GameCentral gets to play 90 minutes of Pokémon Sword and discovers a host of new pokémon and the new open world area.
We think most pokéfans have a fairly similar idea of their dream Pokémon game. Back when they were just low-tech Game Boy games they still operated in what was essentially an open world, where you got to explore as you please and collect and train pokémon in whatever way you thought best. So when modern open world games, everything from Skyrim to Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, started to appear it wasn’t hard to imagine what it would be like if Pokémon adopted a similar approach.
That’s not what Pokémon Sword and Shield is, but it does get a lot closer to that imagined ideal than any game before it – which is exactly what you’d hope and expect from the first mainline Pokémon game to appear on anything other than a portable-only console.
We recently got to play a whole hour and a half of Pokémon Sword, almost from the very beginning. (As usual the two versions are almost identical, with the major difference being a handful of unique pokémon to encourage trading). The only thing we weren’t allowed to see was a brief part of the introduction, after which we were thrown into the world of Galar – a new region not featured in any game before and which, as usual, is inspired by a real-world location. In this case the UK.
You start off in an idyllic-looking cottage, which between the rolling hillsides and flat cap-wearing locals is purposefully reminiscent of Northern counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire. As usual, the story in Pokémon games is thinly told and this time seems to revolve around a relative who is a champion pokémon trainer and who competes in Galar’s giant-sized Dynamax stadia.
The more interesting part of the story comes shortly after the introductions are over and you go searching for a missing Wooloo (a sheep-like pokémon that rolls like a ball) in the nearby Slumbering Weald. We can’t tell you what happens when you get there, but let’s just say it starts a mystery a bit more intriguing than who’s going to win the Pokémon championship.
Those initial story beats aside we spent the rest of our time exploring and capturing pokémon in the traditional manner. Or at least traditional at the start. The area around your cottage and the nearby town has fixed camera angles and has you moving along narrow pathways in much the same way as Pokémon Sun and Moon on the 3DS.
The graphics, as you can tell from the videos, are by no means the best on the Switch but some areas, such as your home, are very nicely detailed and clearly show that developer Game Freak have been to the UK and done their research (the game’s lead artist is also British).
This is also evident in the dialogue, which is filled with British mannerisms, where kids refer to things as being ‘pants’ or talk about their mum instead of ‘mom’ (although curiously they still use American spelling). We asked, and apparently this will be the script used in the American version of the game, which, oddly, will make Sword and Shield one of the most overtly British games to ever hit the mainstream. They’ve even got the obsession with curry, tea, and the weather right.
The one problem we do have with the dialogue though is that there’s no voice-acting at all, which there really doesn’t seem any reason for. We have an interview with producer Junichi Masuda and director Shigeru Ohmori going up next week, where we ask them about this, but it feels especially odd – and cheap – when characters’ mouths are flapping about uselessly during the pre-rendered cut scenes.
Game Freak have never been a very technically capable developer and while this is the best-looking Pokémon game so far there are certainly no envelopes being pushed in terms of the visuals. The battles in particular will disappoint many as while the animation is quite good the way it’s presented is still the same as always, going back all the way to Pokémon Stadium. And yet, when we got a bit further, we came to the ‘Wild Area’, which is perhaps the most intriguing part of the game, both visually and in terms of gameplay.
The Wild Area is a fairly large open world location, which The Pokémon Company rep on hand estimated was about the size of two regions from Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. Here you do have control of the camera and can see pokémon roaming about on their own, as bees flit around flowers, fish pokémon jump in the lakes, and larger creatures such as Onix – which you’re warned not to get close to because they’re too high level – wander about freely.
As such, there are now three main ways to encounter pokémon: seeing them out in the open (which also happens outside the Wild Area) and approaching them like in Pokémon: Let’s Go, getting attacked at random in long grass, and when you see an exclamation or question mark that indicates a rare or unusually aggressive/inquisitive pokémon. This seemed to cover all bases and you can even creep slowly through grass if you don’t want to disturb it or whistle if you want to purposefully attract pokémon.
On the assumption that its later evolutions would probably be cooler we chose Sobble the water lizard pokémon as our starter but quickly got together a party of more common pokémon. Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to tell you about any of the new ones we saw, and we’re also not allowed to say which old ones are present either, beyond the information already known. Although you can see Xatu, Lotad, Hoot Hoot, and Pelipper in the footage released today, which ironically we didn’t encounter while playing.
What we can say is we liked almost all the new designs and if you just think about some common British birds and mammals all the obvious ones are represented via pokémon equivalents. That includes the one Galarian variant we did spot: the new Zigzagoon and Linoone that now look much more like British badgers than they did originally.
The turn-based combat works essentially the same as always and, unlike Pokémon: Let’s Go, you do have to chip away at pokémon’s health and capture them manually. The presentation makes everything as clear as possible for newcomers but nothing seems to be dumbed down in terms of combat. Although what will raise eyebrows is that every pokémon in your party earns experience at the same rate automatically, without the need for Exp. Share or any other external factor.
Dynamaxing (but not Gigantamaxing) is introduced surprisingly early and allows you to grow any pokémon to giant size for a few rounds, increasing their stats and powering up a unique move each. This is most useful in Max Raid Battles, a new four-player co-op system inspired by Pokémon GO. The Wild Area is dotted with little rock piles that are lairs for naturally dynamixing pokémon, which can only easily be beaten as a team. The online options weren’t turned on for our playtest though, so we had to put up with some so-so computer allies.
The Wild Area is dotted with little rock piles that are lairs for naturally dynamixing pokémon, which can only easily be beaten as a team. Although the online options weren’t turned on for our playtest so we had to put up with some so-so computer allies. Competing in raid battles rewards you with an in-game currency called watts, although what exactly this is used for we didn’t really get to see.
In the Wild Area we could see the little interface for the ‘Y-Comm’ online app pop up, indicating that under normal circumstances you would be able to communicate and play with other people online, in what seems to be a much freer manner than previous games. This is also possible when you set up a camp, which we were able to do, where you can cook a curry for your pokémon and play around with them in a first person view and even tempt wild ones into your party.
Unfortunately, the hour and a half was over all too quickly and we were left desperately wanting more, which is of course the best sign possible. Pokémon fans, like most gamers, are never happy and we’re sure there’ll be complaints about the graphics and the minutiae of the gameplay but the bottom line is that this is the biggest step forward the series has seen in a long while. Whether all those steps are wise ones we’ll have to see, but Pokémon is evolving and Sword and Shield represents its most impressive form so far.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: 15th November 2019
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