I’ve ventured into countless pokémon gyms over the past two decades, but nothing has ever felt as thrilling as the massive stadiums in Pokémon Sword and Shield.
In the past, I almost always knew what to expect: a series of small challenges followed by a battle inside a gym with a high-level trainer who is obsessed with pokémon of a particular type. And while that remains largely the same in the latest Nintendo Switch release, a newfound sense of scale turns it into something more exciting, with huge arenas filled with thousands of screaming fans while gigantic, holographic monsters do battle. This is the same Pokémon you know and love, but it’s cranked up with a bigger world and more adventurous spirit.
The core structure remains virtually identical to previous games. You once again play as an aspiring pokémon trainer from a small town, with the ultimate goal of becoming your region’s champion. You have a best friend who serves as your rival throughout the game, and you’ll travel the world collecting gym badges on your way to qualifying for the Pokémon League. The story is intertwined with secrets of pokémon lore; during your quest to become the very best, you’ll also uncover mysteries involving ancient creatures and dark prophecies. It’s fairly simple and par for the course for the series — Pokémon isn’t exactly a franchise renowned for its storytelling prowess — but it serves its purpose, which is to give you an excuse to explore every nook and cranny of the world. (It also ends on a genuinely surprising twist, a rarity for Pokémon.)
The game takes place in a new region called Galar, which is very clearly based on the United Kingdom. There’s a city that looks like London, ancient castles that wouldn’t be out of place in Scotland, and lots of rolling green English countryside to venture through. And if that didn’t drive it home, Sword and Shield are also full of English slang. You’ll battle with coppers, buy trackies from the shop, and just about everyone will call you “mate.” It can be a bit much at times, but it definitely gives Galar its own distinct flavor within the wider Pokémon universe.
The new Pokémon is the first designed specifically for the Switch (last year’s Let’s Go was more of a remake than a brand-new adventure), and the shift to a home console is a positive one. Everything just feels bigger; the world is more detailed and dynamic. What you are doing in the game — venturing from one town to the next, collecting pokémon, and battling trainers — remains the same as ever. But Pokémon has always been a series that felt constrained by technology, as these games are grand adventures crammed on to tiny handhelds. Many of the more epic moments required some suspension of disbelief.
That isn’t the case in Sword and Shield. Everything is as it should be. Huge pokémon like Gyarados or Steelix are appropriately massive, as are the locations. You can tell the…