Game Freak is back with the eighth generation of Pókemon, this time on Nintendo Switch.
When Pokémon Let's Go was first unveiled last year it was clear that the game wasn't quite what fans had imagined it would be. The instinctive reaction was, for many, instant disappointment because although Switch owners had been starving for a Pokémon game to play on a big screen in their living rooms, Pokémon Let's Go wasn't what they had yearned for.
After the release of Let's Go, producer Junichi Masuda had to, in a relatively timid and quiet way, announce that the team needed more time to develop the first "real" Pokémon game for the Switch console and that this would also be the start of the eighth Pokémon generation.
And so, Let's Go became, in effect, a game designed to create a stronger connection between the traditional Pokémon phenomenon and that of Pokémon Go, a game designed to rope in newcomers, and reattach those who had forgotten about the series. It was a tasty snack, if you will, sating our hunger for Pokémon until the grand finalé, i.e. the upcoming main instalment. It is this game that will show what Pokémon can look like when released from its small-screen 3DS prison. It is this game where the Pokémon team must discard any thoughts of technical limitation and show fans what the future of the series can truly look like. Just like with Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Luigi's Mansion 3, however, there is pressure on the developer. This instalment has to be great, it has to be ambitious and it must innovate and make use of the Switch's duality while, at the same time, reminding fans why they fell in love with the ever-expanding Pokémon universe to begin with. No pressure, then.
That leads us to today, and to the dawn of Pokémon Sword/Shield, perhaps developer Game Freak's most ambitious duo of Pokémon games to date, introducing us to many new creatures to capture and train, a new region to explore, new mechanics to play around with and a new way to experience it all - namely through the stand next to the large flatscreen TV in our living room with a Pro controller in-hand.
Welcome to the Galar region: a world inspired by the rolling hills of the British Isles, busy metropolises and quaint, dense villages. This is your home, and as tradition dictates, you must embark on a grand journey to become the region's crowned champion, the best trainer. This means that you have to complete the Galar region's 'Gym Challenge', which pits you against the eight Gym leaders one by one to collect their badges and then, eventually, challenge the reigning champion, Leon, who happens to be the big brother of your best friend and rival, Hop. On your long and challenging journey you'll explore major cities, sleepy suburbs, obscure caves, densely populated wilds and everything in between.
In terms of its central premise, Pokémon Sword/Shield doesn't fall too far from the tree of its predecessors. The game does not diverge far from this expected and well-established red thread during its 40 hours of playtime (depending on playstyle, naturally). The expressive dialogue is nicely done and designed to get you into the swing of things. No one really talks, they just teach each other what they know, always followed by an exclamation point. Classic Japan, classic Pokémon - and as per usual, it just works. Although the central plot is relatively simple and revolves around two mysterious legendary Pokémon, your character's and Hop's journey towards the title, and Team Yell's attempts to slow your progress, you will yet again learn to love Pokémon during your time in Galar. You will fall in love with the mysticism, the unity, the journey. The magic that people from all over the world felt as Ash Ketchum set off towards the Pokémon League 20 years ago is still very much present.
Pokémon Sword/Shield houses hundreds of Pokémon for you to get your Poké-hunting hands on, dozens of which are brand-new. In addition to these new Pokémon, there are several Galarian Forms of existing Pokémon, such as Galarian Meowth or Galarian Zigzagoon, which have not only changed their appearances but are instead completely new variants. That Zigzagoon variant is now a Dark/Normal-type and can also evolve into Obstagoon down the line. These Pokémon can be caught with a variety of Pokéballs as per usual (Great, Ultra, Premiere, Nest and the like) as you journey through Galar, and they'll physically show up in the grass this time around instead of having the game throw you directly into battle with the Pokémon your character's sighted. When you defeat or capture Pokémon, your entire team gets EXP points, so the game has an integrated EXP Sharing system. You can also arrange your specific set-up by grabbing Pokémon from your Box out in the field. You can also, of course, give your Pokémon TM and RM abilities, however, TMs can now be used an infinite number of times and can be purchased at virtually any Pokémon centre. We haven't played all of the Pokémon games, but the series has nonetheless shaped our love for the medium in a big way, and it seems clear that some changes have been made to make the game more accessible and user-friendly. For example, you don't even need a Fly Pokémon anymore, as you can just take an air taxi from any location.
However, that doesn't mean that Pokémon Sword/Shield doesn't offer the depth that older fans such as ourselves look for. Certain types of Pokémon still have specific abilities that kickstart each fight, such as Snover's Snow Warning, which creates Hail on the battlefield. What's more, you'll still get a complete overview of each creature's specific stats, so you can manipulate them with various items. In addition, each of your little monsters have their own quirks like "Mild" or "Strong-Willed", and all can, sticking with tradition, hold onto special artefacts that can activate attack-type boosts. The dynamics of combat are exactly how fans will remember it, and although structures designed to make the overall experience more user-friendly have been introduced, Sword/Shield hasn't lost the continued excitement that comes with not only defeating the eight gym leaders but when diving in online after doing so.
But even so, the new Pokémon and the Galar region's distinctive character traits aside, Pokémon Sword/Shield has its own style, so there are a number of new landmark additions to talk about. First of all, there's Dynamaxing - something that Game Freak describes as a form of projection of the Pokémon's inner strength. In practice, this means that, in certain battles, you can activate Dynamaxing on a Pokémon and essentially give them a significant boost in power and size. It's limited in terms of which fights you can actually use the feature, but all Pokémon are eligible.
However you look at it, this adds an extra tactical dimension to take advantage of as a trainer, and although you can expect Dynamaxing to make a big impact in online matches in the weeks and months after launch as it can turn the tide at any time, it's simply not... well, simple. That's because while added tactical depth through additional combat mechanics is a welcome change, all is not well, because while it adds depth through its existence, it also oversimplifies combat to an extent. For instance, the Dynamaxed Pokémon's abilities are simplified when the feature is activated, and that means that Raichu's Thunderbolt and Thunder become one and the same ability. Dynamaxing is essentially a visual spectacle and while it certainly contributes to some intense battles, it may not add the tactical dimension that many would want it to, at least not over the course of the story, where you're restricted to a limited amount of battles where you can use it, such as Gym Leader battles.
A select few Pokémon have the ability to become even bigger through Gigantimaxing, and gain brand-new abilities upon activation. Our Raichu got the G-Max Volt Crash that paralysed all enemies, which was certainly useful, but again, this only works for a limited number of Pokémon, which does add to the thrill of training a team capable of this, but is also restrictive in its limited scope.
While on the topic of Dynamaxing, we should talk about the Wild Areas where this new feature really comes in handy. Moving from Gym to Gym, fighting Sword/Shield's Team Rocket-equivalent Team Yell and kicking the asses of trainers around the world, the game is quite linear - you can't even control your camera. If you get yourself into one of the game's many Wild Areas, however, you'll get to explore more freely. A close-to infinite number of Pokémon reside here, and their levels range from 10 to 50 in one large area. Here you can train, catch new Pokémon and participate in Dynamaxing battles, although those are different in this area. Here you can choose to join four other trainers (either offline or online) and fight against a Dynamaxed wild Pokémon, and you'll be granted extra rewards as well as have the opportunity to catch the Pokémon if you wish to do so. The whole process is extremely intense and also immensely entertaining as a distraction in between taking Gym trainers down. You'll also be able to collaborate with other trainers on a whole new level, highlighting exactly how cooperative Pokémon can be under the right circumstances. We, for example, managed to catch a Gyrados through this process, and we let out a triumphant roar as the Pokéball ticked one final time.
It's also in these Wild Areas that you'll discover how exciting it is to camp. When camping, you'll have the option to play with your team's Pokémon and it's actually more entertaining that one would think. It's not particularly interactive, but it actually helps to establish a stronger connection between you as a trainer and your.. well we want to call them friends but we guess 'subjects' is a more fitting term. You'll be able to cook using ingredients you've picked up in the wild and prepare solid dishes to net some EXP for your team as well as improve your common bond, which is crucial to important stats like critical hit chance, for example.
Regardless of where you are in the Galar region, the game is visually stunning to behold. Game Freak has managed to draw inspiration from England's rolling hills in an effective way, and the result is pure beauty accompanied by stark colours that create breathtaking environments. Additionally, all the new Pokémon are cleverly designed, and not only are they all distinctly Galar, they also harken back to a time where Pokémon design was a bit simpler and universally understandable. There's more colour, but the shaping is simpler, and therefore more recognisable. However, the visual aspect isn't flawless overall, and while all of the cities are beautiful and exciting to explore, the Wild Areas suffer from a visual design that's a bit too sparse. Sure, all of them have some sort of a theme, such as a savannah or desert, and there are always a number of visual landmarks present, but they just seem a bit empty compared to the usual paths and towns. Trainers are expected to spend a lot of time here in search of EXP and stronger Pokémon, so it would have been nice to see more interesting elements here. Perhaps more landmarks or even more distinctive terrain would've helped.
Still, it if there's one key feeling that Game Freak has aimed for with Pokémon Sword/Shield, and has nailed tremendously, it's establishing a sense of majesty when battling and capturing Pokémon. The Gyms are now filled with exciting onlookers cheering for you and your opponent, and weather systems contribute to a stronger connection with nature as you trek along in the open world. It's a visual achievement for sure, and we experienced little to no technical issues in either handheld mode or when playing through the dock. Sure, there are slight framerate drops on trainer introduction screens, but it meant little.
Musically, the Pokémon series has, since the very beginning, managed to live up to Nintendo's high standard with tunes that have never failed to bring joy to players, remaining iconic to this day. Pokémon Sword/Shield offers both elaborate versions of the classic fighting themes and melodies as well as some brand-new tunes which are looped quite a lot throughout the game without getting tiresome. One thing that has us puzzled, however, is the fact that there are no voiced characters in the game. Intelligent Systems has managed to cast strong actors for 90% of Fire Emblem: Three Houses - why couldn't Hop, Marnie, Leon and the rest of the relatively limited cast be granted some voiced lines?
Pokémon Sword/Shield innovates by having one foot resting in the essence of what makes the Pokémon universe what it is today, while having the other dipped into new waters, introducing new mechanics where innovation really matters. The result is an experience that feels magnificent and truly epic while not straying too far from its core. It's a pity that the Wild Areas feel somewhat deserted and that the Dynamaxing is a bit too simplified, but make no mistake - Sword/Shield is still a journey that most Switch owners should consider embarking on.
8 / 10
Fantastic region, same great battles, lovely Gym contests, great pacing, solid new Pokémon designs, Gigantimaxing.
Wild Areas are under-developed, Dynamaxing can feel like a limited feature.