Monday, January 27, 2020

Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield (NSW) Review

I was recently once again bitten by the Pokemon bug after over a decade of being tired of the mainline games. Now, I return to a brand-new Pokemon pair of games with Pokemon Sword and Shield. Here's the SuperPhillip Central review.

Your adventures in the Galar region await.

I should very much preface this review with the mention that with regards to the Pokemon series, I have long since fallen out from the franchise. Somewhere between Pokemon Diamond/Pearl and Pokemon Black/White I lost interest in the mainline games completely. It wasn't until Pokemon: Let's Go, Pikachu! and Pokemon: Let's Go, Eevee! of all games that I jumped back into "Poke Fever", which the only cure for was more Pokemon games.

So, in essence, Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are my first completely new installments in the franchise since Pokemon Black and White back on the Nintendo DS. Quite a lengthy hiatus. While for some players, the removal of features and Pokemon from previous games are some things that sting, I selfishly couldn't have cared less because I don't know most of the Pokemon or features lost nowadays anyway. Thus, I entered the Galar region with an open mind and ready for a fresh new Pokemon experience. And, for the most part, I wound up getting just that.

Route 1 is sort of a "blink and you miss it" kind of route. No worries, though--it's not
representative of the length of the other routes in Pokemon Sword and Shield.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield take place in the England-inspired Galar region, and have you starting your Pokemon journey being greeted by your mom and then your soon-to-be rival, Hop. A rival that if you're like me, you'll get incredibly sick of battling by the twelfth or so time the game forces you to do. Hop is the younger brother of the undefeated Galar League champion, Leon, and your quest is to collect the eight gym badges around the Galar region while contending with a healthy heaping of unique characters and personalities. Frankly, while a lot of the story is on the light side, but that said, the dialogue is a bit on the heavy side, having way too many interruptions to the otherwise enjoyable exploration and Pokemon searching, catching, and battling within the Galar region. That said, I personally didn't mind the overly done exposition, though the story is quite weak overall.

Select your starter, and begin your journey through the Galar region.
As for the aforementioned enjoyable Pokemon searching, catching, and battling, this is just as fun as ever in Pokemon Sword and Shield. There is a total of 400 Pokemon to catch within the Galar region, and just under 100 new Pokemon introduced in this pair of games. They're introduced steadily and rather quickly throughout the adventure, and discovering a new Pokemon you haven't yet encountered or even better yet, caught, is still a satisfying and exciting occurrence to have happen. Pokemon hide in tall grass, but taking a cue from Pokemon Let's Go, you can see most Pokemon in the grass and in dungeon areas before initiating a battle. This way you aren't always stuck with luck-of-the-draw random encounters, hoping to take on that Pokemon in your Pokedex that you've yet to catch. Though, there are Pokemon that only appear shrouded in tall grass and caught out of water via fishing that do require happenstance to encounter.

As a Pokemon game is wont to say, "It's super effective!"
If there's one thing I really like about Pokemon Sword and Shield it's how there's an abundance of quality of life features added to make for a more palatable experience. I've already talked about being able to see Pokemon on the field before deciding to battle them, but there's also things inside of battles themselves. One of these involves seeing if a given battle Pokemon's move will be effective against your opponent's. Another includes the use of sharing earned experience between all Pokemon in your party. While I'm sure some will miss being able to individually level up Pokemon to keep the game more challenging--and I would very much agree to having an option to turn the experience-sharing off--it makes for a leaner and more streamlined approach to training Pokemon. I personally have always found the slow method of having Pokemon games give experience only to Pokemon active in battle to be quite cumbersome, and perhaps that's a reason I dropped out of the games in the first place almost a decade ago.

That said, one can easily be over-leveled in Pokemon Sword and Shield, effortlessly steamrolling over Pokemon trainers met along the various routes and indoor areas in the game. It's a double-edged sword (or should I say a double-edged Honedge in this case?) in that by having an experience share, it's way too easy to have all of your Pokemon leveled too quickly. On the other hand, by having this experience share accessible, it allows less of a hassle to level up your Pokemon. It didn't have to be an either/or proposition here, and I think with a better balance by Game Freak, this wouldn't have been an issue at all.

Who's a good doggy? Why, yes, you are a good doggy, Boltund!
Regardless, Pokemon Sword and Shield brings more than new quality of life improvements to the series, it also brings new features as well. One such feature, and one highly advertised throughout the game's marketing, is the Wild Area. This is introduced early in your adventure, offering a wide expanse to travel, containing a multitude of Pokemon species to catch. Starting off in the Wild Area, you'll encounter Pokemon of such a high level that they're impossible to catch until you earn more gym badges, but being able to eventually catch an expansive variety of Pokemon all in one place is a fantastic inclusion to Pokemon Sword and Shield. The Wild Area is always changing weather-wise, with different parts essentially being different bio-mes, having vastly different weather. One step you could be in a bright, sunny expanse, while the next step it turns into a winter hailstorm where ice Pokemon reign supreme.

Welcome to the extraordinarily expansive Wild Area, introduced relatively early in Pokemon Sword and Shield.
Also new is that of Max Raid Battles, which also take place in the Wild Area. These have you team up with either three other Pokemon trainers via online or partner up with three AI trainers against a gigantic "Dynamax" Pokemon. These are terrifyingly large in size and unleash more devastating and powerful attacks than normal Pokemon. Among the four trainers, one of their Pokemon can fortunately also Dynamax, also growing to gargantuan Poke-proportions, using stronger versions of moves that they otherwise would be unable to use. The team of four trainers challenge and take on the "Dynamaxed" Pokemon, and if they're successful in taking it down within ten turns and without having four K.O.s between the four of them, they'll gain the opportunity to catch that Pokemon. Even if this catching attempt isn't successful, they're still rewarded with goodies like rare items like treasures and Technical Machines, used to teach their Pokemon new moves.

A gigantic Munchlax means a Pokemon with a gigantic case of the munchies.
Dynamaxing isn't exclusive to Max Raid Battles either, as they're a grand component of Gym Leader Battles this time around, where the final Pokemon each Gym Leader brings out is Dynamaxed to gigantic size as one last ditch effort to bring the match to their favor. One of your Pokemon can do the same at any time in the battle, and just like the Gym Leader's Pokemon, a Pokemon can only Dynamax for three turns before reverting back to normal, so there's some semblance of strategy to this otherwise superfluous spectacle.

Introducing your Galar League Pokemon Gym Leaders...
Collecting eight gym badges is as traditional as ever for the Pokemon series, but if it isn't broken, why fix it? That said, there is a change to how gyms work, as they all have Gym Challenges to take on and complete first in order to even gain the right to battle the Gym Leader. These have a wide range of tasks to accomplish, such as herding a group of Wooloo into a fenced area, hitting a series of buttons to switch on and off water from multicolored pipes, and riding in a Disney World teacup-like vehicle as you bounce around a Pachinko-like board. These are enjoyable excursions that don't just feel like filler or something extraneous to pad the game.

Gym Challenges will test all sorts of skills, but they won't all exactly
put the "challenge" in Gym Challenge.
Outside of going to gyms, taking on Gym Challenges, and moving on to battling their Gym Leaders, you'll be following along with a light story that doesn't really pick up until near the end of the game and then into the post-game afterwards. The culminating battles against the--for lack of a better term--"big bad(s)" don't really feel earned and don't feel natural to the overall game. The stakes just don't come across as very high, despite the scenario designers' best intentions.

Then, there's the return of camping with your Pokemon, but this is in a much more interactive form that what I witnessed in past games. You can play with your Pokemon, "talk" to them, and otherwise enjoy each other's company to build your friendship and trust with them. You can also create all sorts of curry-themed concoctions. While building up one's Currydex might be engaging for some, this entire feature just didn't strike any chord with me whatsoever, and I found myself using it sparingly at most.

Battling all day must be bad for a Pokemon. Why not spend some quality playtime
with them at a campsite occasionally so they can unwind?
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield may be two games, but they're hardly two different experiences. You tackle the same story, with the same routes and gyms, and these gyms have the same Gym Challenges as well. The only real difference between the two games are which Pokemon are available to be caught, and which of two trainers you take on in the game. Thus, there's really no compelling reason to pick up both games unless you're a serious Poke-maniac.

Both games have a pleasant visual style to them on the Nintendo Switch, but I wouldn't exactly call them highly impressive. They're quaint, colorful, and nice enough to look at, but graphical powerhouses or showcases that put other first-party games to shame, they are not. The Pokemon, of course, are the stars of the show, offering plenty of unique personality in their animations, movements, and designs, and the environments sport adequate detail and have their own personalities as well. The online features can cause the frame-rate to chug and stutter a small amount when connecting with other players, but overall, Pokemon Sword and Shield aren't poorly optimized games. With regards to sound, the same 8-bit growls and buzzes from the Game Boy era are mostly used for Pokemon voices, save for a select few species, and this is a bit disappointing to me. Then again, it's practically tradition now, so I guess there's something quaint to be had with them. The music, however, is really splendid, offering plenty of jams and bops to enjoy.

Galar has an impressive variety of unique locales within its boundaries.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield may not have the most engaging story nor may be the most impressive running game on the Nintendo Switch, but they still meet the same prerequisite I require to enjoy a Pokemon a game--they're darn good fun. While absent features and Pokemon from past games will disappoint, as will the series not evolving as much as say, a Charmander to a Charmeleon to a Charizard, what is here in these two games was enough to satisfy me and make me eagerly await the upcoming Expansion Pass. I look forward to continuing my journey in the Galar region and quest to catch 'em all.

[SPC Says: B+]

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