At 23 years old, it was time for the Pokémon phenomenon to grow up, and for the mainline series to finally make its way to a Nintendo home console.

With that change come growing pains. The loudest controversy from the series’ most hardcore players surrounds the culling of the National Pokédex. For the first time in franchise history, not every previous pocket monster will make the jump to the newest entry in the series. Game Freak, the game’s developer, has cited a focus on enhancing the gameplay and graphics as an explanation for that change. Now, we’ve seen the results of that change.

Ultimately, we barely thought about the controversy as we played. This may be a genuine concern for completionists, but for everyone else just looking for another Pokémon jaunt, it won’t matter. The new monster designs are creative, cheerful and provide more than enough distraction until you’re done with the story.

Before we get into our more specific impressions, it’s important to note that this is a review-in-progress, as neither of us have finished the games assigned to us (Sword is assigned to Gene; Shield is assigned to Elise). Both of us are approximately halfway done with the story line. Also, neither of us are Pokémon completionists; we’ve both dropped into the series here and there, depending on the entry. Read our impressions with that in mind.

Pokémon Sword

By Gene Park

  • The initial game will feel familiar to series veterans. But very quickly — within the game’s first hour or so — you’re introduced to the Wild Area, a novelty for the series. The Wild Area is an open area full of Pokémon and ancient ruins in which you can find multiplayer teammates to catch gigantic monsters. This section — which also features a day/night cycle and changing weather — is the game changer, and the clearest justification for bringing the game to the Switch. Once you finish the third gym, the Wild Area opens up even more. Suddenly, you forget you’re playing a Pokémon game; it starts to resemble something closer to the Dragon Quest or Ni No Kuni series.
  • This game comes closer than any other game in the series to replicating that first Pokémon game feeling of setting out from your childhood home into the wild unknown. Hearing the Wild Area theme will make you feel like you’re falling in love with the series all over again.
  • As someone who has despised invisible random battles for his entire life, I am eternally grateful Game Freak decided to keep the “Let’s Go” approach from last year, with Pokémon visible — and avoidable — in the wild. Despite all the new monsters and graphics, the game still has a grinding element, but it’s nice to be able to choose when and where you want to grind. This subtle change makes the world, particularly the Wild Area, feel lively.
  • The game is beautiful, but not in the technical ways other Switch games have been, including Game Freak’s Little Town Hero, released earlier this year. This generation is pushing Game Freak and the series further than ever before. The architecture in the towns (which Elise will talk about more later) is grand, and unlike any other environments we’ve ever seen in the series. There are more wild Pokémon on screen than ever before. Still, if you played last year’s Pokémon Let’s Go games, the impact of the new visuals may be dulled a bit. The 2018 release was sharper and brighter by comparison.
  • I experienced frame rate stutters in the grassier sections of the Wild Area, although it seemed pretty stable during battle. And characters and Pokémon pop in all the time, even in the non “wild” areas.
  • The National Dex controversy, where not every monster will be available in or transferrable to the game, is unfortunate. But as the universe of Pokémon approaches 1,000 collectible monsters, the tough decision to cap a game was inevitable. It might as well happen here, on the first jump to a home console. Ash Ketchum, the hero of the anime series, always had to leave Pokémon behind every time he entered a new region. It was always sad and challenging, but Ash always eventually ran into more monsters to catch and nurse. That’s the case here. Ultimately, you’ll be flooded with new monsters, especially once you enter the Wild Area.
  • What I witnessed while playing makes me wonder whether the Dynamax/Gigantimax mechanic (which Elise will talk more about) is a metaphor for how the series is trying to grow up. Like a giant Pokémon, Sword and Shield are huge, flashy experiences — but they’re also familiar, and you’ll know exactly what you need to do with them. Game Freak is getting closer and closer to the true high-definition experience longtime Pokémon fans have dreamed of for decades, despite the last-gen animations the game still uses.

Pokémon Shield

By Elise Favis

  • Pokémon often takes inspiration from real-life locations, such as Sun and Moon’s Alola region, based on Hawaii. This time, Nintendo and Game Freak drew inspiration from the United Kingdom. One of my favorite towns thus far has grandiose and imposing castle walls that could have come straight out of Scotland. These touches bring a unique feel to each locale, and discovering new, thrilling environments was one of the main motivators during my journey. These touches aren’t skin deep. They extend to the culture, too, with British slang sprinkled into the dialogue.
  • As someone who adores and often seeks out customization in games, I was pleased to find that most areas come with their own personalized items. For example, a market sold herbs and incense, and you can find different caps, sweaters and bags with a different style depending in which town the store is situated.
  • Pokémon Sword and Shield dig into the culture of child athletes. Alongside your character, you experience the adrenaline rush of walking into an enormous stadium with lively crowds who scream and cheer as you take your place to battle. It’s a showier presentation of gym battles than in past games: You stay in swanky hotels and are invited to fancy dinners with the chairman of the Galar Pokémon league. It also lets you experience the intense pressure of competition, akin to how young esports professionals are treated in the real world.
  • The Pokémon franchise isn’t known for its storytelling, and the newest entries don’t do anything particularly noteworthy on that front, but the themes of “trying to be the very best” and the pressure that comes with that ultimate goal are interestingly and subtly approached. For example, your companion and best friend, Hop, joins you on your journey — and also hopes to eventually defeat you as champion. Hop has a cheerful demeanor, but he shows hints of passive-aggressive hostility disguised as friendly competition. He believes he’s better than you, that being a Pokémon champion runs in his blood (his brother, after all, has been crowned as one). But rather than pushing you forward in a healthy way, his comments come across as self-serving and egotistical. Anxiety and pressure around the big question — can I be the very best, like no one ever was? — is inspired by many of the game’s characters. But when it comes from Hop, it feels like a personal attack: If your best friend doesn’t believe in you, are you actually good enough to make it?
  • One of the most notable differences with this Pokémon entry is Dynamaxing (this is when you or an opponent enlarge a Pokémon to a ridiculous size), bringing a twist and added layer to battles. Thankfully, Dynamaxing doesn’t guarantee a win in battle; it still requires strategy and can only be used for a limited amount of time. Type advantages can still hold a lot of power over a Dynamaxed opponent. Neither Gene nor I have tried Gigantimaxing yet.
  • An effective way to level up your Pokémon is through Max Raid Battles. In these, you team up with three other Pokémon trainers (either NPCs or real-life teammates). I haven’t experienced a whole lot of these yet, but with the couple I have completed, they’ve been fairly easy to overcome. I hope that as I continue, the challenge will increase in a similar way to Gym battles, which have incrementally ramped up in difficulty. Gene and I have not been able to test multiplayer yet, so stay tuned for the full review for those impressions.

Check back soon for more impressions as Elise and Gene continue playing Pokémon Sword and Shield.

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