The covers of the “Pokémon Sword and Shield” video games. The games were released on Nov. 15. PUBLIC DOMAIN

“Pokémon Sword and Shield” have recaptured the classic magic of “Pokémon Red and Blue,” the very first installments in the franchise. This review will be spoiler-free for anyone looking to play the games without spoiling the story. I will also be addressing why the cutting of some pokémon — better known to fans as “#Dexit” — is actually good for the franchise.

The games have been so streamlined and fine-tuned that the monotony of previous installments is nothing more than a distant memory. Forgoing the tutorials is finally an option and the player can almost immediately jump into gameplay free of the hand-holding that bogged down “Pokémon Sun and Moon.”

Everything about playing this game was immensely fun; the new pokémon were creatively-designed delights, the battling feels quick and responsive and the exploration of this game feels more free and open than it has ever been.

The graphics have improved astronomically. From the black and white pixel art that “Pokémon” started with over 20 years ago and the 240p visuals of Nintendo 3DS games, it’s clear to see how far the series has come. There was some controversy regarding the appearance of this game before its release, but the towns, routes, cutscenes and Dynamaxed pokémon all look so good that anyone playing this game will be hard-pressed to find fault with these visuals.

Plenty of the battle animations also look gorgeous. Some, like the animation for double kick, leave something to be desired; however, there are others, such as the starters’ signature moves, look so good that my jaw actually dropped a little bit.

The new pokémon designs are refreshing additions to the franchise. While I won’t go into much detail here to avoid spoiling it, suffice to say, some of these designs have quickly climbed into the ranks of my all time favorites.

Fairly early on, I was thrown into the Wild Area, the game’s open-world area that the player is free to explore, and I was impressed. While the graphics in this area sometimes lacked, the gameplay is phenomenal. Wild pokémon abound, and the area gives a real sensation of being free to run around in nature without any roadblocks or fences slowing the player’s progress.

Max Raid Battles in the Wild Area are a new feature that I hope never ever goes away. They are so much fun; I’ve already spent a lot of time joining up with friends online to take down powerful Dynamax and Gigantamax raids, and I plan on spending plenty more.

The focus is on the Wild Area and the Dynamaxing of pokémon — a gimmick unique to the Galar region — for much of the game, but it works very well. Dynamaxing pokémon in gym battles makes great use of the stadium setting; combined with an intense musical score, every gym battle feels like a tense sporting event where everything is on the line.

The music has always been an important part of “Pokémon” games, with an iconic backing score setting the scene for every route. Themes for gym leaders and rivals have always been designed to elicit excitement for the battle. This time, however, the musical score elevates the entire game beyond just basic enhancement. Every single track in this game is fantastic, but in particular, both the gym battle theme and an important battle theme that comes toward the end of the story built such an intense and palpable tension that I was amped up just listening to it. This is easily the best score that a “Pokémon” game has ever produced.

The story is also fantastic, filled with the perfect balance of heartwarming moments and serious turns that kept me engaged and enjoying myself the whole way through. Unlike “Sun and Moon,” whose cutscenes were absolutely unbearable to sit through, I never felt like the cutscenes in this game dragged on or wasted my time. It is clear to see how much Game Freak has improved both in their writing, but also in their ability to pace a story properly just in the short time between “Sun and Moon” and “Sword and Shield.”

The main reason why there was so much controversy surrounding the release of these games was what is now known to fans as “#Dexit.” Game Freak announced at the E3 games expo that not all of the pokémon in the franchise would be obtainable in the eighth generation installments and this culling of pokémon made some fans very, very angry. After playing the games, I can definitively say that Game Freak made the right decision.

Including the pokémon added in this game, the franchise now includes over 900 pokémon; including alternate forms and models for pokémon, the number is easily over 1000. That crazy high number of pokémon has oversaturated the series and continued to hurt the franchise, which started off with just 151 pokémon. This return to a more reasonable number has improved the game by allowing for a different variety of pokémon to be used in playthroughs and competitive play. Even with reduced numbers, the variety of pokémon available on every route and area still feels like more than enough.

The latest installment in the franchise provided me with more fun and joy than a Pokémon game has in years, and I plan to keep playing it for a long time to come. This may be one of — if not the best — installment that the franchise has ever had.

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