Pokemon Sword & Shield Preview: I’m Officially Sold On Giant Gym Battles
I was initially a little disappointed with my E3 2019 preview of Pokemon Sword & Shield, the first mainline Pokemon entries to come to Nintendo Switch, because my immediate reaction was that I’d seen it all before.
Much has been made of some of the big changes coming to the new games, but I was probably most excited about the prospect of being let loose in one of the Galar Region’s Wild Areas, which essentially act as massive, Breath of the Wild-style open world zones where you and wild Pokemon can roam freely.
Maybe it was a little unfair of me to expect that from a demo, and maybe the 20 minutes I had wouldn’t really have been enough to properly enjoy and preview such a substantial change to the classic RPG franchise, but when the demo loaded up and I was placed in yet another Pokemon Gym, my enthusiasm waned.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore Pokemon and I was thrilled to have the chance to even stand near the latest games in the series, let alone get my hands on them for the briefest of moments. But as I stood in an (admittedly gorgeous) water Gym, ready to tackle the familiar blend of battles and puzzles before an eventual showdown with the Gym Leader, I prepared myself to be whelmed.
As it turns out, I would come away from the game not only pleasantly surprised, but eager to play more. Based on what I saw, Pokemon Sword & Shield manages to absolutely nail the classic Pokemon feel while adding in just enough twists and smart tweaks to keep things fresh and exciting.
The thing that immediately stands out is that Pokemon has never looked this good. GameFreak has taken full advantage of the extra power afforded by the Nintendo Switch and have created a lush, vibrant looking HD world to explore.
The gym I went through had a pleasingly bright water park feel to it, as giant pipes gushed water that blocked my progression as brightly coloured valves gently guided me in the the direction of the solution. It’s a Pokemon game, so the puzzle really didn’t take that much out of me, but the scope and scale of it made me excited to see what other challenges Sword & Shield have waiting for us.
Battles are… well, they’re Pokemon battles. Just like the world itself, the actual fights have never looked so good, and run smoother than ever before. I often found the 3DS games to suffer from the occasional framerate stutter when more demanding moves appeared on screen, but that didn’t seem to be the case here (again though, it was a limited demo).
The Pokemon themselves are wonderfully animated, moves look engaging and exciting, and the new Pokemon are among some of the best designs I’ve seen since the third generation games.
I’m particularly in love with the water Pokemon Sobble, and as soon as I saw Yamper – an electric type Corgi with a fat butt – I knew I had to add it to my team when the full game launches. Shout out to Wooloo, too. Love that guy.
Finally, I reached the Gym Leader, and my excitement reached fever pitch. Gone are the old Gyms in which you do battle witnessed by no-one, except for maybe that guy at the front of the gym who seems to follow you around everywhere.
In Sword & Shield, you’ll duke it out in full-sized stadiums which are epic in scale. You’re surrounded by a mixture of people and Pokemon in the stands, which really adds to the excitement and reminded me for the first time in years that I’m not just mindlessly slogging through the get to the end – I’m competing to be the very best that no-one ever was, dammit.
A giant stadium demands giant spectacle of course, and that’s where the Dynamax feature comes in. I was initially skeptical when I learned that Sword & Shield would include a Mega Evolution-style ability during Gym battles that allows your Pokemon to grow into absolute titans, but you know what? It works. It’s bloody ridiculous, but I love it.
My Gym battle didn’t really last long enough for me to get a feel of just how tactical Dynamaxing will get, but given that you can only do it once per battle and it only lasts for a certain number of turns, it’ll be interesting to see how much more challenging it gets in later Gyms – especially since your opponents can also use the ability.
For right now though, my favourite thing about Dynamaxing is just the sheer scale of it. Seeing my previously tiny Sobble turn into a Behemoth and learn an entirely new set of ridiculously strong and massively cinematic attacks was a hilarious treat, and I can’t wait to see the same thing with a Pokemon like Gengar or Charizard.
I don’t know if Pokemon Sword & Shield will be the bold new stride forward the series needs, but based on what I’ve played so far, it’s certainly doing enough to be one of the tightest and most fun entries in the classic franchise.
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