Some games don’t demo well, or at least that was my one major takeaway after getting the chance to play Pokémon Sword/Shield at E3 this year. I think this has more to do with the genre than anything else. Without a significant foundational overhaul, playing a JRPG for 15 minutes probably isn’t long enough to demonstrate the distinct qualities that make the experience unique. After all, a Pokémon battle is a Pokémon battle is a Pokémon battle.
This particular build of Sword and Shield started me off at the entrance to the water gym where I was tasked with overcoming that gym’s “mission” before I could challenge the leading trainer Nessa in a climactic battle within the gym’s stadium. Various color-coded switches were laid about, which when toggled would start/stop the flow of water from exiting their respective color-coded pipes. These pipes were strategically placed to prevent me from progressing further into the gym. This particular mission essentially boiled down to flipping the switches on and off in the correct order so that I could reach Nessa.
Let me be honest here for a second- I don’t understand Game Freak’s resistance to calling a spade a spade. First with the “trials” in Pokémon Sun/Moon and now with the “missions” in Sword/Shield. I’ve been flipping switches and problem solving my way to the top dog in every Pokémon Gym since the original Red and Blue. The setting, context, and nomenclature changes, but the underlying experience has always remained the same.
When I wasn’t flipping switches, I was battling with one of the three trainers lounging about the gym. These battles allowed me to try out some of the generation 8 Pokémon in highly contained and specifically curated scenarios. My party was star-studded with all three of the new starters, the steel bird Corviknight, the fluffy sheep Wooloo, and Yamper- a late introduction to the Sword and Shield scene specifically for the E3 demo. Yamper is an electric dog-like Pokémon who immediately made me think of a Pikachu bred with a Corgi. Absolutely adorable. I can’t remember the last time I was so engaged with the new Pokémon designs. There are over 800 Pokémon now in total, and not all of them are winners, but whatever they are doing with this latest batch seems to be working.
Like I mentioned earlier, a Pokémon battle is a Pokémon battle is a Pokémon battle. You check your opposing Pokémon’s type, switch to the appropriate party member who is strong against that type, and now you’re in business. This process was even more streamlined during the demo as each trainer only held a single Pokémon who was guaranteed to be weak to one of your party members- a concession made specifically for ensuring that I would get to the end battle with Nessa before my time was up (aka that’s not how it will really be in the actual game). It was because of this that I wasn’t able to get a good read on how different the actual battles felt this time around.
There was an instance, however, where I used a new move called “Soak” which changed my opponent's fire type Pokémon to a water type. It was a major mistake on my part since my opposition now had the move set of a fire Pokémon with all of the protections of a water type. It was neat, and I can see more moves like this having a serious impact on battle strategies within Sword and Shield.
The demo concluded with me walking out into a massive football inspired stadium just like the trailers had shown earlier. Nessa was waiting for me as expected and the fourth and final battle of the playthrough commenced, except this time, I had the opportunity to dynamax my Pokémon throughout the fight. As the kind Nintendo employee informed me at the booth, any Pokémon can be dynamaxed within a fight with a gym leader, but you can only do this once per battle. When a Pokemon dynamaxes, it physically grows in size and strength, (also just like the trailers) as well as receives a brand-new set of moves for a short period. These moves are not exclusive to that particular Pokémon. For example, dynamaxing a grass type Pokémon will typically have similar dynamax moves to other grass types.
It was a flashy affair no doubt, but I’m still unsure about whether or not the mechanic has any substance. Both my opponent and I dynamaxed our Pokémon at the same time. Meaning that what I was now playing was essentially the same battle except both of our Pokémon were stronger and had less unique move sets. Defeating Nessa won me the water badge.
I wish I had gotten the chance to battle in a Max Raid or to explore one of the new Wild Areas that were both introduced in the most recent Pokémon Direct. Instead, I got a slice of Pokémon Sword/Shield that felt fairly familiar to what I was already accustomed to as a seasoned Pokémon fan. Nothing to be concerned about just yet, but also not the dynamax of hype that I’m sure Nintendo was hoping I would walk away with.