Before I start this review, I want to get something off my chest: Sirfetch’d is a crime against humanity.
Now that I got that out of the way, Pokémon Sword and Shield is the most fun I’ve had since Pokémon Crystal. Considering the latter is one of my favorite games of all time, that’s about the highest praise I can give. I honestly thought that in 2019, the year of Gooigi (I’ve made this joke before), I could not feel as strongly as I do about these cute, little creatures, but life is full of surprises. Quite frankly, if you’re able to encounter your first Yamper, an electric corgi Pokémon, and not descend into several hours worth of happy tears, then get out of my house. I didn’t even invite you anyway.
Like the many, many games before it, Pokémon Sword and Shield doesn’t drastically mix up the story formula: You play as a small boy or girl in an equally small town that is weirdly okay with 13-year-olds traveling the world without supervision, chasing monsters, and then pitting those monsters against other monsters until one faints from exhaustion, all in service of acquiring coveted gym badges and becoming “the champion”. There are certain elements that have been added or changed to keep the story spicy, like the underlying arc of the legendary Sword and Shield Pokémon that saved the world from the Darkest Day, and how Pokémon are Dynamxing at random in the world, but the beats are largely the same. The story has never been why I return to these games after all these years: It’s the sense of adventure and the adorable friends I make along the way.
This time around, Pokémon Sword and Shield is set in the Galar region, a charming caricature of the United Kingdom, complete with all the “mates” and “mums” and “oi guvnas!” you could hope for. The world is absolutely gushing with cuteness and personality in every corner. As I mentioned above, you play as an aspiring Pokémon master that sets out to compete in gym battles, and eventually challenge the reigning champion for a shot at the title. Alongside with you is your lovingly annoying best friend, Hop, and, per usual, one of three starter Pokémon: Sobble, the emotional water type; Scorbunny, a badass fire rabbit; and Grookey, a grass monkey. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
While the beginning is front-loaded with tutorials, it doesn’t take long until I was thrust into the Wild Area, one of the new features and selling points for Pokémon Sword and Shield. This is the first time Pokémon has been on a mainline console, and with that opens up the opportunity for possibilities that developer Game Freak did not have before when on handhelds. One of those possibilities is the Wild Area, a sprawling, fully open region brimming with Pokémon to catch and a third-person view that allows you to rotate the camera. Though the Wild Area is only one part of the map and the rest is the usual fixed-camera routes like in previous Pokémon games, it’s a sizable chunk of the map that you can get lost in and ignore the main campaign for hours, which I did.
The first time I entered the Wild Area was both amazing and overwhelming. I am so used to moving through isometric screens, stalking Pokémon in tall grass without knowing which one I will find, and constantly being propelled forward to complete gym after gym. The Wild Area is the antithesis of the formula Pokémon fans have come to expect. Not only can you take control of the camera — which is huge — but there are Pokémon roaming around, in the open, everywhere. As you move through the many biomes with bubbling lakes, roomy forests, and deserts, Pokémon will chase and run away from you. Some of the more powerful critters will stomp or fly around, begging you to battle them, even though they are a much higher level. I encountered a Level 30 creature within the first two hours, which, if you have any familiarity with these games, is unequivocally not a thing. One time when I was casually looking for new buddies to catch, I saw a Gengar just traipsing around. A Gengar. You know, the powerful Pokemon that typically requires you to trade a Haunter with a friend to even get and isn’t available until late-game? My man was walking around the Wild Area like were simply out for an after-dinner stroll.
Dynamic weather also affects battles and the Pokémon available to find. If there is a snowstorm in Giant’s Cap, one of the biomes in the Wild Area, this opens up the chance for a Riolu to spawn. Having a battle during a sandstorm will not only affect accuracy, but the debris in the storm causes damage. This makes Galar feel bustling and complex. Though there are plenty of Pokémon that will always be found in certain areas, you never quite know when a new one will pop up because it’s raining or the sun is shining, making fire Pokémon extra powerful. And then there are the many items strewn about the world (of which you no longer need to use a move like “cut” or “strength” to get to, they are just there to pick up), the weird and jovial NPCs, the fossils to dig up, nurseries for breeding, and Dynamax dens for raids where you can try to take down super powerful and big Pokémon. Whereas the past games could feel stilted and random, Pokémon Sword and Shield is alive. And it’s not just the Wild Area — the routes and interstitial areas have all of the features I listed above, just with a fixed-camera view. Making my way through Galar gave me the same sense of excitement and adventure I felt when playing Pokémon Red for the first time. Everything was new and shiny, only this time I didn’t need to fill in most of the gaps with my imagination, it was all right there in front of me.
Along with the world changes, Game Freak made a handful of desperately-needed quality of life improvements that make me wonder why they didn’t happen sooner. Similarly to past games, you can have a team of up to six Pokémon. Any new friends you catch are relegated to your “box”, a magical, infinite digital repository that holds all of the excess Pokémon you capture that aren’t being actively used. In previous titles, if you were out in the world and wanted to use a new Pokémon, you had to travel to town, find a Pokémon Center, access the box, and make the swap. In Sword and Shield, every Pokémon I caught was available to me at the press of a button in the main menu. Even better, if you catch a lil’ cutie (I’m running out of synonyms for Pokémon) and they don’t have the move you want, every Pokémon Center has an NPC dedicated to changing movesets at no charge. This is so much more convenient than having to find a particular item in order to change abilities like in past games. Even simple things like riding the bike are now toggled with a simple button press. Again, it’s interesting to me that these things weren’t implemented before, but I am happy nonetheless that they are here now.
There is so much to love about this freaking game. Despite the many cries from the “Dexiters” out there, and the laments folks have made on Twitter over “blurry edges” (read: anti-aliasing), it looks and plays great. If you didn’t know, “Dexiter” is a term diehard Pokémon fans have ascribed themselves to akin their outrage over old Pokémon not being imported to Sword and Shield to Brexit, an actual problem that impacts millions of people. I did not notice, much less bemoan, the “lack” of Pokémon. For crying out loud, there are 400 of them from the jump, and the new ones are terrific. I was literally jumping out of my seat at times to show my wife some of the more interesting designs of the new Pokémon.
But it’s not just the Wild Area, the new Pokémon, or the sense of place Sword and Shield so expertly crafted — it’s the little things, too. The gym leader design, the absurd trainers you meet along the way, the new moves and Galarian remodels, and the amount of clothing and accessories to buy for player customization. My girl is looking like a member of Heavens to Betsy and I could not be happier. Heck, there are even light puzzles and mini-games before every gym leader rather than just battling a set number of trainers before the boss.
I can’t remember the last time I felt this much joy when playing a video game. That might sound dark, but I mean it earnestly. There have been great games this year, and I’ve definitely had fun, but Pokémon Sword and Shield has filled me with unadulterated happiness. Whenever I played, the stress I carried with me that day melted away, along with the hours. The thought that I will — at some point — move on from Sword and Shield actually makes me sad. Until then, I am going to revel in this childlike joy and, as the kids say, try to catch them all.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Nintendo.
Pokémon Sword and Shield is not only a worthy start for the series on mainline consoles, but is quite possibly the best entry in the series. With the new Pokémon, Dynamax raids, gyms, and the expansive Wild Area, Pokémon Sword and Shield filled me with a joy I rarely feel playing games.