By: Zach Siddiqui, Humour Editor
When I picked up Pokémon Shield, my expectations weren’t what I’d call coherent. I had high hopes based on my usual excitement for the start of a new Pokémon generation; I was also very scared, having absorbed masses of online vitriol about how disappointed hardcore fans were with these upcoming games, mostly stemming from “Dexit” — what people are calling the fact that not all 890 Pokémon can be transferred into Sword and Shield.
Guess I’m a filthy little casual, because I loved the new Pokémon. Loved. It.
That’s right: while I certainly couldn’t call these games perfect, I had a blast playing through them. There’s a big contrast between what I experienced and what a lot of the more vocal Pokémon players seem to feel, and I think it comes down to one key fact: these games feel accessible to and tailored for a more relaxed and inclusive audience.
Sword and Shield, in my view, aren’t for players who want to labour away at catching one of every Pokémon species for their Living Dex, level-grind themselves into irrelevancy, or meticulously breed for a perfect competitive team. It’s for people who like casual gameplay and want a Pokémon experience where they can experiment, play at their own pace, and unwind. As a love letter to that audience, it’s highly effective. But if you’re just a typical Pokémon fan who’s looking for something new to try, then I think these games are for you.
From the ruddy, draconic architecture of Hammerlocke to the soft natural luminescence of Ballonlea, the Galar region was a beautiful stage for the Switch’s first Pokémon adventure. The choice to bring in James Turner, a U.K.-native, as artistic director for this U.K.-inspired region definitely pays off. Though most of the areas did superficially correspond with the usual Pokémon mainstays — a desert area, a forest near the player’s hometown, a snowy location — Galar definitely felt fresh.
It’s certainly not Breath of the Wild-tier visuals, but then, I don’t know what players could realistically expect from a game that had maybe two years in production. While this didn’t interfere with my playing experience, some corners were clearly cut — the city of Spikemuth having a single navigable alleyway is probably the most blatant example.
Catching and raising Pokémon has never been a more diverse experience. You can build many different teams right off the bat; I captured, like, 80 different species in my first few hours playing. This furthers a positive trend we’ve seen since Pokémon XY — in older generations, I pretty much always knew “the team” I would be using.
That, in turn, is where the ungodly amounts of experience you accumulate — hated by many for making the game “too easy” — come in. It’s not for the player who calculates out the perfect efficient six-mon team; it’s for players who want breathing room to try out and raise all kinds of Pokémon without ending up too weak to progress.
Battles in this game were par for the course for Pokémon, and the new take on Gyms as spectator sports was glorious. The huge stadiums really worked with the console playstyle while serving as a cultural shoutout to British sporting culture. Admittedly, it does take a long time for battles to get challenging, but that’s also me speaking as a long-time player. The new Dynamaxing mechanic was a blast, too — I didn’t miss Mega Evolution or Z-moves at all, and it was an inspired choice to go for a size-changing technique in Pokémon’s move from handheld to console. Watching my Eevee blow up to its hyper-cuddly Gigantamax form was truly a gift.
The other major new addition to the games was the Wild Area. I loved the open concept and its sheer expanse, the Raid Battles were cool, and I consider it the start of a really amazing direction for Pokémon regions going forward. At the same time, someone doing a story run is really just going to encounter a lot of grassy plain and some water.
Ironically, the game also suffers visually from its Wild Area, because the Area’s open-world format contrasts so heavily with the relatively textbook Pokémon design seen almost everywhere else in the game. It still hurts to imagine what exploring Motostoke could have been like in a world where SwSh had more time to cook and give all the game’s locations the same control scheme and detail as the Wild Area.
I don’t want to get too deep into plot details here, but story-wise, the game was “meh” in a lot of ways. Most of the characters were not especially interesting, and the endgame conflict feels awfully contrived. That said, I think the games do take a surprisingly cheeky tone on some past story trends for Pokémon. For example, the franchise is well-known for its bizarre reliance on preteen heroes while all the adults and “elite” trainers are basically useless — and this is something that’s subtly alluded to and played with in these games.
Overall, Sword and Shield were great games, despite a lot of the fan backlash. They have flaws, and those flaws might not agree with you — but if you can find it in your heart to play through them, I think you’ll find the magic in Gen 8 just like I did.