Of all Nintendo’s franchises (or at least ones you would normally associate with them), the Pokémon series has often sat by the side-line throughout my life. While I got swept up in the craze of the original Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, it wouldn’t be until Pokémon Platinum that I peaked my head back through the mainline curtain before once again taking another long hiatus. Which brings us to 2021 and a rather quiet period for the industry allowing me the chance to go back and play games I never got round to. I felt it time to hop back into the world of Pokémon and try to recapture that fun and excitement I felt with the few adventures I did take on previously. Is Pokémon Shield up to the task?
In just the opening hour, Pokémon Shield feels like a welcoming hug, the familiar structure and story beats here in full swing. You’re a kid from a small town – this time located within the UK-inspired Galar region – who wants to be a Pokémon Master. After choosing one of three starter Pokémon, you’re off, travelling across Galar catching new critters and battling other Trainers. Along the way you’ll come across the usual Team Rocket-equivalent evil group and have a rival pop up to challenge you with an increasingly stronger team of Pokémon – we all know the drill. As predictable as it can be, the story is not exactly the thing I come to a Pokémon game for. Sure, it’s a pleasant enough tale with enjoyable characters, but the story beats weren’t the thing driving me forward. It was anticipating what Pokémon I might be able to catch in the next area or wondering how tough the next Gym Leader would be.
Speaking of, just like past Pokémon games your journey will take you to eight Gyms scattered about the region – each one led by a Gym leader who excels in one or two types of Pokémon. Defeat them, get the Gym Badge and it’s onto the next – pretty standard stuff. Pokémon Shield does mix things up a little though, with each Gym having unique challenges to complete before taking on the leader. These include directing a spinning cup down a pinball-like obstacle course or having to answer questions that can increase or decrease your stats depending on whether you answer them correctly. They’re short and rather simple in their design but at the very least add a little variety and help make each Gym feel unique.
With 400 Pokémon to fight, catch and trade, there’s plenty of little (and big) critters to discover in Pokémon Shield and while die-hard fans might scoff at the fact the game doesn’t include every single one the series has introduced so far, the mix of old, new and special Galarian forms offers a good amount of variety across all types.
Battles are the same one-on-one turn-based events the series has been known for since its beginnings with two versus two matches occasionally popping up during your adventure to mix things up too. Dynamaxing (or essentially turning your Pokémon into giant towering beasts) increases your Pokémon’s attack power for a limited time when initiated often making for an exciting way to cap off a battle especially when your rival does the same thing.
As someone who doesn’t know their Steel-type Pokémon from their Rock-type or whether this might be weak to that, I have to say I appreciate the fact that the game highlights how effective a move will be after you’ve used it against a Pokémon. In fact, there’s a bunch of small quality of life things I noticed (a far quicker introduction for one) that helped keep things moving at a good pace or helped someone like myself perhaps not so well versed in the Pokémon world.
Of course, the big new addition to the series is the Wild Area, a large open space littered with wild Pokémon that you’re free to explore using (another series first) a fully controllable camera. While this area makes up only a portion of the Galar region, it’s somewhere you’ll find yourself returning to repeatedly to search for new Pokémon that only appear during certain weather conditions, capture higher-level Pokémon after beating more Gym Leaders or team up with others in Max Raid Battles. The latter sees up to four players (online) taking on a Dynamaxed Pokémon that if defeated or captured can reward you with extras not found elsewhere in the game. It’s a neat idea and I love the idea of working together with others. However, finding a game with others was often a tough and long process. Overall, the Wild Area is an interesting location albeit one that feels perhaps more like the team experimenting with something than fully committing. If this is a sign of where the series could be heading then I’m fully onboard and would love to see the Wild Area idea expanded upon.
As much fun as I was having with the game, there was one thing that stood out and not in a good way. While other Nintendo-published titles like Super Mario Odyssey or Luigi’s Mansion 3 have truly amazed me with their presentation, Pokémon Shield left me feeling a little underwhelmed. As much as I enjoyed the soundtrack – the use of chanting during Gym battles is especially excellent – I still find it strange that 25 years later, the noises for nearly all Pokémon sound no better than they did back on the original Game Boy. Surely at this stage, we can have calls similar to the TV show? Battles too, while certainly improved since the jump to Nintendo Switch, still feel a little reserved in terms of animation and oomph.
Perhaps where I felt most disappointed though is in the environments. From a design standpoint, the Galar region has some truly interesting areas to explore, from the industrial-driven city of Motostoke to the neon-lit forest of Glimwood Tangle. Unfortunately, the game never blew me away from a technical standpoint with a combination of rough textures, some areas generally lacking in detail and scenery or Pokémon popping in and out of view even when they were a stone’s throw away. The Wild Area in particular suffers most from these issues.
Pokémon Shield is a warm and familiar experience with some interesting twists and ideas thrown into the mix. The presentation left me disappointed – the game still showing its handheld roots – but, the hook of capturing and training Pokémon is as addictive as it has ever been, while the Wild Area teases an exciting new direction for the series.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo