If you’ve never played a Pokémon game before, you’d be forgiven for thinking the opening 30 minutes or so of the series’ latest installments, Sword and Shield, were those of a standard Japanese role-playing game.
There’s a flashy cutscene that introduces the games’ most powerful pokémon trainer, Leon, alongside a gigantic stadium in the new Galar region, where pokémon battling is paramount to the culture and trainers are treated like a cross between pop stars and athletes. And there’s also a new transformation on display early on, called Dynamax, that renders the once-cute pocket monsters as enormous, skyscraper-sized fighters. It’s a sense of scale we’ve never seen in Pokémon games before, and it helps really drive home that the top-down, pixel art days are long gone.
From the opening sequence, you’re dropped into a customization screen to create your protagonist, who lives in a stereotypical small town and harbors ambitions to see the world. There’s no professor to meet, and no grumpy rival that you face off with from the get go, as in classic Pokémon games. Instead, you’re given your starter pokémon from Leon, who just happens to be older brother of your best friend Hop. Leon is the role model you’ll both be chasing after as you set off to collect gym badges, and he acts much like a guiding light in your quests to become the region’s best trainers.
You also have a chance run-in with a powerful pokémon of ancient legend, setting up a fateful meeting far down the line in the narrative. It feels like a proper opening to an adventure RPG that just so happens to involve tiny, emotive creatures you capture, train, and battle. In the course of my 90 minutes with the opening sequences of Shield earlier this month, on a docked Switch, I was surprised at how often it felt like I was playing not a Pokémon game, but something more like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy.
Of course, most people playing Sword and Shield will have played a Pokémon game before, and they will recognize the ways these games are holding onto tradition and breaking from it. But that hasn’t stopped developer Game Freak from experimenting with the standard formula and trying to make the game both accessible to new players and as fresh as possible for the fans. The result is a mix of referential nods to classic Pokémon — the three starters, for instance, and the quest for gym badges — and pretty surprising new features and approaches to storytelling, like the increased focus on narrative and new open world areas.
Game Freak knows it has a diehard fan base; just look at the national dex controversy that erupted earlier this year. These are players that will spot every reference and obsess over every new bit of lore, but also scrutinize every detail and laboriously take the studio to task for not delivering on their promises or skirting the somewhat dubious responsibility the community believes the developer has to deliver something both groundbreaking and nostalgic at the same time. And there is a lot riding on Sword and Shield. They’re the first mainline Pokémon games for the Nintendo Switch, breaking with a 23-year tradition of releasing core titles on portable-only consoles starting first with Red and Blue on the Game Boy.
Yet Game Freak has set out to create a new version of pokémon that straddles the line between old and new in many of the same ways Sun and Moon did, with the added benefits of the Switch that let it double as a console and a handheld. In my time with Shield’s first hour and a half, it’s already apparent that these games mark a bold step forward for Pokémon, even if they might not do enough to appease the crowd of fans that just want more of the same with better graphics.
After hearing I would be playing the game from the start, I went into my demo a bit worried. Most Pokémon games start off slow and predictable, with the standard tutorials and a lot of time spent wandering around tall grass so you can catch backup pokémon (or train your starter enough) to take on the first gym leader. None of that really happened. I did catch some new, adorable pokémon, and I did pick the weeping Sobble as my starter because who would dare choose another.
But I spent a lot of my time just exploring the world and really getting to know the various characters and the tone Game Freak is setting with Sword and Shield. Everything feels lighthearted and adventurous, like you’re playing the Pokémon anime come to life. Even little touches, like the crowd that flocks to Leon in the first stop away from home to gawk at his powerful Charizard, help make this feel like a realized world instead of a giant collectathon of a game with some light RPG systems layered on top.
Much like Sun and Moon’s Alola region, Galar is a distinct destination with its own unique look and feel and that really shines through in the early moments. Game Freak is very obviously going for more a UK feel here, with gym leaders and the towns they reside in reminiscent of the culture around Premier League soccer clubs. And the environments align with that theme too. There’s rolling green hills and small towns that bleed into larger, hyper-industrial cities stuffed with Victorian architecture.
Outside the aesthetics and narrative, I can confidently report that Sword and Shield play much like Pokémon games when you really dig into the minute-by-minute gameplay. You will do a lot of battling trainers, hitting up the local pokémon center, and catching creatures you come across in the wild. In one nice twist, Game Freak has adopted the feature from its lightweight Let’s Go spinoffs to display wild pokémon in the grass as roaming enemies, so you can avoid them if you like.
Where the games’ most meaningful changes really come through are in the open world sections between big destinations. I only got to experience one of those, between the second town after my hometown and the first big city, where the game’s initial gym leader fight takes place. But it was a massive environment, filled with wild pokémon, trainers, fishing spots, and underground dungeons that contain what Game Freak is calling “Max Raid Battles.”
The max raid battles are where you’ll fight Gigantamax versions of a random pokémon, which are distinct from the new Dynamax forms and the existing Mega Evolution ones. Gigantamax is like a cross between those two forms, so the pokémon is both larger, more powerful, and takes on a new look. Just yesterday, Game Freak and Nintendo gave us a look at Gigantamax versions of Pikachu, Eevee, Charizard, Meowth, and Butterfree, some of which require special conditions to unlock.
In these battles against these enormous creatures, you’ll team up with other players over the internet to take down your foe, capturing it as a result and adding its standard form and its Dynamax / Gigantamax forms to your roster. I experienced only one of these battles, using AI team members (which Game Freak says will be standard for offline play), and it took quite a lot of effort and the Dynamax form of my starter Sobble to take it out.
If this all sounds very confusing, that’s okay. It is. I’m only slightly more clear about it all after reading countless other articles on the subtle differences between certain Dynamax and Gigantamax forms, which pokémon get them (not all do), and how crucial it will be to battle.
But this is obviously Game Freak’s gift to the hardcore community, even if it does look gimmicky. The studio wants Dynamax and Gigantamax pokémon to add depth to the battle system and to give diehard fans something to really strive for and collect once the main story is over. I don’t know how important these forms are to the narrative, but it seems like casual or new players could go through the game without giving them much thought outside perhaps the necessary story mission or two in which Dynamax and Gigantamax will likely play a part. For the longtime fans, these new forms will be crucial to online battling and filling the pokédex.
I can’t say for sure whether Sword and Shield will appeal to the new or casual players, like those that have only played the Let’s Go variants, just like I can’t reliably predict whether the hardcore fanbase will continue to be frustrated with Game Freak’s refusal to combine every other game’s pokédex into this one.
But as a pure experience, Sword and Shield seems fresh and new enough to have me interested as a lapsed Pokémon fan. It feels like an all-new take on a classic formula, with enough of the original magic of the portable games to conjure old memories and enough innovative RPG design and storytelling to help me ease back into what can be a quite formidable and complicated series.
That’s a good sign in my book. Plus, I’m already dreaming about getting my hands on that Gigantamax Charizard.