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.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 08: The Fire Gym & Hammerlocke

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

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.