Pokémon Sword and Shield: Living a Trainer’s Life

This article is one chapter of a multi-part Cover Game feature!
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When the original Pokémon games were announced, I didn’t initially realise that they were RPGs — at least partly because I wasn’t overly familiar with how RPGs worked myself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, I know much better. But “RPG” is such a broad term, particularly when you throw its tabletop counterpart into the mix. There are lots of different ways you can approach the idea of an “RPG” from a mechanical perspective, and lots of different games over the years — including Pokémon — have experimented with the formula.

Pokémon Sword and Shield are, of course, no exception. Let’s take a closer look at the game’s mechanical components and contemplate how these games approach the idea of you “role-playing” as a Pokémon Trainer.

The term “RPG” means different things to different people. For some, it’s as simple as having hit points, experience points and levels. For others, turn-based gameplay should be in the mix. For others, a large and detailed world to explore is of crucial importance. And for yet others, RPGs present the opportunity to truly inhabit the role of a character you have designed and taken ownership of, rather than simply controlling a pre-scripted character dreamed up by the writers and developers.

None of these approaches are inherently “wrong” — it’s all a matter of preference. What Pokémon Sword and Shield does is make an admirable effort to keep a broad range of people happy. You can engage with the various mechanical elements as much or as little as you like and have a satisfying experience — and if you engage with all of them, the game, particularly once you’ve beaten the main story, provides a real feeling that you are inhabiting the land of Galar and really living the life of your Trainer.

For the benefit of those who have never played a Pokémon game before — I know you’re out there — the general sequence of events runs thus.

You begin the game as a youngster eager to take on the region’s Pokémon-related challenge. This usually, but not always, involves working your way through a series of eight type-themed gyms to earn badges, followed by winning a series of League battles, followed by toppling the reigning champion, followed by tracking down and capturing the local Legendary Pokémon — that which is inevitably the cover star.

Along the way, you’ll encounter wild Pokémon in areas of tall grass; these can either be fought in turn-based battles for experience points or captured to add to your collection. You’ll also encounter rival Trainers; these also unfold as turn-based battles, but without the option to capture your opponents’ Pokémon. Trainer battles sometimes — though not always — involve surviving a sequence of several Pokémon in succession, and reward you with money.

Progression through the game takes two main forms. Firstly, you progress through the game’s story to unlock access to new areas and more powerful Pokémon. Secondly, your Pokémon progress by gaining levels to increase their stats, and learning abilities to change or improve what they’re capable of.

Sword and Shield follow this format pretty much to the letter — with a few twists along the way. Let’s look at each aspect in turn.

The adventurous exploration side of Sword and Shield can be further subdivided into two distinct components: travelling routes between towns and villages, and exploring the Wild Area. The latter of these is Sword and Shield’s main innovation on the series.

Route-based exploration has been a staple of Pokémon right from the beginning. This is where the game is closest to what is thought of as traditional, conventional console RPG-style gameplay. You start in one town or village and follow a linear path to your next destination. Occasionally the route may branch and offer alternative ways to go, but the main path onwards is always very clear; side routes generally lead you to dead ends containing valuable items.

In Sword and Shield, said items take two forms: items represented as Pokéballs can be collected once and once only, while items that appear as momentary sparkles on the ground will respawn every so often, allowing you to collect them repeatedly over multiple play sessions. Generally speaking, Pokéball items will be important, permanent or otherwise non-consumable items — frequently, they’ll be “Technical Machines” (more commonly known as TMs) which allow you to teach certain Pokémon a particular move if they’re compatible with it. More on that later. Conversely, “sparkle” items will typically be consumables such as healing and buffing items, though occasionally they’ll be items that provide permanent increases to one of a Pokémon’s stats.

Traditionally, Pokémon’s random battle encounters — known as “wild Pokémon encounters” — have occured when you step into parts of a map specifically marked as “tall grass”. Stepping into tall grass isn’t a guarantee you’re going to have a fight, however; rather, it was traditionally implemented similarly to the random encounter system in older console RPGs such as Final Fantasy, with an invisibly tracked chance of encounter gradually increasing with each step you take. The main difference is that in an older Final Fantasy game or other console RPG with a similar system, that “encounter counter” would increase regardless of where you walked; in Pokémon it was only a factor while you were in tall grass.

Since the Let’s Go games on Switch, however, mainline Pokémon games have favoured wild Pokémon actually being visible on the field screen. This allows you to specifically choose which wild Pokémon you would like to pursue, or even avoid combat altogether if you so desire. The random encounter element isn’t entirely absent, however; while walking through tall grass you’ll occasionally see it rustle due to a hidden wild Pokémon, and if you don’t get out of the way of the rustling quickly you’ll be thrown into combat whether you like it or not!

We’ll come back to battle in a moment, though; let’s finish looking at exploration, first.

The routes are generally designed in such a way as to provide a natural sense of progression as well as an indicator on whether you need to spend some time building up your team. If you’re easily flattening all the wild Pokémon in the area, it’s probably time to move on; conversely, if they’re kicking your booty into next week, it might be worth looking at your team composition, Pokémon types or perhaps just levelling up your ‘mon a little bit.

Upon reaching a town or village, you’ll generally find the same facilities. There’s always at least one Pokémon Center — more in larger cities — where you can heal all of your Pokémon for free as well as purchase consumable items. In Sword and Shield, the range of consumable items you can buy expands with each gym you successfully clear on your journey, but there are also some area-exclusive items you can buy, too. These often take the form of Technical Records (more commonly referred to as TRs), which, like TMs, allow you to teach a new move to a compatible Pokémon. The difference is that TRs can only be used once before breaking, while TMs can be used as many times as you like.

Sword and Shield also add a significant new facility to Pokémon Centers: a Rotom-powered terminal that not only allows you to access the digital “boxes” where Pokémon not currently in your active party are stored, but also to send those stored Pokémon out on Poké Jobs.

Poké Jobs will give you a textual hint as to what kind of Pokémon the client is looking for, and it’s then up to you to select an appropriate lineup from your boxes to send on the job for up to 24 real-life hours (including time you’re not actively playing the game). When the Pokémon return, they’ll have gained experience and levels according to their performance — successfully interpreting the job request and sending the correct type of Pokémon yields better results, but you can’t “fail” a job — and occasionally they’ll bring back items or money.

The main purpose of Poké Jobs, then, is to allow you to easily level Pokémon that you’re not actively using. But they’re also used for an interesting bit of background worldbuilding; the clients who hire you through this system represent various aspects of the Galar region you might come into passing contact with on your journey, and the Jobs often provide a bit of additional insight. It’s a nice little touch that makes the whole setting feel much more well-realised.

Elsewhere, larger towns usually play host to a clothing boutique and/or beauty salon, both of which allow you to customise various aspects of your character’s appearance. This has no effect on gameplay whatsoever, but allows you to take complete ownership of your character. Different towns have different fashions in vogue, so as you progress on your journey you can develop numerous different looks as you see fit; clothes are added to a permanent inventory once you’ve bought them, too, so you can mix and match various separates for free any time you find a boutique with a changing room.

Your character’s appearance is relevant for one aspect of the game: the fact that everyone involved in the Gym Challenge and Pokémon League is in possession of their own set of collectible League Cards. These feature an image of the trainer and their number on the front, and biographical information on the back. League cards received from the main characters in the game provide background story information; league cards received from other players, meanwhile, show you what their current team is, how many Pokémon they’ve collected and various other gameplay statistics.

You get your own League Card once you’ve entered the Gym Challenge and given yourself a registration number. You’re able to update this at any time using the Rotom terminal in Pokémon Centers; the best part of this is that you can pose your character, change their facial expression and move the “camera” around as you want, as well as place them in front of a selection of backdrops that gradually expands as you visit more places around Galar.

So far, so Pokémon, you veterans might be thinking. When the Wild Area enters the picture, however, things get a little interesting.

You’re introduced to the Wild Area quite early in the game; after completing the introductory storyline and learning about your overall objectives, you’re invited to make your way to the town of Motostoke via train. Motostoke doesn’t have its own railway station, despite being a thriving industrial town; the nearest stop is at a meeting point on the outskirts of the Wild Area, so you have to walk the rest of the way.

The Wild Area is the “open world” component of Sword and Shield. It’s relatively small compared to dedicated open-world games, but nonetheless provides plenty of interesting scenery to explore — and, of course, plenty of Pokémon to catch.

The area is subdivided into various zones, each of which can have its own completely independent weather condition. Certain Pokémon only appear at certain times of day or under particular weather conditions, but in more practical terms weather can simply affect visibility as you explore, and has various effects on battles, too.

In the Wild Area, you’re free to do as you see fit. You can take on Pokémon lurking in tall grass, similarly to how you do on the more structured routes. You can battle wild Pokémon that are walking around in the open — though these are typically much stronger than those in the grass. You can interact with various NPCs. You can acquire a bicycle and participate in a series of time trials called the Rotom Rally.

If you’re online while you’re in the Wild Area, you can see other players exploring, just like you, and interact with them. This isn’t a direct interaction, however; the player character is treated like an NPC, and will simply give you a canned piece of dialogue and provide you with an item. Nonetheless, it’s still a nice touch that reminds you that you aren’t the only one out here searching for elusive ‘mon.

You can also set up camp anywhere in the Wild Area. You can do this in most places on routes, too — so long as you’re outdoors, obviously — but in the Wild Area other players are able to pay your camp a visit to see your Pokémon and “meet” your character. The main incentive for setting up camp, however, is interacting with the Pokémon in your active party. Talking to and playing with your Pokémon increases their affection for you, and this has various mechanical benefits, as we’ll discuss a little later.

Camping also allows you to cook curry. This consists of choosing a main ingredient followed by a selection of berries to add to the mix, then playing a short minigame involving button-mashing to fan the flames of your campfire, “stirring” the pot with a Joy-Con or analogue stick, then timing a button press to, rather charmingly, “Put Your Heart In It”. Once this process is complete, both you and the Pokémon in your party will taste the curry and give it a grade; the better the curry, the more potent the experience point gain, friendship increases and healing power it has when you break camp and move on. For completionists, there’s also a “Curry Dex”, which challenges you to discover all the possible combinations of base ingredients and flavour traits provided through berry choice.

The other major thing you can do in the Wild Area is participate in Max Raid Battles, which is probably a good cue for us to switch gears and talk about Pokémon combat.

You’ll get into combat under several main circumstances: when you encounter a wild Pokémon in tall grass as described above, when a rival Trainer sees you on the road, when you choose to participate in a Max Raid Battle, or when your story progress or a character interaction dictates you should have a battle.

In most circumstances, Pokémon battles unfold as a one-on-one fight between two Pokémon. You send out the first Pokémon in your party of up to six, you square off against your opponent and then participate in turn-based combat. The end goal of said combat depends on the circumstances the battle started: when encountering a wild Pokémon, you may want to catch the Pokémon if you haven’t previously caught one of that species; when fighting a Trainer, you’ll generally have to defeat one or more of their Pokémon in succession — it’s considered the height of bad manners to attempt to capture someone else’s Pokémon — and when participating in a Max Raid Battle, your goal is to deplete your giant foe’s hit points before, optionally, attempting to capture them.

Each Pokémon has one or two “types” associated with it, which determines two things: the types that are strong and weak against it, and the type of moves that it will perform most effectively. Fire-type Pokémon, for example, are strong against Grass (because Fire burns Grass), but weak against Water (because Water extinguishes Fire). Early in the game, you’ll encounter types that make straightforward, logical sense, similar to elemental affinities in more conventional RPGs. Later, however, you’ll start encountering more esoteric types such as “Ghost”, “Dark”, “Fairy” and “Dragon”; understanding the strengths and weaknesses of all the various types is key to success.

Each Pokémon also has up to four moves available to use at any time, each of which has a number of “PP” representing how many times the move can be used before the Pokémon needs to rest at a Pokémon Center or in camp. Generally speaking, the stronger a move is, the fewer PP it has available, so you’ll often need to choose wisely if battling a lot without the opportunity for a break.

Moves have types, just like Pokémon, and they don’t necessarily correspond to the Pokémon’s own type. The fire-type starter Scorbunny’s later evolution is able to learn a Flying-type move where it leaps in the air and drops down on the enemy the following turn, for example. However, a Pokémon is at its most effective when using a move of a type that matches its own — so to use Scorbunny as an example once again, it’s most effective for it to use Fire-type moves. This easily forgotten mechanic is sometimes referred to as the Same-Type Attack Bonus, or STAB for short.

Whether a move is “super effective” (strong) or “not very effective” (weak) against a foe depends on the attacking Pokémon’s move type versus the defending Pokémon’s own type. In other words, Scorbunny (Fire) won’t automatically be super effective against Grookey (Grass); it will need to use a Fire-type move to get the maximum benefit. And, with this being an RPG, stats also enter the picture, too; offensive moves are classified as “physical” or “special”, and each Pokémon has stats specifically for both physical and special attack and defense. A super effective physical move won’t do you much good if the foe has particularly high physical defense, for example.

This system of strengths and weaknesses is often described as being somewhat “rock, paper, scissors” but in reality it’s much more complex than that — mostly because there are more than three different types to worry about, there are some interesting and complex interactions between them — and, of course, there are the stats to consider, too.

Some types are completely immune to one another — Normal types can’t hit Ghost types, while Steel types are totally invulnerable against Poison attacks, to give just two examples. Some Pokémon have dual types, too; depending on the combination, this could mean they have twice as many weaknesses as normal, that they cover their own weaknesses, or that they have two different types of move for which they can leverage that all-important STAB.

It’s not all just hitting one another with the right type of moves, though. Most Pokémon have access to moves that buff themselves or debuff the opponent, and some even have reactive moves that have different effects according to what is going on. A particularly irritating one called Sucker Punch always goes first and deals more damage if the opponent is preparing an attack, for example, while moves that allow a Pokémon to predict or prepare for an attack can shrug off the most powerful moves coming at them if timed properly. There’s even a move that causes a fainting Pokémon to automatically take down whoever defeated them — a good means of getting the last laugh.

Weather is also a concern; some Pokémon are able to manipulate it directly, while if you’re battling in the Wild Area you’ll often have to take whatever environment you can get! Some weather conditions provide bonuses to particular types of move with no real drawbacks — harsh sunlight increases the power of Fire, for example — while others, like hail and sandstorms, cause damage over time with every passing turn as well as having an impact on certain attacks.

Later Pokémon titles have introduced variations on the one-on-one formula to varying degrees of success. In Sword and Shield there are two main variations in normal combat: one where you send out two Pokémon at once to fend off two Trainers at the same time, and one where you send out one of your Pokémon at the same time as an ally, again to fend off two Trainers simultaneously. In these situations, certain moves become more useful; several Pokémon have moves that can hit several targets at once, for example.

Max Raid Battles, meanwhile, are a slightly different affair. Jump into one in the Wild Area and you’ll have to pick just one of your available Pokémon to bring with you, then choose to either fight alongside three AI-controlled Trainers or invite other people. In true Pokémon tradition, you can do this either locally with Switch-wielding people around you, or you can connect to the Internet to find allies online.

Under most circumstances, it’s most practical to be in direct communication with friends and use the game’s “Link Code” facility to set up your own private session with one another, since the matchmaking facility is heavily dependent on other people 1) being online at the same time as you and 2) bothering to interact with the in-game “stamps” that announce you are looking for members.

Regardless of how you obtain your allies — and regardless of if they’re human, AI or a mix of both — the battle begins with the four of you facing off against a giant Pokémon of some description. In Galar lore, this is known as Dynamax, with rarer variations on the usual giant form being known as Gigantamax.

Battles unfold in two phases: you and your allies choose your commands simultaneously — as does your huge opponent — and then they unfold according to everyone’s Speed stat, or, in the case of order-breaking moves such as the aforementioned Sucker Punch, in order of priority.

Your humongous foes have access to unique moves known as either Max or G-Max depending on whether they’re Dynamax or Gigantamax. These are enormously powerful moves of a single, specific type that are normally enough to wipe out an ally’s Pokémon in a single hit. They also generally come with a weather effect attached. They can be intimidating, but they’re by no means an “instant win” button for your opponent — at least partly because you can do them too.

During a Max Raid Battle — and under some other specific circumstances, which we’ll come onto shortly — you gradually build up Dynamax Energy in a bracelet you’re given towards the beginning of the game. When this is full — which occurs immediately if you’re playing entirely with AI, and which rotates around players if playing with humans — you have the option to Dynamax your Pokémon and unleash one of these Max or G-Max moves for yourself. Dynamax or Gigantamax for you will last for three full turns, assuming your Pokémon isn’t defeated in that time, so it’s a good opportunity to inflict some serious damage.

Max Raid opponents have another trick up their sleeve, though; if not defeated in a couple of turns, they’ll summon a barrier in front of themselves that absorbs the majority of damage they would have otherwise taken. These take several hits to dispel, although doing so causes heavy damage to the foe as well as dropping their defensive statistics significantly.

At the same time, you need to ensure that you finish the battle within 10 turns and with fewer than four Pokémon fainting — this includes the same one fainting four times, since a KO’d Pokémon will be back to fighting fit and full health after a turn on the floor. Fail to do this and the Max Raid opponent wins; there’s no real penalty for this happening, but it does waste your time and then require you to go find another Max Raid battle elsewhere in the Wild Area.

Victory in a Max Raid Battle, meanwhile, presents you with the opportunity to capture the giant Pokémon you just fought, as well as a significant amount of loot, mostly in the form of TMs, TRs and candies that immediately award the Pokémon who consumes them with varying amounts of experience points. This latter feature means that Max Raid Battles are an important and very helpful means of quickly assembling a team of new Pokémon — especially important when you come to the various gyms, which are all themed around a single type.

Sword and Shield’s gyms have two distinct components. Before you can face the gym leader, you have to complete a gym mission. This is essentially a self-contained “dungeon” of sorts, often featuring unique mechanics that relate to the Pokémon type the leader specialises in. In the grass gym, for example, you’ll find yourself herding the sheep-like Wooloo into pens; in the water gym, you’ll be manipulating switches to turn off powerful water flows and be able to proceed onward.

Once you’ve cleared the gym challenge — which usually means fighting a few Trainers along the way as well as completing the core puzzle or challenge — you’re taken to the main stadium, at which point you face the gym leader. This unfolds as a relatively conventional Trainer battle, with one main exception: the ability to Dynamax.

You’re able to Dynamax at any point during the battle, though as in a Max Raid Battle it only lasts for three turns and cannot be done again after you’ve triggered it once. Your opponent, meanwhile, will generally save their Dynamax until they’re down to their last Pokémon, making final victory a little more challenging. Unless you’ve levelled your Pokémon well and brought along the right type, of course — in which case you can quite feasibly take down even the largest, most intimidating opponent in a single hit!

This brings us to the matter of progression, and here is where, for many people, the Pokémon series has always shone the brightest. It’s also the aspect of the game where you can choose how strongly you want to engage with it.

At its most basic level, Sword and Shield have a conventional RPG-style levelling system where Pokémon gain experience for defeating opponents or capturing wild Pokémon. At various levels, they have the option of learning new moves, and under various circumstances — often, though not always, reaching a specific level — they will evolve into a more powerful form with better stats and, in some cases, different types and moves to learn.

Choosing whether or not to learn a move is an important decision. Each Pokémon can only have a deck of four moves, so if you learn a new one you need to ditch an old one. Thankfully, this isn’t permanent; a helpful barista in every Pokémon Center provides the facility to forget any current moves you have or relearn any that the Pokémon would have normally acquired by its current level if you hadn’t been an interfering old busybody. This is retroactive, too; if you catch a Pokémon at, say, level 50, you can retrieve any of the Pokémon’s past possible moves, even if you didn’t level it all the way to 50 yourself.

On top of the moves learned through levelling, you have those acquired through the aforementioned TMs and TRs. These allow you to truly customise individual Pokémon and make them your own. For example, you might want to set up one particular Pokémon to be good at helping you catch things; in this instance, it’s good to outfit it with the move “False Swipe”, which is a weak attack that never knocks a Pokémon below one hit point, as well as some sort of status-inflicting move, because debilitating status effects make capture easier, as does knocking a Pokémon’s HP down without actually causing them to faint.

If you want to delve into things in a bit more depth, you can look at Pokémon Abilities and Natures. Abilities are primarily passive skills that activate automatically under certain circumstances, while Natures describe the Pokémon’s personality — which, in turn, determines which one of their stats will have a slight bonus, and which will have a slight penalty. If you truly want to optimise your team, catching Pokémon with Natures and Abilities that complement how you’re using them is a good idea.

On top of that, you can tweak your Pokémon’s performance with held items. The simplest of these simply boost the power of a particular type of move, so these make a good enhancement for a single-type Pokémon. Others can affect the Pokémon’s development, adjust its stats or provide it with various one-shot benefits. There’s a lot of scope for customisation — and a lot of items to experiment with.

Friendship is also for more than just fun, too. Besides the simple joy of watching your Pokémon happily running around in camp — which, believe me, can occupy a hefty chunk of time by itself — being better friends with your Pokémon carries numerous significant benefits when it comes to combat. Most notably, the higher your friendship is, the more likely the Pokémon is to resist status effects, avoid attacks completely and cling on to consciousness with 1HP when taking a hit that would otherwise knock it out.

It doesn’t end there, though. Probably the most obtuse part of the game — and one which it doesn’t explain at all — is something known as “Effort Value” or “EV”. This is a series of hidden values that attach to the Pokémon’s stats; for every 4 EV points on a stat, that Pokémon will have an extra point on that stat upon reaching the cap of level 100.

EV points are acquired simply by battling. Defeating any Pokémon awards at least one thematically appropriate EV point. Highly defensive Pokémon will award EV points to defensive statistics, for example. There are also various ways to manipulate this EV increase to your advantage, as well as to artificially manipulate the values both upwards and downwards with vitamins, mineral supplements and medicines. There’s a hard cap on both a Pokémon’s total EV points and the number you can assign to a single stat, though, so, again, if you truly want to optimise your team, you’ll want to ensure that the Pokémon “trains” in the right areas to complement the moves it will be using.

There are a couple of reasons the game doesn’t explain this aspect of itself to you. Firstly, it’s important to remember Pokémon’s origins as a social game intended to be played one-to-one, face-to-face. One player might notice the effect EV training has had on their Pokémon and tell their friend about it; then they might tell another friend, and so on. Today, of course, this whole sequence has been completely replaced by the Internet; you’ll find the information pretty easily on any of the major Pokémon fansites if you care to look.

Secondly, Game Freak’s Shigeru Ohmori, who has been working on the series since Ruby and Sapphire, felt that obscuring these stats from the player would encourage them to think of the Pokémon as living creatures rather than collections of stats; they might just end up thinking something along the lines of “oh, this Pikachu is my favourite because it fights well for me” rather than “oh, this Pikachu’s Defense and Sp.Def are high”.

One should also remember that Pokémon’s target audience extends from the very young right up to grown adults, and an RPG is already quite a complex kind of game for a child to get their head around. Further complicating matters with tricky matters of progression runs the risk of intimidating and overwhelming young players! Plus let’s not forget the allure and mystique that surrounds having an understanding of a supposedly “secret” feature — especially if your friends don’t know how to take advantage of it themselves.

As you can see, there’s a lot to Pokémon Sword and Shield from a mechanical perspective, and the fact that you can engage with each of these aspects to varying degrees of depth means that you really can make the experience what you want it to be.

If you want to be a hardcore min-maxer putting together the best possible team, you have all the tools available that you need to do that; you can even breed Pokémon in an attempt to pass down optimal traits and stats to a new generation.

On the other hand, if you just want to skip happily through a brightly-coloured world that represents a delightfully idealised view of Britain — something which we Brits could really do with at the time of writing, let me tell you — then you can do that too.

Pokémon Sword and Shield really do allow you to live your life as a Trainer in Galar as you see fit. And the joy of that carefree existence means I don’t see myself putting the game down for a long time, even after beating the story and the postgame content.


More about Pokémon Sword and Shield

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