Pokémon Sword and Shield are finally here, and quite fittingly for the variation's monikers this time around, their arrival has come with conflict.
Sword and Shield comprise the first mainline entries in the long-running series to debut on a home console (settle down, "Switch is actually a handheld/console hybrid" pedants), and as such there are elevated (and differing) expectations around it. Some players have been upset that it lacks the "National Pokédex" that let users import hundreds of Pokémon from previous games into new installments during the franchise's run as a portable exclusive franchise. Others simply expected the series to take a larger leap forward. Plenty of others seem perfectly happy with what Sword and Shield are offering.
Those varying expectations can be seen reflected in the first wave of reviews. In her 9.3 out of 10 review for IGN, Casey DeFreitas seems perfectly pleased with how the game turned out.
"With every new game in this 23-year-old series, changes big and small are always made, but I've never been willing to declare the latest entry the new gold standard for Pokémon because they've consistently been a balance of better and worse," DeFreitas said. "But the first mainline game on the Switch has changed that: though there is still no 'perfect Pokémon game,' the 40-plus hours I've spent with Sword and Shield have left me comfortable with calling them the best Pokémon games I have ever played - and I've played 'em all."
One particular innovation that impressed DeFreitas (and a number of other reviewers) was the Wild Area, a semi-open-world section of the game that let players explore the Galar region with changing weather, rare Pokémon and items, and four-on-one Max Raid battles, which will be an online multiplayer option when the game launches.
"This is the same old song and dance we've seen for the past 23 years, but Sword and Shield roll out some immediate, noticeable changes that make the whole thing just... better"
"All of this flux and dynamic change made me want to revisit the Wild Area often, with each new day and after every new Gym Badge I earned," DeFreitas said. "This natural, voluntary urge to dive back in also meant I seamlessly leveled up appropriately on accident, not because I went out of my way to grind. It gave progression through Sword and Shield a more balanced and smooth feeling than most Pokémon games."
DeFreitas also praised a number of time-saving changes in the game, such as the ability to skip tutorials, the elimination of random encounters, and a more convenient fast travel system.
"Sword and Shield manage to fix all of these problems while leaving Pokémon's signature charm not just intact, but enhanced by the Switch's huge graphical leap over the 3DS. I never want to go back. All of this is the same old song and dance we've seen for the past 23 years, but Sword and Shield roll out some immediate, noticeable changes that make the whole thing just... better."
In her 9 out of 10 review for GameSpot, Kallie Plagge praised Sword and Shield as the best new generation of Pokémon in years, similarly highlighting the developers' streamlining efforts.
"In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokémon games so captivating in the first place," Plagge said. "You're not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokémon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokémon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series' proper debut on Switch."
On the other end of the spectrum, Eurogamer's Chris Tapsell called the game "a shadow of a former great" in his unscored review.
"This is a new generation of Pokémon games that promises much, with brilliant new Pokémon, a raft of intricate system-tinkering for long-term fans and a series-first stab at an 'open-world' area. But all that's new seems to have come at a cost -- and the cost is almost everything else in the game."
"...an astonishing lack of complexity, texture, and flavour in almost every place where you'd usually find it in every Pokémon game that's come before"
While Tapsell notes the lack of a National Pokédex as an issue, he adds it is a minor one, like a lack of backward compatibility in a new console even when you likely weren't going to use the feature much anyway.
"The real problem with Pokémon Sword and Shield lies much deeper, or rather where that depth ought to be," Tapsell added. "There is far more than a whiff of troubled development to these games, brought about by an astonishing lack of complexity, texture, and flavour in almost every place where you'd usually find it in every Pokémon game that's come before."
To that end, he notes things like attention-grabbing buildings that are either inaccessible or empty, and a climactic battle sequence that lacked music.
In a 3 star (out of 5) review for VG24/7, Alex Donaldson called Sword and Shield "a game split right down the middle," with specific aspects of it impressing and disappointing in quick succession.
"Sometimes those battle scenes take place in gorgeous little dioramas that represent the areas you're in, with rolling hills and charming British-inspired architecture that really seems to take advantage of the Switch," Donaldson said. "The flip side is that many battles also take place in a sort of nightmare void - a patch of coloured ground with little to no other background detail...
"Some cutscenes look the best Pokémon ever has. Characters gesture, camera angles swish about - and then in others, canned animations play out in a way that looks a bit like a first draft, a version of the scene designed to set the camera blocking and little else."
Even so, Donaldson ultimately enjoyed the game quite a bit.
"Pokémon Sword & Shield is all too often a bit disappointing, and in some places actually feels a little unfinished, but it also fully provides that warm, fuzzy feeling that one expects from the series... It comes recommended almost for the Galar setting and new Pokémon alone, but with a long list of caveats indeed. With the level of fan hyperbole surrounding this release, that recommendation is worth repeating and underscoring - but this is not the revolution that was promised or hoped for, and some may prefer to wait for a sale or wait and see if an improved, definitive release is on the cards."
In a preliminary review impressions piece for USgamer, Nadia Oxford said the game was probably her favorite Pokémon game yet, even though it may disappoint anyone hoping for a significant "next-gen" leap.
"Game Freak does its patented and baffling 'Two Steps Forward, One Step Back' approach to game development with Sword and Shield," Oxford said. "As usual, Game Freak giveth, and Game Freak taketh away, and it clearly has no big plans to upend the norm just because Pokémon's moved over to Switch. Take it or leave it."
While there wasn't much of a consensus among the critics, we can wrap this up with a sort of median assessment from Game Informer's Brian Shea and his 8.75 out of 10 review, which noted strengths and frustrations, but ultimately struck a positive tone.
"Pokémon Sword & Shield are strong first attempts for the series' full transition to consoles," Shea said. "While some frustrations hold it back from true legendary status, this new generation proves the Pokémon franchise is still great more than two decades after its debut."