Pokémon is nothing short of being a cultural phenomenon that has taken the world by storm. What began as two games in Japan back in 1996 has since churned out another 7 generations of main-line games, several spin-off titles and has been adapted into both TV and film spanning well over a dozen films and many TV series. It’s a complete powerhouse of marketing and likability that has transcended typical age demographics, making it a much-loved brand by all ages. We have seen the main game series grow-up and evolve before our very eyes these past 2-plus decades and somehow Game Freak continue to re-invent the simple philosophy of taking on a quest to catch them all. Sword and Shield was met with much criticism before launch but that doesn’t matter now, what matters is, did Game Freak deliver?

Just like all good stories you get asked what you look like and what you should be called before venturing off into the world to fend for yourself when you’re still a child, completely safe right? Stripping back the story to its simplest form and this is what you get, but in Sword and Shield I appreciate the added context as to how you set-off to become a Pokémon master. You and your best-friend Hop set off together as both friends and rivals, a little friendly competition compared to the relationship that your character and rival face in the Red & Blue games for instance.

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Throughout the journey there are plenty of for lack of a better word, twists along the way that keep the pace of the story feeling fresh and exciting. It follows the same tropes and ideas but in different ways through good use of interesting characters you encounter as well as the beautiful visual design of just about everything. There is another Pokémon Professor however it’s their granddaughter that takes the limelight for much of the story as you get to see their own quest and thirst for knowledge grow before your eyes. It’s refreshing to see a different take on the Professor dynamic and how it’s been delivered this time around. In essence, you can see it’s more of the same and yet still finds a way to feel different and unique.

Battles have largely remained the same throughout the entire series, a party of six Pokémon, each having four moves and you need to match the various types strategically for maximum effectiveness. It’s turn-based, it’s simple and still addicting. For the past few generations though there has been something extra to really turn it up to 11, in Gen VI we were introduced to Mega-Evolutions and now in Gen VIII, there is Dynamaxing. It can’t be done in every battle and is basically a way increase your Pokémon’s size and their overall power, it lasts three turns after which they revert to their regular form which means strategy is absolute key to using this new mechanic.

If that wasn’t enough there is also such a thing as Gigantamaxing. This is basically Dynamaxing but where the Pokémon’s appearance completely changes too, only specific Pokémon can do it and when they do they have a unique G-Max move to use. These new additions to the combat mechanics can completely change the complexion of a battle instantly. Commonly with more stuff being added to something things can get jumbled, messy and complex, that isn’t the case here, it adds to the enjoyment and feels like the series is continually evolving whilst remaining true to its beginnings.

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Sword and Shield has been packed with some major quality of life improvements that are advantageous to not only the consumer but the developers and publishers too, as these changes I feel allow for more people to not only easily access and play but to stick with it throughout. The main improvement I feel is that the experience points after defeating or capturing a Pokémon is shared across your entire party. What this means if you aren’t familiar with the games is that all your team of six will level up no matter if you use them in battle or not. I love this and some will absolutely feel it takes some of the fun or grind out of the game, but I’m happy that I don’t have to keep battling in the same areas just to level up each of my team one by one. Instead, being able to progress through the story naturally and have my entire party stay on par with each other is a godsend, especially when it comes to fighting in the gym’s.

Fast Travel now happens quite early on and allows you to travel between previously visited places, instead of having to keep a flying type in your party taking up a space which has one of it’s moves taken up by the Fly HM, that is no more, thank you! A similar situation is now that there are no HM’s, surf is another move you no longer have to worry about keeping available thanks to your trusty rotom bike that can traverse water. Those are just a few of the improvements that make the adventure much easier to get along with than prior titles.

Pleasant, just one of several words that can be used when describing a stroll through the Galar Region in which this generation is set. I mean come on, visually, this game is gorgeous and is a true example that any art-style can produce stunning visuals in the right hands. Bright colours and a fantastic world design deliver some awe-inspiring views. The best part for me is how easy it is to identify that Galar was designed with the United Kingdom in mind, with much of the architecture paying homage to perhaps the greatest area of the world, hey, I’m patriotic.

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The music of the series has always been iconic, it’s by far some of the most recognisable music in the world and with each new generation it constantly adapts to provide a bit of freshness that sticks to its roots but adds a little extra. Whilst there are plenty of tunes that hit me in those nostalgia feels, there were just as many completely new pieces that I gladly welcome, just overall good vibes and tons of charm that these games are known for.

Now with all the new stuff added in there are a lot of omissions, the main one being that a huge majority of past Pokémon aren’t present which has been the big talking point. Personally, yeah I could do with some of my favourites coming back but I have to appreciate what’s been accomplished in Sword and Shield, 400 different Pokémon available to catch, the game is meaty in terms of that there is loads to jump into even after finishing the main story.

OVERALL: 9/10 – EXCELLENCE

Whilst it’s still not quite the ultimate Pokémon game we dream of, to have all past and present critters, tons of regions to explore etc, it certainly is up there with one of the better offerings of the series to date. The Galar Region is gorgeous, the music is exhilarating as always and we’ve been introduced to even more interesting, memorable and unique characters. I adored my time in Galar and look forward to the expansion packs in the future.

Reviewed by Rhys Baldwin.

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