Pokemon Sword and Shield has proven a contentious entry into the billion dollar Pokemon media franchise: A drastically culled Pokedex, reused animation, some less than stellar texture work, and corporate lying has cast a long shadow over the games. But how do these games – the eighth generation of the creature capturing RPG – really compare to their ancestors?

I picked up Pokemon Shield about a week after launch – I was initially put off by all the negative press, and especially the lacking Pokedex. But a lot of my friends were grabbing the game still, and I did have some hopes, so I decided to take the plunge after finding the game reasonably cheap.

You decide your avatar from one of several preset male or female models, with different hair and skin colours – Why they don’t just let us use the salon mechanics from later in the game to make our characters look how we want, I have no idea. But after picking, you’re thrown into the Galar region by way of your avatar watching the equivalent of a YouTube video – The president-analogue, Chairman Rose, gives the ‘Welcome to the World of Pokemon’ speech typically reserved for professors, and soon your rival – Hop – comes to bug you about collecting his brother, the current Galar League Champion, from the train station with him.

Hop gets a lot of flak, and it’s not entirely undeserved – He is obnoxiously cheery and arrogant, and is the avatar of the game when it wants to hold your hand. He isn’t the worst character ever or anything though, but I can see why some people may be longing for a rival who actually felt like a rival instead of ‘annoying clingy friend’.

You collect Leon from the train station and he essentially fills the professor role, giving you both starter Pokemon, and taking one for himself to raise, too. You’re then introduced to the plot thread that’ll be running in the background of your journey – There’s a mysterious Pokemon in the woods next to your town, and it may relate to an old heroic figure, and the mysterious Dynamaxing phenomenon that’s unique to the Galar region.

Dynamaxing is just making your Pokemon giant for three turns – Using special ‘Wishing Stones’, they grow in size, their moves become ultra powerful versions, and they gain a lot more health. Some Pokemon can also ‘Gigantamax’, which really means they’ll look different when big. This mechanic is alright, but feels a lot like a rehash of Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves mixed into one, which makes you wonder why they removed those mechanics from this title instead of just carrying things forward to keep it more consistent across the franchise. Which, considering the cull of several hundred Pokemon from the Pokedex, could have been helpful. Limiting Dynamaxing to certain battles is also unfortunate.

Dynamaxing can occur in raids – battles where you fight enormous, Dynamaxed wild Pokemon you can catch, with the assistance of online friends – or in gym battles. Yes, as per the older titles, you’ll once again be going around collecting gym badges, but it feels a little more exciting this time around. You have to solve a challenge before being able to confront the gym leader and, when you do battle them, you do so in front of a large, rowdy crowd of fans. This is an amazing change to the series, and one I’m surprised they didn’t do sooner – By making Pokemon the equivalent of a televised sporting event, you make it so much more exciting! You compete in uniforms, you see people cheer and respond to the battle – It’s just such a welcome addition.

And one other such welcome addition is the Wild Area. The Wild Area is a large swath of Galar that turns the game into an open world title – You can see Pokemon in the grass, the lakes, the sky, all as you wander around a landscape that has different weather patterns at different times. It isn’t the prettiest place, what with some muddy textures that fall short of what one’d expect of the Switch, but it is still an amazing experience all the same. This, and a mix of the more traditional routes, help make Galar feel like a really fleshed out world.

Also whilst you are in the wild, you can set up camps, and cook Curry. Using main ingredients and berries, you can cook up to 151 different curries, whose taste ultimately relies on your ability to handle a simple cooking mini-game. You can find some really interesting combinations, and the different curries all make your Pokemon happier and healthier. You can also talk to, and play with, your Pokemon in a campsite.

In terms of new Pokemon, there’s 94 newbies – Some of them look amazing or at least intriguing, like Wooloo and Appletun, and others are destined to fade into swift obscurity (Indeedee) or just… Look odd (Stonjourner). There’s also some Galarian forms of familiar Pokemon, for better or worse – Galarian Corsola may shock people, whilst Galarian Meowth may just raise some eyebrows. Overall, though, I would say that there’s a great deal of welcome additions, and some new typings, too (Finally, Ghost/Dragon outside of Giratina)!

As touched on earlier, there’s a good amount of player customisation – A variety of haircuts, make-up, eyebrows, and a loooooot of clothing. Each clothing store has a unique selection, and players can equip hats, eyewear, shirts, hoodies/jackets, gloves, pants/dresses, socks, and shoes, as well as a main carry bag. You can show off your new looks on your League Card – A special card you can design that you can distribute to other players.

The animations of the game are nice for the most part, but don’t really evolve past what Pokemon had in the past – Especially because some of said animations are from the past. There’s also some bad choices, like stiff walks, attacks that look awkward, and some cutscenes that could have been given some love. The same is the case with the general graphic quality of the title – there’s a lot of good, but then the Wild Area looks like an early Gamecube game and it’s unfortunate. Other weird choices like tucking sound options behind a missable NPC makes one wonder what Game Freak were thinking at times.

Pokemon Shield is not the worst title I’ve played of the series by any stretch. It is very charming, enjoyable, and has a lot of good to offer. But it does have issues. I ideally hope that Game Freak includes the full roster from now on, though – Some old friends are missing, and it’d be nice to know that we can still take them with us on new adventures in the future. A little extra polish couldn’t hurt either. Hopefully the next title is handled with more care, and shows off the progress that was made by this gen a lot better.

8 / 10

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