Getting my initial biases out of the way, Pokémon has been a big part of my life ever since I was a kid. I’ll fully admit to having that region of the brain that reminds me of each Pokémon at those common points in the day when I need to remember Bergmite. Even though I’m not as into the series as I once was, I still pay attention when a new region is released. Thus, we come to Pokémon Shield, one half of the newest generation of Pokémon. It should go without saying that aside from a few exclusive Pokémon and battles, this game is almost identical to Pokémon Sword. Really, it comes down to preference whichever one you prefer. Shield was just the one I went with.
I will also preface this by addressing the heavily controversial “dexit” situation, in which many Pokémon were removed from the complete roster. I’ll give sympathy to those who see this as a dealbreaker, though I’ll admit that I don’t entirely agree with this stance. There are almost 1000 different Pokémon species and forms at this point. It’s understandable that many of them won’t be available at the current moment. I have a notion that with the Pokémon Home service opening up, they will gradually add compatibility with other Pokémon from past generations. Perhaps this is a bit naive of me to make this claim, but I just never saw this as a dealbreaker to the game. Given my approach to playing new generations with forming teams made completely of new Pokémon, I can’t say it threw a wrench into my playstyle. With that out of the way, on to the review proper.
The game follows a traditional Pokémon plot, in which you are a plucky young trainer living in the Galar region, ready to tackle the Gym Challenge. For this, you’ll have to fight eight different gym leaders, each with different Pokémon and strategies. Once they’re defeated, you’ll have to take on the champion, Leon. On your way, you’ll have to contend with a villainous team, numerous rivals, and a mystery surrounding the origins of the region.
It doesn’t do a whole ton to really set itself apart from the previous games in terms of this story. In fact, the overarching plot surrounding the mysteries of Galar and the circumstances of its founding is rather simple, all things considered. There’s no greater message on ideological arguments or commentary on humanity, which may seem like a pretty weird thing to complain about in a Pokémon game. Even compared to the other plots, it’s rather barebones. The research into Galar’s past is mostly in the background for most of the adventure until around the last gym or so. Even then, the twists it takes are fairly obvious and rather dull. Rather than feeling like I was saving the region from some grandiose threat, I felt like I was just taking a detour on my way to the top.
This was all made up for by the characters. Each rival you have brings a unique personality and arc into the fray. Your childhood friend and Leon’s brother, Hop, seems like just the regular weak and loud rival. But as the plot goes in, his personality begins to hide some very interesting traits regarding his relationship with his brother. Marnie is a newcomer with a fairly large following who seemed like she would be cold and distant. She later warms up to the player and has some very nice interactions with them. Finally, Bede is a complete departure from these two, being arrogant and self-important, and this personality remains for the rest of the game. I won’t spoil where his arc takes him, but while I thought he was a bit one-note at times, I still thought his story had a satisfying conclusion.
Along with this, the other significant characters are very enjoyable. The gym leaders all show a lot of personality, with almost each of them getting in my good graces. Even as I complain about how I didn’t like the storyline exploring the mysteries of Galar, I enjoyed interacting with the woman looking into them, Sonia. The only exception to this character rule is Chairman Rose. He’s given a fair deal of significant coverage as the game goes on, and the game attempt to give him an interesting outlook on his business and his goals. However, he never really clicked for me and was so basic in his writing that I just never really clicked with him. Still, I guess overall, while the story isn’t too amazing, the characters help make up for it.
In case you’ve never played a Pokémon game, here’s a quick and rough summary. You and an opponent use up to six Pokémon to fight each other. Pokémon have types, and four moves with their own types. Types have a rock-paper-scissors setup, where certain types of attacks will be useful on certain Pokémon, usually by using a bit of logic (Water douses fires, bugs eat leaves, it’s hard to punch birds, etc.). Whoever defeats all of the enemy’s Pokémon wins and gets experience points. If a Pokémon gets enough experience, they level up, potentially learning new moves or even evolving into a stronger Pokémon. You can catch wild Pokémon by weakening them in battle and then catching them in a Pokéball.
Looking at the roster of Pokémon in this game, I’ll say that the returning ones seem fitting. A bit of me wonders why staple lines like Geodude and Zubat didn’t make the cut when Binacle made the cut (and I forget that Binacle exists on a daily basis), but there are still plenty of Pokémon that I enjoyed seeing return.
In a new generation, I like to stick primarily to new Pokémon, and the roster was incredibly strong this time around. Not every one was a hit, but the ones that stood out did so in an amazing way. I tried finding ways to include different Pokémon on my team, and by the end I was struggling to find ways to fit all of the Pokémon I wanted to use on my team while also avoiding doubling up on types. Of note, I really liked this region’s take on an early game bug, Orbeetle, which was a fusion of a UFO and a ladybug and was able to help a lot early game with its access to barrier moves. I also love the gentle dragon, Appletun. The idea of an apple-dragon with a hide that was textured like a pie is ingenious, but I think I was more drawn in by them being an absolute lovable dork that I just wanted to hug. In addition, older Pokémon return in new Galarian forms, changing their types and abilities while still retaining a similar appearance to their old design. Unlike the previous entry, Sword and Shield feature Galarian forms of Pokémon from all different regions. There are some classic reimaginings of Pokémon from Red and Blue, but even Pokémon from Unova get some interesting new designs. I’m not a huge fan of the weird flounder, Stunfisk, but seeing it brought back and revamped into essentially a bear trap got my eye.
New to this game is the ability to Dynamax a Pokémon, letting them grow in size and unleash simple yet powerful versions of their existing moves. There are only a handful of battles that use these, with most of them being a part of the gym challenge. A few Pokémon also have the ability to engage a Gigantamax form, altering their appearance and granting them an exclusive move. This was a novel concept, and its restrictions to certain battles helped balance it out when compared to past gimmicks like Mega Evolution and Z-Moves. There’s also a subtle bit of strategy, since both Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing only lasts three turns, and you can only do it to a single Pokémon per battle. It was decently engaging, and there were plenty of times that while I thought my Dynamax could easily wreck house, it was taken out by a regular Pokémon. There aren’t any cases where I’d feel like the mechanic was overpowered, though against simpler teams and setups, it can be very one-sided.
I found the games occupied an interesting sweet spot in terms of difficulty. I was able to completely breeze past the first gym, though this was in part due to the fact it was a Grass gym and I was training a Fire type and a Bug type. But the second gym took two tries for me to beat, and my success was not only due to my last Pokémon of a full team of six, but it was only barely able to squeak by. I never lost too many battles, but I felt that I kept having to adapt to each new gym. This wasn’t always the case, as there were still some gym battles that offered little in terms of challenge. In a series where I normally have to impose handicaps on myself to create a sense of challenge, it was refreshing to find a properly engaging sense of difficulty.
While players can just follow the typical routes and capture Pokémon that way, they can also explore the Wild Area. This is a vast open area with full camera controls, where the player can travel around a fully connected world and capture a variety of Pokémon. It seems to rotate out depending on the weather and time of day, but it always felt like every adventure into the Wild Area helped me find something new. There are also Pokémon that are far stronger than you, and while you can technically take them down, you can’t catch them due to the large discrepancy in levels.
The Wild Area also allows you to interact with players online, whether it be trading, battling, or participating in special Dynamax raids, where you and three other players fight a massive wild Pokémon. This is an aspect I’m not too keen on, as while you can connect with dozens of people online, I found it a bit cumbersome just to trade with someone sitting next to me. The Wild Area also clearly wasn’t prepared to handle a large group of people, as this was the only time when I consistently saw frames drop. I played in local mode for the most part, meaning I wasn’t connected to the online servers. Iit also meant that I had to rely on the AI for Dynamax raids, and since your group has a limited number of faints before you lose the battle, it can get annoying when I’m trying to defeat an incredibly powerful Pokémon, and they keep accurately deciding that it is far easier to knock me out by KO-ing my ally’s Magikarp for the fourth time in a row.
The Wild Area also lets you take a breather and set up camp. There, you can interact with your Pokémon or heal everyone up by cooking some curry. The cooking was interesting, though a bit simplistic. Camping was a novel distraction, but honestly, my favorite part of it was just watching my Pokémon interact with each other. I enjoyed watching my Cinderace and Appletun race each other, and how despite Cinderace easily beating them every time, they’d still encourage Appletun. I liked seeing the subtle rivalries form between my Pokemon, how they blossomed into friendships, and how, like me, none of them were sure how to feel about Stunfisk. It’s rather simple, but it really put me back in the shoes of my 8-year old self, playing Emerald for the first time and making personalities for my whole team.
The graphics are, in a word, good. The environments were nice and the models were fairly detailed and expressive. Animations were alright, though there were some that seemed rather stilted in the overworld. The only ones I feel noteworthy enough, though, are the move animations, which can be hit or miss depending on the move and the ‘Mon. On one hand, a lot of animations are very well done, especially for new moves and signature moves (with my favorite animation easily going to Pyro Ball). However, some of the older moves still have some rather awkward animations. I cannot decide if I find it humorous or disappointing that my Raboot used Headbutt by kicking the opponent. Still, I’ll admit some of these older animations are getting tiring.
One area I will not complain about is the music. Pokémon continues to have some wonderfully enjoyable tracks that help calm you down when arriving in a town while exciting you whenever a battle begins. The instrumentation seems a lot more digital this time around, but there are still plenty of orchestrated pieces, and a number even feature the sounds of a crowd chanting. Fittingly, these tend to happen during gym battles, giving them the feel of true sportslike events. Easily, my favorite themes were Bede’s encounter and battle themes, Sonia’s theme, and the Battle Tower’s theme (though that might be because it was composed by Toby Fox, the creator and composer of Undertale).
Sword and Shield (but for this review, Shield) are Pokémon games for the Nintendo Switch. It doesn’t reinvent the series, but not many of them really do. For what it is, it’s an enjoyable experience that adds plenty of memorable new Pokémon and NPCs to the ever-growing roster of the series. It delivers on some very entertaining gameplay and some remarkable difficulty in some areas. This comes at the cost of those characters playing out a barebones story, along with some performance issues when connecting online. It’s still an enjoyable adventure, and I can see myself returning to Galar in the future, possibly for some challenge runs. Still, I’ll fully admit that if you’re not already into Pokémon, or have been burnt out by a lot of the past games, I don’t really know if this one will pull you back in. On the other hand, if you’re already a huge fan, or are interested in giving the series a shot, I would argue that this might be one of the best entry points.
Matthew Huddleston is a Game Design major with a minor in Interactive Narrative. He lives in Massachusetts, and is currently working on a small platformer about plants. When not working on games, he is typically writing, walking, or playing with his Airedale terrier, Greta.