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Pokemon Sword and Shield's Dynamax adds an unexpected difficulty level to battles

As a Poke purist, whenever the series introduces a new statement battle feature like Dynamax, or previously MegaEvolution, I can't help but feel a little skeptical. But after going hands-on with Pokemon Sword and Shield it's amazing just how much it changes battles. 

Whereas normally these kind of game-changing mechanics arrive later on in the game, it's looking like Dynamax will be available while you're still working your way through the gym leaders. During my E3 2019 demo, I got to take on the Water Gym, led by Nessa, who was armed with a Goldeen and the new Gen 8 Pokemon Drednaw. 

Of course, as you'd expect from a Gym, you couldn't just walk straight up to her and challenge her to a battle. Returning to the usual Pokemon gym battle formula after the Trials alternative introduced in Pokemon Sun and Moon, you'll need to battle through a series of gym lackies, and solve some puzzles before you can face Nessa directly. Here these puzzles consisted of clearing paths blocked by water spouts rising from different coloured grates, which could be controlled by flicking the same coloured switches. Not exactly complex, but a nice enough challenge before coming face to face with the Water Gym leader.

Do go chasing waterfalls

Armed with a party of six level 50 Pokemon (the three starters, Sobble, Grookey and Scorbunny, along with Wooloo, Corviknight and the brand new electric corgi Pokemon, Yamper) against Nessa's two, not to mention some 20-odd years of Pokemon gaming experience, you'd think I was prepared for this Gym Battle. But, you'd be wrong. I'd underestimated just how much stronger Dynamax would make Nessa's Drednaw. Because not only does the new mechanic make your Pokemon physically bigger and stronger, but it also adds superpowered versions of your existing moves to your hit-list. But there's a caveat, of course. Dynamax can only be used once per battle, and it will only last for three turns before your Pokemon returns to their normal size. This means that you will need to use the ability wisely – and be prepared to outlast an opponent's Dynamax too. 

Nessa used her Dynamax on Drednaw almost as soon as its feet had hit the stadium floor. The strong-jawed Pokemon roared into Dynamax mode, dominating the space and making the battle feel quite intimidating. It's powers were enhanced so monstrously by this transition that it took out three of my Pokemon in near one-hit shots. I decided to wait out the Dynamax before unleashing my own, which in itself was a decision I'm not sure I should have made, because normal sized Pokemon against a Dynamax really don't stand much of a chance. 

But, when the time came, unleashing a Dynamax Yamper in all his best boy glory was quite a sight to behold. I didn't think a gigantic Corgi could be so terrifying - yet oh so adorable. His beefed up moves made short work of Drednaw, and combined with a quick one-two from Wooloo, the battle with Nessa was finally over. 

A new generation, in more ways that one

The Dynamax feature combined with the new stadium-style layout of the gym battles makes for quite the spectacle. I don't think gym battles have had this kind of gravitas since way back in the days of Pokemon Red and Blue, and now they're even more tactical than ever before too. It helps that Pokemon Sword and Shield is a marked upgrade visually from any Pokemon game that's come before, even last year's Pokemon Let's Go. Animations are smoother, and more varied in battle, and the stadiums are quite an impressive event. The battle animations aren't quite Pokemon Stadium quality yet, but we're getting there. Although, the fact that the trainers are still generic moulds of 'peppy girl in uniform' and so on, rather than individual NPCs, does sting a bit this far into the Pokemon series. 

While other games are making leaps and bounds with the level of detail offered in their non-playable characters – just look at Watch Dogs Legion – the idea that, outside of the main roster of characters, the trainers that you'll be fighting across Galar will be cookie-cutter types rather than distinct personalities is pretty disappointing. Heck, even if they had different coloured hair, or slightly different features, it would make the world feel more alive. 

It's a shame too that we were limited to the gym in this demo, with all menus locked off bar in the in-battle menus, as for me the main appeal of Pokemon Sword and Shield is the new Galar region and its open world Wild Area, where Pokemon visibly run wild and the camera is unfixed and free. But no doubt we'll see more of that before the November 15 release date. 

The gripes don't take away from the excitement of a new entry in the long-running Pokemon series. Even from the small slice of the game I've been able to experience here, it's clear that this marks an evolution for the series, both in terms of battling and graphically. I just can't wait to see what more Pokemon Sword and Shield, and their Galar region have to offer. 

Pokemon Sword and Shield is available exclusively on Nintendo Switch on November 15, 2019.

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