Pokemon Sword & Shield Play Report 07: The Water Gym

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

The roads and other routes of a Pokémon region are dotted with other trainers, opponents controlled by the game. A classic feature of every game is that if you make eye contact with another trainer, you must have a Pokémon battle with them. They are thus both an obstacle to overcome and a resource. You gain experience from fighting them — and money if you win. In early games, money was in short supply so it was important to manage trainer fights carefully for financial reasons. If you lost a battle, you gave up half your cash to them! In more recent games such as Sword & Shield it is very easy to earn money and you usually have more than you can spend.


The next stage of my Pokémon journey takes me to port town of Hulbury. There’s another journey through the Galar countryside, with new pokémon to catch and more trainers to battle. While the other trainers are always of a certain type — a school kid, a pokémon breeder, a mountaineer, etc — each is has individual name and always have some sort of comment, quip, or even a bit of their philosophy about pokémon to impart.

Along this route is the region’s pokémon nursery. This is a place where you can leave a couple of your pokémon for awhile and when you return later, if they have been comparable in certain ways, a pokémon egg might have appeared. It’s a running joke in the games that nobody mentions details about where these eggs come from, they just mysteriously appear. The rules for pokémon breeding are very complex but, while vital for competitive battling, they don’t matter for the game’s narrative experience. It’s an example for the deeper levels of game play explore or just skip depending on your preferences and interests.

A couple story events do take place before Hulburry. Firstly, I walk into the middle of an encounter between two Team Yell members and someone who appears to be a nurse or medical technician. They want to steal this guy’s bike — and use it to chase trainers so that they’ll be too tired for the Gym Challemge. I have to fight them in a pair of battles, but they are easy to defeat. In thanks, the nurse decides to give me the bike. Bikes are one of the reoccurring features in Pokémon games. They allow you to travel around much faster and, in this game, you eventually get an upgrade which allows the bike to cross water. Previous games would introduce puzzles where you needed a pokémon with a specific ability to carry you across water, to move heavy stones, cut through tall grass, or overcome other physical obstacles. Players over the years generally have found that annoying and, starting with Pokémon Sun & Moon, that aspect of the game has been phased out. Here in Sword & Shield it’s gone entirely.

After getting my bike, I soon meet up with Hop once again — and he’s ready for another battle as part of our training. In matches with Hop, and other main characters, my opponent responds to what goes on during the battle. Hop will playful boast or trash talk if he’s winning, or will praise me if I use a good type-match against him, such as when I use a water move on his fire-type pokémon. Hop doesn’t like to loose, but he remains a good sport about it, and considers it an incentive to try harder next time.

Hulbury is another richly depicted town, a port by the ocean, with boats and fishermen. There’s lots to people to talk to and many small quests to find items and hidden treasures. For the narrative, the most important encounter is when I spot Chairman Rose. He’s trying to be incognito in a hat, sunglasses, and other tourist garb, but everybody still immediately recognized him. He is accompanied by his personal assistant Oleana. She immediately gives the vibe of being the person keeping Rose focused and on schedule. Could her authority go even beyond that, to being the real power behind the throne? The arrogant Bede is also around. Rose has to be reminded of his name, despite his being Rose’s endorsed challenger for the competition. The Chairman actually seems more interested in me and wonders what I and Hop have that led Leon to endorse us. Rose would like me to join him at his favorite seafood restaurant — if we succeed in winning at the next gym.

I have to find the Water Pokémon Gym Leader Nessa first, as she’s busy with her doing non-pokémon activities. People I pass in town recognize me as a trainer in town for the Challenge. I find her down by her lighthouse on the shore. It seems Hop and I are quite the topic of conversation among the Gym Leaders.

Our match is at another of the large stadiums. Before the actual battle at with the gym leader there’s always a puzzle of some sort. Here is a series of switches that need to be thrown in the correct order to get through a watery maze. Three assistants to Nessa must also be beaten. If you can handle them okay it’s a sign that your team of Pokémon has probably gotten strong enough to proceed. When I’m finally facing Nessa, the crowd cheers and reacts to the back and forth of the match. Defeating the Water Gym is no big deal. Besides having a full compliment of six pokémon, I have the advantage of knowing Nessa is going to use water-type pokémon, so I assembled my team with that in mind.

Outside the stadium Oleana is there to remind me about my appointment with Chairman Rose. It’s important we make it since Rose is, according to her, the sort of person who gets downhearted is he can’t take care of things right away. At the restaurant we are joined by Sonia, who is an old acquaintance of Rose and Oleana. They end up absorbed in a discussion of the Darkest Day legends, Dynamaxing, and the Power Points that allow the phenomenon. Rose wants her to investigate the sealed Vaults in the city of Hammerlock for clues that might be there. After all that, Rose’s schedule doesn’t have any more time to talk with me directly. In any case Hop and I need to get to back to Motostoke to face the Fire Gym Leader.

Pokemon Sword & Shield Play Report 06: The Grass Gym

Continuing the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. 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

Besides battling wild pokémon in order to catch them, you frequently will battle other trainers, that is, the two of you will send out your teams of pokémon to fight each other. Each trainer can choose to swap a pokémon in or out of the battle to gain a tactical advantage. The battle continues until one side has had all their pokemon “faint,” unable to continue fighting.

Much has been made of the questionable morality of making these captured creatures fight each other for our amusement, but it is a fundamental conceit of the game that pokémon like battling. There are evil trainers who force their pokémon to do things against their will, but for sincere trainers, pokémon are choosing to do this as something they enjoy. The games, and certainly the long running TV anime, have plenty of instances of pokémon refusing to do things they would prefer not to. The narrative game play of 2010’s Pokémon Black & White actually dealt with this topic and there were moments in that game that left you questioning the ethics of being a trainer.


At this point in Pokémon Sword & Shield, I am on my way to first of the gyms in this region’s Pokémon Challenge. First stop is the Grass Gym in the town of Turffield. The countryside is full of wild pokemon to catch and other trainers to battle. You can try avoid encounters, but as a video game player you know you need to face them to train yourself stronger and stronger for challenges ahead

As I run through this 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.

Old and New Graphics

Along the way I catch up to the assistant Pokémon Professor Sonia, whose research is taking her roughly along the same route as mine. She points out, in the distance, one of the power plants owed by Chairman Rose, which helps provide all the energy needs of the Galar region. The narrative is making sure we understand importance of reliable energy to Galar, and that Rose is responsible for delivering it.

For part of my journey I take a short cut through a mine where precious stones are being dug up. You always have to through mines or caverns or some sort of underground complex in a Pokemon game, since you need to experience a variety of different environments to catch all the different kinds of pokemon. I once again meet Bede, the arrogant young person from the opening ceremony. He says something about already gathering all the wishing stars in the mine. The endorsement of Chairman Rose makes him feel so superior that’s it’s hardly worth his time to battle me. A battle with a named character in the game is usually harder than a random trainer you meet on the road. Still I was able to defeat Bede without much trouble, not that he even really acknowledges his loss.

Milo’s League Card

Outside the mine I also encounter, or rather collide with, a stray wooloo from the herd of Grass Gym Leader Milo. I meet Milo himself, who recognizes me from the Opening Ceremonies and looks forward to out battle. Throughout the game you will frequently meet the Gym Leaders going about their ordinary lives. As you do you collect League Cards, a sort of combination of business card and collectible card for trainers and gym leaders. They feature a portrait and a short biography that fills in some of the backstory and personal relationships of that character. All this helps build the region of Galar as a living place, full of stories and ongoing situations. As a player, you also design your own League Card. It records your progress in the game, and you can trade them with other players.

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. Sonia is studying the petroglyph and connects it to the Darkest Day legends. These ominous tales are of pokémon in their giant Dynamax form rampaging across the countryside. Normally pokémon can only Dynamax, and only for a brief time, when they are near special “power points,” which are where the Pokemon Stadiums have been built.

At the Grass Gym

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 is held, as is the norm in Galar, in a huge stadium. The lobby at the entrance is full of visitors and other trainers chatting about the competition. I’m requested to change into my uniform and proceed onto the pitch as the crowd cheers Milo and me.

Also normal by this time in the game is that I have a team of six fairly strong pokémon, while Milo, as the first gym leader to be faced, only has two. They 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. The crowd takes up a musical chant as the tension builds. Milo’s pokémon are both grass-type, so if you know their weakness, Milo isn’t too hard to beat. 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.

Sportsmanship

In the lobby of the gym, the dialog of characters has changed. People are aware of who I am now, that I have defeated Milo, and might be a promising challenger in the ongoing competition. When the game seems to have some awareness of you, adjusting the world and its inhabitants based on your actions, it contributes a lot to the feeling you are a participant in a ongoing narrative.