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It's no secret that Pokémon Sword & Shield left quite a bit to be desired when it released last year. Longtime fans hoping the move to Nintendo Switch would provide the evolution they'd been waiting years for were disappointed to find an adventure that felt, in spite of its many charms, ultimately hollow.
In my own review I wrote that "All the pieces were in place for Game Freak to make a truly stunning and ambitious new entry in gaming's biggest franchise. Tragically, it clearly wasn't given enough time to realise that ambition. Pokémon Sword & Shield aren't bad games - not even close - but they fall far short of what they might have been: the biggest and best Pokémon games in years, and the evolution the series needed."
Fast forward one year and Pokémon Sword is a game I rarely go back to, despite the fact that my 'dex remains tragically empty. After beating the main game and gobbling up the meagre post-credit story content, I felt there was very little reason to return - and this is coming from someone who usually sinks (literally) hundreds of hours into Pokémon games.
Things started to look a little brighter when Nintendo and Game Freak announced two major expansions earlier this year. The first, Isle Of Armor, failed to capture my colleague's attention when it launched a few months back. The upcoming Crown Tundra expansion, on the other hand, could just be the content to draw a sceptic like me back in.
See, if there was one thing that I feel was really missing from the base game, it's that spirit of exploration and discovery always kept me moving forward in the old games. Whether exploring the Ruins Of Alph in Johto or the caves underneath Seafoam Islands in Kanto, there was mystery. There was a sense of wonder. Of never knowing what you might find out there. The Crown Tundra looks like it's bringing back that sense of wonder, and I'm fully here for it.
During a recent preview session with Nintendo, one of the key takeaways I got from The Crown Tundra is that it's all about exploration and legendary Pokémon - two things I've always loved about the series.
That commitment to exploration is immediately apparent from the massive new region you'll get to explore. The Crown Tundra, as it's referred to, has been heavily inspired by Scotland, with a particular focus on Edinburgh and the Highlands. The open-world area looks infinitely more interesting than the fairly paltry Wild Area from the base game too, with snowy mountains, lush fields, and deep blue lakes. Based on what I saw, there are also plenty of winding paths, caves, and nooks to uncover, all peppered with fan-favourite Pokémon just waiting to be caught. I can't specify exactly which or how many classic monsters are returning, but believe me when I say hardcore fans will be very happy.
The story elements that work to bring players to The Crown Tundra in the first place are also plenty intriguing. Again, I'm not allowed to say much, but it already seems infinitely more ambitious in terms of narrative than the base game. What I will say is that it heavily involves a legendary Pokémon called Calyrex, whose incredible design is bound to ensure it a place at the top of many a favourite 'mon list by the end of the year.
Whether you're following the main story or engaging with numerous sidequests, The Crown Tundra promises to offer a lot more depth than anything from the base game or previous expansion. There are large new areas to explore, new Pokémon to catch, and plenty of legendary monsters to hunt - and I mean plenty.
There's also an entirely new Championship-style challenge for trainers who feel they're ready to take on the hardest battles in the game. The most seasoned players will be able to team up with key characters and gym leaders from the base game and both DLC expansions and work together to compete in gruelling multi-battles. If you ever felt sorry for constantly beating Hop and ruining his shot at greatness, now's the time to partner up with him and show him what it feels like to be a winner.
While that should provide plenty of incentive for players to train and up and get stuck in, one of more exciting new features in The Crown Tundra is Dynamax Adventure. This ambitious, punishing new mode promises to be the meat of the experience that keeps you coming back after the story ends. It essentially combines the Max Raid battles from the base game with the kind of team-based survival mode you might see in something like Street Fighter or Tekken.
Once you track down a Max Lair, you'll still need to team up with three other Trainers (human or NPC) - just as you would for the standard Max Raid battles. Dynamax Adventures are considerably longer challenges, however, and are made up of multiple Max Raid battles. You'll start off with a completely random Pokémon, and it's up to you to pursue branching paths and head towards the ultimate goal - a battle with a Legendary Pokémon.
There's obviously an element of strategy involved in Dynamax Adventure that requires an inherent knowledge of the monster you're currently travelling with. The multiple paths forward will be blocked by Dynamax Pokémon, so you'll need to assess type advantages and move ahead accordingly. Each Dynamax Pokémon you take out on your path to the legendary can be added to your team at the expense of your current partner, too, so you'll have to plan ahead and really think about which Pokémon will be better in the long run.
Reaching the end will result in a massive battle with a legendary Pokémon, and I'm told that every legendary will appear in the expansion - from Arceus to Zekrom. Of course getting to the end of a Max Lair won't always be easy, as losing at any step of the journey will mean you have to go back to the start and try again with new Pokémon. The good news is that players are 100% guaranteed to catch the legendaries at the end of these challenges - a suitable reward for something that sounds - and looks - really quite tough.
Having only seen a shortened, edited version of a full Dynamax Adventure, I'm not entirely how long it'll take to get through a full one - or how much of a slog it'll be. As someone who finds standard Dynamax Battles to be a little annoying after a while, there's a chance that being made to go through one after the other with a Pokémon I didn't get to choose will get old quickly.
On the other hand, the randomised elements of Dynamax Adventure paired with the promise of a legendary battle could inject raids with the stakes that I feel they've been sorely missing up till now. Either way, they sound like a pretty meaty optional extra on top of an already appetisting expansion that really seems to focus on rewarding players who have long-since finished the game and want more of a challenge.
Pokémon Sword & Shield: The Crown Tundra will be available on Nintendo Switch on October 23rd.