Pokémon Sword and Shield review: a step in the right direction

Dynamax battles, the Wild Area and a fun new region prove that the Pokémon franchise still has legs

When you replay a bunch of Pokémon games, you realise just how formulaic they are: you’re always catching critters, battling rivals and working your way to a clearly signposted prize at the end. With that in mind, it’s no small achievement that Pokémon Sword and Shield feel fresh and interesting as new games in 2019, despite the fact that so many facets of this franchise have stayed the same since the ’90s.

However, these new entries in the iconic RPG franchise don’t set out to be all things to all people. Hardcore franchise fans that enjoy juggling their creatures between multiple generations to curate the ultimate collection will feel left out by Game Freak’s decision to go for a more limited Pokédex this time, which doesn’t allow you to “catch ’em all” in the traditional sense. There is still an impressive amount of Pokémon in the game, including some totally adorable new ones (shoutout to Sobble!), but the lack of a ‘National Dex’ means that you can’t bring all of your old favourites with you. In fact, right now, there is no way to trade any previously-caught Pokémon into the game.

There are some other old elements that have been left out, as well. You don’t have to collect HMs or teach your Pokémon path-clearing moves this time, and there aren’t any particularly tricky bases or caves to navigate your way through (there are mini-puzzles to solve in some of the gyms near the start, though). Overall, there’s a sense that Game Freak has stripped out everything inessential to focus in on a couple of core ideas: a Pokémon region that is based on Britain, and giant-sized Pokémon battles that use new embiggening techniques called Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing.

So, if you’re a longtime fan of the Pokémon RPG series, you may well be hoping that Sword and Shield succeed in crafting an enjoyable experience with the elements that haven’t been thrown out. Is the UK-inspired Galar region worth visiting, and are the super-sized battles a good time? Those are the key questions here, and in both cases, the answers are positive. We’re pleased to report that Game Freak has delivered a very fun game that has some truly impressive moments. It’s good, simple fun that both kids and grown-ups will be able to enjoy.

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The graphics, for one thing, are some of the best the franchise has ever produced, with the lovely landscapes and colourful creatures providing plenty of opportunities for Game Freak to utilise the Nintendo Switch’s better-than-the-3DS capabilities. And although you can’t catch every Pokémon ever in the game, the world does feel densely populated with nicely-rendered creatures. (That being said, sometimes you have to get quite close to a character or a creature before they pop up on your screen.)

On top of all the new pocket monsters, you’ll find a strong selection of golden oldies in the game. Some classic Pokémon have received British reimaginings, which is barmy and brilliant to see, and others have been given brand new ‘Gigantamax’ forms that can only be deployed in major battles. This makes for some very eye-catching visuals that will stick with you – Gigantamax Gengar, for example, has a massive Hellmouth for a mouth. It’s certainly memorable.

Let’s talk about Dynamaxing (which makes your Pokémon huge) and Gigantamaxing (which makes your Pokémon huge and gives them a makeover). These bigger-than-your-average-battle features, which are available for use at select points in the game, give those key battles a real sense of heft and importance. And they also present you with new tactical possibilities. You can only enlarge one Pokémon per battle, and doing so will grant your chosen critter super-powerful moves and extra health for three turns. It’s common practice to Dynamax against your opponent’s final Pokémon, but you can make some extra fun for yourself – if you like – by bucking that convention and supersizing at some other random point. These choices and changes enable your battles to feel distinct and unique, which makes the whole process of beating the game feel a bit more varied and a little less like you’re just grinding through a series of similar encounters.

The game’s locations and characters have distinct personalities, as well, which helps to give the game a unique flavour that sets it apart from previous instalments. There are overzealous punks in one town, corporate buffoons in another location, and you’ll find it hard to miss the obvious riffs on Britain’s iconic landmarks, unique dialects and sporting obsessions (this game’s main narrative thrust is a version of the Gym Challenge that is styled like a football tournament, complete with kits, stadiums and fans). Playing through the game’s main campaign and picking up loveable little helpers along the way is a highly enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

We reached the end credits after 20-ish hours, if you were wondering, but there are still a few things to do after that. We’d particularly like to spend more time in the Wild Area, which is Game Freak’s way of factoring Britain’s countryside into the game. Various towns are connected by this mini open-world area, where players can take control of the camera angle, catch powerful Pokémon and also connect up with each other online. You can trade and battle with your mates, or other random people, and you can also team up for raid battles against massive Dynamax Pokémon. More so than the ball-throwing gimmick of the Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee games, these raids feel like a cool way of working Pokémon Go-style gameplay into a mainline RPG instalment of the franchise.

One thing they kept from the Let’s Go games is having wild Pokémon appear in the overworld, making truly random encounters (like a zillion Zubats harassing you in a cave) very much a thing of the past. You can’t always avoid a Pokémon that has you in its sights, much like you can’t always avoid other trainers, but you’re able to skirt around most of the critters most of the time. This remains a very nice touch, and seeing Pokémon wander about in the open-world Wild Area is exactly the sort of thing that fans have been fantasising about for years.

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Spending time in the Wild Area makes the game’s world feel wide and worthwhile, like a truly welcome expansion to the franchise. Contrastingly, though, there are points in the main campaign where the Galar region feels a little small. For example, various gym battles take place in the same stadium, and there are few other locations that the game recycles. And although the game tells you there is a flying taxi service, you never actually see it in action – you get a static fast-travel loading screen instead. Also, once you’ve been to the Wild Area, the fact that you can’t control the camera in other locations feels a bit constraining. The main story feels quite on-rails, too, because you can’t really go anywhere before the game decides you are ready for it. Gone are the days of accidentally walking into situations and getting your arse kicked.

All in all, there’s a slight sense that some corners have been cut to give the game’s core focuses more of a chance to shine. A full game with the breadth and freedom of the Wild Area would be incredible, but Sword and Shield dangle that carrot rather than letting you feast on it. Thankfully, the Dynamax battles are really fun and the nods to British culture are surprisingly well-executed. The main story and the core characters are more engaging and likeable than some of their franchise predecessors, too, and the musical score has its moments of excellence. Plus, the graphics and designs make sure that this region and its inhabitants make a mostly-good impression.

Sword and Shield don’t fully reinvent the wheel, then, but they have enough new ideas – and some imaginative twists on old favourites – to prove that Pokémon franchise still has legs and is heading in the right direction.

4/5

Pokémon Sword and Shield are out now for Nintendo Switch.

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