Nintendo is back with “Pokémon Sword” (2019) and “Pokémon Shield” (2019), the latest installments in the iconic role-playing game series. The eighth generation games have already seen plenty of success; they’re the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch games ever, with 6 million copies sold in their launch weekend alone. And despite the games’ release being clouded with negative criticism toward their graphics and the lack of the National Pokédex, the “Sword” and “Shield” games are fun, fantastic and bring to life everything that makes playing Pokémon enjoyable.
The games follow a relatively simple plot — gone are the days of the thrillingly intricate stories of games like “Diamond” (2006) and “Pearl” (2006) and “Black 2” (2012) and “White 2” (2012) — but the storyline works well for what it is, putting the emphasis on battling in a way that’s never been seen in the games before. “Sword and Shield” does away with the Elite Four and makes the Gym challenge similar to the animation series; it’s all about rivals, and the games present the player with a variety of them to battle. From the overly ambitious Hop — the younger brother of Leon, who is the currently unbeatable Galar region Champion — to the mean-spirited Bede and the beloved Marnie, the player has plenty of characters to battle against.
The focus on battling is certainly fun, but some of these battles can be a little too easy. Indeed, “Sword” and “Shield” might thrive from more challenging gameplay. The best way to accomplish this would be the inclusion of a difficulty setting, akin to the Challenge Mode from “Black 2” and “White 2,” which raised the levels of rival Pokémon, gave Gym leaders extra Pokémon with items and new moves, and satisfied fans who didn’t want to breeze through the game.
The new villainous team is Team Yell, a group of obnoxious supporters of Marnie, and the player must navigate both the Gym challenge and the discovery of Galar’s legends regarding two heroes, the Darkest Day and the Dynamax and Gigantamax phenomenon. Dynamax and Gigantamax are two of the most exciting gameplay ideas that the series has implemented, arguably much more appealing than the Mega Evolutions introduced in “X” (2013) and “Y” (2013).
And with the focus on battling and gyms, there’s also an emphasis on building the perfect team. “Sword” and “Shield” faced controversy when it was announced that the games would not feature all preexisting Pokémon — a decision that was certainly looming, especially as the number of Pokémon gets closer to 1,000. While it’s upsetting that some favorite choices are not available in the Galar region, the push to “Bring Back the National Dex” has exploded, leading to thousands of angry tweets, petitions and boycotts.
Despite this controversy, “Sword” and “Shield” thrives. The available Pokémon are certainly varied enough to allow for every player to build a complex team. Some of the newer Pokémon designs are the most innovative since “Diamond” and “Pearl”; Pokémon like Inteleon (the final evolution of water-type starter Sobble), the fiery centipede Centiskorch and Hatterene all show that while the number of new Pokémon introduced in recent games is smaller — 81 new Pokémon in “Sword” and “Shield” and 13 regional exclusives of preexisting Pokémon — there are plenty of exciting options and innovative creations.
The games follow their predecessors “Sun” (2016) and “Moon” (2016) in releasing these region-exclusive Pokémon. While some of the exclusives in “Sun” and “Moon” are quite strange — the extremely long-necked Exeggutor isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing — “Sword” and “Shield” provide interesting revisits to previous Pokémon, like the majestically beautiful Ponyta and the unicorn Rapidash. It’s a reminder that the series will always find a way to bring new ideas and designs to the games. While “Sun” and “Moon” might have made some questionable choices in its revisionism of previous Pokémon, “Sword” and “Shield” are much stronger releases.
“Sword” and “Shield” thrive on beautiful graphics, but certain elements could have used a little more detail. Some of the moves used in battling can be awkward to watch, like when Cinderace (the final evolution of Fire type starter Scorbunny) barely jumps to use a move like Double Kick. It’s certainly easy to criticize moments like this, but it should also serve as a reminder of just how far the series’ graphics and gameplay have come and that some of the biggest complaints regarding graphics are merely about a Pokémon’s jump. The Switch is the perfect console for the next generation of Pokémon games for this very reason: when noticing the details in cities and on routes in “Sword” and “Shield,” it’s impossible not to be awestruck by just how beautiful it all is.
The towns are large, with multiple detailed and intricate locations for the player to enter. Inarguably, one of the most gorgeous towns in the entire Pokémon series is Ballonlea, which features various tall mushrooms that glow bright colors and brighten when touched. Other cities, like Hammerlocke, are heavily influenced by British architecture and culture — Galar seems to take inspiration from Great Britain, much like “Sun” and “Moon” were influenced by Hawaii. The in-game music is some of the best in years, with places like the Boutique featuring absolute bops. One of the most exciting new features is camping with Pokémon — players can set up a campsite, cook curry and play with their team.
When it comes to balanced and fun Pokémon games, no games hit the mark like “Sword” and “Shield.” While they might have their drawbacks — the National Pokédex is certainly something that needs to be thought about for future Pokémon games, and it might be nice to return to a more complex plot and gameplay that’s just a little more polished — they’re an excellent installment in the franchise, and certainly the best installment since “Black 2” and “White 2.” The games show that there’s still plenty of room for the Pokémon franchise to grow, and after nearly 24 years since the first games, that’s very promising news.