Pokemon Sword and Shield: Hands-on at the Water Gym

We took on Nessa in Pokémon Sword and Shield's water gym, and here's how it went down...

This Pokemon article comes from Den of Geek UK.

On a lovely day in June, Den of Geek was lucky enough to pop along to Nintendo’s Windsor office to demo a few upcoming Nintendo Switch games. Among the lineup was a 15-minute teaser of Pokémon Sword and Shield, the next entries in the critter-catching RPG franchise. This little taste of things to come allowed us to try out the water gym, tackling a handful of trainers before battling the leader Nessa.

Before we started playing, the Nintendo staff explained that the trainers in the gym have been altered for the demo. Every Pokémon in the demo is set to Level 50, for one thing, to keep the experience balanced for everyone that tries it. This makes it impossible to gauge the difficulty of the finished game from this demo, and it also makes it a bit of a mystery as to where this gym will slot into the final version of the story.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, we got started. As ever, there’s a steward-like bloke at the entrance to the gym that gives you a clue about the challenge ahead. This helpful chap points out the gushing water that is emitting from the ceiling at certain locations, blocking paths throughout the gym, as well as noting the big buttons dotted around that can alter the position of these gushing water jets. Since there aren’t any items or Pokémon Centers in this demo, you can come to this guy at any point if you need to heal your Pokémon. After receiving the hint from this fella, it was time to venture into the gym.

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Walking around in the gym, it’s clear that Pokémon Sword and Shield look a fair bit better than the last fully-fledged new RPG entries in this series, which were 2016’s Pokémon Sun and Moon on 3DS. The characters all seem taller, just like they did when the series jumped from Game Boy Advance to Nintendo DS. And the environments, even though the interior of the gym is a bit bland and barren, have a strong sense of size to them.

There isn’t a massive difference in visual quality when you compare Sword and Shield to Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, though. And since those remakes of Pokémon Yellow already gave gamers their first Nintendo Switch version of the Pokémon RPG experience, there’s a sense that Sword and Shield will need to do something special in order to stand out and make an impact.

Working our way around the interior of the gym, we entered into battles with a handful of trainers. The pre-set Level 50 Pokémon in our party were Grookey, Sobble, and Scorbunny (the three starter Pokémon), along with the meme-worthy sheep Wooloo, the armored bird Corviknight (who made us think of Batman), and an electric corgi called Yamper. The game’s Galar region is inspired by the UK, and this cutesy canine is a prime example of how this setting will influence the creature design.

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These first battles were pretty easy, especially since none of the enemy trainers had a full party, but they were nice samples of what these combat sequences look like in the game. There is handy info on the move-select screen, like the power and accuracy stats for each move in your arsenal. And the Pokémon who are fighting are constantly animated: for instance, the fire rabbit Scorbunny hops from foot to foot throughout every fight. The core mechanics haven’t changed, but this is an enjoyably glossy take on battling.

After beating all the trainers in the first bit of the gym and working through the gushing water puzzle (which was pretty simple), we were able to progress through a big door. Doing so took us into a massive stadium, where Nessa waits to battle you in front of a packed-out crowd. Here in Galar, Pokémon battles are like major sporting events, with fans coming in droves to watch you in action. Apparently, people you meet in the world will be aware of your successes in previous battles because trainers are like celebrities in this region.

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Nessa opened the battle with the first generation fish Goldeen, before sending out the brand new grumpy turtle Drednaw. We used the grass-type Grookey, whose type advantage was enough to make the battle seem easy. Everything seemed pretty familiar, except the option to use a brand new battle system that can be used in sizeable areas such as this stadium.

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This would be the highly-advertised Dynamax system, which allows you to enlarge one Pokémon per battle into a super-sized version of itself that can unleash extra powerful moves for three turns. It’s a bit like Mega Evolution, albeit with an emphasis on size rather than redesign. And with that three-turn limit at play, deploying Dynamax at the right time is essential.

Nessa used Dynamax on her Drednaw as soon as she sent it out, and we upped the size of our Grookey to match. To paraphrase a classic Mitchell & Webb sketch, the fact that both of these Pokémon were embiggened made them each seem normal sized. But still, it was cool to see their supercharged moves and the defeated Drednaw shrinking back down before retreating into its Pokéball.

All in all, this demo didn’t provide much new knowledge about Pokémon Sword and Shield, but it did allow us a little taste that was sweet and enjoyable. The battle systems seem solid and the new critters are great. If the rest of the game is up to this standard, it should be an enjoyable experience. Certainly, this watery demo did nothing to dampen our excitement.

Pokémon Sword and Shield launch on 15 November on Nintendo Switch.

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