The Big One. Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield Review

It feels like it's been a lifetime folks, and in the games industry it is, but Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield have been out for just under four months and it's time for us to put this review out there. In case you've missed the last ten years of TGAM, we're big pokémon fans so on the one hand we're heavily invested in this ship. On the other hand we're in the guts of this series so we're bringing our big guns to bear in this review.

Fuck All That Bullshit

It might be poison in the lucky charms or Minamata disease but these games have been particularly surrounded by an especially stinky wall of bullshit this time by the loose collection of flotsam and jetsam that's the pokémon community online and the solids floating on the top of the septic tank that's the wider gaming community online. The recent announcement of the expansion, an astonishing helping of STFU to entitled fans, which by any normal standard would silence would-be whingers has only stirred the steaming pot more. These days it's near impossible to measure a game by it's own merit and not with the bullshit from the 'community' seeping in under the door but we're going to do our best. It's worth our time to point out too that pokémon games are one of those series that it's impossible to 'review' on it's own terms. We're 24 years and hundreds of games into this series now. Is this an accessible game for first time pokémon players? We've got no idea. We couldn't tell you. Almost every part of this game is an evolution or reworking of a previous system and we can't unremember it all to give you that fresh impression. 

Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield Is Good Games

There we go, we're going to say it up front. It's good fucking food bruv. As seasoned gamers and long-term series fans it's a good pokémon game. I think both of us have ended up running up hours into this game in that sort of painful middle age "I don't have time to play games, oh I've run up 200 hours in this game already" kind of way. There's also been a non-stop roll-out of 'new stuff' which inevitably means a review of the game as it was at launch is a significantly different prospect to the game as it is now, especially with the rotating event type stuff, the run-up to the expansion and Pokémon Home's launch. Obviously, we can't retrospectively pretend this stuff doesn't exist so consider this a review of the game ~six months in. 

Good stuff. There are some welcome quality of life improving changes to the fundamental ways that pokémon functions, it's a gorgeous looking game especially on the big screen, there are some bangin' tunes and the Wild Area and Raids is a refreshing addition to the formula and folds in longevity in a way that doesn't wear as thin as SOS battles did in Pokémon Sun, Pokémon Moon and the sequels. We've also seen a thick and fast stream of games as a service type content updates already from a steady stream of mystery gifts, dynamax raid events, battle seasons, online competitions and most recently some micro content linked to the expansions coming out. Remember, we're less than four months in.

Less Good Stuff. There's something staid about the box system that now sticks out more than ever given the ease of accessing it that these games give you, the loss of the GTS (Global Trade System) system but specifically remote trading of specific pokémon seems like a backwards step and this is the least stable pokémon game there has ever been when connected online. 

What's The Story, Braviary?

Let's start with the story. If you've even a passing interest in this series of games you'll know that, with rare deviation, the beats of a pokémon game are thus: wake up on your 10th birthday, get given a pokémon by a pokémon professor, meet your rival then journey from gym to gym earning badges to earn the right to challenge the champion to become a pokémon master. Inevitably, it ends with a rookie prepubescent trainer who hadn't even owned a pokémon just tens of hours previously standing over the ashes of the combined strength of an entire region's pokémon trainers, an evil organisation or two and a few characters supposedly 'the most powerful trainer ever known'. Power fantasy? I have no idea what you mean. The credits roll and then the 'story' part is more or less over leading to what players call endgame. 

The story in this game is more or less the same. They've slightly tweaked the formula in that a whole army of trainers start together until the top few remain. Gym battles are now staged in stadiums filled with cheering fans (and a way better-than-it-should-be gym battle tune) and the final challenge is a tournament, with what feels like an endless series of interludes, before getting to THE final battle rather than fighting an elite group of trainers. 

Whilst on your journey to become the best there's a plot to discover the dark mystery behind the MacGuffin requiring some MacGuffins to unleash the MacGuffins to save the MacGuffins. In line with other mainline series games, there's also a short post-credits sequence of events to go through before considering the linear content of the game consumed. Consumed that it is until the two new regions coming with the expansion. 

AAAaaand it's fine as stories in these games go. Plenty of characters to draw porn of but it won't have you in floods of tears with drama or rolling around on the floor with laughter. If you really gun it not stopping to smell the roses, expand your pokédex, raid in the wild area I reckon you can hit the end credits in probably less than ten hours as early forum posts were complaining about.

Quality of Life Improvements

We've said it before but it's worth re-iterating because the Internet has a famously short memory. A comparative history of the pokémon games make for an interesting way to unpick the design process of these games. Through close study you see how systems have been developed, experimented with and inevitably improved. You can trace the lineage of almost every core system in pokémon games and with rare exception, what we have today is better than previous games. For example, what started as trading and battling over a Gameboy Cable, then GBA Wireless adapter became, via some weird detours like the PC client Dream World, became a constant ticker tape presence in X and Y and then in Sun and Moon with social stuff through Festival Plaza. Today, elements of all those systems have made their way to the Y-Comm system. More on that later.

It's these constant tweaks and improvements which make going back just a few games tough in a "I can't believe we put up with that bullshit" kind of way. Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield brings a plethora of quality of life improvements from previous generations. Here are some of the major ones.

Vitamins- Finally! Finally! They've removed the cap for vitamins. In previous games, there was a limit of ten vitamins per stat that you could give a pokémon increasing the ev points by ten meaning that unless you were going for a really weird spread you'd need both vitamins and an element of training (or remote training which appears in this game as seminars). You'll still need a pen and paper to make sure you get those spreads exactly but with enough money or BP going from no effort values to a fully EV'd pokémon has become somewhat trivial. That being said, you still can't see the bloody numbers (see below).

Using Multiple Items- A trivial change but you can now use multiple items such as rare candies, exp candies, vitamins and EV erasing berries. Previously you'd have to use them one by one. So if you had a level 1 pokémon and 99 rare candies you'd have to give them one by one. You can now do it en masse and the system will cap item usage so if you're looking to berry erase a stat, the maximum value of berries to erase that stat will be the default if you tap down. Tiny change, a world of difference and yes, we're aware that we've been conditioned to see these micro changes as a positive thing where they should have been that way all along.

Box System- Following Let's Go's approach to party and pokémon management, you can now access the box system almost anywhere in the game meaning you can switch out your party, equip items, shift eggs around without having to visit a PC at a Pokémon Centre. This is one of the biggest changes for day to day life improvement, however, as we mentioned above we're reaching the design limit with the box system I feel. One the one hand it's great to eliminate the fussy work of heading back to a Pokémon Centre to make changes to the six pokémon on hand or deposit eggs, swap items etc. In the Victory Lap revisiting of older games to make sure that everything had been cleared out to Home, begrudgingly swinging by Pokémon Centres every ten minutes became one of those features we couldn't believe we'd tolerated for so long. However, one the other hand 'box fussing' is something you do AN AWFUL LOT in this game. There's something clunky and fiddly about it that just perpetually, breaks, the, flow, of, the, game. We can't quite think of a better way of doing it but being freed from visiting PCs has really highlighted how staid party management really is.

Naming, Shaming and Move Relearning- In previous games, you could change pokémon's nicknames as long as it was one you'd caught in the game and 'relearn' moves which the pokémon learns through evolution but had forgotten by visiting specific characters and in the case of move relearning, handing over an item per move change. THANKFULLY, move relearning can now be done for free at every Pokémon Centre and at the same place you can even change the name of (most) pokémon acquired from other games, albeit just once. We're glad for the chance to finally change the names of some of those pokémon we picked up in trades called BigBallMan, Pickle Rick etc.

Pokédex- The pokédex is one of those standard features in every game that is tweaked from game to game and some of those tweaks have been for the better, some for the worse. Overall, it's fine here although a lot of the searching and filtering tools available in previous games have been removed (interestingly, the Pokémon HOME 'dex' in the app has a fuller complement, the one on the Switch's Pokémon HOME kinda sucks). It does introduce a neat little feature whilst filling out the dex for the first time and alerting you to the location of pokémon not yet caught which are available in the game with the current dynamic weather system in the Wild Area. Unfortunately, this feature sort of becomes moot once you've caught them all. Again, thankfully, the pokédex has a persistent memory meaning you'll land back on the entry you were previously on after you close it.

The Battle Tower Is Within Reach Of Mere Mortals- For the completionists among you, beating the Battle Tower (and it's various iterations) is one of the toughest challenges in the mainline pokémon games. In recent games to beat the battle tower, you'd need to beat twenty battles of single battle for example, to unlock super single battle. To beat that you'd need to win 100 wins without losing a single round against increasingly difficult opponents. Lose battle 7, 10 or 98 and it's back to battle 1 all over again. We're ashamed to admit that we've never '100%' any pokémon game if you add beating the Battle Tower as a requirement for completion. A number of the previous games rewarded this feat with updating the trainer card and commemorative ribbons for the pokémon used to beat the final battle, a badge of honour for the games' most difficult challenge. Here, it's much much easier. There's a single and double battle challenge that works on a rank system which is far less brutal. Get to Master Ball rank and keep battling until the champion pops up again, beat them for ribbons for your pokémon. The true battling accomplishment in this game has been shifted to online battles, the Master Rank ribbon is awarded for beating another player in the Master tier in ranked battles which is no easy feat.

Double Day Care- Double day care is back which means you can have two sets of bonking 'mon on the go at all times. Much appreciated for the background breeding programmes although having to physically fly to each to pick up eggs is a chore.

You'll Never Need For Money and EXP Again- In previous games, moving from one game to the newest one meant leaving behind a mountain of items, berries, rare candies and a huge pile of money. Fortunately, the sting is taken out of earning money and experience here. There's a tonne of high priced items laying about in the Wild Area that reappear every day, raiding throws experience candy and sellable items at you and after beating the game, pokémon in the Wild Area appear at level 60 meaning you can rapidly rake in that exp. Compared to previous games, this game is very generous with the handouts but it's still easy to get back to nothing by buying vitamins or if you're one of those people, buying every item of clothing in the game. It's much appreciated particularly the exp side of things as it all but trivialises levelling up EV and IV trained pokémon, if you can get over the hoarding mentality that is.

Is it too much quality of life? Arguably the lack of the long-winded effort and RNG breeding somewhat cheapens the game. Where you could spend days on breeding, training, and levelling, its now almost automatic, by next gen we will just have rental pokémon at lvl 100 with all moves available to them. Don't get me wrong I welcome not having to grind it out again, especially since I need to revise all my mons. But making it this easy is detracting something, removing the mojo... Yes I hated levelling up in earlier games for instance having tail whip as a move, but there were a few tough decisions to be made to prevent you dying as you went on your adventure finding yourself finding yourself using your last potion, fraught with the crippling fear of wondering when you last saved was. The game could be considered too easy, and in essence a frail kinder egg toy version of what it once was, but now backed with pay as you go add-ons and expansion packs to keep the ADHD generation excited for a hot minute.

What's New?

So far, so Stockholm syndrome, here's a breakdown about some of the things which are new to pokémon games in Pokémon Sword & Pokémon Shield.

League Cards- They've been working up to something like this in previous games but league cards are probably the best we've had it to show off character customisation. From the Pokémon Centre PC you can pick a background, cover, effects and pose your avatar which along with your key game stats gets printed off as your league card. You can then share this with other players and opt to share and receive when interacting with other players through battling and trading. Some backgrounds and effects are unlocked through various gameplay challenges and most players seem to put at least a little bit of effort into these glorified showing off stamps.

PokeJobs- As with a plethora of games nowadays, pokémon has an idle mode, a stepchild of the Poke-Pelago, allowing you to send 'mon away to improve EV stats or get XP/money. A welcome addition for background training, or batch training of a Super Soldier army but ultimately useless unless you are really strapped for cash.

Camping- Camping is this game's Pokémon Amie, it gives you a space to 'play' with your party pokémon, boosting their friendliness and exp. You can also barely interact with other players when camping in the Wild Area and connected online but interaction is limited and it can be difficult to work with the other player when cooking, another feature of camping. Using berries and food ingredients found and bought up to four players can make a curry the effects of which vary depending on the combination of ingredients and how well a curry making minigame is executed. Infamously, there is a Currydex and 151 of the fuckers to make including curries only possible to make with version exclusive ingredients and incredibly rare ingredients randomly sold by two merchants in the wild area (my kingdom for 7 eggs!). The pay off for cooking 'em all are nowhere near worth the grind, various different shaped balls to throw at your pokémon when playing in the camp and gold cutlery for getting them all. I won't lie, I'm usually a sucker for these interaction modes but the interactibility here is limited. Just throw in a proper photo mode already.

Mints- Bit by bit, we're almost getting all the tools we ideally need to tweak pokémon caught, hatched or traded so that you can work with 'less than perfect' to bring them up to almost perfect. In previous games we got hyper training and ability capsules allowing the artificial manipulation of individual values and abilities respectively. This game introduces mints, which are scarce enough to require some grinding in the battle tower or pure luck, which allow you to artificially change the nature of a pokémon. Nature effects underlying strengths and weaknesses in stats so being able to change them artificially is a god-send for those random shiny encounters and difficult to breed pokémon which are otherwise perfect. Our only hope is that a nature changed with mints is a truly permanent change and won't vanish in future games, okay we admit it, we're still butthurt about the leaf crown.

The Wild Area- One of the most significant areas which is different to all other pokémon games is the Wild Area, a huge area that takes up the middle of the map. Superficially, it is similar to the normal routes in pokémon games, just on the large size. It's divided up into different biomes, with lakes, ponds, pools, desert, forest, a spooky area and a few islets and patches of long grass and fishing spots throughout. This fairly open area works differently in that when connected online you'll sort of see other connected players dashing about (but it seems impossible to 'meet up' with players you know are connected). There are wandering pokémon in the long grass, hidden pokémon in the long grass that rustle with an exclamation mark when you're nearby as well as fixed spawned pokémon which change with the weather system which changes over every 24 hours and occasionally on special days the weather is the same across the map. There are berry trees to harvest daily and a smattering of shiny 'hidden items' to pick up which also refresh. Spread across the Wild Area are over a hundred raid dens too (see below). We stalled our story progress for tens of hours just exploring this area, filling the dex, collecting items and raiding and it's where you'll likely spend most of end game. It's big and diverse enough that you'll end up fast travelling from one side to the other and soon you build up a robust mental map of where the dens, fixed spawns and items show up.

Dynamax Raids - Recent games have brought a gimmick to battling to shake up the meta game, however, it appears these are being treated as ephemeral mechanics rather than permanent additions to the fundamentals of pokémon. X and Y introduced mega evolution and the Sun and Moon series brought Z-crystals and moves to the table. Both are, for the time being, gone here and dynamaxing, max raiding and gigantamax pokémon are this game's gimmick. Dynamaxing is a mechanic where in set circumstances, at raid dens in the Wild Area, in gym battles through the story and in PvP battles one of your pokémon grows to a huge size for three turns. Their hit points are doubled and their moves are changed into powerful attacks, with added effects sort of like Z-moves. A limited number of pokémon also have gigantamax forms which means that when they dynamax, they change appearance and have access to a pokémon specific G-Max move. This major new mechanic is at the heart of 'raiding' in the Wild Area at raid dens. Raid dens look like little rock donuts which have a beam of light reaching into the sky if there's a pokémon to fight, the beam appears different if there's a rare spawn which may have a hidden ability or a gigantamax pokémon inside. These dens seem to pop up randomly but you can also farm specific dens with a wishing piece item. Up to four players team up to fight a dynamaxed or rarer, gigantamaxed pokémon, empty spots or offline play are filled with some infamously not great NPCs. The player team loses if ten turns pass or if four of their pokémon are KO'd before then. Only one of the four players can dynamax and this is managed by dynamax energy. The host of the raid can dynamax straight away but if they don't their dynamax energy depletes and other players in order get the opportunity to dynamax. Successfully beating the opponent pokémon who will have layers of shielding depending on their star rating, will reward the team with items and, aside from special event raids, the opportunity to catch the pokémon in the den. Depending on their star rating and the colour of the beam they'll have a higher chance of having perfect IV stats as well as their hidden ability. Dynamaxing works slightly different in the battle tower and in PvP and has shaken up the competitive meta game considerably, there's no dynamax energy meter instead each player has the opportunity to dynamax one of their pokémon during the fight. Dynamaxed pokémon become immune to some attack effects and their hold items work differently.

In this player's opinion, dynamax, max raiding and gigantamax is a great addition to the game for a number of reasons. It finally gives players a reason and method to play together online beyond battling against each other, trading or 'poking each other' (see online efforts of previous games) and it adds an element of strategy when teaming up to take on raids. Aside from events like the movie-tie in Mewtwo raids, most, if you've made a sensible pokémon selection are achievable, plus players have a shot at catching version exclusives by teaming up with a host from a different game. Catch rates for defeated pokémon are tweaked somewhat so you still get that feeling of waiting for the poké ball to pop when fighting a rarer spawned pokémon in someone else's raid. As mentioned above, from the first few official regional and international events, dynamaxing is almost the perfect counter to the ingrained problem of priority moves and switching dominating the 'professional' meta game. It also makes matches a tad more watchable in my opinion.
Will dynamax eventually be rotated out a la mega evolution and Z-crystals? It's difficult to believe they will be for what they currently bring to the game in terms of strategy and the sort-of online play that pokémon has always struggled to capitalise on.

Y-Comm- The evolution of what used to be 'all that menu bullshit on the bottom screen', the Y-Comm is the rolling notification system when connected online the descendent of the C-gear and X/Y's online 'O Power' and scroll of online player screens. Through the Y-Comm players can find other players to battle, trade with or share a league card as well as advertise and sign up to raids. It doesn't work especially smoothly. It's obvious that compromises have been made to try to speed up the task of connecting online, finding other players and linking up with them as well as somehow presenting players with a manageable flow of notifications. Notifications aren't strictly live as we imagine it would be a never ending scroll of notifications but far too often you're too late to join raids and disconnects are a frequent occurrence too. It doesn't help either that trying to hook up with players who have already launched a raid or cancel a trade delivers what feels like an error message rather than a 'you were too late message'. Annoyingly, the Y-Comm tab is ever present on the screen in the Wild Area ruining screenshots of those beautiful vistas.

Brilliant Aura- Over the years we've had tens of different systems for special pokémon in the wild from rustling grass, the DexNav, horde battles and SOS battles. Sword and shield introduces brilliant aura pokémon reminiscent of Let's Go's supersized and tiny sized pokémon. These pokémon randomly spawn but are more likely to pop up depending on how many pokémon of that species you've battled and caught. They have a higher chance of having perfect IVs in three or four(?) or their stats as well as having an egg move which takes the sting a little bit our of breeding for egg moves, at least initially.

What's Lost and Lacking?

It's not all positive additions to the game, some things have been stripped back for unknown reasons and there are some systems which remain nigglesome. 

GTS- The GTS or the Global Trade System is the system which players used to be able to use to trade pokémon with other players online remotely. You have a spare Torchic, you want a Bellsprout, either stick the Torchic on the GTS with a Bellsprout ask and wait until someone trades with you or hop onto the GTS to see which Bellsprout are on offer and whether you can complete the trade. By Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, unless you were looking for those really rare or event only pokémon, you were almost guaranteed to get what you were after on the deposit side. On the ask side, players are fucking ridiculous but occasionally you could find what you needed. The GTS has been dropped from Sword and Shield, most likely because it's a key feature of Pokémon HOME, premium payed up players can deposit up to three pokémon at a time. But it does mean that there's no sensible way to trade pokémon in Sword and Shield with random other players. You can link up with players on the Y-Comm but it's impossible to communicate with them what you want and what they need. With friend codes you can connect to targeted players which has made some of the dex filling possible but the lack of a GTS in HOME is really felt. A shame.

Berries?- Like other features in this list, we've seen a number of approaches to how berries are handled in the game. From naturally replenishing over time trees, to planting, watering and fertilising mechanics, to Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon's pokémon pelago berry growing island. The USUM solution worked the best out of all of these systems, removing the fussy requirement of waiting for days on end or losing berry strains by forgetting to harvest. In Sword and Shield, in addition to being rewards from raid battles, berries grow in the Wild Area and are collected via a 'tree rustling' minigame. Rustle the tree too many times and a wild pokémon will attack, leaving pesky wild pokémon to take some or all of the berries you rustled up. Point being, aside from putting effort into grinding berry trees continuously, it's very difficult to gather a specific berry that you need and sadly impossible to reproduce rarer berries that you have in your inventory. We've got into the habit of doing a daily circuit to generally up the stock but there are a few berries which remain scarce, which has an impact on battle usage, there are certain combos needed for cooking up high quality curries and of course, berry erasing EV points. We had a better system in USUM, it seems unfortunate to take a step back.

Let Us See The Numbers I've whinged extensively about this before but I still have a complaint about the underlying numbers in pokémon. Despite being given tools to change natures, individual values, help with investing effort values and erasing them, you still can't see the specific numbers you've invested in any particular pokémon. Individual values are viewable on a spectrum of categories (it's easy to just aim for best) and EV points are only viewable on a hexagonal graph. We still need to refer to resources on the web worked out by the wider pokémon community in order to get this stuff straight and for nuanced builds which aren't just a straight dump of EVs into one or two stats you still need pen and paper to make sure you've not mucked up by a point or two here and there. Yes, we're far from the days when the IV checker man would give you vague hints about how good an individual pokémon's stats were but just give us the tools to do this with precision and perhaps give all players a chance at understanding the mechanics behind it all without doing a deep dive on external websites.

So there we have it, the review that serves nobody. Fans will already have the game (remember the boycott? anyone?) and I'm not sure the above will convince anyone who doesn't already speak pokémon but that's our review. SORT OUT THIS WEAK ENDING DO NOT LET IT GO OUT LIKE THIS.


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