Pokemon Sword and Shield starts like many other Pokemon adventures have. You're sat in your mum's house flicking through videos on your phone when your best friend/rival/neighbour arrives to tell you that it's time for your very first Pokemon adventure to begin. So you gather up your stuff, have a quick chat with your well-wishing mother, and head out into the world as a plucky young kid just wanting to be the very best. The best there ever was, in fact. But emerging into the world of Galar is quite the spectacle. It's chocolate box Britain, channelling strong The Vicar of Dibley vibes, with ivy trailing across cottage rooftops, square hedges lining the paths, and fluffy Wooloos roaming freely. It's beautiful, and quaint, in a way that you always hope Britain will be in between the drizzle and the Brexit.
Release date: November 15, 2019
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo / The Pokemon Company
Although you might question some of the locales and how exactly they equate to areas of the UK, there's no doubt that this is as British-influenced as they come. There are plenty of characters that will call you 'mate' or 'love', and if you know anything about British humour, there are plenty of in-jokes and talk of the weather that will give you a few little chuckles here and there. It tinkers with British stereotypes too – although thankfully only the good ones – and even imbues the new Pokemon with a distinctly British touch. I won't spoil any of the unannounced creatures for you, but the wildlife is a joy to discover, especially as The Pokemon Company has kept the lid on the majority of the new Pokemon and their evolutions (especially if you ignored all those pesky leaks).
The power of Pokemon
But more importantly, it perfectly captures the spirit of Pokemon in a way that no game in the series has done before it. Though you might question some elements of Detective Pikachu's story, I can never get over just how Pokemon Ryme City felt. Every inch of its urban sprawl was distinctly themed, stuffed full of Pokemon references, Easter eggs and trivia that it felt like a true celebration of the series and mania that surrounds it. And now, with Pokemon Sword and Shield we get that in game form. Each of the towns is beautifully created to imbue an element of British culture or landscape, but it also truly reflects what it would be like to live in a Pokemon world.
It ranges from lovely little touches to bigger pieces of immersion. For example, as you work your way through the Gym Challenge – the new official name for your quest to work through the eight Gym Leaders en-route to beating Champion Leon – people on the street will react to your presence or comment on your latest battle. It makes you feel like a celebrity, the ultimate Pokemon trainer, and kind of how I've been feeling in my head playing Pokemon games since the days of Red and Blue.
Of course, that increased sense of Pokemon world building is helped by the fact the Pokemon are always at the forefront. The gameplay takes elements of a traditional Pokemon game, adds a twist of Let's Go, a dash of Pokemon Sun and Moon, and shakes all that over ice to create the most perfect Pokemon cocktail. Battling is the same turn-based affair as it has been in previous installments, but it takes on a more polished, animated feel than ever before, taking cues from Let's Go. Gym Battles have evolved to take on exciting new Gym Missions, moving away from battling a series of generic trainers before challenging each leader, using inspiration from Sun and Moon's Trials system.
But the real star player is the game's core: the Wild Area. It's a sprawling expanse where Pokemon roam in the wild en-masse, with ever-changing weather conditions and a size that's equivalent to two Zelda: Breath of the Wild regions. Like in Pokemon Let's Go, the Pokemon all visible walking through the long grass, meandering down paths, weaving through the lakes and streams, or flapping through the air, just waiting to be caught. You can spend hours here just catching and exploring, setting up camp and bonding with your Pokemon, or meeting and battling other trainers. The 'always-online' elements of this area haven't gone live as of launch yet, meaning it's just been me exploring the wildnerness rather than a plethora of other trainers. But I've had fun dabbling in the new four-player Max Raid battles (with AI friends) that pit you and one of your Pokemon against a rare, catchable, Gigantamaxed Pokemon, hidden deep in wells below the Wild Area. These again add to the sense of importance given to Pokemon in Sword and Shield, with a panning shot of your character rising from a bended knee before swirling around to see the Gigantamax Pokemon in all their glowing red glory.
Gigantamaxed Pokemon aren't limited to these Raid battles either, they'll also crop up in the Gym Challenges, with some Leaders using special Gigantamaxed forms, which change their physical appearance. They're quite the spectacle, adding a heightened sense of drama to a traditional Pokemon Gym battle. You can Gigantamax your own party members to see how much more powerful they are, and whether they have their own Gigantamax form too. That adds a new sense of mystery even to the original 150, as they could well change in Gigantamax form too. Of course, that sense of discovery – or rediscovery – is helped by the fact that the Pokemon appear in the long grass even outside of the Wild Area too. The Pokemon Company's decision to keep the majority of new Galarian forms and Gen 8 Pokemon as a mystery means that discovering each new furry face was a surprise and a joy.
Catch 'em all
I've never felt so encouraged, and assisted, in my quest to catch 'em all. There are a number of new quality of life improvements, whether the game is telling you which move is super effective or effective on any Pokemon you've battled at least once before, adding a shortcut to your inventory of Pokeballs on the battling screen for Wild Pokemon, or doing away with HM moves entirely in favour of on-demand Corviknight taxis and transforming aquabikes. But there's also a new recommendations section to your Pokedex, which will suggest the next Pokemon you should look to add to your 'dex, based on current time of day and weather conditions in the Wild Area. It's a great way to keep you diving back in, in a way that I've not experienced with a Pokemon game for a long time.
Some of these quality of life improvements have come straight from Pokemon Let's Go, which may make some long-time players take pause. The changes are designed to make the game more palatable for new users, although some may complain that the tweaks make Sword and Shield a much easier game to complete than any of its immediate predecessors, and I'm inclined to agree. However, that doesn't detract from how brilliant the game's storyline is, how it manages to make the core gameplay loop feel fresh and new in a way that makes this first Switch Pokemon adventure feel like a Pokemon game for a new generation.
It's just a shame that it doesn't always look like a new generation game. The cutscenes are slick, and the ability to control the camera freely in the Wild Area are definitely the makings of a true Switch game, and on the whole the game looks fantastic. It's easily the best-looking Pokemon game to date, but isn't anywhere near on par with the likes of Breath of the Wild, Luigi's Mansion 3, or even Super Mario Odyssey in terms of graphical fidelity. The fact that there's no voice acting also jars a little, especially when there's a character who's all about singing, but ends up just mouthing silently while the text beats underneath. There are occasional framerate stutters too, particularly in the vaster expanses of the Wild Area, with both the OG Switch and Switch Lite sometimes struggling to render the sheer amount of wild critters popping up.
Thankfully though, this is a seriously memorable Pokemon adventure. The story delivers enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, steeped in the kinds of myths and legends that you forget the British Isles are chock-full of. It might lack the puzzling areas of previous series' entries like Silph Co, but there's plenty to love about Pokemon Sword and Shield, especially the loveable cast of characters, and the impeccable attention to detail in the Galar region both visually and in terms of the regional dialogue. It's a great way to start the next core generation of Pokemon games.
Reviewed - Pokemon Shield on both original Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite.