When it comes to both their games and consoles, Nintendo has been having a pretty good year. The Switch Lite is expected to sell in the millions, and their brand lineup has been bolstered with releases like Luigi’s Mansion 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (on top of other high-tier Switch port releases like The Witcher and Overwatch). The next generational installment into their most lucrative and popular franchise, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, would be the year-end cherry on top.
However, like Onix and Diancie, the release has been rocky. Pokémon developer studio Game Freak came under fire from a vocal minority of “fans” for the absence of previous-generation pokémon, as well as for the supposed recycling of 3D models from previous games. Writing as someone whose first Pokémon game is this one, Pokémon Shield, the repetition and exclusion of certain game elements have little to no impact. To me, this is an all-new game to play. And 400 pokémon sounds like plenty.
Sword and Shield take place in Galar, a UK-inspired region where humans live alongside pokémon. They also train them to compete in thrilling battles in extravagant arenas. You are one such trainer, setting off from home in pursuit of catching these creatures scattered across a vast wilderness and preparing them to prevail against the numerous gym leaders and the region’s champion, Leon. It will take time though as you need to put together a well-rounded team and perfect everyone’s battle moves, while also exploring the regions many cities and outdoor environments. But not is all that it seems in Galar as there are are nefarious plots being fulfilled and a certain mysterious pokémon who’s waiting in the fog.
The first thing to digest about Pokémon is how…sweet…it is. The franchise is the zenith of Nintendo’s brand strategy of entertainment that is suitable for all ages and it shows in the overall visual and narrative execution of the game. The characters engage with each other using dialogue that remains positive throughout the progression. The regions are brimming with bright colours and a musical score that reinforces the epic and uplifting spirit of the adventure (though some tracks can become repetitive and very annoying). With a premise that has been around for just over two decades, its absurdity is lost on you the more time you spend playing and digging into the gameplay and the peripheral features.
Those peripherals are what struck me the most about Pokémon. When you’re not engaged in battle or following up on the central characters, a huge chunk of time can be dedicated to a myriad of different tasks. They can range from being therapeutic, like throwing a ball for your pokémon friends and cooking them a delicious bowl of curry, menial such as running errands for the citizens of Galar, to the casual grind of capturing all 400 pokémon. Small game components that all contribute to extensive world-building. Galar feels lived in and again, with the suspension of disbelief, it feels thought out and like a very nice place to be. What is also nice is the Pokémon Index (or Pokédex, as is the proper name), the interface where information on Galar, pokémon and your backpack are available. It’s easy to navigate and feeds into the family-friendliness of the entire experience.
Galar also looks beautiful. Whether you’re playing on the Switch in handheld mode or when docked into the TV, the region jumps out with intuitive architecture and very serene nature. I especially like the surroundings of the town of Ballonlea, a fairy-type forest complete glowing fungi and a dense and dark canopy (this admiration occurred just before I stepped into Ballonlea’s gym and was promptly destroyed by the gym leader’s Mawile. Nothing teaches humility like a pokémon showdown like that). There are definite limitations to the animation. Pokémon don’t have much fluidity when walking, and there are continuity issues when going into a confrontation with opposing trainers and wild pokémon (how can you go from being in a desert-like canyon to a green plateau?). But these shortcomings are not distracting.
But back to that gym battle, they are big and they are epic. A major addition to the franchise has been the Dynamax phenomenon that allows your pokémon to grow to gigantic sizes and stomp your opponents. It adds a dramatic effect to what is otherwise very straightforward turn-based combat. Moves and countermoves can be coordinated according to one’s preference and method of victory. There’s actually a great deal of factors to take and tables can turn quickly.
There’s a lot to smile about in Pokémon Sword and Shield. It serves as a very good introduction to the RPG genre and its mechanics. One is able to put aside the ludicrous premise in favour of enjoying a game that is aimed at both kids and adults. One must also remain aware of what they’re signing up for with this franchise and this kind of gameplay. But speaking as someone who grew up knowing Pokémon more as an anime and not video game, I’m down with catching them all.
Pokémon Sword and Shield are available on the Nintendo Switch