WHAT IS A HANDS-ON REVIEW?
Hands-on game reviews are a journalist's first impressions of a game based on spending some time with it ahead of our full review. In this case, we played 15 minutes of Pokémon Sword and Shield at Gamescom 2019. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves, and we can give you some sense of what it's like to enjoy, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.
Pokémon Sword and Shield promise to shake up the classic Pokémon formula, taking players to the new Britain-inspired Galar region and introducing a bunch of new mechanics that have warranted mixed reactions from fans.
After all, the Pokémon game series is over 20 years old and change isn’t always received positively.
We got 15 minutes hands on time with Pokémon Sword and Shield at Gamescom 2019, which gave us a chance to battle the game’s new water-type gym leader, Nessa, and try out some of the latest Pokémon companions.
Wet and wild
The demo we played at Gamescom immediately threw us into the water-type gym. In true Pokémon fashion, getting to the gym leader isn't all that simple and we had to solve a water puzzle first.
Essentially there are several colored buttons dotted around, each controlling gushes of water which are blocking your path to the leader. Each colored button corresponds to a gush of water with the same colored grate, so by pressing the button of the same color you can turn the water on or off, but doing so will probably turn on (or off) a different gush of water. The puzzle requires you to turn off all the water blocking your path.
Did we mention that there are some annoying kids in your way? Well technically lads and lasses, but if you've played Pokémon before then you know the type. Basically, an annoying child in a school uniform who insists on battling you with their Pokémon then guilt-tripping you when you're victorious because you hurt their 'best friend'.
Each lad and lass only has one Pokémon so they're easy to defeat – plus it's a great time to try out your new Poképals. In our party we had most of the Pokémon announced around E3 2019: Wooloo, Sobble, Drednaw, Scorbunny, Grookey, Corviknight and Yamper.
Being a water gym, we felt that having the adorable corgi-esque Yamper as the first out of the gate was a good call – he's an electric type, you see.
In terms of actual battling, little has changed – except the animations are much more interesting than a mere shuffle. When Sobble makes it rain, it pours for as long as the move is active; when Scorbunny uses Ember, flames engulf the foe.
The big change, however, is the new Dynamaxing feature. Which we're not particuarly fond of. The new combat mechanic allows a Pokémon to become gigantic for three moves, causing extra damage and taking less hits.
It's an interesting addition, but doesn't feel like it actually makes for more interesting battles. If anything it takes some of the challenge away from being a head to head with another trainer, with just a few health points deciding the winner.
After working our way through the water labyrinth, we entered the main gym (or stadium as it now stands). That's right, in Sword and Shield gyms have been ramped up and now you battle gym leaders in front of huge crowds who react depending on how the battle is going. It's a lot of pressure.
The stadium is big enough to allow you to dynamax or gigantamax but, again, we just didn't find ourselves inclined to use it. It feels like cheating. Well, it did, until Nessa dynamaxed her drednaw and wiped our poor Wooloo off the face of the region.
We simply preferred it when the battle remained traditional, without the bells and whistles. It just feels less intimate.
Nessa isn't particularly difficult to beat, once you get to grips with the new Pokémon, what their type is and what their moves do. Whether this changes when the full game is released is uncomfirmed.
When Pokémon Sword and Shield sticks to its traditional battle strengths, it shines as a mature and modernized Pokémon title.
However, the dynamax feature – alongside larger gym battles – just feels like a lackluster mechanic that doesn't add any particularly interesting new layers. It feels slightly like it has muddied the waters, although some may enjoy the ability to create a ginormous Yamper.
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