Pokémon Sword Review

For the last couple of years, people have been chomping at the bit for a Pokemon game (a “true” Pokemon game) to come to the Nintendo Switch. The same thing happened with the previous generation gap: when the 3DS was out, but Pokemon Black and White 2 came to the DS instead, people went nuts. However, then Pokemon X and Y hit the 3DS, and the reception was…okay. People really hated on the frame rate drops during combat, the lack of post game content, and the fact that it was more 3D, but still not really “open.” There’s been quite a bit of controversy and, dare I say, stigma regarding the release of Pokemon on the Switch. The Let’s Go! series was enjoyable, and a great way for newcomers to see Pokemon on the big screen, but it was unsatisfying for longtime players. Let’s Go was another retread of the first games, only much cuter and infinitely easier in terms of game difficulty. Then again, Pokemon fans are some of the hardest to please due to the diverse nature of their investment with the games, so it’s really challenging to say, from person to person, what was good or bad about a single game.

With the newest installation, Pokemon Sword and Shield (I’m playing Sword), Gamefreak has attempted to do several things, and they’ve drawn ire from it as a result. The game is missing quite a few of the nearly 900 Pokemon that have been created in the decades that the series has been around, and early perception of the game was viewed as not as groundbreaking as previous games, lacking, and fairly simple. The criticisms, of course, come from people who either were never going to buy the game, were purposely going to find something wrong with it, or wanted to have another Pokemon game that magically ticked every single box ever without leaving anything out. Seriously, I can’t stand how heavily people attack a game series that has been trying to innovate itself since it first came out on the Gameboy in 1996. Someone once compared the Pokemon games to Madden or the NBA series: that it doesn’t matter how poorly the game changes, people will buy it no matter what, so Gamefreak doesn’t have to learn. That’s such an insulting and frankly incorrect statement that I feel the need to really put some contextualization behind Pokemon Sword to showcase what makes this, frankly, one of my favorite entries in the series so far.

First and foremost, the setting and storyline. The story never changes, no matter what we try to tell ourselves otherwise: young child dreams of running away from home and living with monsters to fight other vagrants and even adults to become the most acclaimed animal enslaver of all time. It’s a dream that is great because I’ve never once heard of a child playing a Pokemon game, thinking its the right move, and then moving out into the forest to try and catch squirrels with baseballs before being mauled by a racoon. With Pokemon Sword, we head off to the Galar region, which is so European that the syntax and speaking styles of the different NPCs need to be read twice before you understand them. You and your best friend, Hop, are going to set out and defeat the eight gym leaders, and there’s a champion, and you gotta go to certain gyms in order, and there are bad guys, etc. Yea, the story sounds the same, though I appreciate that the newest games took notes from the last installment (Sun and Moon) to bring something more interesting. The “Team” in the game (traditionally the bad guy gang at the center of the chaos), is more of a lighthearted nuisance than anything else, while the real “evil” is a singular entity who is clearly and unapologetically insane. The villain of Pokemon Sword might be a bit more in vein with the villain of Pokemon Black and White, but Team Yell reminds me a lot more of Team Skull than Team Plasma, and I appreciate that. Jessie and James of Team Rocket fame always seemed more lighthearted than sinister, so why not continue with that thread?

Being on the Switch, Pokemon Sword looks, and I can’t stress this enough, absolutely gorgeous. While the terrain isn’t truly open world, the way it’s shaped gives the illusion of open, which is more than enough for me. When you first step off the train from leaving your hometown and enter the Wild Area, it’s positively breathtaking in the very best way. The land just opens up in front of you, with massive trees, rolling fields and spikes of pillar energy piercing the sky far off in the distance. The shadow of Motostoke, the first major city you encounter (which gave me serious Industrial Revolution meets Mortal Engines vibes), sits quietly, menacingly, as you traverse through multiple areas of weather anomalies and even giant Pokemon roaming the landscape. The choice of Gamefreak to have both visible Pokemon to encounter as well as random encounters (which represent as either a ! or a ?) was fantastic, giving a bit of flexibility to playstyle. I still enjoy the mystery encounters because that’s the only way to find certain Pokemon, but being able to see a Gyrados moving through the lake, or a Braviary soaring through the sky is really cool, and made me giddy with excitement. The great views never falter, as every region, Gym and locale has a bit of heart and spirit to it.

On the surface level, Pokemon Sword retains many of the key mechanics that we’ve grown to know and enjoy, so even players who’ve been sitting out since the Gameboy will have little trouble diving back in. Damage Pokemon with different attacks, elemental weaknesses and strengths exist (water beats fire, dark beats psychic), and then you catch Pokemon with a variety of Pokeballs that then lash them to your team and allow you to train, level and evolve them. Experience points now naturally are shared throughout the whole party with no option to turn it on or off, and I honestly don’t care. People love to wax nostalgic about how the games used to be, but there was nothing fun about grinding for two hours with an EXP share attached to my single Abra while my Haunter had to fight over and over to get this ONE Pokemon to level up. To hell with that, everyone in the party gets EXP. If ALL the Pokemon ever got the EXP, I’d see the problem, but grinding isn’t fun. You can still grind plenty if you want to (and you will still need to), but you don’t have to do it in such a terrible way. Especially if you decide to fight a Pokemon outside of your level range (you’ll know because the game will label it “very-strong looking”) and you gotta go to the mat to get that sweet, sweet EXP.

The newer mechanics, the Dynamaxing and Pokemon Camp, are perfectly fine, and I think mesh well with the game. Dynamaxing, or the art of making your Pokemon huge during certain boss and raid battles, just means you get to pick one Pokemon, blow it up to the size of a Macy’s Day Parade float, and rage hell on the other, giant Pokemon. It’s kaiju fighting with a limited window, what’s not to like? It’s no more unbalanced or different than the Z moves or the Mega Evolutions, and now everyone gets to participate. Sure, some Pokemon look cooler than others when they Dynamax, but that’s your prerogative. Plus you can only use it during these certain battles, so it feels less broken than the Z moves, where I would just punish every single Pokemon I ever met with a horrifying move called Light That Burns the Sky.

As for Camping, Pokemon has always wanted people to connect with each other, all the way back to Secret Bases in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. The Camps are cute areas where you can play with your Pokemon (and other peoples!), relax a bit, and make curry, which isn’t as time consuming or worthless as you might think. A couple of quick button moves and now I can use otherwise worthless ingredients to revive all Pokemon, fully heal them, and increase happiness. I can’t get mad at that. Sure, people look and say “Oh, we have curry but not INSERT POKEMON HERE?” That’s apples and oranges, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t complain to my car manufacturer that I got more seat belts than XM Radio stations, and that’s because those are two different teams. Curry team went hard. Pokemon team hit their limit because there’s 890 Pokemon, what the hell. Maybe we’ll see them all back in the future; I don’t know, and I frankly don’t care, because I came into this game fresh and it’s delightful.

Maybe that’s the big secret with Pokemon Sword: purposeful ignorance. When previous games came out, I made a point to read all the information as it was being released, and even stupidly looked into leaked stuff from people who love to spoil the world. That wasn’t the case with Pokemon Sword, and it’s made me significantly happier. I didn’t know how the Gym Challenges would shake out, and I’m seriously happy that it’s more than “do a puzzle, fight people” like it always has been. The Fire Challenge was fun as hell, and I even enjoyed the weird trivia session that Opal made me go through, complete with interesting penalties. I still am unaware how to evolve certain Pokemon, and I don’t even know what all the Galar Pokemon and their “regional variants” could be. Like, was anyone else surprised and almost horrified (but in a good way) with what they did to Stunfisk? Sure, when you connect online, it gets a little laggy, but it’s laggy because of all the player ghosts that appear! The first time I went online and was suddenly surrounded by phantom players throughout the Wild Area, it was positively insane (and I got a lot of pasta). I went into other people’s camps and saw evolutions I hadn’t yet seen, I did mystery trades and got genuine mysteries in return, I actually made a point to find a better haircut and clothing because, for the first time ever, I care what my avatar looks like. This is the evolution of the Pokemon series that many people have been waiting for, and, no, it’s not an MMORPG, but, if and when Gamefreak does that, people will still complain about whatever is missing or included.

The fact remains is that Pokemon Sword and Shield are seriously the true successors to the series, and some of the strongest entries that I’ve seen in all my years of playing. I got to power level my starter VERY fast, but I’m still struggling to move forward because you can’t just tank with a single Pokemon like you used to. I’m still finding new Pokemon, new items, even new quests and dealing with Gamefreaks perennial weird writing (so many ghost children!) and enjoying every second of it. Is it my favorite Pokemon game of all time? I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t had time to let it settle down amongst the others, but it’s certainly up there. I know there’s some bitterness about leaving Pokemon behind going into this game, but sometimes we need to move along without bringing old things behind. Yea, you’ve had that Pikachu since before the Nintendo 64, but no one is asking you to delete him. Much like the Spiky-Eared Pichu that lives forever within my copy of SoulSilver, some Pokemon aren’t meant to go with you everywhere. They wait patiently within their respective games, ready to play when you are. So hug your new starter, dress in your favourite clothes, and venture forward into a land of steam, smoke, lore and legends. Pokemon Sword is, without a doubt, a phenomenal journey into the exciting unknown.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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Pokémon Sword Review
  • Gameplay - 9/10
    9/10
  • Graphics - 9/10
    9/10
  • Sound - 9/10
    9/10
  • Replay Value - 9/10
    9/10
Overall
9/10

Summary

Pokemon comes to the Switch, everyone online fights about it, and most of the world enjoy a grand game with exciting concepts and some adorable new friends.