We've had some time to play Pokémon Sword and Shield after its November release and it's fair to say after reading reviews, it has captured has hearts of so many including ours.
In 1999, I played my first ever Pokémon game, Pokemon Red. Having not long been hooked on the TV series, this game was at the top of my Christmas list; even though I wasn't sure what to expect.
I was captivated by the depth within the game, intrigued by all of the different moves and mesmerized by all the interesting Pokemon that I hadn't even come across yet during Ashe and Pikachu's adventure. Gaming never felt so good.
It's amazing to me that after 20 years, Gamefreak still delivers the same excitement and joy when I play a Pokemon game.
Back then I couldn't wait to get home from school and waste away my evening playing Pokemon - now I can't wait to get home from work and waste away my evening playing Pokemon.
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What Is Pokémon Sword and Shield?
I wonder if I even need to explain what it is as if anyone doesn't know what the game is all about. I'll indulge the few sinners who've yet to try it.
The main Pokemon games are an RPG based adventure set in the Pokémon world, developed by Gamefreak and published by Nintendo; first debuting on the Game Boy.
The games closely follow the show plot, a young boy starting out on his quest to become a Pokémon master. In the original, you start with a choice of the original three Pokemon (Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle) and work your way up.
To become a champion, you must travel around the Kanto region and win eight badges from the eight gyms. Then you will gain entry to the Pokemon League, where you will take on the Elite 4 and finally the current champion.
Usually, each instalment sells as a pair, with subtle differences within each game (such as exclusive Pokemon).
Fast forward many years and Pokémon Sword and Shield retain a very familiar formula, with some changes along the way and new additions in this particular game.
Sword and Shield are set in the Galar Region, which is based on Great Britain, as you once again need to dethrone the current Pokémon League Champion.
So after so many years and many similarities, it sounds like you're in for a rather predictable adventure, right? Wrong.
The story actually does a good job of mixing up the formula, instead of fighting against your rival, trading venomous blows on the way to the top, your rival is actually your best friend - who you build a friendly rivalry and close relationship with, as you set out on your journey together.
The game attempts to make an elusive back story about two legendary Pokemon that saved the Galar region from doom. Ultimately, this is a predictable foreshadowing of what is to come later in the game.
For me, this story didn't really hit the mark. It felt like it was bolted on to the game, rather than enhancing the experience. On a few occasions, it tried to barge its way into the spotlight, while you're just doing your thing, trying to be the very best, like no-one ever was.
It could have had real potential, history and time travel based lore usually has me hooked, but they missed the mark by creating a backstory that ultimately didn't have much substance within the game.
Nevertheless, it's a Pokémon game. The original didn't have much of a story, so I won't let that heavily influence my judgement.
However, the characters within the game were a bit on the bland. It felt like there were two types of characters: Family Guy's Cleveland Brown or The Simpsons Ned Flanders. If you know who those are, you'll understand what I mean.
Battles left me feeling a bit emotionless at times and I felt so begrudged by the characters at that I would spam A through the dialogue to get to the next stage of the game. The only things I'd stop to laugh at were the spattered and infrequent uses of the words 'mate' and 'pants' - just to remind you that you were in the UK. On reflection, I was more interested in the memey Scottish Pokémon Character impressions that ran rampant on the internet before launch.
The post-game story, although possessing more colourful characters, was a bit of a chore rather than a bonus; as well as the way you obtained the legendary Pokemon being slightly underwhelming.
Despite over 700 Pokemon and numerous iterations later, the game plays exactly as you remember, you won't be out of place on this adventure.
If this is your first Pokémon, battles are turn-based, with the fastest Pokémon often getting the first move. Your Pokémon learns new and more powerful moves as they level up. However, the most powerful move is not necessarily the most effective. You'll need to learn match typings and what is most effective against another e.g. fire is super effective against grass, grass is super effective against water and water is super effective against fire.
I couldn't help but feel like the pace of the game was sped up to decrease tedious trekking across the world. The game reintroduces the bike, but if I'm honest, I found myself running around exploring too much to use it - when it was time to use the bike, I would often only be on it for mere seconds.
I also appreciate how Pokémon has stopped forcing you to learn weak moves to progress through the game, such as cut to chop down obstacles in your path. Despite how good Greninja makes this look, it was not a good move back in the day and took up a move slot.
Sword and Shield feels familiar without being stale
Over the past few instalments, Gamefreak has been progressively moving away from random encounters in tall grass and spawning wild Pokémon in the overworld; you can now see exactly what you're dealing with.
It's as good as it has ever been in Sword and Shield - no longer limited by the 3DS hardware or certain types of Pokémon you can fight. It's special being able to cross paths with a Gyarados, who's just chilling in a bed of water waiting for you to challenge it.
The latest Pokémon game alleviates the tedious grind of levelling up for hours on end, by the end of the game you're looking to arrive at about level 65-70 on your Pokémon to complete all story-based battles. Wild Pokemon can reach as high as level 60. Long gone are the days of obliterating wild level 30 Pokémon, only to receive a slither of EXP. It's a nice continuous progression and if you spend a bit of time doing some early grinding you'll be sorted for the rest of the game.
It's touching to see how far Pokémon has come since the 90s. Things such as global EXP share, EXP for catching Pokémon and NPCs religiously healing your Pokémon were merely a hope and a dream; now they're a staple of the game.
Structure & Layout
One of the biggest changes in the structure of the game and the layout of the Galar region is the fact that areas are now split up.
Previously, you'll start in your home town and progress around the region in a clockwise manner. Sword and Shield change things up.
You start in your hometown, go through all the formalities and then set out on your adventure via the train (which ends up being a bit of a fruitless feature long term, as I only ever used it twice). The first significant area you arrive in is the illustrious 'Wild Area'.
The Wild Area is a haven for wild Pokemon and acts almost like a hub for the different regions. This confused me, to begin with, and almost left me disappointed by this decision; but I quickly had a change of heart after spending some time inside.
Onyx is one of the many Pokemon you encounter in the Wild Area
The place is FILLED with amazing Pokemon. Even at the end of your game, you'll find new ones to incorporate into your team. It also plays home to Max Raid battles, similar to Pokémon Go, for you to catch powerful Dynamaxed Pokemon.
Now before people panic, this is NOT the only place to catch Pokemon. There are still Grass and water patches spread across the main towns for you to grab new Pokemon.
The Wild Area is a fantastic look at what Pokémon could have in store for us in the future. Sword and Shield were touted to be a real RPG that fans had been wanting for so long, although it did show glimpses, it's not nearly on the scale of The Outer Worlds, Skyrim or Fallout yet. If this is the future of Pokémon, I am HYPED and you should be too.
Speaking of the main towns, they're now split into two tracks. Once you officially register for your adventure you're sent on a circular track around the first area, along the way you will encounter two gyms and arrive back at the start (the home of the third gym). Eventually, you'll move on to the second track which features the five remaining gyms.
So how does this layout work in practice? Does it complement each other well? Sort of. The issue I have is that when you enter there isn't a massive variety of Pokémon you can catch. There's still a bigger variety than most games, but it's still limited. There's a level cap, to begin with on what you can catch, which scales as you earn more badges. It can be slightly frustrating early on as you will encounter very strong, uncatchable Pokémon that will chase after you, force their way into a battle and make it a tough task escaping.
This sounds pretty good, but unless you visit the wild area enough, you won't be presented with many natural chances to catch them. The two isolated circuits have no real overlap with the Wild Area when it comes to the main story. Not to mention the air taxi allows you to instantly travel to other areas of the world.
You'll also find that unless your team is severely imbalanced, they will naturally level up as you go, so few Pokémon are worth capturing that add value to your team.
I can tell that this was a test of what's to come and I for one am incredibly excited for what we can expect - but the idea's execution on this occasion was far from perfect.
So let's talk about Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing.
It seems like Pokémon are determined to create a brand new mechanic to change the way trainers battle with their Pokemon. X and Y had Mega Evolutions, Sun and Moon had Z moves and Sword and Shield have Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing.
These are fancy ways of saying that your Pokémon grows to a giant size while battling, but only in specific locations such as gyms and raid battles. Gigantamaxing is only available to select Pokémon and changed their look as well as size. As you can imagine, that Pokemon's strength grows with it and can use Max moves.
I always felt like Mega Evolutions were an unnecessary addition to Pokémon and for that reason, I built a bit of a stigma towards them (mainly because the animations were so time-consuming). However, since I've watched the full anime series recently, I've grown fond of them.
During Max Raid Battles, you can be joined by friends or the AI
Perhaps I'll need to wait until the anime surfaces for Sword and Shield before I get behind Dynamaxing. Perhaps I'm too impatient and didn't feel like sitting through the animations it required. Either way, it was another Marmite addition that provides a spark for the game, but I wouldn't be sad if it was the last time we saw it.
Another new feature called Poke Jobs was introduced, this tasks a player's Pokémon with completing requests, such as assisting in construction or cooking, to gain experience or rare items.
Finally the Pokémon camp...I think this is still a sore area for some veterans of the series. It allows players to spend some time interacting or playing with their Pokémon and to cook different types of curry, providing bonuses for your Pokemon.
There is also some quality of life improvements such as being able to access your PC Box without being near a Pokemon Centre, objective hints in the main menu screen, full healing after rival battles and more.
I've recently been hearing that some individuals have moaned about the lack of progress in graphics for handheld Pokémon RPG games.
For me, the graphics are not important in a game like this, it's about enjoying the gameplay. I'd also point out that these games have gone through a series of handheld devices, with limitations to what they can produce. We're now venturing onto the Switch and although I'm sure we could see a huge improvement at some point, the game is still the best Pokémon has ever looked.
Some of the scenes and surroundings in the Wild Area are beautiful to look at, a particular favourite is the shot of the shrine for the Legendary Pokémon (Zacian and Zamazenta).
Like most Pokémon games, you'll get a lot of game time out of this. I've seen that the game is supposedly shorter than previous Pokémon games, but I think that's probably down to the fact that the game makes a lot of changes to save you from wasting time healing, unnecessarily battling and other quality of life changes.
I focused mainly on the story and managed to get 25 hours of game time out of the main and post-game story. That doesn't include completing the Pokedex or completing the side quests available in the game.
There's over 400 Pokemon in this game, if you're a true completionist you'll be set for hours. Although we are missing the National Pokedex for the first time, with over 300 other Pokémon missing out on this adventure, it's not a big deal; although I am devastated that Heracross didn't make the cut.
Pokemon Sword and Shield feature plenty of customisation, from what your character looks like, to the clothes they wear.
These kinds of things rarely attract my interest in an RPG, unless they enhance my gameplay and abilities.
If you're into that sort of thing, it's certainly the most in-depth it has been in a Pokémon game to date.
Customise your clothes and hair!
Multiplayer makes a return, allowing you to battle and trade with your friends as you normally would in a Pokemon game.
If you've worked hard and built a solid team, you can challenge your real-life rival to a game or two. And if you're lucky, you can coordinate with them to help complete your Pokedex.
DLC & Extra Content
It's unsure what extra content will follow for Sword and Shield. Whether Gamefreak decides to introduce the National Pokedex at a later date is unknown and would be a great surprise for the hardcore audience.
The game recently received a limited time Gigantamax Snorlax for players to catch and call their own. So perhaps we will receive new Pokemon in time.
For now, 'DLC packs' with new adventures are unlikely to be.
Is It Worth It?
Yes. Simply, yes.
If you've played a Pokémon game before you'll understand why it's a yes. For those who don't, Pokemon RPGs are the guilty pleasure of gaming, even at 28 years old I have no shame in declaring my adoration for Pokemon; I'm sure neither does half the world's population - as evident by the Pokémon GO craze that started a few years back.
The game expands on a few concepts while staying true to what has made it so successful. It also shows glimpses of what is in store for the future.
Christmas is approaching, you're looking for a game to occupy you while your family have on too many wines at Christmas dinner. Pokémon does just that and should absolutely be top of your list.