I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.
First some Pokémon 101, in case you are unfamiliar with the game series:
Here’s the basic story structure of almost every Pokémon game. You are a young pokémon trainer — someone who travels the world capturing and training pokémon and using them in competitive battles (something pokémon seem to like doing). There is a circuit of eight Pokémon Gyms, dojos for pokémon battles, managed by a Gym Leader who specializes in a particular type of pokémon. You face each of these leaders in battle to win a special badge. Collect all eight badges and you qualify for the final Pokémon League competition, where you have the chance to win your place as the Pokémon Champion. Over the course of this journey you have a Rival, who might be an antagonist or might be a childhood friend, but who is on a similar journey to the Championship. There is also a trouble causing “Team” of some sort who are committing crimes or mischief. They tend to be minions of a master villain involved in some nefarious scheme you get caught up in. Those three plot threads tangle and cross over each other at various points before a resolution that sets the stage for the Championship.
Now back to where I am in the newest game.
At this point in Pokémon Sword & Shield, I am on my way to first of the gyms in this region’s Pokémon Challenge. The trip to the Grass Gym Leader Milo (whom I briefly met while he was herding wooloos early in the game) is a route across the countryside were I can look for wild pokémon and encounter the occasional fellow trainer. It’s all about improving your skill and training your pokémon to get stronger and stronger — and collecting many new pokémon, if your goal is to assemble a complete menagerie. As I run through the colorful, artfully designed 3D countryside, it is amazing to consider how far the visuals of the game have come from the black & white 2D graphics of the original Pokémon Red & Blue on the Nintendo Gameboy.
This region of Galar is dotted with standing stones such as those at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites in Britain. Outside the town of Turffield, there is also an enormous petroglyph on a hillside depicting a giant pokémon. The regions of Pokémon games have always been based on real locations, but Sun & Moon’s Hawaii-like Aloha, and now the British Galar really succeed in creating the sense of being in a distinct area. The assistant Pokémon Professor, Sonia, who continues a parallel journey to mine, is studying the petroglyph as part of her research, and connects it to the Darkest Day legends. These ominous tales are of pokémon in their giant dynamax form rampaging across the countryside. It seems like dynamax is going to be an important story element, and not just a new gameplay feature, the way similar power-ups in earlier games, such as mega evolutions and z-moves were.
Milo’s Grass Gym is waiting for whenever I am ready to take the challenge. Hop is ahead of me in the journey, having already won his badge. He’s fulfilling his role as my rival, spurring me on to advance my part of the story. With so much to do in this game, so many pokémon already around to catch, it can be easy to get distracted. The match with Milo is held, as is the norm in Galar, in a huge stadium. Also normal by this time in the game, I have a team of six fairly strong pokémon, while Milo, as the first gym leader you face, only comes at you with two. Those two are not slouches though, and Milo does invoke dynamax, causing one of his pokémon to grow to Godzilla size and attack with a pyrotechnic display of visual effects. Still he wasn’t too hard to beat and I win my first badge. Milo congratulates me and points me to the next gym. Pokémon has always done a good job of demonstrating good sportsmanship and fair play.
The next stage of our journey takes us to port town of Hulburry, where the Water Pokémon Gym Leader Nessa is based. Once again I meet her outside the gym, doing non-pokémon activities. I also have a quick lunch meeting with Chairman Rose — who seems pretty dependent on his personal assistant Oleana to keep him on schedule. Something is up with these two, I’m pretty sure. She might be the true power behind the throne so to speak, with the shorts and ball cap wearing Rose as puppet. Defeating the water gym is no big deal. Besides having a full compliment of six pokémon, I have the advantage of knowing she’s going to use water-type pokémon, so I can assemble my team with that in mind.
Fire Leader Kabu is next, though his gym is the one where opening ceremonies at Motostoke were held. But Kabu is not ready for a challenge yet. He’s off training in the mines and I basically have to go find him to let him know I’m ready. Mines and tunnel complexes are another typical environment in Pokémon games, places where you meet very different types of pokémon than you do in grassy fields or forests. The ever arrogant Bede is also in these tunnels, and I get to defeat him again, though as usual he barely even acknowledges his loss. The dignified elder gym leader Kabu is Bede’s opposite, welcoming my challenge and looking forward to honorable battle.
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, whom I had only met briefly before. She waits at the hotel for a battle. It’s one of the more challenging ones too, particularly if you haven’t rested up your pokémon and because as an unfamiliar opponent, you don’t know what pokémon she’s going to send against you.
The Gym battle with Kabu is next day. Once again Hop is ahead of me and has already beaten the challenge. 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. 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.
Next stage of the challenge is the castle fortress city of Hammerlock. 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 while I go on another jaunt through the countryside.
When I next run into Hop something very unusual and upsetting has happened. Hop has lost to 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.