Welcome to Galar – the Britain of the Pokémon world, filled with red postboxes, industrial towns standing between lush green fields, and people using lingo like “telly” and “mate”. Unlike the real world, this idealised take on the UK isn’t tearing itself apart politically, but there is still an uncomfortable underlying sense of small-c conservatism that holds Pokémon Sword and Shield back.
There’s a lot to love in the series’ first core entries to grace a home console, and Sword and Shield are in many ways the most ambitious entries in the franchise’s history. It introduces full 3D sections with the Wild Areas, where Pokémon roam free, quizzically coming up to you or pouncing on you from the long grass. Pokémon battles – although retaining the turn based, four-moves-at-a-time format – are more dynamic than ever, with enhanced animation and more cinematic cuts to action. These are bolstered further, in special cases, with the ability to use Dynamax attacks, where your Pokémon grow to kaiju-esque proportions – these are no longer Pocket Monsters.
Pokémon Sword and Shield
The world itself is one of Pokémon’s finest too, beautifully presented and filled with some of the series’ best new creatures yet. Electric corgi Yamper is an immediate icon, as is Wooloo – basically just a sheep, but what a sheep – but almost every new critter has something to like. An early favourite is Nickit, a fox that steals food whenever it can – truly, developer Game Freak did its research into British wildlife. There are even fun twists on old Pokémon to surprise long-time players, such as Galar region alternatives for Weezing or Mr. Mime, or new evolutions for Meowth and Farfetch’d that appear nowhere else. It’s all a delight.
Sword and Shield are fantastic additions to the Pokémon library.
However, despite all the fresh additions and remixes to old favourites, it’s hard not to feel Sword and Shield haven’t regressed slightly from Pokémon Sun and Moon on the 3DS. The biggest offender is reverting to staid gym battles, a staple of the series since the original Red and Blue. Sun and Moon did away with these, instead having players participate in Island Challenges to progress – different each time but more deeply rooted into the world and better involving its characters. Here, going back to battling through a bunch of regular trainers and solving a gym’s puzzle before fighting the gym leader feels dated.
It’s slightly disappointing that the full 3D experience is limited to the Wild Areas of the game, rather than being the truly open world Pokémon game players have dreamed of. Still, Game Freak has shown they can make such a feature work on a limited scale – a grander roll out may lie in the series’ future. Conversely, the biggest controversy surrounding the game, that not all Pokémon ever imagined can be ported into Sword and Shield – proves to barely be a factor. There are still a whopping 400 Pokémon in the game, with more than enough charm and battle prowess to please even the most ardent trainer.
Ultimately, Pokémon Sword and Shield aren’t the revelatory evolutions that Super Mario Odyssey or Zelda: Breath of the Wild were for their beloved franchises, but they are still fantastic additions to the Pokémon library. A few backwards steps, as with the gyms, can’t hold back an otherwise excellent adventure.