Continuing my playthrough of Pokémon Sword & Shield. 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, as a game, is part of a lineage that stretches back to the oldest editions of Dungeons & Dragons from the 1970s. Several of its core game mechanics were devised in D&D. The strength and abilities of pokémon are measured in numeric levels. Levels increase as the pokémon gains experience points. You get those points by battling and defeating enemies. As the level gets higher, the pokémon’s overall toughness increases, measured in hit points or “HP.” Other statistics and measurements are unique to Pokémon, such as Attack/Special Attack and Defense/Special Defense, but much of what we think of today as video game play, here and in many other games, owes a lot to D&D.
The Fire Gym is the next goal of Hop and my Pokémon Challenge. That Gym is actually back in Motostoke where the Opening Ceremonies were held. The Gym’s Leader, Kabul is off training on his own in one of the nearby mines, so we have to go find him and tell him we’re ready. In the mine I have another encounter with the ever-arrogant Bede. He responds to my victory with the bully’s classic “I let you win.”
When I find Kabu he’s just finished up his own encounter with some Team Yell grunts who have been bothering Pokémon, though claiming that they are actually helping to project them. Kabu is a veteran trainer with demeanor of a noble samurai. He’s also such a badass that he’s been intentionally training his Fire-type pokémon against the Water-types they are weak too. Kabu is Bede’s opposite, welcoming my challenge and looking forward to honorable battle.
Back in Motostoke, I can’t immediately go to the stadium, but must spend another night at the nearby hotel. What the story is doing is making me face fellow trainer Marnie — the focus of Team Yell’s obsessions — whom I had only met briefly before. She waits at the hotel for a battle. It’s one of the more challenging ones. You don’t get an obvious opportunity to rest up your pokémon and because, as an unfamiliar opponent, you don’t know what pokémon Marnie going to send against you.
The next day, Hop is once again ahead of me having already beaten the Challenge. In the Stadium, Kabu’s attitude of respectful sportsmanship continues when, rather than waiting for me on a throne or proudly striding in from the opposite side of the stadium, he quietly joins me at the entrance and we walk in together. While defeating Kabu is considered a major obstacle in the Challenge (many trainers giving up after failing) the battle goes smoothly enough if you are prepared for a Fire Master. This battle does teach more about the important tactics of when to Dynamax your pokémon for the optimal use of that limited special power.
Victory over Kabu is considered such an achievement that Milo and Nessa also show up to join Kabu in congratulating Milo and myself on making it this far. We are directed to head next to the castle fortress city of Hammerlock, to meet up again with Chairman Rose. Getting there requires another jaunt through the Wild Area. Hop and I head out that way only to run into Bede once more. Hop wants a crack at this jerk and so stays to fight him.
There’s a lot for a video game player to do in the Wild Area, but like most of the exploration, mini-quests, and treasure hunts in Sword & Shield, these are not directly relevant to the narrative experience I’m concentrating on here. They do add a lot to the making Galar Region seem like a complex, active world with lots of detail and character. The same is true with Hammerlocke. Arriving in a new city is always an achievement in Pokémon. Frequently in means new things to buy, new information to gather, and new people to talk to. Everyone is interested in the Pokémon Challenge. Unlike past games where you’ve been on your personal journey while the rest of the world goes about its business, in Sword & Shield you are basically in the middle of the Olympics and the attention of the region is on you and your fellow competitors.
One activity Pokémon has in common with many role-playing video games is that as you explore a city, you frequently just walk into people’s houses. Nobody seems to mind that you barge in and start looking at their stuff. Many games even have items or treasure hidden in houses that you basically just steal. In Pokémon there’s not so much outright thievery, but rather the people you visit sometimes have gifts to give you. I guess they like visitors.
Hammerlocke is home to the Dragon Gym, but I’m not here for that challenge yet — which is good because the Dragon Gym here, as in most Pokémon games, is intended as the the last and hardest stage of the Challenge. Sword & Shield is doing a lot of mixing up expectations adding some sensible realism to the story. It moves you, as a character, around the region in a way that follows the story, rather then strictly directing you from one Gym to next, harder one, purely for the sake of convenient video game progression.
My goal now is to talk with Chairman Rose. He’s with Oleana and in the middle of a conversation with Bede. That brat is claiming that he won his earlier battle with Hop. I don’t know if I believe that. He could be just trying to impress Rose. He’s also boasting about collection Wishing Stars for some project of the Chairman’s.
While not going into too much detail, Rose explains how this city is the center of his energy generation and distribution network. He explains the power plant here is where he takes the energy of Wishing Stars and distributes it across the Galar Region. Rose is very proud of the system and hopes to use it to bring even greater wealth and prosperity to the land. I’m sure nothing whatsoever can go wrong with it.
Rose again advises me to check out the city’s ancient archives to learn more about the mysteries of Galar’s history. The archives are the responsibility of Dragon Gym Master Raihan. Raihan considers himself Leon’s rival, the way Hop is mine. He lets me see some ancient wall hangings about the Darkest Day legend. Sonia is there as well. Her appearance is the game’s way of drawing attention to the fact that an important story element is being revealed. According to the tapestries it seems the world was saved in the past not by one hero, but two friends working together, each with either the legendary Sword or Shield. Raihan tells me looks forward to our eventual battle and sends me on my way to my actual next challenge in the city of Stow-on-Side.
Time for another stroll and bike ride through the countryside. When I next run into Hop something very unusual and upsetting has happened. It is true that Hop was defeated by Bede! Not only has he lost the pokémon battle, Bede has insulted him and accused Hop of being a disgrace to his champion brother Leon. Hop is clearly shaken by this, and keeps his face turned away from both me as a character and me as a player looking at the game screen. Pokémon games do have serious character moments from time to time, but this quite a somber tone shift for what this game has presented so far.
After Hop departs to improve his skills, and elegantly dressed elderly lady makes an appearance, one of the Gym Leaders I saw at the opening ceremonies. She seems to be keeping a careful watch on how the Challenge in progressing.