I don’t have any interest in the competitive side of Pokemon, yet I’ve spent much of the past month breeding and training to raise the strongest team I can in Pokemon Shield. Even without multiplayer battles as the end goal, there can be something inherently satisfying in the grind to get max stats on all your favourite monsters—it’s “gotta catch ’em all!” taken to another level.
Note that I said “can be”, though. Every main-series Pokemon game has some variation of the same basic stat system, and the same potential to strive for statistical perfection, but the last release that hooked me in the same way was Pokemon X and Y, more than six years ago. Just having the possibility of supercharged training isn’t enough; a lot of other factors feed into this drive to raise statistically perfect Pokemon for its own sake. Each game has its own little mechanical nuances that need to click, but so too does the game world and story leading up to that post-game grind.
In other words, what I’m saying is that Pokemon Shield (and, by extension, Pokemon Sword, though I haven’t played that version) has that magical something that makes me want to keep playing long after the credits have rolled—not just to complete my Pokedex, but to perfect it.
It starts with the setting. Pokemon Sword and Shield take place in the Galar region, which draws heavy inspiration from the England—a source that would have been easy to turn into a generic anglo fantasy world or a tired caricature Britain. Rather than either of those, Galar shows that the team at Game Freak really put the effort into their research in order to capture those things that make England a unique and special place.
You see this in the player character’s hometown of Postwick and its neighbouring Wedgehurst, which draw on the small-town charm and Scottish influence of England’s Cumbria county. You see this in the impressive skyline of Wyndon (London), with its clocktower, ferris wheel, Shard-like tower and
Wembley Wyndon Stadium, and in the industrial history of Motostoke (Manchester). You see this in the sprawling Wild Area, which channels England’s gorgeous national parks to create an expansive wilderness full of natural wonders and a wide assortment of different Pokemon.
The British influence in Pokemon Sword and Shield isn’t just set-dressing, and Game Freak don’t shy away from some of the darker elements of British culture and history. Sometimes it’s done in humorous ways, like this generation’s fossil Pokemon: instead of each fossil being brought to life as a single, whole Pokemon, as was the case in past games, Sword and Shield have four different fossil Pokemon that are made by mixing and matching pairs of different fossils… only none of the pairs actually match, resulting in some rather horrific prehistoric chimeras, in reference to the mistakes seen in Britain’s early paleontological history.
Other times, it’s much more serious—like when Sword and Shield take on the UK’s long, ugly history of poverty. While most of Galar’s Pokemon gyms are state-of-the-art stadiums found in booming cities or quaint towns, there’s one that’s basically an abandoned lot at the end of a slum-like alley called Spikemuth. The other gyms are all built on “power spots” that allow trainers to turn their Pokemon into giant, super-charged versions for a few turns each battle, but there’s no such power spot in Spikemuth. Here, instead of fighting in a packed stadium in front of roaring fans, the gym battle is the Pokemon equivalent of a street brawl. Spikemuth is London’s East End (it’s no coincidence that it’s found just eastward of one of Galar’s major cities, albeit not it’s London analogue), a place with a history of poverty and being neglected by the country’s upper classes.
In fact, one of the central characters in the game—and one of the protagonist’s few different rivals—is a young girl from Spikemuth who’s fighting to be a Pokemon champion not to escape her impoverished hometown, but to revitalise it. She’s polite, but also fierce and determined. I’d go as far as calling her journey the emotional core of Pokemon Sword and Shield, and her moments on the screen are when the game is at its best.
In saying that, this is still a Pokemon game, with all the levity and excitement that comes with that. Like every other game before it, it’s very much a coming-of-age story for the protagonist and the people around them, mixed with some light-hearted fantasy and creative mythology. The pacing suffers somewhat, though, especially towards the end—the final act involves a whole lot of stuff happening very suddenly, and then being resolved just as suddenly, and then the whole game coming to a very abrupt end. When it’s working, Sword and Shield‘s story is fantastic, but it’s very inconsistent.
On the other hand, the vast swathe of improvements to the basic Pokemon game structure are anything but. The core battling and Pokemon-catching systems remain largely unaltered (as they have throughout the whole series), but just about everything that surrounds those has been tweaked for the better.
Hidden Machines—which were previously used to teach Pokemon special moves that could be used outside battle to help with getting around—no longer exist, so there’s no longer a need to have a bunch of your team’s limited move slots dedicated to attacks that are necessary outside combat but relatively useless in a fight. Fly has been replaced by a more traditional fast-travel system that just lets you jump to any previously-visited Pokemon Centre from the map. Traversing water now just comes from a special bicycle function that you unlock partway through the game, and the environmental puzzles no longer use obstacles that you previously would have needed HM moves like Cut and Strength to deal with.
In battle, you can now easily check stat changes, and there’s a button dedicated to Poke Balls, removing the need to constantly go into your items menu. When you’re changing your active Pokemon, the game shows the type effectiveness for all moves your bench Pokemon know (assuming you’ve seen the enemy Pokemon before, and therefore have its types recorded in your Pokedex). Perhaps the most welcome change of all is having a portable Box function—aside from a few areas, like inside gyms, you can just change your active party whenever you want.
For people who care about stat-maxing, an item that’s relatively easy to obtain after you’ve completed the main game makes it easy to check a Pokemon’s innate base stats (or Individual Values, more commonly known as IVs) from the menu, rather than having to find and talk to a specific NPC each time. There’s an assortment of different ways to raise each Pokemon’s “Effort Values”—the limited stat increases each Pokemon can earn over and above their natural growth from levelling up, which stat-maxers are typically very selective about—including some very convenient options for idle EV growth for inactive Pokemon.
There’s a whole bunch of new systems in play, too. Being able to set up camp and cook curries for you and your Pokemon is fun (if largely inconsequential, unless you’re trying to complete your “Curry Dex”). The ability to temporarily “Dynamax” a Pokemon in battle—that is, turn it into a giant, kaiju-like version of itself for three turns, with boosted stats and unique attacks—adds an interesting new layer to the battles where it’s available. You only get one Dynamax per battle, so when and how you use it becomes an important strategic decision.
One of my favourite new additions is, surprisingly enough, a multiplayer element called Max Raid Battles. These let up to four players come together to fight a powerful Pokemon that’s in a Dynamax state for as long as the battle lasts. They don’t require huge amounts of teamwork (which is nice, honestly), but they still offer quite a different experience than typical Pokemon battles, as well as a chance to capture some powerful monsters that come in very handy for breeding Pokemon with high IVs.
To tie it all together, Pokemon Sword and Shield are beautiful-looking games. When they first came out, there was a wave of criticism over “bad graphics”, which is just bizarre to me. Sure, it’s not a technical powerhouse, but it doesn’t need to be—it has its own endearing art style that really brings the Galar region to life. Not everything needs to be photorealistic, and Sword and Shield are the latest in a long list of games that prove that.
Keeping that theme, the new Pokemon designs are, for the most part, delightful. There’s a wide array of new monsters, mostly sticking to the British theme, from a knight-like crow (Corviknight) to a haunted teapot (Polteageist). They join a reduced number of returning Pokemon from previous games—a point that caused no end of anger among the series’ “fans”—but I genuinely think that Sword and Shield benefit from cull. Even before the new games, the full Pokedex was pushing 800 monsters, which is more than a little unwieldy even just from a “gotta catch ’em all!” perspective. I sure won’t miss having to jump through all the hoops that previous games made you jump through if you wanted to complete the National Dex.
The end result is a game that I’m still playing daily, even many, many hours after seeing the credits roll. Pokemon Sword and Shield, Game Freak and Nintendo took the opportunity of a new console to really push the series forward, while still staying true to the heart that’s kept people like me coming back again and again for more than 20 years. Not all the changes are popular ones—clearly—but they’re all for the best, leaving Sword and Shield as one of the high points in an iconic franchise.