Pokémon Sword and Shield Are a Bold Step For the Franchise

It’d be silly to ignore that the latest Pokémon game has been controversial, to say the least. But when a monster-catching franchise has captured the hearts of so many around the world, there’s always going to be a bit of discussion. While Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield certainly have their fair share of technical issues, they are ultimately a bold step toward the future of the series.

You’ve heard the story before: You play as a budding Pokémon trainer looking to make a name by traversing the harsh landscapes of a new region. In doing this, you’ll take on a number of gym leaders, each specializing in a type, make new friends and catch a lot of Pokémon.

In the Galar region, the setting for these new entries, things are a bit different. You see, the gyms in Galar are bona fide sports arenas, as the region’s culture is heavily influenced by the sport of training and battling Pokémon. That’s because of a new, transformative skill known as Dynamaxing, in which Pokémon grow to an immense size and duke it out on a more colossal scale.

There’s also Gigantamaxing, which is exclusive to a set number of monsters, where their physical forms change and they get specialized attacks.

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In many ways, Dyna- and Gigantamaxing feel like these titles’ way of differentiating themselves from the past (think Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves), while also offering something a bit more awe-worthy. The first time you walk into a stadium of fans on their feet, the scale of the game hits you.

That’s where Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield really surprise. In a world where fans are clamoring for a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild-style Pokémon game, Game Freak sort of delivers -- just not at the scale you might have expected. This is done through the Wild Area, an open addition to the Galar region that gives players a bit more control and freedom.

In the Wild Area, you have full camera control and can explore to your hearts’ content. The open area is packed with wild Pokémon that roam free, weather events and biome changes and some harsh survival elements. You might even run into a high-leveled Pokémon that you almost certainly can’t take on at current level. It’s scary, but exciting.

The Wild Area is also populated by dens, where you can enter a Dynamax Raid with three other Pokémon trainers -- real players. These battles are a bit lengthy, but offer rewards not unlike those found in Pokémon Go. It’s a fun bridging of two worlds that totally works, and teases a future where there’s some sort of live-service Pokémon game.

You can also set up a Pokémon Camp anywhere in the Wild Area, taking inspiration from past features like Pokémon Amie and Pokémon Refresh.

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Here, you can hang out with the Pokémon from your team, play fetch or cook with them. It’s quirky, adorable and creating a ton of discussion on social media. A feature like this shows that Game Freak is absolutely listening when it comes to offering more than just a cycle of turn-based battles. It helps the world feel more connected and alive.

Little touches like this are felt throughout the game’s main story, too. This isn’t a Pokémon game with a dark and dreary, but one that really leans on the imagination, community and rivalry in the Pokémon world.

Your “rival” is more of an energetic friend, and you’ll run into a handful of similar trainers as you make your way to the top. There’s Marnie, a fellow competitor to become the Pokémon Champion, and Bede, an over-confident trainer who was recommended to the competition by the chairman. Even the game’s gym leaders do a solid job of selling the region’s culture, making you feel like you’re actually a part of this new world -- something inspired by Sun and Moon’s island trials.

While the games may be a great step forward as far as interactivity, it’s not without its faults. In certain parts of the Wild Area, the games’ framerate will stutter and slow down, causing a bit of frustration. And some of the concerns around the games’ Pokémon count or lack of features aren’t completely unvalid.

For every step the games make in pushing for something greater down the line, they lack an acknowledgement of what’s come before. The void felt by certain skills like Mega Evolutions or following Pokémon is certainly felt, but shouldn’t be a dealbreaker.

As far as Pokémon count goes, sure, it’d be nice to have the option to import additional monsters, but there’s nothing sorely lacking from the selection the game offers. Remember, there are over 800 Pokémon. These games make it a bit easier to catch them all.

At the end of the day, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are still worthy of being called the next generation of Pokémon games. They are packed with colorful characters, beautiful environments and plenty of monsters to track down. For a lifelong fan, they’re a no-brainer, and might even present a great jumping-on point for new fans.

That’s something to get excited about.

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are now available for Nintendo Switch. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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