My neighbour and Pokemon rival Hop won’t stop calling me “mate”, and I love it. As a Brit, it makes the opening of Pokemon Shield feel like an old friend, and that extends to most of the 90 minutes I spend with it. It’s not just the occasional slang and the quaint British countryside that make it feel warm and cosy, it’s the tried-and-tested battle system, the ever-hopeful dialogue, the generous stream of new, wild Pokemon – it calls to mind everything I love about the series.
Pokemon Sword and Shield (opens in new tab) certainly has some new tricks (I’ll talk about them later), but it’s clearly aware of what fans want from a core Pokemon game. The battle system is instantly recognisable: it’s basically the one from Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, and that’s no bad thing. Every move has its own flashy effect and my Pokemon’s animations really sell each tackle and growl.
Poking around the starting village, Wedgehurst, yields the kind of charming, deadpan text pop-ups I expected. “This kitchen is always clean,” my character says as he inspects a worktop. “There’s a collection of various caps,'' he says, while examining a collection of various caps. It’s lovely and twee, right down to the vines growing over the thatched cottages, the winding path into town with fields either side, and the old train station. It’s an exaggerated, idealised version of Britain – the kind you’d be lucky to glimpse once or twice in a week-long trip around the Peak District – but it feels coherent nonetheless.
On the Torracatwalk
You’re cast as a young scamp who wants to become a Pokemon master and has to battle a series of gym leaders along the way. It all starts when Hop’s brother Leon, the region’s champ, returns home after another famous victory. His dress sense is daring: dodgy facial hair, a giant fluffy cape, short shorts, leggings, and not an ounce of self-awareness. “I’m the Galar region’s greatest ever Pokemon champion,” he says, with a beam and a thumbs up. I can’t decide whether he’s arrogant or adorable.
He hands me my first Pokemon – I picked the cheeky chimp Grookey, a grass type – and after a customary battle with my rival and his wide-eyed water type, Sobble, I set off on the road to glory, stopping at a boutique to buy some new clothes en route. Pokemon Shield certainly caters to the fashion-conscious, with a full range of hats, tops, trousers and accessories to pick from. I plumped for a t-shirt depicting a snake eating curry, blue skinny jeans, a white backpack and a “scally hat” flat cap. I look like a young wannabe Peaky Blinder.
So far, so Pokemon Sun and Moon. But while Pokemon Shield doesn’t feel anything like a re-invention of the series, at least from its opening, it certainly makes a number of smart changes. It sheds the worst bits of the Let’s Go games, namely the motion-controlled catching (you’ll battle wild Pokemon when you encounter them), while keeping the tweaks that worked best, such as doling out lots of XP between all your Pokemon whenever you catch a new critter. Just like Let’s Go, Pokemon visibly wander grassy areas of the map, so you can fight them or ignore them at will. Handy, that.
Walk on the wild side
The bit I’m most excited about is the Wild Area, where I finished my playthrough. You can think of it as a more open, accessible version of the Safari Zone from previous games. It’s the vast space where you’ll set up your new Pokemon Camp to cook curry, interact with your catches, and check in with other players. It’s also where you’ll launch four-player raids, which culminate in battles with giant, powerful Dynamax Pokemon. If you beat the raids, you’ll net rewards. I didn’t get a chance to raid or set up camp in my demo: you pick up your camping gear early, but have to advance a little further before unrolling your sleeping bag.
It all sounds fun, but it’s the zone’s wandering, high-level Pokemon that make me want to return. In previous games I remember making gradual progress, catching Pokemon that were below or around the level of my highest-level creature. In the Wild Area, Pokemon several levels ahead of you are mingling around, there for the taking, which means you can quickly improve your line-up if you run around flinging Poke Balls.
That’s provided you can deal enough damage for your Poké Balls to be effective, of course. By the time I reached the Wild Area, my Pokemon were around level 11. I spotted one particularly large level 15 Pokemon waddling around: I’m not allowed to say what it was, but it was equal parts menacing and cute. This beast was wiping off 90% of my HP with every quick attack, tearing through my creatures without mercy. Gradually, and through liberal use of potions, I whittled it down to the red. Three poke balls later and – click! – it was mine.
My demo ended there, but my plan would’ve been to promote that level 15 Pokemon to the top of my squad and spend more time building a top-tier team before venturing to the city of Motostoke. I can see myself doing that whenever I tire of the story, and the Wild Area Pokemon vary depending on the weather, so you should always be spotting new beasts when you return.
After my 90 minutes was up I was eager to play more. Pokemon Sword and Shield feels instantly familiar: it’s the charm of the old games combined with the flashy visuals of Pokemon Let’s Go, with a hint of quaint, rural Britain thrown in. Its new additions – particularly the Wild Area – look like they’ll hit the mark. Granted, it was only a small slice, and I didn’t really get a feel for how the late game will unfold, but I’m left feeling optimistic. Roll on November 15.