Continuing the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. My focus is on the narrative experience of the game, more than the mechanics of play, though I will include some introduction to what the world of Pokémon is all about.
Pokémon battles have a rock-paper-scissors mechanic. A water-type pokémon is strong against a fire-type. A fire-type is strong against a grass-type, and so on. Only in Pokémon there are 18 different types to keep track of. It’s not hard to remember that, say a electrical-type is strong against a water-type — but what about a steel-type against a bug-type, or a fighting-type against a dark-type? It’s complex, but learning type matching is an important part of being a successful battler and trainer.
The first stage of my story in Pokémon Sword & Shield is underway. My friend Hop and I are setting out on our journey to become champions in Galar’s great tradition of pokémon battling. Professor Magnolia’s assistant Sonia is also going to be traveling the land, but her goal is not battling, but scientific research about pokémon. I am getting a bit tired of Hop’s over-the-top enthusiasm and look forward to some time on my own quest — alone.
Our train to the city of Motostoke is delayed by a herd of wooloos and we have to travel a ways through the “Wild Area.” This introduces us to a new feature of this game. In the Wild Area you can wander and explore, find lots of pokémon, and even join other players in raids against giant “Dynamax” pokémon. The Wild Area is Pokémon’s first real attempt at an online game world, the sort of thing associated with World of Warcraft and other MMO (“massive multiplayer online”) games. Another very new aspect of the Wild Area is that some pokémon you might encounter there are very strong. Most of a Pokémon game is carefully designed so that as you play through it, the new pokémon you find are the appropriate strength for what you, as a pokémon trainer, should be able to handle at that point of the game. But in Sword & Shield’s Wild Area, if you are not careful, you can easily run into a pokémon strong enough to crush you and your team. Of course you never “die” in a Pokémon game. Loosing a battle is just a consumption of time and resources, but it’s a setback in your progress.
I could play around in the Wild Area as much as I’d like, but I need to get to Motostoke eventually. And it is a big town, a large city actually, compared to my home village. A new town means new shopping. Shopping is a surprisingly important part of video role-playing games, and has its roots in tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons. You go fight monsters, take their treasure, and the spend it. Usually on more weapons and gear to help you fight more monsters! In Pokémon you have always earned money by fighting other trainers and you spend it on better equipment to help you in your journey (the British flair of Sword & Shield continues, with references to this as buying your “kit”). As games have progressed shopping has developed to add the goal of customizing your character. You can buy clothes and accessories, as well as changing your hair style, eye color and (if your character is a girl) makeup. So you can play dress up, and either go for an exotic appearance, or try to make your character look the most like you as an actual person.
While you shop and explore the town you also have a chance to chat with people you pass on the street — this is almost always just a pre-set statement or brief exchange. Some of these exchanges are chit-chat, but occasionally an important piece of information or a clue will be mentioned, so you get into the habit of trying to talk to everybody you see. Sometimes they have gifts to hand out as well. Some of these NPCs (“non-player characters”) just have word balloons over their heads as you approach them, to represent what you overhear as they talk to other people. It’s a little more efficient, but does me feel like an eavesdropper, particularly when people are commenting about me, apparently not noticing that I right there.
When you spot someone who has distinctive clothes and elaborate, unusually colored hair, it is an immediately clue that this is not just a random citizen or passerby — it’s a character important to the story. That is how, when I visit the Pokémon Stadium, I meet Bede. Bede immediately gets serious about Antagonist Attitude. He seems offended by my mere prescience in his vicinity. His main beef is that he was authorized for the Pokémon Tournament by Chairman Rose, the owner of the whole shebang, while Hop and I were chosen by Leon, who is “only” the undefeated Champion. We also get to meet Rose himself, who is a Tony Stark-looking businessman who seems to own everything in sight. In role-playing games, wealthy, omnipresent businessmen who radiate an image of beneficence do not have a good record of trustworthiness— but we’ll see.
My main goal in town is registration for the Pokemon Tournament. Opening ceremonies are tomorrow, but fortunately my registration includes a free night at the hotel next door. There I meet Sonia again, who fills both Hop and myself in on a little background lore: the legend that there was once a hero who, armed with a magic sword and shield, defended the land from a disaster called “The Darkest Day.” Ominous foreshadowing. Is this game once again going to cast us in the role of a world saving hero? The fantasy adventure trope of an ancient evil that was once defeated, but now arises again for a new battle is maybe a little stale, 80 years after Lord of the Rings was written, so I hope that something a little fresher is in store.
My hotel check-in is interrupted by members of “Team Yell.” An expectation in Pokémon is encountering each game’s “Team.” It began with Team Rocket in Pokemon Red & Blue, and each subsequent game had a new group: Team Plasma, Team Galactic, Team Flare, etc. These mostly incompetent buffoons are the minions or followers of the game’s main bad guy and come from a long tradition of such characters in Japanese entertainment. Sun & Moon gave some nuance to its “Team Skull,” which was more an underprivileged street gang being exploited by more the powerful and privileged to do their dirty work. Team Yell, though rough and aggressive, are not immediately presented as criminal. They are the Pokémon Championship’s equivalent to football hooligans, and the devoted fans of another new character and competitor, Marnie. When we meet her, she’s relatively well-mannered (compared to Bede) and even apologies for her fan club (describing them as getting “a bit shirty). I am certain I will be encountering Team Yell throughout the game and will have some big matches against Marnie herself. But just how much of an antagonist, how much of an actual villain, she will turn out to be remains the be seen.
Before the ceremony I have as much time as I want to explore the steam powered city of Motostoke, talking to people, finding stray bits of treasure lying around, and even picking up a small side quest to find a missing pokémon. Eventually is time to move on to the ceremony, and to learn what the real structure of Sword & Shield, as a video game, will be. Fundamentally it is… exactly the same as every other Pokémon game. There are eight Pokémon gyms, each with a leader who specializes in a particular type of pokémon. I need to journey from one to another, in a set order, defeat the leader of each gym, and earn a badge. When I have eight badges I qualify to participate in a final championship battle.
While establishing that traditional structure, Sword & Shield makes radical changes in its presentation — though ones that are in keeping with how the games have progressed over the years. In the first few generations of Pokémon games, gym masters sat patiently waiting in their respective dojos for trainers to pass by. You knew very little about them in advance, so each encounter was a big reveal. In the last few games the gym leaders began to be developed as active characters. You could even encounter them walking around town, going about their lives when they weren’t on duty. In Pokémon Sun & Moon they were civic leaders with other responsibilities besides pokémon battles.
The distinguishing feature of the Galar region is that pokémon battling is a popular spectator sport and has an organized structure, like the Olympics. You don’t just wander the world as an itinerant battler, but enroll in this competition along with a cohort of other trainers, whom we can assume we will also ultimately battle. In this opening ceremony we don our official uniform (with a player number that we get to pick out) and parade into the stadium like a sport star. And then the Gym Leaders themselves are introduced (or seven are at least, the eight is mysteriously missing). Never before in a game have we gotten to see the leaders all at once in such a ceremonial fashion.
While this is a change in Pokémon tradition, in Japanese manga and anime, tournaments and organized competitions are a very common format. Martial arts duels, baseball, cook-offs, mahjong — the list goes on and on. In such stories it is not uncommon for the young, ambitious hero to get glimpses of who their eventually challengers will be. It makes clear how long and arduous the competition will be, since each opponent you best only steps aside to reveal someone harder, and then harder still. It’s a natural, time-proven structure for melodrama and video games. Sword & Shield embraces the format.
After the opening ceremony it’s time to journey across the countryside toward the the pokémon gym of Milo, master of grass type pokémon.