Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 09: The Gyms Not Taken

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.

Pokemon 101

As pokémon gain experience and increase in level, they may undergo a transformation referred to as “evolution,” where they take on a new form, essentially becoming a different pokémon. The most straightforward example of this Caterpie evolving into Metapod, which in turn evolves into Butterfree. Other Pokémon have more unusual or unexpected transformations. The most well-known pokémon, Pikachu, is actually the second stage of a line that goes from Pichu to Pikachu to Raichu.

Now if you have any interest is “real” biology you are probably rolling your eyes at this use of “evolution,” when a much more appropriate word is “metamorphosis.” But we seem stuck with it.

My next Gym battle is in the city of Stow-on-Side, so I have another trek across the countryside ahead of me. In my way though is the rowdy Team Yell, who ironically are concerned that I am making too much noise and disturbing the local Pokémon. This game is using the “bad guy Team” very differently than usual. In the past a group such as Team Rocket would be actively committing crimes and stealing Pokémon and I’d get side missions to stop them. I would have had to fight them many times by this point. Team Yell so far has just been a mild annoyance. I wonder if they are untimely going to have a bigger part of the story, or is their presence in this game just a nod to tradition?

The route to Stow-on-Side is rather long and filled with twists and turns. It’s essentially a maze to solve, but it does have a lot of variety of terrain and many different Pokémon to encounter. This game is a big improvement to the repetitive and frankly boring routes you sometimes have to slog through. Though how much one likes exploring is a matter of taste in these games.

This new location is something of a desert town, surrounded by ancient ruins. I’m not exactly sure what part of Great Britain Stow-on-Side is intended to represent, but Regions are never too constrained by the real world. There are always plenty of desert or arid environment pokémon, so they have to live somewhere. The citizens are proud of their ruins and the heritage they represent. Sonia has arrived here as well, to check out a mural, the town’s most famous feature. Though it turns out the actual ancient mural is long lost and has been replaced by a more modern interpretation. This makes me think of some sites in Britain that might appear historical but are actually Victorian imaginings.

Hop appears, wanting a battle, trying to find some way to improve as a trainer. He seems to think that he needs just the right team of pokémon, and so is using trying out different combinations. That’s a difference from the classic rival behavior in Pokémon, where your reocurring opponent uses the same core team, though they grow stronger from one battle to the next. Hop’s tactics have an tone of desperation about them and I feel a little bad defeating him so handily. His own comments suggest he’s having trouble maintaining focus and is still upset over the loss to Bede and the insults to his brother. Hop is still determined though, believing someday he’ll be strong enough to defeat even his own undefeated brother.

After fighting Hop, I can head straight to the Gym. At this point a player encounters one of the first big differences between the two versions of this game. In Pokémon Sword, Stow-on-Side is home to the Fighting Gym run by the feisty Bea. In Pokémon Shield, the version I’m playing, there is the Ghost Gym, managed by the shy, masked Alister. So players are going to have different experiences. Aside from a kind of silly pinball like challenge, the fight against Alister is straightforward. He is pretty much defined by his initial appearance so there’s not much to him as a character. My reputation seems to be increasing, as more and more bystanders at the gym notice me and want to chat.

The story picks up immediately after the Gym Battle. Bede is in town and is using an elephant-like pokémon, borrowed from Chairman Rose, to batter down the mural! Seems he believes there is a cache of Wishing Stars within. Everybody is appalled at this behavior — even Rose, who shows up, scolds Bede and revokes his endorsement of Bede in the Pokemon Challenge. This is devastating to him for two reasons: first that he can no longer participate in the event, but also because Bede is an orphan, raised by Rose, who is essentially his adopted father.

This isn’t good. For somebody like Bede, this sort of rejection is the kind of thing that turns you Evil. Is Bede being set up as the main villain of this story?

It appeared at first that Bede had done no real damage to the mural — until it does suddenly collapse into rubble, revealing a hidden chamber behind it. Within are not Wishing Stars, but a statue of two hero kings and two Pokémon, one which resembles the apparition Hop and I saw in the Slumbering Weade back home. Sonia’s examination of the statue affirms the theory that, on the Darkest Day, Galar was saved by two heroes, but also reveals that the “Sword” and “Shield” that they possessed were actually two pokémon!

The mystery deepens, but I have another Gym ahead of me: Balloonlea and the Fairy Gym. Fairy Type was not one of the original kinds of pokémon when the game first debuted, but was introduced in Pokémon X & Y in 2013. Now, with a game in 2019 based on Great Britain, we finally have an appropriate Fairy Realm to journey through.

After the usual exploring, I head to the Fairy Gym, whose Leader is Opal, the elderly lady who has been showing up here and there recently. At the Gym is Marnie, who like Hop, Bede, and myself has been going from Gym to Gym on the Challenge. While she isn’t as hostile as Bede, she makes it clear that we are rivals, and that if I want to win the Challenge, I’ll have to have go through her to do it.

Facing Opal is the oddest challenge yet: battles combined with quizzes! It seems the 88 year old Gym leader is retiring and looking for a replacement to take over the Gym. Some of the questions are silly, but some have answers hidden in places such as on Opal’s League Card, if one has taken the time to actually read it. Apparently she considered both Leon and Sonia as prospects in the past, but neither met her requirements. I don’t either, even after defeating her and winning the Fairy Badge. She does have a favor to ask, to accompany her back to Hammerlocke where she had some business to attend to. In a conveniently cinematic fashion, the scene fades out and then fades back in after we’ve arrived.

Bede is also at Hammerlocke, moppier and more bitter than ever, now that he’s been kicked out of the Challenge — but he’s instantly the center of Opal’s attention! He seems to have just the qualities she’s looking for. The shocked Bede lets himself be dragged off, back to Balloonlea for training. He is, to say the least, reluctant and befuddled. He also doesn’t have anywhere else to go at this point.

I chat with Sonia some more until a huge explosion shakes the city! Apparently a Dynamax Power Point has inexplicable appeared nearby. That’s not supposed to happen!

Sonia and Leon say they will go investigate. I should get on with the Challenge. As far as a Pokémon narrative goes, this is the biggest surprise so far. I’ve mentioned that the stories in each generation of Pokemon games have ramped up the melodramatic stakes, until it’s become normal that you, playing as a peripatetic child, have the responsibility to save the world from destruction, either by bad guys or cosmic forces. Suddenly in this game you are being told: run along and play, and let adults handle the crisis. If I were a young person myself, looking for a fantasy of power and agency, maybe I wouldn’t like this presentation. Now though I find it a refreshing change. I do have a lot of Pokémon business to attend to after all.

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