With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.
The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you'd get in previous games, including the "how to catch Pokemon" tutorial, which hasn't been done since 2001's Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you're already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.
And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day's weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It's all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven't caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn't realize you could catch in the wild. There's constantly something new to do or discover, and it's there to engage you right out of the gate.
Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs--though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.
You're given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you've visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.
Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar--even in the traditional routes and caves--which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you're never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.
For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It's much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it's simpler--and that's refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you're just limited by location rather than an item, so it's a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.
Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.
At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you'll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn't even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless--all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It's a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you've beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you're catching, it's satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.
The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents' abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.
The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they're cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.
The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what's here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now--and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere--you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield's main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.
It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area's secrets bit by bit has been a treat.
If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon--you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it's really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.
The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).
For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon's nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don't have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.
In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You're not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series' proper debut on Switch.