Pokémon is a series that has fans and critics itching for change, every so often taking a step forward with a change that makes total sense, other times not so much.
With Sun and Moon they took the steps of removing Gyms while introducing Z moves while filling the game with copious amounts of uninteresting dialogue. With the change of hardware in addition to the experimental ‘Let’s Go’ games, the questions are do Pokemon Sword and Shield innovate enough? Do they still stay true to its roots? The short answers are kinda and yes.
Pokémon Sword takes us to the continent of Gallar which is based in the style of England with slang intact. Classic Gym battles have returned with a new name and new inspiration where your trainer has to get to a gym battle as you clear a challenge, for example with the first one you need to herd Pokémon to a target avoiding the sheep dogs while fighting gym trainers on the way.
A later one has you walking around hitting switches to allow entry and battling gym trainers along the way. When I first saw the term Gym challenge I cynically expected some gimmick like Sun and Moon but was chuffed to see it is basically the same system as classic Gyms where you have to get to the Gym Leader for the fight, but they have named that stage. Beating the gym challenge has you walking into an arena for the big fight which has a grandstand of fans cheering on the battle.
This is what I like the most about the new game, it is basically the old system, with aesthetic and flow changes giving it a more modern distinction from previous entries. Travelling around the world feels like previous games, as you make your way through routes to cities which wind around themselves to open new routes from familiar locations.
Routes and caves don’t feel anywhere near as big as the slogs that older entries had, which while it axes a touch of that challenge, it gives a better pace for phases of the story without the frustration.
It’s the little details that bring something new to the game such as a Pokémon who uses a dive attack where they disappear underwater for a turn. This isn’t new with old moves like dig having two phases, but this Pokémon returns with an attack that hits with water, but also has a Pokémon it caught in its mouth, then it can unleash a third attack where it flings its catch. It’s hardly a revolutionary change, but it’s a new surprise that delighted me since the series doesn’t tend to make too many changes.
Following on from Sun and Moon, Galar has some new variants of classic Pokémon, but this is something I won’t dig into too much because for the first time in a while I enjoyed the discover of new Pokémon, so I don’t want to ruin this fun for others. A lot of the new members of the dex are simple but interesting which feels more akin to classic Pokémon designs, and a bigger change is the variety you encounter early on. I was delighted that in the first hour I had an electric and water type to compliment my fire type starter. Even now they are regular/permanent members of my team.
The other big change, which thanks to the ‘Let’s Go’ games, is seeing Pokémon in the wild. Random encounters do happen, but you see an exclamation mark with rustling grass, but for the most part if you want to avoid encounters it is doable. Pokémon wandering around the grass will react differently as well which is cool. Some run from you, some ignore you, and aggressive types will charge right at you, following you for a while before giving up. It’s the change fans have been clamouring for and I couldn’t be happier with it, even if they occasionally spawn right in front of you as you run through grass.
One thing that developers; Game Freak publicized like crazy before launch was its use of the open area. This is a big section that goes straight up through the middle of the map and it’s a little bit of what people have been craving, but not quite the open game people hoped for.
In this area there are huge Pokémon that wander outside the grass and are high leveled, annoyingly if you manage to whittle their health down to a catchable state, you can’t throw a Pokéball until you have the right badge to catch their level. This seemed like a silly limitation as the previous entries where overpowered Pokémon would ignore your commands in battle was a system that both made sense in the context of the story, and didn’t stop you doing what Pokéfans love, catching the Pokémon.
There is another new gimmick, the jobs system. You can send Pokémon off from your box to help with tasks depending on the types that the customer needs. They will gain experience and bring you back some money or items for the task so it is a better change to the nursery system, but it makes you sit through an animation every time which is annoying as hell after the first couple of times you do it.
At the end of the day Pokémon Sword and Shield are what you would expect from a mainline Pokémon sequel. The core gameplay and structure of the game is the same as always.
There are some tweaks and quality of life improvements however, like the ability to switch Pokémon in / out of the box anywhere make the game the most fun to date, even with some minor setbacks.