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Pokémon Sword & Shield Launch Impressions | RPGFan Feature
Pokémon Sword & Shield First Impressions
November 22, 2019

Generation 8 is finally here! Pokémon Sword & Shield are the first mainline console games for Game Freak's monster-collection RPG behemoth. In the 21 years since Red & Blue released in the West, Pokémon has been through a lot of changes; Sword & Shield arguably bring some of the biggest and, at times, most controversial of those. While you wait for our review of the games, we have many Pokéfans here at RPGFan who are eager to share some of their thoughts on what the Galar region brings. From losing hours in the Wild Areas to this generation's new 'mons, to falling in love with a fictionalised version of England, here's how we feel about the games so far!

intro by Alana Hagues

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Galarian Ponyta in Battle
Breath of the Wild Charge

Some of my minions coworkers at RPGFan finished Sword/Shield over the weekend, and others proudly mentioned in our staff chat app that they had just acquired their 4th or 5th Gym badge. Meanwhile, I was still two paths away from even seeing the first gym. It seems that I'm playing Pokémon Shield the way I play MMORPGs: stop and smell the roses at every opportunity. Or in this case, stop and catch the Roselias.

It's not an exaggeration to say that nearly half of my time in the game so far has been in the Wild Area. I hear that place is divisive for some fans (but hey, what isn't divisive about Sword & Shield for some fans?), but it's been neat poking around and seeing what I can find and what I can look forward to catching after a few more levels or badges.

Outside of dabbling in Pokémon Y, the only game in the series I've seen through to completion was Pokémon Blue in 1998. To say I've missed some iterative changes in those 21 years is putting it lightly. Maybe that's why I can't be disappointed with a game that "only" has 400 or so 'mon, since I'm used to a game with 151. And when some of the new ones are as adorable as Yamper or as glorious as Corviknight and Galarian Ponyta, I'm really just having a blast with it.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Polteageist in Battle
Sinistea and Crumpets

So, I'm the proud owner of 8 Gym badges at the time of writing this; as such, I have a lot of feelings about Pokémon Sword & Shield. I adore so much that these games bring to the table, even if I've got a lot of little nitpicks which brought the fun down for me a little at times. But I want to focus on what's made my journey around this fictionalised version of England so delightful.

Being from England, the moment Galar was announced and shown off as a region, I was excited for all of the cultural references and phrases that could pop up. And boy, Galar has had more packed into its world than any other region so far. The moment my friendly rival Hop called me "mate," I knew that Galar was going to nail the feeling of living in England. I started noticing small things like cups of tea on people's living room tables, Sonia calling her grandmother "gran," and train delays caused by Wooloo blocking the line, straight away. My personal favourite? In Shield, when you beat the Ghost Gym Leader Allister, he says "Crumbs!", a phrase we often use for when things go wrong. It was adorable and unexpected. Then there's the cities themselves: there's Stow-on-Side, which is a town on a cliffside with the naming convention matching the many riverside and seaside towns we have across England; and there of course has to be a city like London, and Wyndon fits the bill with its mixture of high-tech billboards and old fashioned buildings, complete with its own London Eye. This is barely scratching the surface, but the magic of exploring a fictionalised version of the country has made sure Sword & Shield will always have a special place in my heart.

My other favourite thing about Sword & Shield, ignoring the new Pokémon, are the way the Gym battles are handled. Gyms are now treated like tournaments, and every single one is hyped up and given so much more weight in-game than prior ones. Each of the Gym Leaders have unique personalities and many don't stay relegated to their own Gyms, making appearances in the story and helping you along the way. For the first time in the series' 23 year history, I feel like Gym battles actually mean something. Hearing the crowd chant as your opponent is reduced to their last Pokémon is amazing.

While I think Sword & Shield have missed the mark in a couple of areas — Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing feels superfluous, and while I adore running around the Wild Area, I think it could've got a final expansion in the last part of the game — I have really enjoyed losing myself in the world of Galar. It's not my favourite Pokémon game by a long shot, but the magic of this series is not lost on me. I hope The Pokémon Company and Game Freak take a break after Sword & Shield and come back to make a Pokémon game that truly utilizes full console resources.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Exploring in the Tall Grass
Might & Magikarp

I came into the latest Pokémon generation with some hesitation. Of course I was going to buy it. I always do. The entry fee being the cost of purchasing a Nintendo Switch felt steep, but about thirty hours into Pokémon Sword, I can see that my trepidation was wholly unwarranted. I've been craving a mainline game on the big screen for as long as I can remember, and Gen 8 does not disappoint. The interiors of homes are beautifully furnished, a genuine pleasure to explore and take in. Stepping outside is no less impressive, with vast landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. Even locations that are inaccessible in the backgrounds have been lovingly crafted to bring personality and realism into the Galar region. The implementation of Pokémon appearing openly in the field has been a godsend to the series, eliminating some amount of randomness while simultaneously making the world feel more alive. Yet, the random encounters are still there for those who enjoy the elusive hunt. This leads us to battles, which are handled wonderfully. Without the crutch of a second screen for extra details, Game Freak has still crafted an intuitive battle system, with animations that are a delight to witness. However, with all the intricate details for each Pokémon, the controversial "Dexit" situation comes to mind.

Where many have expressed their strong distaste for the lack of a National Pokédex, I find it refreshing. I completely understand the desire to bring your Pokémon from previous generations into this vibrant new world, but I can't be the only one who is starting to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of the National Dex. I applaud Game Freak for starting fresh and utilizing a particular selection out of the entire catalog for us to work with. Even without a complete roster available, there is a certain magic to not knowing which Pokémon you're going to encounter next in Sword and Shield. I still haven't gotten over the excitement of seeing something wholly unexpected pop out of the grass and taunt me to capture it. While I do fully suspect additional Pokémon to be added via future events and patches, I still think we have a pretty good standalone package in Gen 8's initial outing even if this isn't the case.

Despite all that is good about Pokémon's first mainline foray into the console world, there are some growing pains that I sorely hope Game Freak irons out in subsequent patches. By far, my biggest complaint is the lack of a friend list. Where previous generations were able to implement intuitive methods for trading, battling, and exchanging data, my friends and I have experienced plenty of hiccups with the online components of Sword and Shield. Don't get me wrong, Gen 8 makes multiplayer much more fun than it ever has been. Max Raid Battles are extremely enjoyable, and I've spent hours doing them with my buddies. I just want the ability to quickly and efficiently communicate with specific people. So often, someone would start recruiting for a raid or try to start a league card exchange only for one of us to not get a notification about it at all. Or worse still, someone would see the notification, but it would quickly be buried by random chatter and lost.

There is so much more that I would love to talk about regarding these games, but as far as initial impressions go, mine have been overwhelmingly positive and satisfactory. I'll be looking forward to seeing what else Game Freak has in store for us in the near future!

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Exploring the Wild Area
It's... Effective!

Pokémon Sword and Shield are another charming, solidly entertaining iteration of the core Pokémon franchise. The roster of new collectable critters are delightful, the various towns and routes players can explore have never looked better, and the amount of character customization is unprecedented for the series. But with all of that being said, these games have their fair share of growing pains and don't really alter the status quo in any meaningful way: indeed, I would go so far as to say that the games are a step back from the previous generation, Sun and Moon, in many respects.

The story, for one thing, is pretty weak even by the low standards of Pokémon. While I admire the back-to-basics approach and the cohesion of the sports league theme that runs through the game's Gym Challenge (it's a fresh take on a well-worn series trope), the characters and overall narrative aren't nearly as compelling as those seen in other recent entries. Sword and Shield is sorely lacking anything resembling the pathos of N's character arc in Gen 5, the Great Pokémon War story in Gen 6, or the family drama shenanigans of Gen 7. It's fortunate, then, that the land of Galar is as colorful and full of personality as it is, and that the character designs, particularly those of the Gym Leaders, are fantastic. The Galar region is simply fun to explore, which makes up for the lackluster story in some respects.

Gameplay-wise, the Pokémon formula remains as enticing as ever. Despite the much-maligned cuts to the available roster of Pokémon (which was inevitable, given that there are over 800 of these bloody things now!), you're bound to find some new favorites in Galar. I'm especially fond of Toxtricity, an Electric/Poison-type whose appearance changes depending on its Nature. Having the Move Tutor/Deleter present in every Pokémon center is a gift from Arceus, as it makes customizing your Pokémon's moveset much easier.

If I have any criticisms of the game proper, they would stem from the Wild Area, a wide-open space where players can explore freely and find rare Pokémon. Running around and engaging in multiplayer raid battles is a lot of fun, but if the player connects to the Internet in the Wild Area (allowing other players to appear in their game), be prepared for some serious framerate drops. Running through a sea of low-resolution textures as players and Pokémon blip in and out of existence at 10 frames per second certainly isn't the next-generation experience many Pokémon fans were hoping for. I'm also not a big fan of how Gigantamaxing, which grants certain Pokémon new forms and abilities upon Dynamaxing, is locked behind catching specific Pokémon in Max Raid Battles. While it makes sense from a lore perspective, it's a little frustrating to raise a bunch of Pokémon caught in the wild only to discover that they won't be able to realize their full potential.

Ultimately, these are relatively minor complaints about what is otherwise a solid Pokémon adventure (that, I stress, I'm having quite a bit of fun with!), but one can't help but wonder what Game Freak might achieve if they took a break from Pokémon. I don't think anyone would disagree when I say that we don't need one of these every year. Sword and Shield cuts corners to deliver an experience on par with its handheld predecessors, but if Game Freak went on vacation for a while, maybe Generation 9 could be the leap forward the series needs.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Morpeko Is Angry
Swing and a Missingno.

Pokémon Sword and Shield are not the greatest Pokémon games ever made. In fact, they might be a mainline series low point. The first half of the main story features environments devoid of personality, NPCs lacking unique qualities, and a game that overall feels plastic and half-baked. Some of the Pokémon designs are simply hideous. (Like the fossils. Great in concept, the English put the bones of different dinosaurs together and called it a day, but Lord did they get walloped with the ugly stick.) Dyna/Gigantamaxing make these Pokémon feel like hollow balloons, massive creatures propped up in scale but not heart. In many ways, it's a representation of the game. It doesn't come close to the innovation of Gen 2's Pokémon, the impact of Gen 5's story, or the magic of Gen 4's revolutionary online features.

However, the core gameplay loop of this franchise is so enticing that I am still having a great time with it. I have found some Pokémon of the 8th generation that I find fantastic (Perrserker! Hatterene! Mr. Rime!) and I am excited to get back to the battles and tournaments that I love so dearly. And with some of the streamlining present here, it is my sincere hope that more people can get into the complex brilliance of the competitive Pokémon scene.

The diminished Pokédex is a shame, the loss of Z-Moves and Mega Evolutions is unfortunate and ultimately, Sword and Shield feel like the most incomplete games in this nearly-25-year-old behemoth. As someone who has played somewhere in the ballpark of 2500 hours of this series over their life (about 1/4th of that being in White, surprisingly), I can't help but feel a little disappointed. There are many great ideas here, and this first small misstep into the world of a flagship Pokémon game on a somewhat home console is still terrific fun. I've been playing Pokémon for 20 of my now 24 trips around the Sun, and I imagine I will be for my next 20 as well... given that we don't all go the way of Galarian Corsola in that time.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Sirfetch'd Looking Majestic
Fighting / Fantasy

There are two chief reasons I love Pokémon: the fantasy of Pokémon's world, and the mechanics of Pokémon as a game.

The fantasy of Pokémon has never been stronger than in Sword & Shield. Seeing Grookey, Scorbunny, and Sobble playing together briefly before you choose one for your team is jaw-dropping: Pokémon starters have never looked cuter and seeing Pokémon interact in this way is unprecedented in the main-series RPGs. The giant Pokémon battle stadiums, treating Gym Leaders like celebrity professional athletes and challengers like the player-character as promising rookies; the field areas, with wild Pokémon wandering around and interacting with you in camp. I love so much of these new features. I hope every Pokémon game going forward has them.

Then you have Pokémon as a game. There are a lot of great gameplay changes made for player convenience (manipulating Pokémon move sets has never been easier) and I appreciate nearly all of them. Controversially, Pokémon Sword+Shield lack the full cadre of 890 Pokémon to catch, instead totalling 400. This is still a staggering number of monsters across two versions, but I'm a little disappointed that a few of my past favorites are unavailable (mostly thinking of Breloom and a handful of starters). The lack of Mega Evolution and Z-Moves from the previous two generations is also a bummer, and the replacement system of Gigantimaxing doesn't feel as unique or customizable. These disappointments are well-documented by the Pokémon community, to an unpleasant extreme. It's fine to be frustrated or upset by these changes and absences, but the less said about how the most outspoken fans have behaved the past few months, the better.

But Pokémon Sword & Shield is still classic Pokémon, and this is an excellent Pokémon game. Even if it feels incomplete or not as content-rich as a few of the DS and 3DS games, Sword & Shield are beautiful RPGs with remarkable breadth and depth, and a few of the new Pokémon designs are awesome. I love my monkey drummer, metallic elephant, and chivalrous duck dearly, and my jaw dropped when I first saw the apple pie dragon. Pokémon Sword and Shield create the collectors' and pet owners' fantasy of the series better than ever, but there is still more ground to cover in Pokémon's 8th generation. It'll come in the sequel.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Yamper at Camp
Grookey is Enjoying the Calm Air!

Geez, do I wish I could earn real-life EXP from eating curry.

One of the most notable things about my time with Sword so far is how little I've advanced in the actual main story because I've been spending way too much time camping and sending my Pokémon out to work helping various Galarian employers. I may only have one gym badge so far (thanks, work), but my Pokémon trust me and I sure do make a delicious pot of...dry apple curry!?

Immediately I felt the camping mechanic to be a pretty logical mechanism to improve inter-Pokémon bonds and Pokémon-Trainer bonds. You as the trainer basically have free reign at the campsite and can speak to single or multiple Pokémon in your party or use a bouncy ball or some approximation of a fluffy cat toy to entertain them. It's clear that no small amount of effort went into creating this space in game, and there is a surprising level of detail, from the way the different Pokémon move and carry things to the variety of things they'll "say" when you speak to them. I may have put a Wooloo named Aziraphale and a Corvisquire called Crowley together in my party so I could attempt to make them friends. Doesn't get much more British Galarian than Crowley and Aziraphale. You even get experience points for both camping and eating, meaning you could spend some time this way and have all your Pokémon become stronger instead of remaining hidden in a digital box forever. My point is, this is a new way of interacting with the party, and I'm here for it. Especially since they all seem to be so appreciative of the time I took to shake trees, collect berries, and the selection I put into my curries.

There's a nice little throughline between camping and the setting of Galar itself, as you find campers along the road sometimes and are able to take your party leader to visit their camp. (Look, random trainer in the Eevee PJs, I am sorry my Vulpix was afraid of you.) You can camp and cook with friends in the Wild Area too; I think this increases the cohesiveness of the setting and makes the game way more accessible for players that may need help from friends or a little EXP boost. It makes Galar more like a real place, and the Job system does this to an even larger extent.

Jobs are the single best way to avoid Pokémon purgatory, and you get to see the tasks that really matter to the local Galarian businesses. I didn't know I wanted food delivered by flying Pokémon or that Fairy types are great for helping create whimsical fashion designs, but I'll buy it. Jobs are also yet another way to close experience gaps or allow people who would otherwise have difficulty in on the fun. And a world where Pokémon can return with pride in their work and rewards in the form of both EXP and items to share with the Trainer and everyone at camp (hopefully)...seems kind of great, actually.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Remake Screenshot - Trainer Fresh from Getting Haircut
Stoutland Pride

I should start off by saying that I have not beaten the game yet, not even close. As I have been streaming Pokémon Shield on my Twitch channel, I have been getting through the game even slower than the already admittedly glacial pace at which I normally play games. That being said, I don't feel like my feelings about Pokémon Sword and Shield are going to change very drastically as I progress further.

Pokémon Shield, for me, has been a joyous experience. I've been taken back to my childhood days where Pokémon was full of mystery and wonder. This is helped a lot by the fact I purposefully avoided all media about the game prior to its release. After Pokémon Sun and Moon, where I gobbled up every spoiler I could prior to release only to find the game devoid of surprises, I vowed to never again rob myself of the innocence of Pokémon.

I simply adore the new starters. Each have their merits, and I would not be shocked at anyone's choice, as I found it seriously difficult to settle (though I did eventually pick Sobble who is currently going through his Emo phase). So far my favourite improved aspect has been the scale and spectacle of the Gym battles. Packed stadiums, absolutely banging music and 50 foot tall kaiju Arcanines just make this Pokémon staple feel so much more epic. Not to mention the plethora of quality of life changes that apparently were introduced in Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee but I'm glad stuck around, such as being able to access the Pokémon Box anywhere and flying to any town just by clicking on it in the Town Map.

Yes, I am loving this new entry into the Pokémon series so far. I was also excited to see what they would do to bring to life the "British" inspiration that Galar drew from. To be honest, it might be my biggest negative on it thus far. While the game does indeed have a multitude of English references and slang, I see very little of the things that I can relate with as a Scottish person. So often in media things that are quintessentially English are applied across the whole of the UK whilst the other three countries just have to shrug their shoulders and accept that, sure, I guess technically it is a British thing. Technically. Though perhaps I'll find a little Scottish village later in the game.

I don't feel like Pokémon Sword and Shield is a far departure from Sun and Moon. Instead, it's just another logical progression for a well loved and iconic series. I truly believe that when it comes to Pokémon your mindset and your willingness to let go of your preconceptions of what Pokémon SHOULD be and not what it IS will dictate how much enjoyment you get. For me, that meant going in totally blind and I don't regret it one bit.

RPGFan