Release date: June 17, 2019
Rating: E (Everyone)
Platform: Nintendo Switch
What’s It All About?
Shortly after Pokémon Sword & Shield came out (check out our review of it here), an expansion pass was announced for the game, promising two doses explorable areas and an expanded monster roster. It’s a much different track than Game Freak’s previous strategy of overhauling their core games for later re-release, and some are skeptical because of it. So how does an addendum stand up in lieu of a revision?
Pokémon Sword & Shield got points from me before for getting the series’ core strengths right, and the expansion so far certainly adds more to the “catching” aspect – about 100 more monsters in the first expansion, and all put into a proper environment and context.
Where the core game flip-flopped between the sandbox-like “Wild Area” and the more path-oriented structure found in past games, Isle of Armor finds a happy compromise. Beaches lead easily into marshlands and cliff ranges, and while they’re structured like the games’ dungeons and routes, they’re treated mechanically like the Wild Area. This means free camera control, wide-open spaces to run around in, and more opportunities to see Pokémon in their habitats instead of just as a head popping out of the grass.
And while not all Pokémon get this treatment, the few that do give the island noticeably more character than the mainland. The waters are filled with predatory Sharpedo, you spot a massive Wailord off the coast when you first arrive, and friendly herbivorous species will walk right up and amicably greet you. I spent a solid ten minutes looking for a flying-squirrel before an NPC pointed out that they move between trees – and sure enough, as soon as I looked up, two of them were flitting about the forest canopy. It’s that kind of little flavorful detail that will make me buy into a world.
The other thing to note is that the island itself is very open. Where the series typically asks players to progressively address roadblocks, the Isle of Armor is dropped on the player in a lump sum. As far as I could tell, I was free to explore every cave and field in the expansion before ever engaging with the campaign, which is very welcome after Pokémon games (including the base game of Sword & Shield) could be irritatingly lead-you-by-the-nose. The DLC itself leans into that spirit, asking you to navigate much more often than to fight, and by spreading a legion of Diglett across its shoals and hills like mini-medals, encouraging players to upturn every nook and cranny.
A lot of players (myself included) absolutely adore seeing their little Pokémon buddies trot after them in the overworld, and the Isle of Armor happily brings this back. It is a bit barebones, sure; each monster just emotes in a couple of ways when interacted with, and that’s about the end of it. But by golly, I can have a giant sand-worm physically backing me up, and that’s worth something.
At risk of spoiling a feature, I’ll also note that the Isle of Armor adds an interesting little Battle-Tower-adjacent area at the end that forces you to fight with very specific restrictions. It has me looking through the Pokémon I’ve used in games past to see which would best complement each other, and I definitely see myself coming back to it.
There’s lots of little additions, like new character customization options and a way to recycle your excess items rather than selling, but those feel secondary next to having a new playground for monster-catching.
Expansion content for a single-player game is tricky to balance. Do you try and scale it to players coming in fresh? Or assume that everybody has end-game, high-level beasties on their belt? The expansion serves the lowest common denominator of both, as it scales in an extremely limited fashion – enemy trainer levels will be in their teens if you haven’t beaten the main game, and just in the sixties if you have.
I’d say you may want to put your best monsters on the back burner, but in reality there are only a handful of trainer battles where you can use your normal party anyway. Isle of Armor is more orienteering-heavy, and the only notable gauntlet of trainers forces you to only use the new legendary Pokémon whether you like it or not. Being forced to use a specific monster in these games always stinks of “look at this thing we made that obviously you think is cool” – and even as cute as he is, having to bench Centiskorch won’t sit quite right with everyone.
The Isle of Armor also adds in a few features of convenience that the main game lacks: a character who can meddle with the game’s hidden Effort Values, and one that lets any Pokémon – including your beloved starter – undergo a form change when activating
Kaiju Mode Dynamax. Previously this was restricted to only specific specimens caught in raid battles, so while opening this up to all monsters is welcome, it also creates a feature that’s now frustratingly missing from the main game.
There aren’t many purely new monsters in the Isle of Armor DLC – one familiar Pokémon gets a regional variant, and you’re given the bear Pokémon that’s on all the promotional artwork. That’s it. The rest of the additions are returning monsters that couldn’t make the cut in the base game for either lack of time or to make the DLC more enticing, depending on your skepticism. It’s a good deal if you were itching to have Chansey and Alakazam back, but less so if you’re hoping for fresh faces.
Remember three paragraphs ago where I noted you could be easily overleveled for the DLC? Well, it still requires grinding in a few spots – notably, you’re expected to get a monster from level 10 to 70 and maximally-friendly in relatively short order, and the items used for the aforementioned Kaiju Upgrade are a a chore to come by after your first freebie. This is the only major road block amidst content that otherwise lets you move at your own pace. At that, while I got a good ten hours out of scouring the island, those running a straighter line could reasonably cap off the campaign in four.
Right now, there’s what I have to label a bug in the game. Long-time players of the series can import returning Pokémon from the Pokémon Home app, but there’s a snag – those added in the DLC will not be registered to your in-game Pokédex. So even if you have a Skarmory in your active party, the game’s central collection feature won’t give you credit until you “re-obtain” it, either through catching, trading, or the in-game day care. Ultimately, I enjoy the process of seeing the critters wandering around out in the wild and re-catching them, anyway – though I’d have to stop and remember whether this game knows about Castella the Kangaskhan at home. Regardless, it’s clear flub that forces players to retread work they’ve already done.
Editor’s note: The aforementioned bug has since been fixed with an update to Pokémon Home. We will retain the above text, struck through, for posterity, but as of now you will be correctly credited for monsters caught in games past.
I hesitate to make my thoughts final considering that only half the content is out at time of writing, and the two only come as a pack. This article will definitely see an update in autumn once the Crown Tundra content is released, but if it’s anything like the Isle of Armor, the expansion pass will be exactly that – an expansion. More of what you already like, or don’t; great for getting your Pocket Monster fix, but not something that’s going to dramatically change the game.