Pokémon Sword & Shield might not be perfect in a vacuum, but they are perfect for a brand new generation of fans to begin creating their own Pokémon adventures the same way veteran trainers did two decades ago.
What Pokémon Sword & Shield attempt to do over the course of the games' 40-odd-hour playthroughs absolutely oozes charisma and charm. More than any Pokémon title before them, Sword & Shield have perfectly captured the feeling of their source material. The United Kingdom, its history, its mythology, and even some of its wildlife don't miss a beat in the transition to Galar, the series' newest region and the home of Pokémon Sword & Shield. Games have, in the past, suffered a little when regions began to feel very similar to those that came before them, and that's not an issue as the series makes the jump to mainline titles appearing on video game consoles rather than strictly handheld devices.
Pokémon Sword & Shield are also the most controversial Pokémon game in the franchise's history. Developer Game Freak announced earlier in 2019 that the games would lack a National Dex, meaning that the amount of Pokémon found in Sword & Shield is a lot lower because not every creature from past generations are available. There's still an incredible 400 of them to be found, however, so it's not like the games are really lacking for content in that regard.
In fact, the shrunken Pokedex size is actually one of the most compelling elements of Pokémon Sword & Shield. Not only does the game feel far less overwhelming for those who want to catch 'em all but simply don't have time to find the ridiculous number that would be required with a National Dex, but it also gives the newer Pokémon room to breathe. While some series staples still managed to find their way into the game, team composition feels much more open than it has in previous titles, from both a casual and competitive standpoint. New creatures like Toxtricity and Applin, which might not have gotten much of a second look with a deeper roster of franchise favorites, absolutely shine within the world of Galar.
The reduced number of Pokémon present in Sword & Shield also make the games the most accessible for the series in a long time - perhaps since Gold & Silver. That's expanded upon in the way Game Freak has chosen to build the games, which feature some of the most friendly design elements yet. A trainer's team is frequently healed right before a major battle, especially ones that occur sequentially. NPCs will give away very powerful items that help supplement battling and traveling, often for nothing at all. Pokémon appear on the world map, and can be ducked if a player is barely hanging on with their wounded lineup and just needs to get to a Pokémon Center. Most of all, the ability to fly in between towns that have already been visited and surf across water without needing HMs is a quality-of-life improvement that allows players to circumvent giving their Pokémon moves they don't want to.
The cost of these decisions is that Pokémon Sword & Shield is an exceptionally easy game. There's not even a real "wrong" way to go about things. Because experience points are automatically shared, just power-leveling one Pokémon doesn't come at the cost of a severely under-leveled team left in its wake. All of the healing and item access makes gym battles fairly easy, while only a few instances of the game - all of them later on - felt at all challenging in their composition.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however. Battling is important, but it's clear that's not really the focus of Pokémon Sword & Shield in the same way it has been for previous generations. Gym Challenges, whether they be obstacle courses or quiz shows, take center stage as players attempt to gain their badges and become the Pokémon Champion, and they're a blast. The story is light-hearted fare, but it makes for some compelling characters, and a world that is inviting. Once again, Pokémon Sword & Shield feels like the type of game that could reignite the Pokémon craze in the same way it kicked off with Red & Blue so many years ago.
Pokémon Sword & Shield's Wild Area will be to thank for that renaissance if it does happen. It's an incredible addition to the series that, while falling short of its potential, still manages to be a huge draw to trainers. The Wild Area creates an online environment where people can camp together, share food with their Pokémon, and build the sort of bonds that the series has always prioritized since the days of Link Cable trading. More than that, it captures the essence of what has been appealing about Pokémon since its inception - the idea that a trainer and their team can brave the wilderness, a journey spanning different climates and lasting days at a time, while creating more friends, both human and Pokémon alike. It's hard not to fall in love with the addition to the series, and the Max Raids it contains, where players can team up in groups of four to bring down and capture a Dynamax/Gigantamax Pokémon, add an element of competition to it.
Unfortunately, despite Dynamax and Gigantamax being the newest mechanic in the series, it ultimately falls flat as an addition to the game. While the Gigantamax version of Pokémon change appearance and gain access to unique moves, adding an element of collectability to a game that's already flush with them, it feels mostly aesthetic. It's cool the first few times, but then it just becomes time consuming, and it doesn't feel like it impacts battling the same way that Mega forms did in the past generation of games. It's definitely a miss, but not a terrible one, and it's nice to see Game Freak still tweaking ways to make Pokémon even more customizable in battle.
The only other element of Pokémon Sword & Shield that feels like it doesn't keep up with the pace of evolution on display in the newest titles are the games' graphics. Simply put, Pokémon Sword & Shield looks old even when it's new. There's nothing here that feels like it couldn't have been done exclusively on a handheld, and that's a big missed opportunity given the major leap in power available on something like the Nintendo Switch. It's not that the game looks ugly, because regions in Galar are positively gorgeous at times. It's just that it doesn't pop the same way it could, and for a game that advances so much of the series into a new and uncertain future, the visuals keeping up seems like a must.
Still, these are the first mainline Pokémon games to ever appear on a console. There were bound to be some growing pains. That most of them are based in a new mechanic that simply missed the mark and in graphics that can be improved the next time around is an encouraging sign for the future of Pokémon. Everything else - the new Pokémon designs, the Galar region, especially the Wild Area - are some of the best the series has ever created. Pokémon Sword & Shield might not be perfect in a vacuum, but they are perfect for a brand new generation of fans to begin creating their own Pokémon adventures the same way veteran trainers did two decades ago. That's a big win for everyone involved, and fans should be excited to see where the series takes them next.
Pokémon Sword & Shield is available now for Nintendo Switch. Screen Rant was provided with a Pokémon Sword download code for the purposes of this review.