The first Pokémon I noticed when I entered Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield’s new Wild Area was an Onix, an enormous, cumbersome string of rocks slithering round an open area.
With Sobble by my facet — one in every of three starter Pokémon — I ventured out into the U.K.-inspired Galar area alongside my finest pal and new rival, Hop. His brother Leon, the present Galar area champion, had simply endorsed us for the Gym Challenge, a collection of eight gyms to defeat throughout the area.
The Wild Area is the primary main cease, a wide-open house that’s in contrast to any single zone I’ve seen earlier than in a Pokémon sport. I’m not required to do a lot of something within the Wild Area, simply discover. And there’s a lot to discover.
When I first entered the Wild Area and noticed an Onix, I approached it warily, considering I would possibly have the ability to decide up a very robust Pokémon early within the sport. I was fallacious. The Onix knocked out my meager workforce of Pokémon — unhappy lizard Sobble and electrical Corgi Yamper — and despatched me straight again to the Wild Area Station to heal up. Sword and Shield definitely provides extra thrilling Pokémon than the same old bunch of bugs and rodents, however my workforce was no match for the Wild Area’s overleveled Onix. It’s a superbly positioned lesson in what’s to come back: These aren’t the patches of tall grass I’ve grown accustomed to in Pokémon video games.
The Pokémon franchise is greater than 20 years outdated. Its final sport, Pokémon: Let’s Go!, was the franchise’s flawed-yet-charming transfer away from purely handheld gameplay when it was launched on Nintendo Switch in 2018. Sword and Shield is an enlargement of what Game Freak began with Let’s Go!, however with some significant adjustments. There’s a method to Pokémon video games: a preteen Pokémon coach gathering pocket monsters to create a workforce robust sufficient to win a battle. The video games are all the time nostalgic, however Sword and Shield isn’t senseless. It feels acquainted in all the correct methods, whereas including components that shocked me, for good and unhealthy. But principally good.
A champion’s journey
Sword and Shield’s story continues to be linear, however there’s sufficient within the Wild Area to permit for exploration that’s uncommon in latest Pokémon video games. There are nonetheless routes and mines that join every metropolis’s health club, however loads of the cities are accessible by way of the Wild Area, too. Still, you’ve received to finish the health club challenges within the story’s set order, uncovering an historical thriller and assembly extra rivals as you progress. But the Wild Area is there to interrupt up the monotony of a story that’s been advised over and over once more.
Though it’s a narrative Pokémon followers have heard earlier than, Sword and Shield works due to its characters, each human and Pokémon — although not all are created equal. Game Freak all the time excels at character design, and Sword and Shield isn’t any completely different, regardless of just a few shortcomings. One of these shortcomings, sadly, is the primary rival and finest pal, Hop. He felt far much less like a rival who’d push me to do higher, and extra like a delusional, overconfident mess. I truly felt unhealthy after pummeling him time and once more.
A extra worthy rival is Marnie, a goth lady coach whose goon squad of followers, Team Yell, follows her round. The members of Team Yell are much less like villains and extra like your Twitter mentions after you say something unhealthy about Ariana Grande on-line; they identical to Marnie loads, and will do something for her to succeed. Honestly, I can’t blame them. Marnie guidelines.
Sword and Shield makes some visible adjustments to creatures each new and outdated, too. Dynamax — and Gigantamax, which is when the Pokémon is large and has a brand new type and an additional particular transfer known as G-Max — Pokémon are primarily simply massive Pokémon with boosted stats and strikes. While I love the concept of a big Pikachu, I didn’t discover the characteristic all too compelling in battle. I switched Dynamax on (powered by a bracelet I obtained early within the sport) solely when my opponent did, simply to match their energy. I by no means discovered a lot substance in the way in which it’s used. The solely actual worth I received out of the mechanic was in seeing the brand new Pokémon varieties. Generally, they’re hilarious: Alcremie transforms from a pile of whipped cream into an enormous cake.
I’d a lot somewhat battle the old school approach, through the use of a technique I’ve designed in honing my Pokémon’s stats and in-type benefits. (The excellent news is that almost all of a battle performs out this manner, as Dynamax mechanics solely final for 3 strikes.) During the story, Dynamax Pokémon solely seem within the Gym Challenge, and leaders actually solely use them on their final Pokémon — which makes it predictable, and, frankly, form of boring. That’s to not say that Gym Challenges on their very own are boring; somewhat, that the implementation of the Dynamax mechanic is.
Gyms themselves are every dynamic and distinctive, with completely different “trials” main as much as the chief battle. For occasion, to battle the grass-type health club chief Milo, I needed to herd a flock of fluffy sheeplike Wooloos right into a pen. Ahead of Nessa’s water-type battle, I needed to clear up a sturdy gated puzzle that actually challenged me.
Dynamax Pokémon do turn out to be extra attention-grabbing within the Wild Areas’ Max Raid Battles, the brand new massive battle system whereby 4 trainers tackle one gigantic Pokémon. When Sword and Shield launches on Nov. 15, you’ll have the ability to workforce up with different gamers over the web, however the servers weren’t up through the evaluation interval. Even offline, I was in a position to take part in Max Raid Battles with nonplayable characters. They began off simple, however ramped up rapidly as I leveled up. Five gyms in, I was now not in a position to skate by with simply any Pokemon. I had to make use of technique to regulate to my fellow trainers’ decisions and limitations, which made the battles extra compelling.
The Wild Area
There are a number of highly effective Pokémon within the Wild Area, amongst them the Dynamax ones which are tremendous robust and carry a great deal of additional goodies, and others, like Onix, which are normal-sized however too robust to catch — at the very least till I’ve performed some leveling of my very own. These Pokémon are dangled in entrance of you want carrots, a reminder that in the future you’ll be a robust sufficient coach to catch ’em. They act extra like minibosses for every explicit part of the Wild Area, a problem inside a problem. By defeating every Gym Challenge, you’re in a position to catch higher-level Pokémon.
Not all Pokémon in Sword and Shield’s Wild Area are too robust to catch, although. As in Pokémon: Let’s Go!, Pokémon seem on display wandering by way of the world, which implies that shock battles with random creatures — a characteristic that dominated earlier video games — are restricted. It’s simple to dodge the rubbish rodents and solely tackle Pokémon you’re enthusiastic about including to your workforce. Moving by way of the world is much less of a grind. I can dodge Pokémon when I don’t wish to battle, and search them out when I do.
There are locations the place Sword and Shield reverts again to custom, with Pokémon hiding out in tall grass, however for almost all of the sport, there are many creatures populating the world. (Glimwood Tangle, the forest proven off in a pre-release 24-hour livestream, is one space the place Pokémon don’t spawn within the overworld.)
I didn’t play Pokémon: Let’s Go!, so Sword and Shield is my first Pokémon console sport. More importantly, it’s the primary sport whereby I might expertise the surprise of seeing these creatures — those I spent greater than 20 years studying about — outdoors of battle sequences. It makes Pokémon really feel alive, like they’re really a part of the world. Pokémon react to me as I cross by them. Some cover, whereas others are extra daring; at one level, I had a swarm of Bewears following me in an unsettling parade. My Pokémon don’t comply with alongside me, however different characters have buddies that do. It’s in these little particulars the place you possibly can recognize the personalities of the world’s Pokémon, which makes them really feel like extra than simply sprites on a display.
This extends into the way in which I can work together with my Pokémon in my camp, which is one other necessary side of the Wild Area. Because the Wild Area is so massive, it doesn’t make sense to trek again and forth to Pokémon Centers to heal. In the Pokémon Camp, I can are likely to my workforce by cooking them meals — curry — and enjoying with them. Cooking curry is, primarily, a timing minigame of fanning flames and stirring a pot. Making an excellent curry means restoring well being and PP, however it grants expertise factors, too. It additionally makes Pokémon pleased, which has advantages other than being extraordinarily cute: Pokémon that such as you wish to make you cheerful, so that they face up to important hits, amongst different issues. (Not to say, the lovely animations of Pokémon enjoying at Camp look nice on an enormous display. I love watching my workforce play.)
And so, I discovered myself visiting Pokémon Centers much less often, as a substitute opting to heal my Pokémon by crafting new curries. In reality, it’s one in every of my favourite components of the sport; it’s much less concerning the mechanics of creating an excellent curry, however find the elements to make new curries and seeing how my Pokémon react to them.
Even after finishing the primary story, which took round 30 hours, I was nonetheless capable of finding new elements within the Wild Area, in addition to new place and Pokémon I hadn’t encountered earlier than — which is to say that regardless of the nationwide ’dex controversy, Sword and Shield feels full with the 400 pocket monsters that are within the sport.
There’s an actual surprise in wandering into an space you’ve pored over for hours already, solely to search out one thing new every time you come. Sometimes these surprises are small, like an apple you can also make a brand new curry with. Other occasions, it’s a beforehand hidden location, an island in the midst of a lake with a half-dozen Bewear roaming round.
The Wild Area is all the time altering, too. Pokémon spawns change with the climate. You’re extra more likely to see ice Pokémon when it’s hailing, as an example. The Wild Area feels new every time I step into it.
The shock in Sword and Shield is that I’m nonetheless discovering issues that shock me, even after placing in so many hours. It’s in how Game Freak has made a linear sport really feel a lot much less linear. Make no mistake, Sword and Shield is just not an open-world sport. There are limitations. But the sport’s designed for me to not discover them, and principally, I don’t.
Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield can be launched Nov. 15 on Nintendo Switch. The sport was reviewed utilizing a bodily retail copy offered by Nintendo. You can discover further details about Polygon’s ethics coverage right here.