By: Zach Siddiqui, Peak Associate
“Find me where the wild things are,” I hear myself quoting just minutes into the snowbound frontier of my latest digital adventure: Pokémon Sword and Shield’s most recent downloadable content (DLC), The Crown Tundra.
Pokémon’s eighth generation of games has been controversial from the start. I myself have tilted back and forth in my stance on the current state of the franchise. Living out the adventures of the Tundra revitalized my excitement for future instalments. Part of that I owe to the DLC’s advertised selling points: Dynamax Adventures, quests for Legendary Pokémon, and an expanded Pokedex catalogue to fill. Yet these factors are just part of the greater sense of adventure that the DLC has channelled — a sense that has been somewhat absent from the Pokémon world lately.
As novel as Sword and Shield was in some ways, and as fun as I found it on a first playthrough, I soon started to realize just how formulaic, how impersonal, the base game could start feeling. Easy battle after easy battle; wild Pokémon encounters that largely start and end the same way; biking aimlessly about to hatch Egg after Egg. Combined with system tricks like weather manipulation, the game loses the spice and spontaneity that affords a combat role-playing game its realism. Playing through The Crown Tundra, however, I felt a glimmer of the kind of inspired, immersive development choices that the games have lacked for some time.
After riding the rails south to the tundra’s main station, you’re quickly greeted by the father-daughter Trainer duo, Peony and Nia, who’ve travelled here for two very different holidays: Peony’s got a whole itinerary of expeditions for Legendaries planned, while poor Nia just wants to battle rare Dynamax Pokémon and take some time off from her well-meaning, overbearing, Steel-type expert of a father. In short order, Nia hits you with the biggest hustle of all time: she’s going to spend her vacation relaxing at the Max Lair, while you are going to keep her dad busy with his list of quest memos. Thus is born the affectionately-named Peony Exploration Team.
Despite getting totally finessed into tagging along with Peony’s plans, I soon realized I had no regrets over dropping millions of Pokedollars on trendy new holiday threads and hundreds of Ultra Balls. Peony and Nia, already entertaining characters on the surface, also surprise us with a link to the storyline of the base Sword and Shield games that retroactively fleshes out some of its weaker characters.
The first quest sequences, to restore the “King of Bountiful Harvests,” were simplistic but charming, involving some borderline Zelda-esque tasking. That vibe quickly spilled into every Memo I cleared for Peony: documenting the faint footprints of the Swords of Justice, carefully analyzing the migration data needed to find them; chasing the Galarian Birds across landmass after landmass and finding the right tactics to outmanoeuvre them; looking for sacred sites based on old drawings and the fleeting memories of a deposed king. Not to mention the part where we humiliate our opponents with our unproblematic fave, Compound Eyes Sleep Powder Butterfree!
Amidst each of these quests, The Crown Tundra feels like a proof-of-concept for gameplay that recenters the mainline Pokémon games not on battle, but on adventure. Pokémon brawls still play a part, yes — most notably in the Dynamax Adventures capture minigame and the Galarian Star Tournament — but for the first time, tracking and catching Pokémon across the wilds teeters on the edge of echoing what the experience might really feel like for a Trainer.
Small as it objectively was, sparse as the new additions to the Pokedex actually were, the Tundra somehow still felt like a space into which I could disappear as I completed the adventures. The frosty, remote ambience they created was bolstered by a phenomenal music score and a cohesive repertoire of landscapes. I won’t pretend that the Tundra was some all-redeeming paradise — there’s notably little to do after beating its main campaign — but it was the perfect wintry holiday to draw me back into sync with my gaming self.
Right now, there’s no telling what’s next on the agenda for the mainline Pokémon games. With the advent of The Crown Tundra, though, I’m excited to find out.