(Pocket-lint) - Welcome to the Galar region, where Sword and Shield, the eighth-generation Pokemon JRPG, is set. And it's the most solid, modern and open offering yet. But it's not quite perfect.
Players who have been waiting for the ultimate Pokemon experience will have to continue to be patient, but what we find in Galar is some solid foundations, combining the classic and the modern.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield - yes, it's actually two game options, hence the game being affectionately known as Sw/Sh to many - will underpin the game for the next generation. Here's what we make of it.
Sword vs Shield: What's the difference?
In a sense it's like buying a special edition magazine cover: the core content in both Sword and Shield is the same, in that you'll experience the same story.
However, there are version-exclusive trainer Gyms, Pokemon types, different Legendaries, and sharable Fossils. If you have one game version and a friend has the other then you can work on combinations.
For fans and newbies alike
It's incredibly easy to jump right into Pokemon Sw/Sh, even if you've never played a Pokemon game before. Everything feels agile, accompanied by a minimalist and modern interface. The first hour of play is direct, it gets to the point and is not lost in tutorials. Once you've chosen Grookey, Sobble or Scorbunny, everything in Galar is yours for the taking.
After choosing our starter Sobble - a cry baby tadpole, who is surprisingly good in a battle - and setting out with such enthusiasm, we felt one of the main letdowns is the narrative, which seems throw-away and often anti-climactic.
After a compelling first few hours - which includes the introduction of the Wild Area - it's as if the game forgets there's a story going on. Team Yell, the group of villains, are not the most charismatic group. It's as if they're not even convincing about causing trouble. That said, there's a good assortment of Gym Leaders, with two differences between editions in two specific Gyms.
What is perfectly designed is the difficulty curve. In some Gyms you'll regret stepping up if not well prepared, because of Dynamax move mechanics - which is the process of becoming enormous. Dynamaxing is available to all Pokemon to improve their moves. Gigantamax, the step beyond this, is unique to a handful of Pokemon, giving them unique secondary effects when using Max moves. The introduction of both Dinamax and Gigamax is astute and they will give a balanced boost to the competitive scene.
The Wild Area
The Wild Area is full of surprises. It's the place where you can access the first stages of the adventure and from multiple points of the map.
It's huge, too, a lot of hectares where dozens of creatures from the eight existing generations - which some would argue is not enough - and where exciting and often unpredictable battles go hand-in-hand with some inclement weather (summer in one field, snowy in another - even though they are right next to each other).
You could get lost for tens if not hundreds of hours here as there are so many species. The possibility of making chains to facilitate shiny encounters can become addictive, just like it did in Pokemon Let's Go, so look out for Pokemon with an aura as this indicates different characteristics.
The Wild Area is increasingly useful after you beat the champion Leon, since most 5-star raids give you Large and Extra Large experience candies - which makes levelling-up faster.
The Raids are the backbone columns of the Wild Area. When you're running about battling and encounter a circle of large stones - some of whichradiate different coloured light in a beam into the sky - you can start the raid countdown timer.
A Raid involves up to four trainers in a battle. There are five categories (from one to five stars), from lesser to greater difficulty and, therefore, access to better prizes as you commence.
Only the host of the Raid can perform the Gigamax phenomenon (as outlined above) on their chosen Pokemon, but the four participants can try to capture the target when the battle ends. Unlike Pokemon Go you don't have to wait around for people - and if you do wait for people usually it fills up pretty quick now that trainers are getting to the higher levels.
Just by pressing Y on your Nintendo Switch joycon controller you access a display menu that allows you to carry out Exchanges, Surprise Exchanges, start fighting with other trainers, or share your activity as if it were a social network.
The timeline of your activity appears in the HUD of the screen, while opening the menu allows you to see everything in more detail, such as if there is an active Raid to join.
At any point during your adventure, even away from the Wild Area, you have the possibility to open that menu and join a Raid.
The Galar region is based unapologetically on the United Kingdom. From folklore to architecture, from the interiors of the houses to the fashion sense, everything has a hint of Devon about it.
There are moments you will be left breathless, such as when looking at the top of the Bell Tower in Johto, or the Studio Ghibli lookalike Lumirinto Forest. But you can be jolted out of these vistas by technical glitches that we find unacceptable in an AAA game.
While technically the game is polished and remains stable at 30fps, you will see characters' feet falling through the screen or popping textures that don't finish loading as they should, as well as trees and some stones have textures that remind you of the walls from Doom (the 1993 version).
Pokemon Centers are your base of operations. They have an integrated store where better objects will appear as you collect medals. The Poke CampIt you can cook loads (dozens) of recipes through an addictive minigame. The mechanics are very simple: we choose up to ten different berries, put them in the pan and you've basically started your own Curry House.
Unlike our Inteleon - that's the final Evolution of our chosen starter, Sobble, who has a distinctly disapproving demeanour - it'll be nigh-on impossible to turn your nose up at Pokemon Sword and Shield. Whichever game you choose, it's a highly entertaining journey.
Pokemon has become a modern JRPG without renouncing its essence. A breathtaking soundtrack by Ordago, the introduction of dozens of delightful new species, and impressive new mechanics create a cohesive and balanced experience.
If haven't tried a Pokemon game before, this is where you should start; if you already love Pokemon then Sword and Shield will immediately be your new favourite. The Pokemon franchise remains inexhaustible and seemingly fireproof.