The Pokémon series has made the “switch” to the Nintendo Switch with the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield this past November. Although Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee were the first Pokémon games on the Switch, this marks the first time a mainline entry to the series released on this console. In Pokémon Sword and Shield, you explore the brand-new Galar region, which is home to about 80 new Pokémon species. I have been covering the news for Pokémon Sword and Shield since its announcement in February, and the games promised to feature both anticipated and contested changes that I wanted to examine as a lifelong Pokémon fan. To my delight, I found Pokémon Sword and Shield to be just as amazing as I’d hoped.

The most important part of any new Pokémon game is, of course, the new Pokémon. I had loved the creativity of the designs revealed in the trailers, and the rest of the Pokédex did not disappoint. Each of the Pokémon have so many neat little things that make them really special. A lot of Pokémon have “moving parts,” like bbeing able to catch and weaponize a fish. Another new Pokémon, named, Dragapult literally shoot its babies out of its head. These elements give the new Pokémon so much character. Many of the new Pokémon also play to the idea that Galar is based on England. For example, seeing massive amount of the sheep-like Wooloos roaming around the countryside while being chased by Yamper is a charcuterie of corgis, historically used to herd sheep in the English countryside. Even the crazy half-and-half fossil Pokémon of Galar are a reference to the strange paleontology mishaps in Britian’s history.  I was initially disappointed with how few new Pokémon Galar had (less than 100 new Pokémon, not including forms), but after meeting all the new Pokémon I think the uniqueness and fun little bits of them definitely makes up for the number. Like every longtime fan of the series, I am still a bit upset about Pokémon being cut from the game entirely, but it seems that Game Freak is adamant on their decision going forward. In the end, I found the new Pokémon so fun and special that I stopped missing the Pokémon I couldn’t get.

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Dragapult not only keeps its babies in its horns, it also gets a move that lets it shoot them as projectiles, which makes it the best Pokémon ever.

The Pokémon designs aren’t the most unique part of Pokémon Sword and Shield, however. These games are the first main series Pokémon games to feature an open-world, free-camera area. Called the Wild Area, it is full of Pokémon of all different species and levels, including ones much higher than your team. The level of the Pokémon you can catch is limited by how many Gym Badges you have. These high-level Pokémon make exploring the Wild Area an adventure that will keep you on your toes. However, once you become the Champion, all the Pokémon in the Wild Area’s levels are set to 60, which I felt like removed some of the fun I had with encountering Pokémon of all different strengths. Furthermore, once you can fully explore the Wild Area, it’s clear that it is not actually a very big area at all. Still, I’m really hoping that we will see more free-camera locations in future Pokémon games.

Both the Wild Area and the routes in Sword and Shield have the same kinds of Pokémon encounters: a mix of random grass encounters with overworld Pokémon spawns. I thought the style of the Pokémon encounters worked really well. It keeps the random encounter system longtime fans are used to while also getting to liven up the world with wild Pokémon, like in Let’s Go. Thankfully, there’s a limit to how many overworld Pokémon there can be, which makes the maps feel less cluttered and offers players a way to actually avoid encounters if they don’t want to battle.

Since the Wild Area is largely uninhabited by humans and without a Pokémon Center in sight, Trainers are encouraged to camp with their Pokémon, which can both restore their energy and give Trainers a chance to interact with their Pokémon. Camp is a new way to interact with your Pokémon, and a different glimpse into how they interact with each other. It can be cute or even hilarious at times. I love watching my Pokémon interact with each other as well as their toys, and how each one has their own personality. Some of my Pokémon love to plat fetch and will steal the ball away from others if they see them playing with it. Some simply find their teammates weird and just keep to themselves.

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My Rapidash really loves to play fetch!

While camping, you can also cook curry with berries and other ingredients for your Pokémon to enjoy. I’ve still yet to make all the kinds of curry that you can make, as there are over a hundred different kinds. Making curry is slightly interactive as well, with the Trainer fanning the flames underneath the cooking pot and stirring the contents in order to complete the dish. Cooking for your Pokémon heals them and makes them friendlier towards you, so it’s beneficial to cook for your Pokémon (and hey, it’s also just adorable).

Since Pokémon Camp features new ways for your Pokémon to interact with both you and each other, it means some have newer animations. I was really impressed with the animations and behaviors of the Pokémon in Camp. In fact, I found Sword and Shield’s graphics overall gorgeous to look at. The Pokémon models may be reused, but they are finally in a high enough resolution to lose the clunky lineart that the 3DS models had. I also noticed some new animations on some older Pokémon , like how Mantine now waves his antennae around when he enters a battle. The only time I’ve had a small bit of lag was online in the Wild Area, which I expected since that is the time you can see where the other players online are. The game doesn’t even lag with the Dynamax Pokémon, which impressed me quite a bit, as Dynamaxing is the newest battle gimmick in the Pokémon series.

Dynamax Pokémon are essentially, very big Pokémon. The Dynamaxed Pokémon get a power boost to their moves and more HP than your average Pokémon, but it only lasts for three turns. Even with the power boost, it’s actually not impossible to defeat a Dynamaxed Pokémon with one that isn’t, so players can choose whether or not to utilize the new feature. Dynamax Pokémon show up in specific spots in the Wild Area. To take down these Pokémon, trainers can team up with three other trainers (which can be either real people or computer-controlled) to challenge thee Dynamax Pokémon in a Max Raid Battle. In these, trainers bring one Pokémon each and take turns attacking the Dynamax Pokémon to weaken it enough to capture. Players get other rewards too, like Bottle Caps (for Hyper Training your Pokémon’s IVs), Technical Records (items that can be used to teach Pokémon powerful moves), or treasures to be sold for money.

Max Raid battles are the best new feature in Sword and Shield. I love the idea of being able to play with other people cooperatively rather than competitively. Most of my time with the game was spent doing Max Raid Battles with my family. Max Raids work the best when you have all real people instead of the computer trainers. The computer trainers are, frankly, terrible. Their Pokémon don’t really get any stronger as the Raid’s difficulty increases, meaning all the computer Pokémon get taken out in one or two hits. Max Raid Battles end when a certain amount of turns pass, or when the Pokémon in the fight are defeated a total of four times, so these pathetically weak Pokémon you’re stuck raiding with often can be the downfall of even a skilled Trainer trying to solo a raid. Other than this scaling issue of the computer Pokémon for solo raiding, Max Raid Battles are a really fun way to battle and catch Pokémon with others, and an easier way to get rare and powerful Pokémon.

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Doing a Frosmoth raid with other players.

Some Pokémon can take special forms when they Dynamax, which is then called Gigantamaxing. Only special Pokémon caught in Max Raid Battles or given as gifts can achieve this ultimate form. From a design standpoint, these forms are very well done, and often incorporate elements of the Pokémon and expand on it for an absolutely ridiculous hyperbole effect (Gengar’s Gigantamax form being just a huge mouth, or Alcremie becoming a full cake, for example). From a gameplay standpoint, however, I feel like these forms are honestly a bit unnecessary. I also have two major problems with Gigantamax Pokémon. The first problem is that, unlike Mega Evolutions, a past way to change a Pokémon’s appearance and strength, there is a three-turn limit on Gigantamax Pokémon staying in that form, and a location limit. These downsides severely limit the cool factor of them. It’s very hard to find, let alone capture, a Gigantamaxed Pokémon, and you can only use it for three turns in a very specific spot. There’s almost no point. My second problem with them stems from capturing them.  If you want to use a Gigantamax Pokémon, you have to catch it as an evolved Pokémon in the wild. However, Gigantamax Pokémon Max Raids feel nearly impossible to find. As it stands now, pretty much the only way to find the non-event Gigantamax Pokémon raids is to be online, and that costs money with the Nintendo Switch Online subscription, and the raids also either fill up instantly or boot you for connection problems. And even if you do find or get into these extremely rare and difficult raids, the Pokémon have such a low catch rate that you’re almost never going to get one, and then you have to wait for another one to come up or be lucky online.

Speaking of online, the Sword and Shield online play has the potential to be very good. Its hindrance is from connectivity problems and the overall setup, not features. It’s difficult to play online with your friends rather than strangers. The newest idea is the “Link Code” feature, which allows you to lock your interactions behind a code that friends need to have set in order to guarantee a match with you. More than once, I’ve been matched with the wrong people even with Link Codes, as it is a 4-digit number, so someone could just happen to use the same one. I miss the days of Pokémon X and Y where you could see your friends separately from strangers and could always interact with them. The Link Code idea is a step in the right direction, but still not a guaranteed way to just play with friends. There are also a fair bit of connectivity problems too, with notifications sometimes just not showing up at all and locking players out of things like Max Raids. The lack of the Global Trading Service is probably the most noticeable change to the online feature. This service had been around since the series first started using online play, as a trading hub for people to search for the Pokémon they needed and be connected with other players looking to trade that specific Pokémon. It made hunting for Pokémon with good stats or a rare or version-exclusive species for your Pokédex a lot simpler. Now, once again, you just have to hope you can find a Max Raid of the Pokémon from someone online, or get lucky enough to receive the Pokémon you need in a Surprise Trade.

Like every Pokémon game, Sword and Shield has its own story focused around the “Gym Challenge” of Galar, where you join a group of trainers to attempt to beat all the Gym Leaders and earn a chance to become the Champion. The story was not as good as the ones in some of the previous titles, but the characters are all pretty fun, with really unique designs. I actually found myself wishing the story of the game was a little bit longer, if only to see more of the characters. I really liked the tournament style of the Galar gyms, where you are competing with a group of people. Having to fight all your rivals at the end in place of the Elite Four was really neat and felt like a good way to wrap up the journey.

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Many of the Trainers you will face in the game’s story use Gigantamax Pokémon.

Lastly, the quality of life improvements that Let’s Go had to assist new players are still present, along with some new changes especially geared towards competitive players. With Bottle Caps to fix a Pokémon’s IVs now easier than ever to get, and with the addition of Nature Mints to make your Pokémon change their strong and weak suits, any Pokémon can become the best they can be.  Even though I enjoy competitive Pokémon battles, my favorite new feature isn’t one related to battling—it’s that you can nickname a traded Pokémon. Even though you only get one name change for these Pokémon, it’s still a feature people have been wanting since as long as I’ve been a fan.

While I was very nervous about the rumors and changes slated for Pokémon Sword and Shield, I had a seriously great time playing through them. The games are beautiful and fun, with a lot of really great gameplay changes that I hope are continued throughout the series. I’ll admit that Sword and Shield has some problems, especially with the fewer Pokémon, online changes, and Gigantamax difficulties. Despite the issues the games do have, with all the quality of life improvements, new features, and beautiful graphics, I think that Pokémon Sword and Shield are the best 3D Pokémon games to date. I hope that future games in the series expand on the new ideas implemented in Sword and Shield and keep pushing the series to even greater heights.

Elizabeth reviewed Pokémon Sword and Shield with a a personally purchased copy.