Pokémon Sword And Shield Is A Wildly Fun Ride

For almost a quarter century, Pokémon has dominated the gaming charts with its delectable mix of classic turn-based RPG action, catchable creatures, and delightful storytelling that’ll please just about any type of gamer. If you like Nintendo, chances are you LOVE Pokémon. While almost every new entry in the franchise has been universally praised by its fervent fan base, the past two Pokémon games on the Switch both received some pushback ahead of their releases.

Last year’s Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! was criticized for being yet another remake of 1996’s Pokémon Red and Blue, which were already remade as 1999’s Pokémon Yellow. This year, gamers were incensed to learn that several OG Pokémon wouldn’t be appearing in Sword and Shield (e.g. there’s no National Pokédex) and upon closer inspection, the graphics didn’t seem on par with the Switch’s other AAA titles.

Well, guess what? None of that stopped Pokémon Sword and Shield from instantly becoming the fastest-selling Switch game of all time. Moreover, it had the highest-grossing launch of ANY Pokémon game in Canada. And by the way, after spending a couple dozen hours with Pokémon Sword, I’d say it’s perhaps THE definitive Pokémon game.

So, what’s new this time? Quite a lot, actually, but there are also several familiar beats. You still start as a small-town squirt with an annoyingly competitive friend (in this case, a really obnoxious kid named Hop) who gets their first shiny new Pokémon and the task of becoming the region’s next Pokémon League Champion. You’re offered one of three adorable new starter Pokémon: Grookey (grass type), Sobble (water type), or Scorbunny (fire type). I went with Grookey because A) I’ve always been most comfortable with grass types and B) Grookey’s just the gosh-darn CUTEST. You can choose to play as a lil’ guy or gal, who can be customized with adorable clothing and hairdos.

Switching up regions isn’t the biggest novelty this franchise has seen, but Sword and Shield’s Galar region is a breath of fresh air. Taking its visual cues from the United Kingdom, it’s definitely a more dynamic backdrop than anything we’ve ever seen before, with obvious nods to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, both in terms of visual style and gameplay. While Galar doesn’t quite reach the same immersive heights as Hyrule, it’s a welcome location.

While this game has received some flack for its graphical limitations (namely rehashing old Pokémon designs), it’s still above and beyond what we’ve come to expect from past handheld iterations. If you’re like me and elected to play this puppy on the go with your brand spankin’ new Nintendo Switch Lite (extra geek points if you’re playing on a limited Zacian and Zamazenta edition) as opposed to docked, the game still looks lovely. It took more than a hot minute, but Pokémon has officially entered the HD era of gaming.

Another nifty new feature is the Wild Area, an expansive open world filled with big and small Pokémon to catch or defeat for XP. Coming into contact with a Level 50 Onix minutes into the game reminded me of the thrillingly daunting encounters I had after paragliding off the edge of Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau. In this case, you can work alongside other online trainers (or alone) in a raid battle to bring down tougher Pokémon and earn XP candies and powerful TMs. All of this to say that Pokémon has never been so sprawling. In fact, it’s so vast you’ll probably want to give your feet a rest by building a campsite to play with your Pokémon and cook berry-infused curry dishes over an open fire just like Link. YUM!

Like Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! you’re mercifully no longer faced with random wild Pokémon encounters. Unlike that game, which may have gone a step too far by doing away with wild Pokémon combat entirely, you now have the option to fight, catch, or flee like a coward.

As the maps have evolved, every subsequent Pokémon game has improved its travel system, and Sword and Shield continue that tradition. Both the Rotom Bike and Corviknight Taxi are super-efficient, with the former allowing you to travel over water and on land, and the latter “fast-travel” option getting unlocked as soon as you reach the first gym.

Speaking of gyms, as usual, there are eight spread across the region that you’ll need to conquer. But their cinematic look and feel really elevate the action to create a far more thrilling experience. For the first time, the scope of these gyms bring the stakes to a whole new level, making each gym leader victory feel like a major milestone. The crowds even get more intense as you progress through the game.

The hot new battle mechanic Pokémon Sword and Shield offers are Dynamaxing and Gigamaxing. Specific to the Galar region, Dynamaxing makes your Pokémon grow significantly and, as a result, boosts their stats and gives them Max Moves. Dynamaxing is limited to specific areas, namely during gym battles and max raid battles (in which you take on three other players/trainers), and you can only do it once per battle. Your Pokémon will also revert to its former state after three turns, so be sure to strategize. Gigamaxing not only makes your Pokémon bigger, but it also gives it a new look. Even more powerful than Dynamaxing, Gigamaxing is also rarer and can only be used with specific Pokémon.

Pokémon Sword and Shield are available now exclusively on the Nintendo Switch. Check out the trailer below.