Pokémon Sword: Early Impressions

Image from GameSpot

Let’s be honest here: It’s Pokémon. How bad could it possibly be?

The leadup to the eighth generation of the behemoth that is the Pokémon franchise has been a bit rocky to say the least. With the decision to cut the available Pokédex in half for this generation, Pokémon Sword and Shield inspired a wave of hashtags (#Dexit, #GameFreakLied, and eventually #ThankYouGameFreak), drove fans to harass Game Freak staff on (anti) social media (which is not cool in any context), and even inspired petitions on change.org demanding that the National Dex be restored. Like everything else in our society these days, everyone in the community was forced to pick a side: Either you were with Game Freak and The Pokémon Company, or you were against them.

You’ve likely heard enough opinions on whether or not the games should have included all the monsters, so I’ll refrain from throwing my own thoughts at you now: However, I think the controversy overshadowed the biggest question about the game: Is it any good? It is still fun? I mean, this is still the same “catch ’em, train ’em, bludgeon your opponents to death with ’em” formula that’s been making smiles and printing money for twenty-plus years—would it still be able to work its magic and charm another generation of fans?

After a week or so with the game, I’ve come to a shocking conclusion: This is Pokémon. For better or for worse, this is the same game we’ve been playing since the dawn of time. If you’ve liked previous entries in the series, you’ll probably like this one too.

My specific thoughts about the game are as follows:

  • For all the talk about utilizing the power of the Switch, the graphics here are not really that impressive. It’s basically Pokémon Sun/Moon scaled up to 1080p, and even the grandness of the Wild Area drew little more than a “meh” from me. To be fair, I don’t play Pokémon for the graphics, and Sun and Moon looked completely fine to me, but this still feels like a missed opportunity to take advantage of the more-advanced hardware and give us a presentation that’s really special.
  • So what about this “Wild Area” anyway? I think it’s a great concept, and the execution mostly lives up to the hype. You’ve got full control of the camera, there’s no shortage of Pokémon to catch (although waiting for the right weather can be a bit tedious), and it gives the Galar region an expansiveness that its mostly-linear towns and routes lack. Max Raid Battles don’t add a lot to the gameplay, but they do allow you to catch Pokémon that might otherwise take a while to find (thank goodness for that Natu raid!). All in all, I think it’s a positive step for the franchise, and I’d like to see Nintendo and company take it to the next level in G9.
  • The story is exactly what you’d expect here: Young kid gets monster, trains up a frighteningly-lethal band of creatures, and smites everyone on their way to the top. I like how the game tries to make the Gym challenge more of a thing in G8 (before G7, the “journey” just kind of happened and no one really cared about it), but the developers kind of missed the mark here. Sure, there’s a stadium of screaming people cheering during Gym battles and the music is absolute fire, but when you’re trying to figure out how to exploit a type matchup, it’s all just background noise. (I kinda-sorta recall the crowd cheering during the first Gym battle, but the whole thing didn’t move me any more than Thanos’s latest single.) In the end, you’re just traveling around trying to be the best, and whatever carnival that pops up around doesn’t move the needle (at least not yet—perhaps the intensity will pick up deeper into the challenge).
  • Pokémon games are not known for their difficulty, but this one’s got noticeably more starch in it than previous titles. The opponent levels seem to ratchet up a lot more quickly than in previous games, and it forced me all of my usual all-out-attack style and made me try some status moves to find an advantage (not only did I actually use Tail Whip in this game, I used it a lot). I’m not ready to call this a hard game yet (I beat the first Gym leader without bothering to Dynamax my Pokémon), but there’s more of a challenge here than past players might expect.
  • So how have the battle mechanics changed this time around? The splashy, unnecessary gimmick this time around is Dynamaxing, where a Pokémon grows freakishly large for three turns and gains the ability to unleash “max” attacks on its opponent. It’s no more interesting than Mega Evolutions or Z-Moves were, but at least Game Freak and The Pokémon Company installed a restrictor plate this time: The technique can only be performed in Max Raid or Gym leader battles, making it feel like a true ace in the hole that only comes out at important moments. (Gigantamaxing is basically a more-powerful version of Dynamaxing, but only certain monsters can do it and I haven’t encountered any yet.) Besides that, battles take place just as they always did, with physical/special attacks and type matchups and OP starters (mwah ha ha, no one can touch my Drizzile).
  • With all the uproar over existing monsters, I think the design of the new Pokémon has been mostly overlooked, and it’s a darn shame, because most of them are pretty darned cool. With the pointed exception of Chewtle (it just looks like a deformed Squirtle, which makes me think “We gave up Squirtle for this?”), I’ve been really impressed with both the designs of the G8 Pokémon and some of the Galarian forms of other monsters I’ve seen (you have no idea how much I lol’d when I saw Galarian Meowth). Yamper and Rookidee are my current favorites, but I’m excited to see what other Pokémon the game has in store.
  • From a quality-of-life standpoint, this might be the most-improved game in the series. The “access your Box anywhere” feature returns from Let’s Go!, there’s a Name Rater/Move-Remember/jack-of-all-trades in every Pokémon Center (and wouldn’t you know it, I made a mistake choosing moves for my Thievul and didn’t need a Heart Scale to fix it!), and for as much as people rage about the Exp. Share, it really helps cut down on the excess grinding and let’s people dive into the story more quickly. (Supposedly there are a lot more improvements to help people create Pokémon that are viable on the competitive scene, which is never a bad thing.) Sword and Shield are more of an incremental refinement of the series than a swing-for-the-fences step forward, but it’s worth noting just how good these incremental refinements are.
  • The online features are…okay, I guess? The annoying “Surprise Trades” are still here, and Max Raid Battles might be fun with a big group (I had one person with a powerful Gardevoir jump into my battle and one-shot the massive monster before us), but I really didn’t explore these too much. The game is still all about the single-player experience early on, so that’s where I spent most of my time.
  • What about all this talk about “camping” and “making curry”? It turns out to be a mashup of Pokémon Refresh from Sun/Moon and Poffin making from Diamond/Pearl. The latter is not a good thing (I absolutely hated making Poffins in G4), and not only did I found core curry ingredients to be surprisingly hard to come by (Berries are everywhere though), but the whole “rotate the R stick to stir the pot” mechanic is just mind-numbingly tedious. Playing with your Pokémon at camp is much more fun, however, and the developers added a nice incentive by giving your team both happiness and experience points for doing it. (Also, it looks hilarious when all your Pokémon start attacking you when you wave the feather around.) I’d probably never use this feature without the friendship bonuses, but it’s pretty neat nonetheless.

So 1300+ words in, where does that leave us? Like I said, this is Pokémon, and amidst all the inspired and boneheaded decisions made by the developers, the soul of the series is still here. I still want to be the very best like no one ever was, and Sword and Shield still give you the power to do so. I’m not ready to give a full “is it worth buying?” call yet, but even without the full Pokédex, the signs appear fairly promising.