Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 11: Life’s Challenges

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 101

Each individual pokémon has up to 4 “moves” that it uses in a battle. These are most often different kinds of attacks, but there are also moves used for defense, or for other support actions. Some of these moves can be learned by any pokémon, others by a few, and still more that are “signature” moves that only one particular type of pokémon can ever know. Just as pokémon come in 18 different “types,” moves also use the same type system, i.e., Fire, Grass, Fairy, Dragon, etc. The moves any given pokémon can use might come in a variety of types — a Ghost type pokémon might be able to use, say, a Poison move. When a pokémon does use a move of the same type as itself, for instance Electric type Pikachu uses an Electric type attack, the move gets stronger. This is known as a “Same Type Attack Bonus” — or a STAB.

I have one more step in the Challenge, facing the Dragon Gym back in Hammerlocke. There’s trouble in the way though: More explosions, strange red light, and pokémon Dynamaxing out of control! Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about it! We see that in the Galar region, the Pokémon Champion isn’t just a sports celebrity. They have responsibilities and are expected to deal with just these sorts of emergencies. Which is a good thing, given how powerful some pokémon are. In the Pokémon World people aren’t just living with cute, friendly animals, but also with immensely powerful monsters that can command nature and the elements.

Leon, for all his colorful eccentricities and advertiser endorsed flare, is up to the job and gets the rampaging pokémon under control. It’s a very disturbing mystery about how this incident could happen. Is it an omen that the Darkest Day might come again? Chairman Rose seems too wrapped up in concerns about Galar’s energy supply to give it much attention. Leon assures Hop and I that he’ll handle any problems. We need to get on and face Dragon Leader Raihan.

As in every Gym, before facing the Leader, these’s a preliminary test. Here though there is no maze, puzzle, or quiz. I just have to battle three Gym Trainers who stand waiting in the Archive room. Given how elaborate things have been in early Gyms, the starkness suggests… well, that the game developers may just have run out of time to come up with anything more. As someone who worked in the video game industry for almost 25 years, I can believe that’s the case here. Games have pretty inflexible release schedules and sometimes you just have to do what you can and get it out the door.

I’ve met Raihan several times in the story. He’s got a lot of personality. He knows he’s strong, looks good, and it constantly snapping selfies to prove it. He gives me a difficult battle, since Dragon types are one of the strongest kind of pokémon. As proud and confident a battler as he is, like the other Gym Leaders, he’s a good sport and celebrates my victory over him.

The Gym Challenge is complete and so it on to the Champion Cup itself, where everyone who made it this far will battle each other for the right to go up against Champion Leon himself. Hop has gotten his head together and is back in the game, managing to defeat Raihan too. Sonia has gotten a promotion as well, earning her own lab coat and becoming Professor Sonia. Her job now is to keep investigating what is going on with the Darkest Day and wild pokémon inexplicably Dynamaxing.

It’s a train ride and a trip through snow covered countryside to reach the capital city of Galar: Wyndon — not the most original of the names the English Language version of this game has come up with. It’s a huge city with quite a lot of things to investigate, but for these posts, I’ll head right to the Wyndon Stadium for the Semifinal matches. Out of all the trainers who started out in the Gym Challenge, only four of use have made it this far. There’s Hop, Marnie, myself, and… someone else who is never seen or named.

I’m up against Marnie first. I’d say my first battle against her way back in the Challenge was the hardest, since I had no idea of the pokémon she’d use. By this time I know her style pretty well. Hop easily defeats his unnamed opponent and is comes down to the two of us, as we always hoped it would. But my old rival does get defeated. In a very powerful shot, once he realizes he’s lost, Hop turns away, trembling with anger and disappointment — just for a moment, before turning back with his usual grin and thanking me. These moments that don’t just present events at the surface, but give us glimpses of the inner emotional life of the characters, have been what makes this game’s story stand out.

The game, my challenge, and the narrative are far from over. Tomorrow are the Champion Cup Finals to see who will challenge Leon. Hop’s brother invites out to a fancy dinner, at the famous Rose of the Rondelands hotel. But Leon is late… later than is normal even for him. Gym Leader Piers wanders in with a clue. Things are about to get complicated.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 10: Heroes of Their Own Stories

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 101

Most pokémon have some form of evolution. Many have just one transformation; some have a second, into a third form. Only a relatively few do not evolve at all. As new games come out over the years, pokémon lacking evolutions sometimes gain them. No pokémon evolves into a fourth form, though some, through special techniques, gain a temporary transformation, such as a Mega-Evolution or a Gigantimax form, that only appears during battle.

Most pokémon evolve through gaining experience. But sometimes a special item, a certain location, or having a strong “friendship” value is required. Occasionally a whole mini-quest is necessary. This all adds to the rarity of some pokémon, increasing their value as collectibles, for those players wanting to “catch’em all.”

Circhester is my new destination in the Pokémon Challenge (the large-scale regional map in Sword & Shield always has a convenient reminder of where you are suppose to go next). It’s a rather long trip to get there. These journeys between locations are where most of the actual gameplay of Pokémon, as a video game, takes place: exploring, battling, catching, training, etc. I’m skipping over these parts because, aside from a few clues and background lore, they aren’t parts of the narrative experience I want to write about in these posts.

The areas and cities in Galar are based on real places in the United Kingdom, and Circhester is one of the most recognizable. Just the rectangular hot springs in the middle of town identify it as Bath. Most of the townsfolk are chatting about the Challenge — and it seems Hop, Marnie, and myself are the most popular participants. These mentions that the world of the game is taking notice of what I am doing are small but effective touches that help the narrative feel more personal.

Things are still not going well for Hop. As usual he has gotten to the Circhester Gym ahead of me, but this time he’s actually lost the match with the Gym Leader! (Fortunately that doesn’t mean you are out of the competition; you just have to try again). This Gym is another where there’s a difference between the two versions of the game. In Sword, it is a Rock Gym, led by a young man named Gordie. In my Shield copy, it is an Ice Gym run by the white haired Melony (who, if one checks her League Card, is actually Gordie’s mother).

While these differences in the Gyms between the two versions succeed in adding variety to the game experience, they have major limitations to how they can function in the narrative. The other Leaders that you meet are seen doing things outside their Gyms and have relationships with other characters. Without making a different narrative for each game (possible, but expensive) Allister/Bea and Melody/Gordie are fixed in their respective Gyms, never getting involved in the larger, unfolding events. As a player, my experiences with them seem inconsequential, just more Gym badges to win and then move on.

After I do gain my Badge from Melody, I meet Sonia outside the Gym. We meet up with Hop at a local chain restaurant, “Bob’s Your Uncle,” where, to our surprise, there is another tapestry depicting the Darkest Day legend. It shows the two hero kings now lacking their companion pokémon. It’s Hop who wonders if the “mad pokémon” we ran into back home could have been one of these missing creatures. All this talk of heroes and legends inspires Hop to challenge me once again. He’s still trying different teams of pokémon, but he is back to using his oldest and closest partner, though Wooloo has now evolved into Dubwool. Even though I beat Hop, he seems to have gotten his spirit back and rushes off for a rematch against Melony.

I’m heading to Spikemuth, which is another long trek, through an icy, wintery part of Galar. Despite the snow, hail, and iceberg filled lakes, there are guys and gals in swimwear hanging out on the beaches. Maybe this is a comment on the chilly seaside resorts of Great Britain?

There’s a big mystery waiting at Spikemuth: the entry to the city is sealed off. A group of other, frustrated Gym Challengers are hanging out at the barrier, puzzled by what to do next, since they can’t advance without facing the Spikemuth Gym Leader. Fortunately for me, Marnie is lurking nearby. As a native to the town, she knows another way in and will show me, if I defeat her in a battle.

Spikemuth is entirely enclosed under a metal roof, essentially a decaying shopping center, falling to ruin, lit by flickering neon. Getting through the town is itself the test leading up to the Gym Battle. I have to fight through waves of Team Yell grunts, walking along a 2d street in an homage to the old-school “Beat’em Up” video games such as Final Fight. But this is Team Yell we are talking about, so these are not the most serious of confrontations. The grunts are their own worst enemies as they injure themselves attempting showy, impressive stunts and acrobatics.

They eventually reveal themselves to be costumed fakes. Team Yell are actually the members of the Spikemuth Gym, and their whole deal, including the sealing off of the town, has been to prevent any Challenger other that Marnie from winning. Marnie is the sister of the heavy-metal rocking Piers, the Gym Leader.

Pier has some issues. He seems to doubt himself and his town, since they have no Power Point and thus cannot Dynamax their pokémon. He also tends to make, in the name of showmanship, the tactical error of announcing what moves his pokémon are going to make, allowing an opponent to prepare for them. Piers would like Marnie to take over for him as Gym Leader, but she only has eyes for completing the Challenge and becoming the new Champion. She encourages Piers to keep trying to become a good Leader and improve things in Spikemuth.

And that is the end of the Team Yell storyline. As mentioned, in past games, the bad guy “Team” has been a major aspect of the narrative of Pokémon games. They have been the primary antagonists you battle before the final confrontation with the main villain. Similarly, I would have expected clashes with Bede to continue through the rest of the game. Sword & Shield, we can now see, is building a more episodic narrative. We meet people, learn about them as characters, struggle with them sometimes, see them reach a resolution or turning point, and then we go our separate ways. So rather than an overly complex, epic plot on an operatic scale, Sword & Shield has me moving through a living world, where everybody has their own life, their own story.