Pokémon Shield is a pioneer. With a new platform comes a cluster of changes, a flurry of firsts. It’s the first game in the series to use an autosave, to have cut down the Pokédex, to turn the little beasties into behemoths, with the new Gigantamax forms. It’s also the first time we’ve found out that a world filled with Pokémon would be dread-full.

The Galar Region’s Wild Area is the biggest addition to the Pokémon world order. This time, Trainers will come across wandering Wooloos and grumbling Growlithe in the grass, and the region feels like a proper ecosystem. Some critters will run and hide, some will watch you curiously, and some will hunt you down like a dog. Nothing compares to the utter terror of encountering a giant Dusclops in a thunderstorm and having it zoom, at the speed of light, towards your placidly smiling Trainer. It’s a delight to scurry round and be surprised by the creatures that scamper and chirrup the way that real creatures do. And you won’t be able to catch those who are many levels above you, in much the same way that you wouldn’t be able to catch a cat that’s smarter than you (hint: they’re all smarter than you). Sure, some of the environmental assets don’t look beautiful—the thunderstorm ambience roars but the trees are still and blockish—but I’m not looking at the trees. I’m looking at the Liepard stalking the grasses and hoping it doesn’t decide I’m lunch.

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield both have eight Gyms, which vary depending on which game you get. Shield has the Grass, Water, Fire, Ghost, Fairy, Ice, and Dragon Gyms, and the Galar Region, the setting of both games, is simply barmy for the competitive scene. Like the Kahuna feature in Sun and Moon, the Gyms have special challenges before the Trainer meets the Leader. For the first three Gyms, these were awesome, but then petered off into a pinball thing, a quiz, and a maze. Each Gym battle begins in a stadium packed to the brim with attendees, all whooping support and cheers for their favourite. As the Pokémon score critical hits and are knocked out, the crowd will “ooh” and “aah,” and it’s ridiculous and thrilling. Don’t even get them started on the Dynamax and Gigantamax forms, also known as when a Pokémon transforms into a hulk and gets unique moves. The crowd goes nuts. It’s understandable; seeing a Gigantamax Gengar would cause me to brick it, too. 

The region is peppered with cities and towns that are fully realised in three dimensions. With silly names like Circhester, Motostoke, and Wyndon, the locales have locals who call out “Howzit, mate?” as the Trainer sprints past them to the Pokémon Centre. At these Pokémon Centres, there are new features that add to the Galar Region experience. Galarians love Pokémon and use them to help out with various professions, and certain types of Pokémon are better suited to certain tasks. Sending a team of Fire-type Pokémon to a restaurant will award them with oodles of experience, even if they’ve been stuck in the Box. And, Pokémon will be able to remember a move that the player skips over when they level up. These additions are an inspired mechanism for keeping all of a Trainer’s Pokémon viable in battle and allows for flexibility for new players. Me being one of those new kids on the block.

Bringing the community together, the online features offer Special Trades and Link Trades and Battles, which is the norm. What is new are the Max Raid Battles. In the Wild Area, there are pits in the ground that glow with mysterious red light. Players will engage in a battle with a Dynamaxed wild Pokémon and other players can join in the fight. These are alright, but what I love the most is the Pokémon Camp. At any moment during the Trainer’s journey, they can set up a tent for the team to use as a pit stop. Other players wandering the Wild Area will drop by, and their Pokémon will play with their new pals. Chatting with the Pokémon will increase their friendship but cooking them curry is a whole ‘nother level. Curries can cure status conditions, award experience points, and replenish health points. And, it’s so cute to watch your Trainer and Pokémon timidly test this experimental recipe made from fast food leftovers, sweet and sour berries, and a helping of rice. Miraculously, it tastes delicious, which may be an indictment of Galarian (read: British) cuisine.

But, there are issues with it. I experienced a bit of stuttering, none of the six million players of Sword and/or Shield wanted to do a Special Trade with me, the textures in the Wild Area don’t look fabulous, and I was sad that my baby Bulbasaur didn’t make it into the Pokédex. Online Trainers in the Wild Area give you curry ingredients or rare treasures, but, due to connection issues, they’ll pop in and out like odd but friendly ghosts. The Gyms lose steam rapidly, and the writing isn’t winning any awards. But then, I remember that this is a game for children. It’s a game that would appeal to veteran Trainers and to rookie players alike, with the new changes that shake up the meta and simplifies the strategy that has been built up for more than twenty years. The game directors explained that developing for the Nintendo Switch was a unique challenge, and Game Freak has been churning out Pokémon games on a yearly basis. Some things are going to slip, intentionally or unintentionally.

This is my first Pokémon RPG. I play Pokémon GO and I started SoulSilver but didn’t get very far with it. The changes that Pokémon Sword and Shield have brought makes this game much more accessible for me and makes sense within the story. It might not be the very best, but it’s pretty darn close.