The Media Man Reviews: Pokémon Sword and Shield 2/2
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
Section 3: The Gameplay
Now for the reason many of us love these games: the gameplay.
Pokémon games have always been simple RPG adventures with worlds to navigate and places to go to in order to progress the plot and it's the gameplay that always keeps us coming back for more in how simple they are, yet highly engrossing and enjoyable.
Sword and Shield is all this and more thanks being a 3-D Pokémon game released for the Switch. Due to the Switch's functionality and the technology put into the console, Sword and Shield is able to give us a Pokemon game like none that have come before it. Gone are the days of a bird's eye view of the world and the side-scrolling mechanics of previous Pokémon games (Diamond and Pearl remakes notwithstanding). Here we get a fully 3-D world that we see from ground level while still staying true to the world of Pokémon. I honestly hope all Pokémon games will follow this depiction from now on as it truly adds to the immersive experience that Sword and Shield gives us. Walking through this whole world complete with huge buildings, nature and so much more really makes us feel like we're really there on this journey with our Pokémon.
But that's more about the presentation. What's the gameplay itself like? Once again, it stays true to what we expect from Pokémon games. We have the usual simple controls such as the analogue stick to walk around and buttons to press to perform certain actions like throwing Pokéballs or interacting with NPCs so navigating the Galar region is no different to previous games, although in this case it's much easier as the Galar region is designed in a way where you can't really get lost. That'll especially help in making the game accessible to newcomers who might be playing for the first time.
While the gameplay is mostly the same as what we expect from Pokémon, Sword and Shield does have plenty of new features that make this game unique to play amongst other titles. First of all, the game's primary gimmick that is Dynamaxing. Instead of the much loved Mega Evolutions, we have a new feature for Sword and Shield called "Dynamaxing", a battle mechanic that involves your Pokémon growing to giant sizes to do battle with each other. This is an idea that's so stupidly awesome that I'm amazed Pokémon games haven't done that before. Then again, it wouldn't have looked anywhere near as awesome without the Switch's capabilities so it's good we saved it for a game on this kind of software. Dynamaxing only occurs when you're competing in Max Raid battles, Gym Battles or major boss battles like Leon, Rose, Mustard and Honey. Unlike Mega Evolution where I feel the gimmick was poorly integrated into the gameplay, Dynamaxing feels like a much more natural inclusion as it's always been a part of Galarian culture and you can do it pretty much whenever. The gimmick feels like an actual part of the world and makes the gameplay more fun as a result.
Another feature I love in this game is the camping feature. Camping allows you to sit back and watch your Pokémon play together and wander around while you also get to play with them, be it waving a stick around and prompting them to lunge at it or playing fetch by throwing balls for them. You even get to cook curries during these camping sessions. This is an adorable feature of the gameplay and it allows us to bond with our Pokémon further than previous entries. I know the 3DS games had Pokémon-Amie to allow for further bonding with our Pokémon but I feel the Camping feature is much better as you get to do much more with your Pokémon. But the Camping feature isn't just a picnic with your Pokémon, it has a useful feature in where after you do these sessions, they recover HP, recover from status conditions and their EXP can go up too. Also camping sessions makes them grow friendlier to you, which can have long term benefits for the bigger boss battles when the friendlier a Pokémon is, the more likely it is to recover from status conditions on their own or dodge attacks they normally wouldn't be able to. It's a handy feature and it can save running to a Pokémon Centre if we're too far away from one to heal our Pokémon up.
I also cannot thank GameFreak enough for the inclusion of two big features that makes grinding Pokémon much less of a chore than before: EXP candies and PokéJobs. Grinding and levelling up Pokémon in past games could be really tedious at times, especially if you're someone like me who prefers to have a rotating roster instead of sticking to just six Pokémon from beginning to end. But thanks to EXP candies and PokéJobs, it's much easier to do this as now you can give candies to your Pokémon to boost their EXP to help them catch up with the rest in your party to save on battling other Pokémon to get them levelled up. As for PokéJobs, you can send your Pokémon to do jobs and depending on how long you send them out for, they gain EXP with the whole day being the one that gains them the most EXP. Thanks to these features, it's easier to have a rotating roster of Pokémon and saves so much time on grinding so you can get back into the action without having to wait too long. Obviously, this system can be easily abused and make the game much too easy to breeze through but that's down to how the player uses these features, not the game itself. After all, it's only easy if you choose to make it easy for yourself.
Of course, the biggest new feature of the gameplay for Sword and Shield are the Max Raid battles. Max Raid battles are battles that take place in Dynamax dens around the Wild Area and involve you and three NPCs teaming up to battle a Dynamaxed Pokémon than you can then catch and keep if you so wish. Or at least that's what's SUPPOSED to happen! Due to the bad A.I. on the NPCs that are meant to be helping you, they end up wasting turns boosting their stats or using useless moves that don't do anything instead of attacking the Pokémon, thus leaving the player to do all the hard work. More often than not, this leads to the player losing because of how unhelpful the NPCs are and it gets tedious really quickly. Anytime I've lost these raids, it's down to the NPCs being useless rather than myself. Those with a Nintendo Online subscription at least get the pleasure of battling online with other players so they don't have to deal with unhelpful NPCs. Pity you have to pay for it, otherwise I'd happily play alongside other players in these Max Raid battles...ah well, at least these Max Raid battles come with great rewards when you beat them, such as treasures to sell, TRs to teach your Pokémon new moves or even rare candies and EXP candies to level them up with.
I also cannot stress enough how awesome it is that these games have a feature that I wish previous games had: version exclusive Gym Leaders. The only time that ever happened was Black and White in which we had either Drayden or Iris depending on the version and that wasn't much as their parties were exactly the same so they're completely interchangeable from one another. Sword and Shield does this better by having the fourth and sixth Gym Leaders be completely different from one another. Sword players get the Fighting-type Bea and the Rock-type Gordie to battle while Shield players get the Ghost-type Allister and the Ice-type Melony to battle. This is much better than just having two different Dragon-trainers with the same teams as you can have completely different experiences that justify buying both Sword and Shield. Heck, we even get version exclusive rivals for the Isle of Armour DLC...which is meaningless due to how interchangeable Klara and Avery are but still, giving us version exclusive rivals as well as version exclusive Gym Leaders really shows that GameFreak want to give us more of a reason to buy both titles. I wish Pokémon games did this before and I hope all future titles will do this as it's such a clever idea.
As for other features, the post-game gives us the Battle Tower, which is like your usual Battle Frontier facility where you battle numerous trainers and earn BP (Battle Points) that you can spend on held items or bottle caps for hyper-training. When you win several battles, your rank goes up and after so many fights at once, you can fight Leon from time to time. I've actually spent a lot of time in the Battle Tower as it's surprisingly fun in there and it's a good thing to do with your time when you've done everything.
As for the DLCs, they include new gameplay features too. The Isle of Armour includes a Cram-o-matic, a machine that allows you to combine various items together to create something new and Restricted Sparring, a feature similar to the battle Tower except that you can only use Pokémon of one particular type (i.e. only Fire types or only Electric types). That can be tricky but for those that love a challenge, it can be interesting to try out. Also you gain more BP here than in the Battle Tower so it can be a better way to save up for bottle caps.
The Crown Tundra comes with Dynamax Adventures, an awesome feature that lets you go through Dynamax caves and battle Dynamax Pokémon with your own rental Pokémon and either catch them or leave them and move on. At the end of the cave will be a legendary Pokémon that is selected at random and you and your team have to battle it together in order for you to catch said Legendary Pokémon at the end. Funnily enough, the NPCs tend to be smarter here than they are in regular Max Raids so who knows what's going on here, although you best pray you're not stuck with some idiot with a Maractus that loves to spam Accupressure instead of attacking the Pokémon... To make it challenging, you're only allowed to use rental Pokémon that have pretty meh movepools and your Pokémon don't heal up after every encounter, you have to collect berries along the way to heal them up. You'll occasionally find backpackers who will hand you items that might come in handy or scientists that'll give you a rental Pokémon that might be a suitable replacement for the one you have. If your Pokémon faint, you lose a heart and if you lose all four hearts, the Dynamax Adventure is over and you have to start over. The Adventures are certainly do-able but these features make it so they're not too easy at least and the Legendary Pokémon also tend to put up a big fight so you better believe they make you work for them!
There's also Endless Dynamax Adventures where the main change is that it goes on for as long as you keep winning and the moment you lose all four lives, the challenge is over. For both Dynamax and Endless Dynamax Adventures, you win Dynite Ore, which can be used to buy items from an NPC in the same cave where the Adventures take place. Also, if you win a Dynamax Adventure, you can go up to Peonia and talk to her and she'll occasionally have the option to find a specific Legendary Pokémon (for example, she'll say she can find Giratina and once you pay her with Dynite Ore, you'll find Giratina once you do another Dynamax adventure). This can make finding specific Legendries you want much easier if there's one you want to find and it's taking a while to find it.
Also once you complete the main plot, the Isle of Armour AND the Crown Tundra all at once, you unlock a new tournament called "Galarian Star Tournament". Here, you get to choose from any of the Gym Leaders, rivals or big boss battles you've had in the game as your partner and take part in tag-team battles that give us unique dialogue between various characters that can reveal more layers to them. This is a really fun feature and feels quite rewarding for completing everything in the game...too bad the execution is lacking. For some reason, the player gets to have a full team of six Pokémon while their partner only gets three, and the opponents also only get three. I just don't get this. Who thought this made any sense at all? Also, if you got the game before playing the DLC, your opponents are level-locked so you go into this tournament with Level 100 Pokémon while your opponents are all stuck at various levels. This won't be a problem to those who play the DLC at the same time they have the game but it still feels silly that the opponents aren't locked to whatever level Pokémon you're using. At least Black and White2's PWT tournament have all Pokémon locked at Level 50 so you can't be overpowered. Also, Sordward and Shielbert are unlockable partners you get after winning the Galarian Star Tournament 15 times...what a waste when instead, they could've made it Red and Blue or make it Allister and Melony for Sword players and Bea and Gordie for Shield players. Despite that, I still find it fun partnering up with these characters and seeing what match-ups I get.
And finally, I need to mention that this game continues the 3-D Pokémon games tradition of having a character customization feature. This game REALLY runs wild with it with the huge amount of clothes you can choose for your character to wear and the different hairstyles, hair colours, eye colours and such you can pick and the DLCs even add in MORE items to choose from! You're certainly not short of options for what to make your character look like and you even get to customize your own League Card like the ones you collect in the game. The customization features were good before but Sword and Shield made it even better and I wonder what we'll get in future instalments
Aside from bad A.I. controlling the NPCs in Max Raid battles, the gameplay for Pokémon Sword and Shield is really solid with lots of content to keep you engaged, features that make the experience less tedious than previous titles, a gimmick that feels natural and well-utilized and some cool features that are just plain fun all around. The gameplay is what makes Sword and Shield so enjoyable and why I can't honestly get enough of it. Here's hoping some of the features we get here carry over into other Pokémon games to make them as fun as these ones have been...
Section 4: The Graphics
I know a lot of people like to give this game a lot of grief for the graphics but honestly...I think the criticisms are very exaggerated. Yes, I agree, the graphics aren't amazing but by Pokémon standards? I think they're some of the best the franchise has spawned.
Ever since the shift to 3-D, the Pokémon games have just been looking better and better as GameFreak gets more comfortable with the new technology they have and they really take advantage of the Switch's capabilities to give us this huge, lush, fully immersive environment that we can traverse through. The scale of the Galar region feels huge due to the layout of the region itself and how instead of the flat 2-D graphics of the old games, this is a fully 3-D world like none we've seen before in Pokémon. Yes we have the Let's Go games but they still had that overhead view that still made the games feel more like the usual side scrolling RPG whereas here, the camera is mostly at ground level so everything just has that grander scale to it.
The cities and towns we visit really take advantage of the 3-D graphics here due to many of them having creative architecture and designs that wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. Hammerlocke Stadium especially looks amazing as this dragon-inspired castle that looks enormous, which is probably fitting that it's the stadium we face the final Gym Leader in as he's the biggest threat of them all. Also, many of the places we visit are fitting for the Gym Leaders we encounter from the Grass-type Milo's Gym being in a place near farms and big fields to the Water-type Nessa being stationed in a seaside town and especially the Fairy-type Opal living in a forest town that looks like something out of a fairy tale. They all look well-designed and fit well into the world of Pokémon with neither of them looking out of place. Also, as this region is based on the UK, a lot of the architecture and design aesthetics of the Galar region stays true to how many places in the UK look while giving it a Pokémon twist. I especially love the way they designed Wyndon City as this more fantastical version of London, complete with its own giant wheel ride and Big Ben like clocktower!
And then of course, there's the open-world areas of the game. The Wild Area, Isle of Armour and Crown Tundra are all vast wilderness areas that feel like huge places to hike or cycle through and the graphic make these places feel like a true adventure through the world of Pokémon due to how massive they are. The Wild Area especially feels like this big Pokémon utopia where Pokémon just live in harmony while the Isle of Armour is a mix-and-match of various climates and environments all on this one island, which may seem odd but fits well for a fantastical world like Pokémon. The Crown Tundra is true to its name, depicted as this mountain area with a lot of snow, caves and icy waters to explore. Thanks to the graphic designers, they make these places feel truly massive in scale and it's all done in a way that no Pokémon game could've ever achieved before. And to think we're going bigger with Legends: Arceus in the future...
As for the character designs and character models, the Pokémon reuse the familiar 3-D models that they've been using since the X and Y games but I don't consider that a bad thing as the models look so good anyway so why not reuse them? All the Pokémon look great here, staying true to their designs while bringing them into 3-D. The new Pokémon especially look great too (for the most part, some designs are meh) and feel like great new additions to the world of Pokémon. My particular favourites include Cinderace, Rillaboom, Obstagoon, Dragapult, Duraludon, Galarian Rapidash, both Urshifus, Eternatus, Zacian and Zamazenta, the Galarian bird trio and Coalossal. Although they look great in 3-D and are brought to life well, the Pokémon could do with being more animated. They're pretty static for the most part and their attack animations are pretty limited. Their walk cycles can be a bit awkward for some Pokémon and the follow mechanic that we have in the DLC areas isn't that great as some Pokémon will be so slow that they lag behind. At least they can quite expressive, especially during the camping sessions.
As for the humans, they look great too. They looked good in the Let's Go games, albeit with oversized heads, but they look even better here with proper proportions and are able to be more expressive from time-to-time. Many even have unique animations from Leon's Charizard pose to Mustards dynamic flips as he begins the battle to all the Gigantamax animations during the boss fights. The player character especially is able to express more than just a blank smile like in previous titles, although there are still times they stand around with nothing more than a blank smile. That and just like with any Pokémon game, they feel the need to reuse character models to cut costs so we end up going through a world populated by clones. Must feel weird living in the Pokémon world, I swear. XD
As far as animation goes...yeah, it's too easy to make fun of some of the movements the characters make here from climbing up stairs being depicted as simply doing a walk cycle while sliding up the stairs to some Pokémon turning around by simply doing their walk cycle while the character models spins on the spot. Those moments just make you go "What" and kinda giggle when they happen. Also, as improved as the character animation is, it is rather uncanny how similar Hop's animations are to Hau's from the Sun and Moon games. You wouldn't think they'd be recycling animations but as far as I can tell, that's it really, nobody else's animations are recycled. And yes, I am fully aware of the infamous trees too. The textures on some of the trees look pretty bad but honestly, how low are our standards when we have to criticize how a TREE looks in a game? At least the rest of the world looks great!
However, the graphics do have moments of good animation and presentation, especially in the cutscenes. Thanks to Pokémon games actually being able to have proper cutscenes, they can make certain moments feel bigger and more epic than usual, such as the showdown with Eternatus or meeting the Galarian bird trio in the Crown Tundra. The animation noticeably improves during these moments and we're able to have more expressive and animated character models as a result. Although I do have to wonder why when some of the in-game cutscenes happen, we'll have a certain action occur and they fade to black instead of properly animating it, namely the moment where Chairman Rose's men take the Wishing Stars from Bede or when an Applin hits us in the head in the Isle of Armour. I'm sure it wouldn't have cost that much to animate those little moments.
Speaking of presentation, I especially love the animations of whenever the boss battles Gigantamax their Pokémon. They display a lot of personality during these moments and give us really dynamic animations that bring the Gigantamax scenes to life, along with really showing off just how awesome it is whenever their Pokémon grow to giant sizes. The jump to 3-D really does bring more life to Pokémon games and enhances the experience so much. I really can't wait to see what we're going to get for the upcoming games!
Overall, the graphics are certainly nothing that will win awards any time soon but they're certainly not the worst graphics ever put into video-game. It still feels like a lot of effort went into designing and creating these games and they give us a Pokémon game has honestly never looked better. It's a Pokémon game that is great to look at as well as fun to play through.
Also, on one final note, I also think this game's soundtrack is amazing. The tunes are all really memorable and add to the grand scale of Pokémon Sword and Shield from just how big the tracks sound. The Wild Area's second theme, the Slumbering Weald theme, Piers's theme and the Gym Leader theme are my personal favourites. I usually play Pokémon games with the sound off but Pokémon Sword and Shield are probably the few times I like to listen to the music when I play a Pokémon game.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are not perfect games and I can admit that. But the good stuff is enough for me to enjoy them regardless of their flaws. Pokémon Sword and Shield are pure fun and some of the most enjoyment I've ever gotten out of a Pokémon game. The gameplay fixes a lot of the previous game's more tedious features so the experience feels more streamlined and easy-going as a result, the world of Galar is great to explore and playthrough, the soundtrack is unforgettable and the selection of Pokémon available is enough to make me want to catch em' all with many old favourites and great new Pokémon to try out. Yes the story may be weak but since when do we play Pokémon games for the plot? And while the graphics may not be the best, I've seen worse and honestly, they're not all that bad if you ask me.
If you prefer a more challenging experience, then you're better off playing Pokémon Platinum or the Gold and Silver games and their remakes, or even Pokémon Black and White. If you're just someone who wants a fun Pokémon experience, then I highly recommend playing these games.
I hope that GameFreak will include some of Sword and Shield's future instalments, be it the camping feature, the PokéJobs or EXP candies to make having a rotating roster easier and especially DLC as that can really add more to the Pokémon experience. Overall, I really enjoyed Pokémon Sword and Shield and I'll happily play to become the Champion of Galar any day.
That's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to share your own thoughts on the games in the comments below. I'll see you all next week for we leave the Galar region and go back in time...to a time where the Sinnoh region was known by a different name...
Pokémon and all related images used in this post belong to GameFreak and The Pokémon Company.
The artwork in Part 1 of the review belongs to me.