My first experience with playing Pokémon on a TV was putting my copy of Pokémon Red in my friend’s SNES Gameboy Adaptor. It was fun, but the pixels were stretched and it didn’t quite have the same magic as it did on my Gameboy Pocket’s tiny screen. Ever since then, I’ve waited for the day where I could finally play a Pokémon game on the big screen. We’ve come close to this before with Pokémon Let’s Go, but there’s a certain magic that comes from a brand-new generation of Pokémon that a remake can’t quite match. With Pokémon Shield we have our first new generation created with the big screen in mind, but as much as I wanted it, the game just misses the mark.
Why do I love new generations of Pokémon, you ask? Because I absolutely love discovering and finding the new Pokémon that litter the landscape. In fact, I generally make a point of constructing teams made purely of brand-new Pokémon. What that means for me, is that the reduction of Pokémon in the game didn’t affect my enjoyment or experience at all. In fact, personally, I prefer the smaller number of Pokémon, but I can appreciate that others may not feel the same way. I’ve had a small number of Pokémon I’ve loved over the last couple of generations, but Pokémon Shield is the first time in a long time where I’ve loved a great many of them. While I can only directly talk to a couple in this review, like the armour-plated Corviknight or the chomp-happy Dreadnaw, rest assured that you’re in for a treat as you explore the bounds of Galar.
Exploring new worlds and finding new Pokémon has long been the appeal of Pokémon as a franchise to me, and Pokémon Shield promised the most exploration in a long time through the Wild Area. A massive open area filled with wild Pokémon, the Wild Area sprawls across a large section in the middle of Galar. Initial trailers made it seem like this living, evolving area, but at the end of the day, the Wild Area doesn’t live up to that promise. While it’s true that you’ll find a wide range of Pokémon wandering about the place, including ones that can easily wipe out your team, there isn’t anything like the breadth those early trailers suggested. In reality, there are only a handful of different Pokémon you’ll find in each biome and only a couple of possible weather types that affect what Pokémon appear. NPCs littering the area simply stand in place, pretty much never moving from their assigned spots, and there’s no real reward to exploring the area. Raids are the most interesting thing you can do in the Wild Area, but even they fail to truly feel entertaining as your largely fight the same Pokémon over and over, gaining roughly the same reward each time. It just doesn’t feel like a fully realised concept, instead feeling unfinished, like it was a last-minute addition to the game.
In fact, much of Pokémon Shield feels unfinished or unrealised. Towns are mostly a single central corridor, with one or two intersections or branches. Pop-in is absolutely unmissable, with Trainers and Pokémon appearing from the ether mere meters in front of you. While I can understand not having voices as a stylistic choice, the distinct lack of music or sound effects during many cutscenes is incredibly jarring. The story is the shortest I’ve seen in a Pokémon game yet, likely due to how incredibly linear the game is. It’s also unflinchingly easy, even as I deliberately avoided battles with wild Pokémon wherever possible in an effort to artificially increase the difficulty.
What might be the most amazing part of Pokémon Shield though, is that despite all of these issues, I utterly loved my time with the game. While the story was short, it was also one of the most involved and well-realised, pulling together a much wider range of central characters than I’ve seen in a mainline Pokémon game. While many matches were unerringly easy, gym battles featured more moves protecting their weaknesses than I remember seeing in the past. Dynamaxing at the climax of a gym battle, as the music shifts to a crescendo and the gym leader interjects, bringing their personality into the battle, is something I haven’t experienced in the series before. In fact, the soundtrack is filled with fantastic beats that I found myself humming along to. The combination of visible Pokémon on the field and spots where you can’t tell what is about to jump out at you, melds both the new and old worlds of Pokémon fantastically. Characters and Pokémon look better than they’ve ever been in a mainline game, even if they don’t reach the heights of other games on the Switch.
In the end, Pokémon Shield feels like the franchise has taken one step forwards, but two steps back. There are plenty of improvements in the character models, livelier gym battles and a more involved story, but they’re balanced out by some horrendous pop-in, a boring Wild Area, an incredibly easy difficulty level and just a constant pervasive feeling that the game was rushed out and needed a bit longer in the oven. If you’re a fan of the series and feel you can get past these issues or you’re new to the series and just want to catch some Pokémon, you’ll find an incredibly fun experience at its core.
- Some fantastic new Pokemon - The most character-centric Pokemon story yet - Gym battles finally feel like fantastic spectacles
- Pop-in is utterly horrendous - Wild Area feels boring and unrealised - Lack of music and sound effects during many cutscenes is absurd - Linearity is frustrating