Pokemon better than ever in latest evolution

With new monsters, a vibrant and more immersive world, seamless connectivity with other players near or far and a heap of quality of life tweaks, Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are a clear generational leap over 2016’s Sun and Moon, which were themselves already a bridge between the retro charm of the original Game Boy games and more modern roleplaying experiences.

The setup for Sword and Shield is relatively familiar; after selecting your very first pokemon in a small town you head off on a journey across the entire region on a mission to discover them all — from the adorable to the creepy or grotesque — and train your favourites to take on all comers in battle. The big difference here is that a lot of the systems have been redesigned to let you focus more on experiencing and growing these endearing creatures that you can’t help but form emotional attachments to, and less on fighting endless samey battles with wild monsters or travelling back and forth between healing centres.

Pokemon has come a long way since the original '90s games.

Pokemon has come a long way since the original ’90s games.

The long tutorials are now also totally optional — which is great for returning players — and annoyances like random encounters, grinding to raise low-level monsters and having to go back to a town in order to switch your party are now things of the past. The result is undoubtedly an easier game, but since the relative difficulty of older Pokemon games comes mostly from frustrating design (why shouldn’t I be able to choose which six creatures are in my team while I’m out in the field?) that’s not so bad.

The quicker and more modern feel of the game is matched by its presentation, which is finally in HD and can be played on a TV or handheld; a first ever for the main Pokemon series (though we did see HD creatures in a bit more of a cutesy style with last year’s Pokemon GO inspired remake of Yellow). All the creatures, which include new designs and a mix from the seven previous generations, look wonderful, and the towns and routes are more diverse and organic than ever. Although it is a little weird that so many retro elements — like the Game Boy style cries, lack of voice acting and the fact the creatures never actually appear to be hitting each other — still persist.

On the other hand Sword and Shield break massively with tradition by not including a national Pokedex. This means that the 300+ pokemon you’ll find in the wild are the only ones usable in the game; you can’t bring other monsters in by transferring from a previous title. To be honest this was a non-issue for me, as the list of creatures is robust and diverse, but I can see why it might rankle some fans.

Sword and Shield‘s Galar region is based heavily on Britain and is a delight, from its cockney turns of phrase to its indigenous pokemon themed after knights, sheep, tea and the industrial revolution among many others. Energy and food are also a common theme for new creatures and Galar-specific forms of existing ones, with both creative and disturbing results.

New takes on established series elements all have a British twist, like the bad guys who are a mix between sports hooligans, punk rockers and Instagram stalkers, or the fact that gym battles are now part of a football-style stadium competition where monsters can become huge thanks to a local phenomenon called Dynamax.

The full-fat battling experience is present and accounted for, but as with the rest of the game feels smartly refined. For example the most important factor is still that every move and every pokemon has an elemental type, with strengths and weaknesses versus other types (you don’t have to memorise them; if you’re fighting a pokemon you’ve battled before the game will keep track of which of your moves is effective), but selecting moves for your team is no longer as onerous as it once was. If you let your pokemon learn a move when it levels up and later have a change of heart, you can now recall that move at a Pokemon Centre. The selection of moves teachable through hidden TM discs (and new TR discs, which break once you’ve used them with a single pokemon) now also feels fuller than ever.

Ghost type pokemon continue to be some of the weirdest, creepiest and most creative designs.

Ghost type pokemon continue to be some of the weirdest, creepiest and most creative designs.

Throughout Galar the pokemon run visibly through the long grass so you can easily choose which wild creatures to battle, or avoid them entirely, rather than facing unavoidable battles at set intervals. Rarer breeds appear as anonymous exclamation marks under the foliage, which maintains an element of surprise and randomness, but the pace of the game is so much more enjoyable when you don’t have those slogs of endless battles against zubats or bidoofs. You can focus on finding and catching the creatures you want, and battling only when you want to earn experience points and level up your team.

And speaking for earning experience, the best place to do it in Galar is also the game’s most successful paradigm shift of all: the wild area. This is a massive open environment in the middle of the region, filled with pokemon that change depending on the weather and the time of day. I found myself returning constantly to find new monsters in the long grass, or daring to take on the over-levelled beasts that roam the paths and fields. The level of creatures you can catch with a pokeball is determined by how many gyms you’ve defeated, so for much of the game you’ll find monsters here that are just too powerful for you to add to your team, but fighting them is still good for a challenge and an EXP boost.

The wild area is constantly shifting as different weather patterns and raid battles appear.

The wild area is constantly shifting as different weather patterns and raid battles appear.

The wild area is like a Pokemon take on a much more modern RPG experience, contrasting but supporting the broader, more old-school main quest, and it comes alongside the most contemporary networking setup the games have seen yet.

There is no longer a cumbersome separate mode for battling and trading with others. You just choose between local or internet communication, and then when you want to trade or battle you say so and keep playing. Depending on your communication type, your request might be seen by your friend or someone else on your train, or a random person out on the internet, who can reciprocate to join you. Surprise trades — where you each send one Pokemon and hope for good karma — are especially fun out in public, even if some people just use it as a way to get rid of low-level creatures.

In the wild area other players you’re connected to are visible as they wander around, and you can team up with them in a group of four to take on huge Dynamax pokemon and receive useful loot. This might become less fun as people move on to other games, but for now it’s great.

There are so many other new details that make this game a joy; like the unprecedented customisation options for your trainers’ clothes and appearance, the special versions of pokemon you can find that change forms when they Dynamax, or the weirdly in-depth practice of making curry rice for your pokemon if you camp for a rest. But the best part is that it evokes the same feelings of older Pokemon games — feelings of discovery when you find a new town or spot a new creature, or triumph when you catch a cute critter or topple a gym — while getting a lot of unnecessary barriers out of your way.

Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are out now for Switch.