Pokémon Sword and Shield review | A fresh start

Tally ho, bag the lot of them, what? Yes, the pocket monsters have landed in Merry Old England. Our review of Pokémon Sword and Shield…


Over the years, Pokémon has come to feel more and more like inhabiting a living technicolour cartoon in which you are the child hero, and less like playing a weird, maths-y RPG where you have to study type matchup charts and perform feats of imagination to turn clumps of pixels into lovable creatures in your head.

Pokémon is now a gorgeously colourful and enthralling world, which lets you pet and play with your critters, dress up your trainer, and battle in massive sports-style stadiums with flashy effects. I’m actually jealous of the kids who get to experience Pokémon for the first time right now. It’s just so enticing and full of character.

For all that’s changed, however, there’s a lot that’s stayed the same. Changes to the type matchups and broad strategies of Pokémon play are extremely rare, and any true adjustments to the 20-year-old Pokémon play formula are usually in the details.

This is great for the new generations of Pokémon fans that arrive with every iteration, but it’s also entirely natural that it has caused adults’ interest in the series to wax and wane.

Sword and Shield, however, has endeared itself to me more than any Pokémon game in years. It’s still the same tale – young trainer picks a Pokémon buddy and heads out on the road to prove themselves the best trainer in the world, capturing and battling hundreds of other cute and kooky creatures on the way – and it’s still a gentle learning curve for new players.

But new free-roaming wild areas now let you see and battle Pokémon in their natural habitat, and offer a welcome break from the grind of the gym circuit. It adds enough novelty to make the whole journey feel new again, and full of wonder.

The Wild Areas (there are two, both large but comfortably explorable) really do feel transformational. Pokémon wander around in full view rather than hiding in tall grass, making it easier both to avoid battling the same boring Pokémon over and over again, and to chase down a creature you haven’t seen before.

You can take part in Pokémon Go-inspired raids on super-powerful creatures with other players, camp with your team, cook up a curry for your Bewear from foraged ingredients. Rain and hail sweep across the countryside and affect battle conditions, and the stronger you and your team become, the more exciting the Wild Areas are.

How long has it been since your entire team was knocked out in a Pokémon game, or since your heart was genuinely in your mouth as you threw your last Poké Ball at a creature you’d been whittling away at for ten minutes? By giving you the option to take on creatures that are too strong for you, to go hunting for a challenge, Sword and Shield lets you break out of the usual gentle, guided Pokémon progression whenever you like and have what feels like a real adventure with your team of companions for the first time in many years.

It makes me wish that the whole game were like this, but I can see why it’s not: like every Pokémon release, this will be the very first Pokémon game for millions of kids who will still need that guiding hand that the rigid story path provides.

It feels serendipitous that the first 3D open-world Pokémon – something I have been anticipating with no small amount of excitement since childhood – also happens to be a British-flavoured one (or English-flavoured, more accurately).

Visually, Sword and Shield’s Galar recalls industrial revolution England, charming village England, wild rolling fields England, not the imaginary medieval version of England that’s often boringly rolled out in fantasy media. It’s actually such a familiar, detailed, and accurate tribute that it took me by surprise. Visual details like the quaint signage and London-reminiscent underground train designs betray a familiarity with the largest part of the UK; this only made sense when I discovered that Game Freak had actually appointed a Brit, James Turner, as the game’s art director.

It’s also written with gentle reference to our islands’ varied vernacular, with characters dropping the odd ‘Bob’s yer uncle’ or liberal use of the word ‘mate’. This doesn’t always work – “What could be better than a battle in a lovely hotel lobby?” is just a weird thing to say, and the presumably American translators let the odd “real” instead of “really” slip through the net – but it made me smile, nonetheless.

That’s the thing about Sword and Shield: it makes me smile. For every moment when it felt over-familiar, over-simplified, or just a bit of a slog, there were many where I was happily lost in an open-world Pokémon adventure set in a beautiful cartoon realisation of England.

Like the vast majority of Pokémon players, I’m here to meet and battle some new creatures, climb to the top of the gym ladder, and get to know a fun new region. Perhaps if I were invested in the competitive Pokémon scene I might find the energy to care about the slightly shrunken Pokédex, which cuts the total number of creatures in the game to 400, down from the ludicrous 807 that have massed over the series’ 20-year history. Let’s be honest: how many of those 807 were truly memorable? Does it really matter if one of your favourites didn’t make the cut?

Even more than usual for a new Pokémon game, Sword and Shield is a chance for a fresh start with a team of sheep, foxes, and electric corgi. Why wouldn’t you take advantage?


Sword and Shield’s most publicised addition to the battle formula is Dynamaxing – unleashing gigantic mega-versions of Pokémon in the middle of battles. Though not an automatic press-to-win feature, it’s all a bit of a gimmick that only crops up in raids and climactic gym battles. Still, at least it looks awesome.

Verdict: 83%

The most novel Pokémon games in years, Sword and Shield offers a colourful, thrilling adventure for trainers old and new.

Genre: RPG
Format: Switch (tested)
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Price: £49.99
Release: Out now

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