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Pokemon Sword and Shield Review: Triumphant Console Debut or Embarrassing Failure?

The long-awaited and much-debated eighth generation mainline Pokemon games, Sword and Shield, are now out in the wild. After months of online outrage from a vocal minority, the strangely controversial newest entries in the series are in the hands of gamers.

What’s the verdict, then? Is this an astonishing console debut for the storied series or an embarrassing misstep for Game Freak?

Sword and Shield
Nintendo | Game Freak | The Pokemon Company

Welcome to the Big Leagues

Sword and Shield is confusing in many ways. There are times when the game feels just like the first console Pokemon should feel: bombastic, larger-than-life, and exhilarating. Other times, it feels decidedly awkward in ways we wouldn’t have expected from even a 3DS game, let alone a major Switch release.

The gym battles, in particular, are undeniably pulse-pounding. Thanks to the sweeping, cinematic camera angles and the invigorating cheers of the crowd, these battles feel absolutely tailor-made for the living room TV. Other times, the game can be stiff and wooden in ways we might have expected from a DS title, but that are unacceptable on a modern gaming console.

New Region, New Faces

This time around, as with all generational shifts, the player explores a brand-new region full of brand-new Pokemon. In these new games, we’re in the Galar region, a tall, narrow island nation where people say things like “get a shift on” and “I’m feeling knackered.”

Ostensibly, this region is the Pokemon world’s UK, but the overgrown mushroom forests and sprawling deserts certainly root this island in the fantastical locales we’ve come to expect of this charming series. The art design is breathtaking, and, in most areas, the game runs beautifully. However, there are some graphical issues that are hard to pin down precisely.

Presentation and Priorities

When camping with your giant monster pals, they all showcase endearing animations and cute interactions. Clearly, this is where a bulk of the time animating the monsters went, and why a number of older Pokemon didn’t make the cut this time around (more on that in a bit.)

However, while talking to NPCs, they do little other than wag their mouths and gesture while standing in place. This, coupled with the lack of voice acting during otherwise well-polished and exciting cutscenes, makes for a game with confusing priorities.

Another confusing priority comes when a Pokemon uses a “common” move in battle and shows off a lackluster animation, such as a jump. However, when one of the starter Pokemon uses their signature move, a stunning cutscene shows the destructive power the creature wields.

One can envision a world where this game had voice-acted cutscenes, more active NPCs during conversations, and more robust battle animations for more common moves. Such a game would feel more like the triumphant arrival of the world’s biggest media franchise on home consoles.

Promotion artwork for Pokemon Sword and Shield depicting numerous new Pokemon in a green field
Nintendo | Game Freak | The Pokemon Comapany

Let’s Talk About the National Pokedex

It’s no surprise by now that not every Pokemon made the cut for this game. This was surprising to a number of fans because the mainline games have literally never cut any Pokemon from the ever-growing roster. So when the games made the leap to home consoles, it was more than a little disappointing for fans when they found out that not all of their monster pals would be making the jump with them.

Game Freak has offered a few interviews explaining the need to cut so many creatures from the newest entry. It seems a combination of the need to competitively balance the creatures in the game, coupled with the work of introducing so many unique monsters to a sprawling game with hundreds of thousands of animations, was going to be far too much work for the roughly 200-person development team.

Fans have argued that they’d just as soon wait another year or two to see all of their favorite creatures make it to a fully-fledged, robust mainline entry. Others have claimed that Game Freak should have stepped up their hiring and brought on more developers to help with the game.

How Big of a Deal Is This?

Well, that depends on how attached you are to your old Pokemon. While playing the game, there’s no shortage of adorable creatures to battle, capture, and train. The game is awkward in places, but decidedly fun. It’s rough around some edges, but clearly polished and lovingly-made in other areas. In short, Sword and Shield are charming, likable little entries into the Pokemon series.

Many gamers were hoping for a seismic shift in the franchise, like what the Zelda franchise got from Breath of the Wild. However, it seems Game Freak never intended for this to be the case, even warning fans at E3 2018 to not expect a shift like that.

The Bottom Line

What fans got was a lovingly-crafted, fun, and confusing Pokemon title. Sword and Shield are fun games for all the same reasons the original Pokemon Red and Blue were fun twenty years ago. If you’re okay with incremental changes and a small step forward, then you’re going to enjoy this game.

Lovable designs, memorable towns and landscapes, and an ever-addictive gameplay loop make Pokemon as fun today as it was back in the late 90s. For our part, we’d say that Sword and Shield are among the best video games you can buy for the Switch today, and we’re not ashamed to award them an 8 out of 10.

Cameron Norris

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