Sam Brooks reviews the latest generation of the Pokémon games which finally hits the big-ish screen.
“I love Pokémon but I wish I could play it on my TV.”
I’ve been playing Pokémon for 20 years and that’s been the main thing I’ve heard from my fellow Pokémon friends/fans. The games have been engrossing, addictive and entertaining ever since they were released, on three different handhelds now, but they’ve always been that – handheld experiences. That’s not to say that handheld games are any less or any worse than console games, but they’re intimate, portable experiences by design.
But what I wanted (and I’m not alone here) was to play an episode of the Pokémon anime – the best marketing tool a video game series has ever had. I wanted to be in the brightly coloured, full-size world of the cartoon. Sprites were fine, but they were representations not of the real world, but of the anime. Even as the graphics got gradually better, they were still largely 2D sprites. There wasn’t the range of colour, the scale or the depth to feel immersed. These were experiences that got within your head, but you often felt like you were scaling down your fantasy to meet the screens.
Not so with Pokémon Sword and Shield. Thanks to the Switch’s ability to well, switch, between being a home console and a portable handheld one, for the first time (not including the console games), you can play a Pokémon game on your big screen. And it really, really matters, you guys.
It’s still the same Pokémon. You still play a child set loose in a wild world to catch monsters who can potentially ruin the world many times over, and set those monsters in recreational matches against each other. There are still several hundreds of Pokémon to catch, although in a controversial move, they’ve slashed the available Pokémon from 800 to 400, which is still, in my opinion, far too many Pokémon. Your ten-year-old avatar wanders around this world (and in a crucial change, Pokémon roam around the world with you, they’re not random encounters anymore), collecting Gym Badges and fighting to be the Pokémon Champion. You know, like the anime.
There are minimal changes to the gameplay, the most notable of which is Dynamaxing, where you can turn your chosen Pokémon – be it a fluffy cloud, a living teapot or a fire-breathing dragon – into your very own city-stomping kaiju. It doesn’t change up the actual battle system hugely, but it leads to a shot of excitement in a gym fight here and there.
There’s also the addition of camping where you can bond with your chosen Pokémon, which in turn leads to them being better in fights. There are also some general shakeups of the battle system that will be unrecognisable to the casual player, but a huge change to the more… devoted gamers. For most of us, it’s Pokebusiness as usual, which is a very good thing.
The biggest change to the gameplay is the addition of the Wild Area, an open world area that resembles in philosophy the Safari Area of the previous games, and in design the open world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You can run into the vast majority of the game’s 400 Pokémon here, including some very high-level ones, and even mess around in Pokémon dens to fight Dynamaxed Pokémon alongside other trainers. It’s a little bit shallow, as you might expect from the franchise’s first foray into open world, but if there’s a game with the breadth to support an open world, it’s this one.
Despite minimal changes to the gameplay, this feels like the biggest evolution in what is, frankly, gaming’s biggest franchise in two decades. You could make a very boring argument that Pokémon Sun and Moon was more experimental, and honestly, Sword and Shield undoes a lot of those changes. But the most crucial evolution is how you, as player and protagonist, are placed in the world.
For two decades now, Pokémon has done a great job of making a big world feel intimate. It makes the tallest peaks feel scalable, and there’s an undeniable thrill in that. But the initial wonder has worn off. With each generation the Pokémon universe gets bigger, but the games don’t scale up to meet that size. They don’t fill the world they’ve built. I can’t remember the last time this franchise had the thrill of revealing an entire new Kanto region in Gold and Silver; the world getting bigger around your tiny sprite. The graphics have improved, the gameplay has gotten deeper, but the scale has stayed the same. It might get bigger, but it still feels like different paint on the same canvas.
Not so with Sword and Shield. With a simple perspective change, it reinstates the wonder that the old Pokémon games used to have, a wonder that was frankly very much borrowed from the anime. It replaces it with its own.
A big part of that is that this game is available on a bigger screen. We can see the gorgeous scenery of Galar in big, beautiful HD rather than scaled-down on our screens. GameFreak has definitely made use of this, right from the time you crest the hill of your first home village and see the green-and-yellow hills beyond. Rather than the fairly small scope of vision of the previous games, you’ve got a world rolling out ahead of you. That wonder is even present when you’re playing on the smaller screen, but it really inspires that awe.
But it’s more than just the graphics, it’s the way that Galar, the UK-based region of Sword & Shield is built and presented to us. Rather than the usual Pokémon rigamarole of being a ten year old going on a journey to the Pokémon league, it’s presented to us immediately in the very first cutscene as a massive deal (yes, this game has cutscenes that justify being called that). People watch in stadiums, it’s broadcast all over TV, and the people who take on the Gym Challenge – usually the backbone of the structure for any of these games – are special people. They have to be endorsed and chosen.
This gives the protagonist and by proxy, the feeling of actually being someone special. If anything, that’s the thing that this game does better than anything else in the series so far. You feel like an important part of this world, and the Pokémon that you raise with you feel equally important. For the past few generations you’ve been able to build relationships with your chosen six Pokémon, but now you can send them out on jobs (not even monsters are free from capitalism) and play around with them in the camp. These are small but significant touches that pull you into Galar.
I can’t say if it’s the best Pokémon game out there. I’ve played far too many, and I’ll never be as fully invested in them as I was as a child. There are still the usual flaws (why on earth is there only one save slot still?) and repetitiveness, namely that once you’ve figured out your team you’re pretty much set, but this is the first time in well over a decade that I’ve played a Pokémon game and felt wonder.
Sword and Shield didn’t make me feel like a kid again, but it made me wish I was a kid so this could be my first Pokémon game. For the first time, maybe since the first or second generation, we’ve got a game that doesn’t feel like just another game, but the next Pokémon game.
Pokemon Sword and Shield on Nintendo Switch out now.