes!” and “Sure, why not?” Both “choices” mean essentially the same thing.The second way goes like this: “Would you like to help me with my Pokédex research?” and receiving two options – “Yes” or “No”. If you say “No”, the NPC replies with “But you gotta help!” and repeats the question they asked you once again.
Those two examples are not, by any means, far off the mark. Pokémon has always been about weak dialogue and Sword and Shield is no different. It pales in comparison with other RPGs where conversation can become one of the most fun aspects of the game. Sword and Shield instead turns dialogue into something that feels like a chore to go through.
The only place where you can catch a break from Sword and Shield’s mostly-meaningless dialogue is at Opal’s Gym, the 5th gym of the Gym Challenge. In that gym, she’ll quiz you on your knowledge of Pokémon, fairy types and also give you some “good” questions. I’d write them what they are, but I wouldn’t feel right spoiling the only thing “worth spoiling” in the entire game’s story. You’ll probably like this gym too. Oh, and speaking of the story…
It has a nonsensical story.
As for the story, as is usual of mainline Pokémon games, it is nothing too deep, intricate, or even interesting. In my opinion, the stories of mainline Pokémon games are time wasters at best. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the story in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and personally, I would say the story was nonsensical, incoherent, and ultimately rather pointless. Now be careful because there are spoilers ahead – not that it matters much anyways.
With the story’s presentation, there are several glaring flaws within it. In addition to besting all eight of Galar’s esteemed gym leaders, the game tasks the player with stopping the second occurrence of a legendary event called the Darkest Day. Said legendary event takes place thousands of years before the events of Sword and Shield, and entailed the legendary Pokémon Eternatus absorbing Galar’s energy and causing other Pokémon to Dynamax and wreak havoc upon the land. As fate would have it, Zacian and Zamazenta were eventually able to defeat Eternatus. For whatever reason, though, Chairman Rose – who is involved with the Pokémon League – just has Eternatus on hand. We never learn how exactly Rose obtained Eternatus, a Pokémon who the Champion eventually describes as “the strongest in the world”. Regardless, Rose plans to use Eternatus’ power to prevent an energy crisis… that he predicts is going to happen thousands of years in the future. When the player finally enters the arena to battle the Champion, Rose unleashes Eternatus and causes the Darkest Day to happen again. He does this with an unexplained urgency, too, that we never come to understand. After Eternatus is defeated and captured, Rose turns himself in and is never seen again. There’s probably a decent story somewhere in here, but it’s never properly explained, which left myself and many other players feeling confused.
It doesn’t help that much of the story focuses on the Gym Challenge. This is fine, at first — but eventually, NPCs start to tell you that Dynamax Pokémon are rampaging around the Galar region. It would have been really cool to see full-fledged cutscenes of Dynamax Pokémon in their respective cities. Instead, you’re told to “focus on your Gym Challenge” as said NPCs decide to take care of it themselves. Much of the story happens off-screen, and is only described via brief lines of dialogue, which makes the whole package feel both confusing and disappointing.
It has a catastrophic presentation.
Now, as for the presentation, this is where things get ugly — quite literally. Sword and Shield are debatably some of the worst-looking games on the Nintendo Switch, which was completely unexpected considering the major transition from the comparably weak handheld devices to an all-powerful home console. Although the game looks rather acceptable from the start, many areas later in the game are not decorated at all. When the player reaches the Wild Area, everything begins to look bland, boring, and lifeless. In many areas, there are seemingly hardly any details, love, or passion put into them.
On top of that, the feeling of lifelessness is contributed to by all the inane, robotic, pointless, and repetitive dialogue by all of the NPCs you come across. The few areas that look somewhat good have their coolness fall apart because not much movement happens in them. Sure, some NPCs walk around, but that’s it. Somehow, older Pokémon games were able to capture a sense of liveliness better. In this game, you will feel like you are in a world of nothing but robots that fail hard pretending to be alive. But I digress.
Another issue that players will notice is how close-up entities fade out when the player gets just a little bit far away from them. Essentially, this game will make you feel shortsighted. This is more noticeable in the Wild Area, where you’ll feel that spotting overworld Pokémon is harder than it should be. To put it into perspective, being an estimated 30ft (or 10m) away from a Pokémon would be enough for the game to decide not to render it anymore. This problem detracts from the immersion that the game could otherwise have some of. And if you’re looking to feel immersed in the Pokémon world, you will not find that here.
Another glaring issue that also detracts from said immersion is the static, monotonous, and still-looking Pokémon battle scenes. Once you set your foot in a battle, you’ll easily notice that there is hardly any visible action, as the Pokémon models have few, poorly-made animations that are reused for every battle move, (save for the awesome-looking signature moves, of which few exist). Pokémon with cool designs have their beauty muddied by just… standing there… during battle. Awkward. This, however, has been an issue since X and Y with the debut of the three-dimensional Pokémon world. For the most part, Pokémon battles look like staring contests, which begs the question: is it really that the world’s most popular franchise lacks the resources to provide us with more than three or four animations per Pokémon — and also the ability to deliver them with quality? Either way, if you are looking for an exciting Pokémon battle experience, you will likely not find it here. Unless you are very good at using your imagination.
But despite the mostly poor, lacking graphics, the idea behind Sword and Shield’s art direction is cool. One of the compliments I can give is that some areas look colorful and vibrant, such as Ballonlea Town. The atmosphere in Ballonlea is dark, mysterious yet welcoming, and I found that to be perfectly fitting for none other than the home of the Fairy Gym. But alas, Ballonlea is the peak of the visuals of Sword and Shield, which leaves the rest of the game with much to be desired. I also enjoyed some character designs, particularly Raihan – the gym leader of the Hammerlocke Stadium, and Piers – the leader of Spikemuth Gym.
Anyways, I wish my complaints about the visuals had ended there because: if I were to list every glaring graphical issue in this game, I would never finish writing this review. There are so many noticeable, shameful graphical shortcomings in Sword and Shield that will not be overlooked by even your casual player, and that is unacceptable for something as big as Pokémon. The most notable issues with the graphics and presentation in this game, resumed in a list, are:
- the shameful lack of detail and scenery in many areas of the game, which gets increasingly more noticeable as you progress;
- how every player in the game has the same face;
- how often trainer models are reused through the game, even being reused multiple times in the same area;
- the poor quality animations plaguing the game in every possible corner;
- the very static, monotonous, and still-looking Pokémon battle scenes;
- how time freezes everywhere around you whenever you climb a ladder;
- the infamous berry trees all over the place that disregard all ambient lighting with their vivid green leafy bodies that are retained even in snowy areas;
- physics-defying berries that fall from said berry trees, which phase through the ground once they fall;
- the trees in the Wild Area that became notorious for having textures with quality comparable to games of 1999;
Though there is also one thing I feel like needs to be praised about the gyms. The Pokémon gyms are awesome; their crowds audibly cheer on the battle, and their chanting and singing get even more intense during the showdown. Such a simple detail makes the gym battles feel much more meaningful and impactful than they were in the previous Pokémon games. Such a feeling of meaningfulness is contributed by the fact that the Gym Challenge is a legitimately important part of the Galarian culture – kind of like how football is to Americans. These battles feel even more important because the gyms are one of the few places where you can Dynamax your Pokémon, and the involvement of dynamaxing in the gym battle is guaranteed. And despite the monotony of the world of Sword and Shield, the gyms are one of the few places that feel lively and exciting to be in. You’ll probably have fun with them as well.
As for Pokémon designs, Sword and Shield introduces many cool new Pokémon. I particularly loved all of the designs save for a few. The ones I am the most fan of are: Corviknight, the armored raven Pokémon; Appletun, the apple…thing Pokémon; Toxtricity, the punk lizard Pokémon; Obstagoon, the coolest Pokémon in the game; Dragapult, the awesome ghost dragon Pokémon; and I know this is the more controversial one, but I love Inteleon’s design as well. The ones I was not a fan of were: Dubwool, the sheep Pokémon; Barraskewda, the mustache fish; Thievul, the mustache fox; and the worst: Eiscue, the ice cube head penguin Pokémon.
The music is good.
For the most part, the soundtrack was fine. The soundtrack keeps up with the quality you’d expect from Pokémon, which historically has always had fine soundtracks. My favorite soundtracks are those that play in the gym battles, which have a wonderful synergy with the stadium crowd’s cheering and chanting in excitement for the trainers. What is even more impressive to me is how each gym leader’s theme is only subtly different from the gym leader before them. I don’t know how to describe this, but such a thing gives the Galar gym challenge a sense of continuity and flow — and also helps each gym leader stand out from the last one, even if only musically.
Due to the mass removal of Pokémon, unbearably awful visuals, and the other major issues I’ve mentioned, I cannot recommend this game to anyone. I am heartbroken to see most of my favorite Pokémon gone. And even more so to see many people being complacent with this and not demanding for a game that does justice for their love of Pokémon. I would even go as far as to say this has been the weakest Pokémon game of all time.
But the most depressing thing about Sword and Shield is not the game itself. Instead, the most depressing thing about it is how well it has done with the public and game reviewers despite the tremendous drop in quality of the game, and all the serious flaws I have mentioned in this article.
Sword and Shield sold two million copies in just its first three days of sale and that’s only in Japan, surpassing even Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as the fastest-selling game in that country. In the US, they sold more than two million copies in their opening weekend. By November 21, 2019, Sword and Shield had sold more than six million copies worldwide, surpassing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as the fastest-selling Switch games. By June 2020, the games had sold over 18 million copies worldwide.
With a price tag of US$60, and all of the criticisms I have made in this article, it’s difficult for me to recommend this game for anybody — even the most diehard Pokémon fans such as myself. The nonsensical story, the catastrophic presentation and the non-innovative gameplay of the worst mainline Pokémon game ever made will leave you with a bad aftertaste that may as well last forever. Enjoy the music though!
-  https://web.archive.org/web/20200119055635/https://www.vg247.com/2019/11/10/pokemon-future-pokedex/
-  https://web.archive.org/web/20191121182634/https://www.businessinsider.com/pokemon-sword-shield-launch-sales-numbers-revenue-nintendo-switch-2019-11
-  https://web.archive.org/web/20200907200728/https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/finance/software/index.html
Thanks again to Andro for writing this warranted critical review of Sword and Shield! We’ll be releasing another review on Sword and Shield in the future with a slightly different perspective, so if you’re a Pokémon fan still on the fence about getting the game, you’ll have two different opinions to read and consider. Thanks so much for reading!
If you would like to read more guest-contributed articles, please follow this link.
2 thoughts on “Pokémon Sword and Shield – An Expected Step Backwards”
This is a pretty harsh page. I thought the games were fine. Plus, this was the first game to get paid dlc.
Yup, it’s definitely a critical perspective. I’ll be publishing my own perspective at some point in the future (as a separate review). My personal thoughts are that the games aren’t bad but could have been a bit better.