The draw of Pokemon as a franchise is nigh irresistible. For both detractors and hardcore fans alike, a new entry into the animal-cage-fighting, parental-figure-defying series courts equal parts enthusiasm and controversy – Pokemon Sword and Shield have been no exception. With horror stories of unplayable graphical issues and the National Dex being cut to almost-universal outrage, there were definite worries about whether or not this latest generation would weather the storm of release. However, fans may be relieved to know that the experience delivered by Game Freak’s latest is an incredibly enjoyable romp through a whole new world: battling is far from the only thing fun about Pokemon, and this proves it.
The Galar region is a delight to explore, whether you’re traversing rolling hills packed to the brim with flocks of Wooloo or picking your way across a frozen-over lake, with Wailords looming within arm’s reach. It’s also in the dialogue between you and your rival, Hop, who would definitely appear in a dictionary next to the definition of Lovable Idiot – there are regional affectations beyond the occasional ‘mate’ that help build the idea of Galar as a unique environment. While the roaming coppers and the postmen might feel a tiny bit on the nose, there’s no doubt that the influence of the United Kingdom is keenly felt, and it’s a refreshing 180-degree turn from the locations of previous generations.
Slang isn’t the only thing that has a distinctive quality in Pokemon Sword and Shield. Sure, it’s part of the Galarian package, but one of the most noticeable additions is the Wild Areas. Seen those videos online of people being surrounded by five Machokes or being chased by giant Beartics? All those good things can happen to you when you’re in a Wild Area. The sheer potential for so many different types of interactions with Pokemon is arguably what drags trainers back to these places time and time again.
The first time you’re in a Wild Area, it’s manifestly clear that you’re out of your depth. You don’t feel like you have a true dominion over Pokemon, and Pokemon Sword and Shield benefit from invoking the same energy as Detective Pikachu in this regard: there’s something terrifying and unknowable about Pokemon, and the fact that we’re living in their world is a thrilling thought that never truly gets explored by the franchise so hints of it are nice to see. Sure, you can come back in five levels and give that pesky gigantic Combee what for, but at least for a little while, the Wild Areas force you to tread carefully and with reverence.
One issue that crops up in these expansive swathes of grassland and overly-aggressive Stuffuls, however, is the noticeable amount of graphic pop-in. Nothing quite makes this stick out to you more than when you’re gallivanting around only to run headfirst into an intimidatingly large Solrock with less than a split second’s warning because it’s only just appeared on your screen at the point of contact. While the worst of the graphical fearmongering that circulated prior to release appears to be exaggerated in our experience with the game, there’s little doubt that Pokemon Sword and Shield could look even better when one takes into account what the Switch is capable of as a console.
Luckily, these new slices of Galar aren’t only cool because they allow you to feel the stirrings of fear. You can undertake all manner of activities with others in Wild Areas, including Max Raids that pit you against Dynamax and Gigantamax Pokemon. If that’s not quite your speed, you can cook at campsites and eat curry with your trusty companions, all with the added benefit of the company of others. These Wild Areas feel less like frightening nature reserves and more like places where trainers can band together as the game opens up, and these little touches that make the game less daunting are cleverly implemented quality-of-life improvements that go a long way to giving Pokemon Sword and Shield a personal touch.
There are other quality-of-life improvements that it would be remiss to not mention, and there’s quite the laundry list here. There’s no need for an EXP share – your Pokemon automatically shares experience, so constantly prizing Sobble over the rest of your team isn’t going to result in a massively overleveled starter while everyone else flags behind. You pick up the ability to travel back to places that you’ve already been to fairly early, and you can also traverse bodies of water on your bike – nixing the need for Fly and Surf is done on the back of the narrative, and having access to said bike in pretty much any location makes navigation so much faster than previous iterations of the franchise. Compulsive breeders will also find their jobs streamlined, with making your dream team now much easier than ever.
On top of that, you’ll likely notice the convenient appearance of NPCs right before important fights. Now, when you encounter certain trainers in important moments, declining their offer to battle right away actually results in you having time to prepare. At other times, you’ll simply have someone heal your whole team out of the kindness of their heart before you explore a long-winded cave for the first time. Galar is full of good samaritans, it seems, and it does make Pokemon Sword and Shield one of the less taxing mainline titles. If you were anticipating having to grind for hours between gyms to make sure that your team was up to scratch, well, that’s just not necessary here. The difficulty curve being more of a small speed bump than anything will definitely take veterans some getting used to.
However, this doesn’t mean that battling doesn’t take center stage in Pokemon Sword and Shield. The region’s unique approach to the culture of trainer battling and gyms is one of the most interesting iterations that we’ve seen. Instead of just plowing through a gym leader’s minions when you hit a new town, there are now special challenges that involve anything from the classic puzzle-solving of Pokemon Red and Blue to, well, using some kind of extrasensory item to navigate a sandy arena full of literal pitfalls. Each leader even benefits from their own Gigantamaxing/ Dynamaxing animation, and all these little touches add a little flair to so many of the people that you meet in the game.
The characters that you encounter along the way all fit the usual Pokemon NPC template, whether it’s the cheery assistant or the sassy nemesis, but the story never quite feels like it wears out its welcome. Sure, the plot is a whole lot of fluff, but it’s enjoyable fluff and there are some interesting resolutions for the characters that you encounter which speaks to more growth than they’re usually allowed. The fact that you’re essentially given more than one rival in Pokemon Sword and Shield is unusual, but it allows you to be more invested in the wider situation in Galar as opposed to focusing on burying Hop’s team six feet under every time you see them.
With Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee being the last large titles for the franchise on the Switch, fans who were worried about whether or not Game Freak’s new direction would pay off should be able to breathe a sigh of relief. It takes a lot of leaps forward that it deserves praise for, even though some of the additions feel unusually hesitant for a title that fearlessly introduces so many new mechanics. Pokemon Sword and Shield bite off a little bit more than they can chew at times, but they do so with so much style and panache that we just can’t look away. It may not be our dream Pokemon title, but it’s damn near perfect for the times.