Ever since Pokemon burst on to the scene during the nineties fans have been clamoring for a full-fledged mainline version of the series to appear on a home console. The handheld versions were all great, but many fans felt that a console version would take the series to new heights. Little did they know that it would take more than two decades for this to actually happen. There have been numerous Pokemon spin-offs that appeared on console, but Pokemon Sword and Shield generated quite a buzz for being the first mainline versions of the game to do so. Unfortunately, with the tremendous amount of expectations for the game it also meant that unless it was perfect it would disappoint some fans in some ways.
The setup for Pokemon Sword, which is the version that we played, should be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a mainline version of the series. You are a young Pokemon trainer from a small town who embarks on a great adventure to become the greatest trainer in the land. This time the land is the Galar region, which is clearly based on the United Kingdom. Along with your friend, Hop, you are endorsed by the Pokemon League Champion, Leon, to take part in the Gym Challenge. This involves visiting each of the eight gyms in the region and defeating their leaders to earn yourself a gym badge. Once you have all the badges you can challenge the League Champion himself for an epic showdown. Of course, along the way you’ll also become embroiled in a couple of side stories, such as Hop struggling to live up to the fact that Leon is his older brother, a challenger named Marnie who comes with her entourage of punk cheerleaders and even a not so friendly rival, named Bede. Then there’s the overarching story involving some legendary Pokemon that once saved the region from an event called the “darkest day” as well as a certain Chairman who may or may not be up to no good.
Compelling storylines has never been the strength of the series, but the one in Pokemon Sword feels particularly light, which is a bit surprising considering what a high profile release it is. Challenging the gym leaders and moving up through the ranks is still as compelling as ever, but none of the side detours felt very substantial. There’s a vague message about pollution and protecting the environment, but overall the conversations in the game are pretty forgettable. Very few people play Pokemon for the story, though, so the real question is whether or not the catching, training, and battling of Pokemon are up to snuff.
Since about the 3rd generation of Pokemon games, there has been a tradition of literally allowing players to “catch them all” by including all of the Pokemon in the game. Those that were not included could typically at least be traded over from other versions or even generations. Pokemon Sword is the first to break this tradition by not including a National Pokedex. Instead, you’ll only be able to catch about half of all the Pokemon in the National Pokedex, including 81 new Pokemon as well as a dozen or so regional variations to some of the existing Pokemon. This was a deal-breaker for many longtime Pokemon fans, but to be honest, it didn’t bother us too much. Most of our favorites were still roaming around and we were more interested in checking out the new Pokemon in any case. We do understand that for many players half the fun is completing the entire National Pokedex, so having it halved means less playtime. In total, it took us about thirty hours to complete the storyline, but afterward, there were still some Pokemon left to catch as well as a couple of other activities, such as raids.
Despite being a console title, Pokemon Sword actually felt like one of the most streamlined games in the series. Routes are quite short and apart from the eight towns, there’s only a couple of unique areas such as caves and forests. To make up for this there is a brand new feature called the “Wild Area.” This is a large open area with free-roaming Pokemon and special nodes for raid battles. Here you can encounter Pokemon with much higher levels than your own, which is great for experience points if you manage to beat them. However, you won’t be able to add them to your team as the level of Pokemon that you can capture is tied to the number of gym badges that you have earned. Although the Wild Area makes for a nice change compared to the linear routes, there isn’t that much to see and do. It’s great for grinding some levels, but overall the game is so easy that it’s rarely necessary. In fact, Pokemon Sword might just be one of the easiest mainline Pokemon titles yet. You can also switch on the internet connectivity in the Wild Area to see other players, but interaction with them is very limited, so don’t expect anything on the level of a Pokemon MMORPG. Besides not being able to talk to other players switching on internet connectivity can also cause the game to lag.
If you feel like a bigger challenge you can take part in the raid battles that are dotted throughout the Wild Area. These appear to be inspired by the raid battles in Pokemon Go and allow you to team up with three other players to take down a giant Pokemon. If nobody is available or you are playing offline the CPU will fill in the empty slots, but don’t expect too much from your AI companions. The raid battles showcase one of the new features in the game namely “dynamaxing.” This is an ability that is specific to the Galar region, apparently, and allows your Pokemon to grow to gigantic proportions for three turns. It looks pretty impressive and there’s even a variation for some Pokemon that lends them a completely different form. Dynamixing can only be done during raid battles, gym battles, and a few other special instances, so it’s not a feature that you can abuse for easy wins. The other new addition to the game, camping, is a little more sedate. It allows you to give your Pokemon a slight breather by putting up a tent and tossing a ball for them to fetch. You can also talk to them to see how they are doing and combine a bunch of ingredients to cook special curries. This is something that younger players will enjoy the most, but building up trust with your Pokemon does come with some advantages in battle.
Visually, Pokemon Sword is one of the best looking games in the series, but this doesn’t say much. It’s certainly more detailed than the handheld games but falters a bit compared to other Nintendo Switch titles. The dynamic weather in the Wild Area is pretty neat and the towns look very impressive, but the draw distance is somewhat lacking and you have no camera control in most areas. It’s great that the Pokemon are visible as this makes it easier to dodge them in long grass or avoid ones that you are tired of battling. The gym battles also look better than ever with dynamic camera angles, cheering crowds, and gym leaders who all have great character designs. Pokemon Sword also allows you to customize your character with all kinds of clothes and accessories while each gym battle you complete also earns you the outfit for that particular gym. Also, the setting for this game is a lot more modern than previous outings, which means more variety when it comes to towns.
We enjoyed the soundtrack for Pokemon Sword, particularly during gym battles when the music swells and the crowds chanted. Unfortunately, the game is completely devoid of voice acting, which is a missed opportunity. This is one of the areas where it could have improved over the handheld versions. The sound effects are decent enough and the Pokemon noises are all good, but having to read everything while the characters stand and flap their mouths is quite disappointing. Considering it is a Switch release the controls for Pokemon Sword are quite straightforward. There’s a complete lack of touchscreen interaction and motion controls are restricted to things like stirring your curie ingredients or fanning the flames of your campfire.
At the end of the day, there was a lot of pressure for Pokemon Sword to be the ultimate Pokemon game, which inevitably led to some disappointment. We appreciate the quality of life improvements, such as being able to access stored Pokemon outside of Pokemon Centers and experience points being shared by all Pokemon in your team. However, there is also a feeling that the game is leading you by the hand the whole way through and you are never at a loss about what to do next or uncertain if you will be able to win a battle or not. Once again, this cuts down on frustration and will keep younger fans entertained, but if you are looking for a real challenge you won’t find it here. The omission of things like HM’s for overworld use and not being able to fly around with a Pokemon also feels like a step back for the series. Overall, though, we still enjoyed our time in the Galar region, and not having access to the entire Pokedex wasn’t that bad. As the first-ever new mainline Pokemon title on console it doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but it’s a solid game and provides a good base for future titles to build on.