The pen is mightier
I don’t envy Game Freak. It’s a weird statement to make because for more than 20 years, the company has been part owner of one of the most successful video game franchises on the planet. Game Freak has guided Pokémon since its inception, creating more than 800 different and memorable creatures across eight different generations of games.
A big part of the reason why it’s been so successful is it’s always been tied to Nintendo’s most popular hardware. From the Game Boy to the 3DS, Pokémon has enjoyed worldwide success on handheld consoles even though the hardware was considerably weaker than their home console counterparts. But now there isn’t an underpowered handheld to develop for, no outdated graphics technology to hide behind. Now there is only the Switch, and with higher quality hardware come higher standards of what players expect from the world’s most popular JRPG.
[Read our review of Pokémon Shield here.]
Pokémon Sword (Switch)
Developer: Game Freak
Released: November 15, 2019
The Galar Region makes a great first impression in the opening of Pokémon Sword. Rolling hills extend into the distance and sheep-like Wooloos roam the paths without care. It’s a delectable beginning to an adventure that will take trainers to stone cities, castles, glowing forests, and beyond. Based on the United Kingdom, Galar Region features unique British sensibilities, bowler hats, and dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Professor Layton game.
Galar is home to a few unique features that are the major selling points for Pokémon Sword. The most prominent of these is the Wild Area, a sizable open-world space where tall grass is plenty and powerful Pokémon roam free. Taking up most of the middle section of the region, the Wild Area is split into different portions that each contain their own weather patterns. The type of weather in the area affects the type of Pokémon you encounter. While you can spend as much time in the Wild Area as you like, you can only catch Pokémon of a certain level that correlates to how many gym badges you’ve collected. It’s an understandable decision, as without it, players would be able to practically complete the Galar Region Pokédex before facing off against their first Gym Leader.
But even with that restriction in place, the journey through the Galar Region is an enjoyable one with interesting places to discover and a few neat characters to meet. While most of the inhabitants of the region are forgettable, a few stand out including Opal, the best Gym Leader in the game, and Ball Guy. The journey from gym to gym may not venture into unexplored territory, but that classic Pokémon formula is still too good to ignore. A majority of the new Pokémon created for Sword are appealing in their own unique ways and there is always joy to be found reading the Pokédex entries for each new ‘mon.
There is also immense joy to be found in seeing the look on my Pokémon’s face when I bite into a bit of curry. Camping is another addition to Sword where you and your team of six pocket monsters can just chill for a while in the Wild Area or on any of the routes you trek. Trainers can amuse their Pokémon with a few toys, “talk” to them, or cook up a nice batch of curry for the whole campground. I’ll admit, after cooking about 20 dishes I’m still not sure how the Curry Dex works but I do know every meal I’ve made has been a winner. And seriously, seeing a Pokémon’s mouth open in anticipation of my reaction to the curry is simply splendid. It’s a shame I can’t see that look on the face of every Pokémon.
Yes, “Dexit” happened. Pokémon Sword contains less than half of all the Pokémon that have been created in the series, leaving it without a National Dex. It’s a bold move for a franchise that’s most famous slogan is “Gotta catch ’em all.” For the most part, this isn’t noticeable during the adventure. Game Freak mixes in adorable new faces with classic ‘mons to always keep players curious about what they’ll find in the next route or gym. It’s only when you reach the post-game that their absence is truly felt.
But in the lead up to that post-game, trainers will be treated to a pretty routine and unsurprising quest. Pokémon Sword doesn’t break any new ground with its format or its various story subplots. There is a mystery surrounding the two Legendary Pokémon of the region and a secondary plot with an environmental theme. There are a lot of discussions about providing power to the Galar Region, following in the footsteps of family, and forging your own destiny, but pretty much every storyline found throughout Sword ends in a whimper. Which is a shame because, in terms of the environmental aspects, it seems like Game Freak was attempting to make some sort of statement about pollution through the Galarian form Pokémon.
While creatures like Sirfetch’d and Ponyta got most of the attention pre-launch, Corsola and Weezing variants actually tell their own tale of the region. Weezing, with its smokestacks, mimics the coal-burning factories that used to line the skies of London during the industrial revolution. In fact, according to the Pokémon Shield Pokédex, Weezing changed its form due to polluting factories. However, the Sword Pokédex entry makes it clear it only exhausts fresh air.
Corsola is a far more serious indictment of the pollution people cause. In previous games, it’s a Water/Rock Pokémon with a smile and bright pink skin that resembles a healthy coral reef. In Sword, it’s pale white, sad, and a Ghost-type. When coral dies in the ocean, it loses its color. Corsola’s Galarian form seems to point to a coral Pokémon that’s been polluted to death, which would have been a great addition to the environmental storyline if Game Freak had only chosen to pursue it. Instead, it opts for a far simpler, less damning plot that ends with what appears to be a head-in-the-sand approach to environmentalism.
The focus on the environment in Sword revolves around the phenomenon known as Dynamaxing. Introduced fairly early in the story, Dynamaxing is a special ability all Pokémon in the Galar Region have. It allows them to grow to massive sizes, changing their unique attacks into simplified type attacks. So if your Scorbunny has three unique fire attacks and a flying attack, when you Dynamax, those fire attacks will transform into “Max Flare” while your flying attack will become “Max Airstream.” These attacks do massive amounts of damage when you have type advantage, but don’t think just because you’re Dynamaxed you can’t be knocked out. As I was shown time and time again, it’s easy to one-hit a Dynamax Pokémon with one that hasn’t enlarged.
Dynamaxing can only happen in certain places of the Galar Region. You’ll encounter Dynamax Pokémon at nearly all of the gyms in predictable form and in the various dens that are scattered throughout the Wild Area. If you see a red light shining into the sky, it’s a sign there is a Dynamax or potentially Gigantamax Pokémon waiting to be battled in a Max Raid. You can only take one of your party into a raid, requiring trainers to team up either with other players or NPCs chosen at random. In my first trip through the Wild Area, I had troubles connecting with other players but didn’t think much of it. I was able to power through most of the raids I attempted with the NPCs. When I returned after I’d become champion, it became crystal clear how broken this mode is.
As I said, you have two options when trying Max Raids: you can partner with other players or use NPCs. If you take the latter route for more challenging raids, you’ll be at the mercy of the game and it can often feel like it’s trying to sabotage you. Challenging a Dynamaxed Water Pokémon? There’s a good chance your A.I. partners will bring a Rock Pokémon or a Fire Pokémon into battle with you. Hope you like seeing Wobbuffets and Magikarps because NPCs got those in spades.
Now, I wouldn’t have to rely on NPCs if I could actually link up with other players. And I do try. Every time I attempt a raid, I’m connected to the internet, inviting other players. However, I can only seem to get other people on board with a raid roughly 10% of the time. The other 90% is split between various error messages or simply nobody showing up, possibly because they received an error message. If the constant errors weren’t bad enough, the way you search for potential raid partners is outright terrible.
When connected to the internet, you see a Twitter-like feed that showcases accomplishments made by other players, requests for trades, or call-outs for help with a Max Raid. You can whittle the list down to just raid requests if you want, but there is no guarantee the raids that appear on your screen will be any good. Some I simply wasn’t able to connect to, others had already been filled but were still on my feed.
Outside of the raids, connecting online in the Wild Area can result in massive slowdowns in framerate when sharing the screen with other players and wild Pokémon. The worst I experienced could be compared to a slide show, complete with other player avatars appearing and disappearing at random. I honestly cannot recall a time I’ve encountered an online mode this shoddy, this poorly thought out and frankly, it’s unacceptable. Pokémon is the biggest JRPG franchise on the planet. It should not have an online mode that operates as though it’s held together by duct tape.
One thing Pokémon Sword does do well is spectacle. While the game was clearly developed using the framework of Pokémon Sun/Moon, it does use the power of the Switch to its advantage in a few ways. There is much less slowdown during battles, the art direction is spectacular throughout, and the scale of the Dynamax bouts is absolutely riveting. Seeing a 10-story tall fat Pikachu fight an enormous Sobble is a sight to behold if only for a few seconds. Even if there is little to no sense of accomplishment in winning these fights with how easy this game is, they’re still eye-popping on the big screen, even now when I’m several hours into the post-game.
Speaking of the post-game, there isn’t much to it. After completing a short and uneventful epilogue that lands trainers their Legendary, players will get access to the Battle Tower and the Wild Area will become more diversified in terms of Pokémon available and weather patterns. Where past games emphasized filling out that National Dex, the post-game in Sword is all about perfecting your team. Hyper Training allows you to max out stats and mints let you change the nature of your Pokémon however you like. You can barely swing a Meowth in Galar without hitting a Move Reminder, so getting the most out of Sword‘s post-game lies in tinkering with each Pokémon in the Pokédex until you have them just right.
If that doesn’t sound fun to you, you’re probably not going to like Pokémon Sword. If you were hoping for a massive shake-up in how Game Freak approaches Pokémon games the same way other series on the Nintendo Switch have experimented with new directions, you may need to wait for Generation IX. Pokémon Sword is very much built with the tried-and-true franchise blueprint, resulting in an enjoyable if innocuous title, which makes it a difficult game to score.
On one hand, the online is absolutely broken and embarrassing. On the other, anytime I’m not dealing with that nonsense, I’m having fun with the game. Maybe in a couple of months, when I’ve min-maxed every Pokémon in the Dex and am just focusing on raids, I’ll feel more antagonistic toward the game and its woeful online, but right now, when I’m doing literally anything else in it, I’m having a good time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]