As a kid, I watched the Pokémon anime whenever I visited my grandma’s. It was the only place where I could watch cable. Kids have expansive imaginations, and I loved the idea that at just 10 years old I could become a Pokémon Master. Sure, I might have to wait until 16 to drive, but at 10 I could strike it out on my own to find Mewtwo! The anime painted a comprehensive picture of what the Pokémon world was, but it took until Pokémon Sword and Shield to capitalize on that initial expansive vision.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved most of the Pokémon games. Pokémon FireRed, the first game I played in the series, was my favorite game as a kid. It inspired my imagination like no other. Kids have an incredible ability to expand lore in their heads, using their imagination in a way few adults can. I saw the Kanto region as an entire world, with each new creature its own enthralling encounter.
As I grew older, I realized that the Pokémon games were incredible — but at their core were rather linear JRPGs. There are caves and occasionally tough battles, but the series is not nearly as expansive on paper as I saw it in my imagination or in its anime. Pokémon Sword and Shield have taken some substantial and important steps forward toward Pokémon’s original vision. It is the most comprehensive world we have seen yet from Pokémon.
Some of these elements are seen in the way Gym Battles and the Pokémon League are structured. These are massive sports spectacles, not simple affairs for players to plow through like in other games. The Pokémon battles themselves are front and center in the eighth generation, whereas in other games other story elements took priority. Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on immersive battles led to a disregard for the story. Sword and Shield easily feature one of the worst campaigns in Pokémon history — and that is saying a lot. The villain is half-baked, the Legendaries are not as badass, and Team Yell is borderline pathetic. It’s a shame. Despite the amped-up Pokémon battles hitting their stylistic peak, Nintendo failed in this element to create a world that we would actually care about. Still, Sword and Shield took decisive steps to make this the most believable Pokémon world.
The Wild Area is the culmination of what Pokémon is about. It’s a cohesive world and environment, exactly as I had pictured as a kid. The Wild Area almost makes me forget about the fact that I was unable to bring over the 800 Pokémon I had managed to catch up until Sun and Moon. Its weather and Pokémon variation make filling out the Pokédex more exciting and rewarding. There’s far more up to chance. The real-life environments amplify the excitement of seeing a new Pokémon simply because the encounters are far more surprising. Moreover, I love that the level of Pokémon scale to your progress in the game. Catching Pokémon at level 60 in the postgame is a sign of respect to Pokémon players, the equivalent of Game Freak saying: “Yes, you can handle it.”
Other small improvements make the environment more believable as well. Turning the internet on, for example, allows players to see a bunch of players in the Wild Area in real time. In previous games, the Pokémon experience was rather solitary. You could trade and battle, but you would not see other players in-game. Sword and Shield do a wonderful job keeping the world alive and believable through its online features.
While I fully understand that lifelong Pokémon fans may be disappointed by the loss of hundreds of Pokémon and other development decisions, first-time players will be blown away by the complete adventure that is Pokémon Sword and Shield. If I had received the game as a fourth-grader — with more than 400 Pokémon to catch in its expansive world — it would have been a wholly engrossing experience. I would have been bolted to my seat for months. Yes, future Pokémon games still have to make a lot of improvements, including to the Wild Area, but Pokémon Sword and Shield are a fantastic step toward realizing the potential I saw in the franchise as a child.