If there are game franchises that gamers will know about regardless of their ages, then Pokémon is most definitely one of them. Pokémon has been around for so long and yet it’s one of those games that can appeal to anyone regardless of age. Although the franchise has dabbled in the 3D world with various outings on Nintendo hardware, Pokémon Sword and Shield are the first games to truly offer a proper 3D adventure and on a handheld/console hybrid no less.
These Nintendo Switch entries take the franchise to another new region in the Pokémon world called Galar. As already commonly known this region is heavily inspired by locations from the United Kingdom. Such is the commitment to this British theme that characters even tend to speak in a manner associated with someone who is native to the UK or has grown up there. This could have ended up horribly wrong, but the casual inclusion of words like “mate” in conversations actually ends up being one of the more endearing traits in the games.
Long time Pokémon players will no doubt sense a familiar feeling when starting the game. As with pretty much every main entry, it’s necessary to pick a starter Pokémon at the start. Still, the three little buggers to choose have such similar traits to the ones from Pokémon Blue and Red that it’s almost impossible to not start reminiscing about times long gone by.
However, make no mistake that this is still a different adventure from the ones players have gone on before. Albeit the main goal is still to beat the gym challenge and the overall champion, it’s still done in a slightly different manner. For starters, it’s a lot more lenient on players and various features have been changed to make them as little time consuming as possible. For example, it’s now possible to instantly go to previously visited locations very early in the games and Pokémon can be obtained from the PC box without having to physically use a PC.
These changes are obviously welcome when it comes to saving time. The fact that just one button press brings up a list of Poké balls to use when fighting wild Pokémon is handy. Yet some of them can also unintentionally make the games less of a challenge. It’s not just these changes that will end up making this one of the easiest Pokémon titles to play. The games can feel quite generous from the get go with the likes of some Samaritans just casually healing Pokémon outside entrances to a cave not too long after starting the game. Then there is the fact that items like rare candies (used to level up Pokémon) are easily found from the start.
These might seem like minor quibbles, but they do add up over time and it just seemed like a logical step to have the option to remove some of these features (or have a harder mode) to make it tougher for more seasoned players. Even the way that battle features, such as state changes like being confused, work makes it seem like the games are taking it far too easy on players. At least making it so that wild Pokémon are visible on the screen to easily avoid them, rather than being constantly forced to be ambushed by random encounters is one improvement that can’t be faulted and more so inside caves.
Still, there is no denying that these new games are oozing charm. There’s something irresistible about the way that the adventure plays out. It’s rare to see such acts of kindness in other games, let alone in the real world and it’s refreshing to play a game where even rivals don’t have to hate each other. It’s a testament to how far Pokémon has come when even its main villain isn’t a pantomime character, but more of an anti-hero whose devotion to making the world a better place has turned into a tragic obsession. In fact, the player’s rival starts off as boastful and clingy, but eventually overcomes such problematic traits after realising the benefits of being more altruistic.
The Galar region feels connected in a way that makes progressing through the gym challenge seem natural. This is a by the book adventure and each gym requires players to register at the desk and wear a fancy uniform. No more just barging in to the next gym and hoping for the best. Each of the gyms also presents players with a unique challenge to overcome. Each gym has its own challenge to complete before taking on the leader. Initially these challenges consist of fairly straightforward puzzles, but they get more elaborate like one where Pokémon must be defeated or caught to earn points to complete the challenge. The twist being that another trainer is also in the battle and actively working against player.
Each gym challenge, as expected, culminates in the battle against the gym leader. These battles are easily some of the best parts of playing these new Pokémon titles. Each gym leader brings his or her A game in a thrilling battle usually set inside a massive stadium with a banging music track playing in the background. The use of a power called Dynamax that enables Pokémon to temporarily grow into giants in certain situations, such as gym battles, makes for quite the spectacle as the crowd goes wild when the power tends to be used during the climax of the battle.
The battles themselves are still the same as they have been for years. Yet it’s still thrilling to make use of existing knowledge to try to exploit weaknesses and other bits to maximise the damage of moves. No easy feat considering the Pokémon types that have been steadily added over the years and their various weaknesses and strengths. There are moments when Pokémon are both weak to and can use moves from the same type or have so many different types that it makes it difficult to figure out an effective strategy. The mental gymnastics occasionally needed to overcome such situations are worth the ride alone.
It’s still possible to fight wild Pokémon and other trainers in the usual places, such as routes in-between towns and caves. However, there are also dedicated wild zones (similar to safari zone) where players can fight against all sorts of Pokémon. Not only that but spots called Max Raid are scattered all over wild zones, where Dynamax Pokémon can be fought with up to 3 other players or CPU characters. These giant Pokémon have enhanced stats and can make use of more powerful versions of their attacks. It’s an intense experience to take part in one of these battles and work as a team to take one down and hopefully manage to catch it.
As expected the story becomes more than just defeating the overall champion. There’s a legend about a darkest day that becomes more fascinating with every crumb of info that is dolled out. In fact, every part of this new region has its own character and fascinating titbits to learn about. This jump to the 3D realm does wonders for making every new scenery look remarkable in its own way. The confident way that it presents itself is akin to experiencing a modern day Zelda game. Perhaps this is the true vision that Game Freak had for a Pokémon game all these years.
Albeit it contains some post-story content (refreshing in a DLC obsessed games industry) there’s no denying that this doesn’t feel as overstuffed as previous games. It might contain some recent novelties, such as the famous shiny versions of the creatures, but purists and hardcore gamers might find this to be somewhat lacking. Regardless, it’s still a pleasant ride for those just wishing to escape the real world and often experience goodness without ulterior motive. There is definitely a theme of friendship and socialising in the games with the likes of the team work in Max Raid spots that is reminiscent of the highly successful Pokémon Go mobile game. In a way this new adventure is more reminiscent of JRPGs like the Tales of franchise because of its focus on good storytelling and the power of friendship with ideas like camping to bond with Pokémon and other trainers.
It could have been more challenging, but Pokémon Shield (or Sword) certainly delivers a performance that easily makes it the most thrilling showman like title released so far. Even the fact that it seemingly does so with the intent of appealing to a wider audience, doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to experience.