Pokémon Sword and Shield were received like Marmite when they came out; you either loved them or hated them. However, a majority of people, even those who were less critical of the games, myself included, found themselves feeling mixed about the announcement of the DLC expansion.
It was an understandable response; there weren’t many people who could call Sword and Shield perfect, and most could agree that in one way or another, they felt somewhat unfinished. So, for Nintendo to announce a £27 expansion to build on the base game, some felt as if it was a cop-out; to satiate those who felt the games were unfinished, but by still charging players for what some believed should have been part of the games in the first place.
So, we’ve finally got our hands on part one; The Isle of Armor (the second instalment, The Crown Tundra, is set to be released later this year). But how does it hold up?
Well, first off, the vast majority of content that was shown in the trailers is…the vast majority of content in the expansion. Unfortunately, there aren’t a huge amount of surprises in store for anyone who had kept up with the news prior to its release. I’ll be discussing these surprises later in this article, but I’ll give a spoiler warning, so keep an eye out for that if you’re avoiding them.
The new story follows the player’s time at the Master Dojo on the Isle of Armor, where you raise a new mythical Pokémon, Kubfu, for it to evolve into either a Water or Dark type form of Urshifu (known as the Rapid Strike and Single Strike styles respectively, both are capable of Gigantamaxing). There’s a few little tasks you’ll complete along the way, as well as, of course, a few battles. All the tasks are fun, but just don’t amount to that much content overall, so much so that I don’t really want to go into detail here as they’re one of the only surprising things left in the main bulk of the DLC. The story is also really quite short; you’ll probably be done within about five hours if you’re just focusing on that and nothing else, but more on that later.
You also have a new rival character to battle and interact with throughout the duration of the DLC; the Poison Type specialist Klara if you’re playing Sword version, or Psychic Type user Avery in Shield, who both have brilliant battle themes, and are really fun characters to have around. However, incredibly disappointingly, their personalities and dialogue in the story are close enough to identical. Of course, this won’t be a problem if you’re only playing one version of the game, but it just feels so lazy, and gives no extra incentive to play the DLC in both versions as you’ll be getting basically the same character copy and pasted, despite each being sold as a “version difference”.
The biggest problem I have with The Isle of Armor is its really weird difficulty scaling. The DLC is actually accessible at any time during the main game, not just after you’ve already beaten it. This would be a great thing, if it wasn’t for how the level scaling works. The level of the Pokémon you fight on other people’s teams and in the wild are based on how many badges you’ve got and if you’ve beaten the game. If you’ve beaten the game, all wild Pokémon are capped at level 60, and the trainers are around that mark too, increasing as the story progresses. This unfortunately means you can’t create a whole new team to grow and evolve like it’s a separate adventure unless they’re already high levelled (and inevitably evolved), and equally, if you have a high levelled main game team, they’re likely going to be too strong for the DLC to be a good challenge. It’s also really hard to monitor the difficulty curve when everything is level capped; there were some really tough fights that flew in seemingly out of nowhere since I’d been fighting level 60 Slowpokes only a couple of battles prior. Hard battles are of course are welcomed with open arms, but it was super annoying trying to figure out how strong I was actually meant to be without becoming over or under-levelled for key fights in the story.
So, you’re probably thinking that perhaps the best way to experience the DLC is to create a new save file so everything isn’t level capped at 60? That’s where you’d be wrong. You can’t actually complete the DLC story until you have access to the water-bike, which you don’t get until around your 6th gym badge in the main story, which isn’t early at all. I don’t know about you, but playing until my 6th gym badge and then dipping for the optimal DLC experience isn’t exactly what I’d call seamless, and is a really oddly specific place for the DLC to begin. Basically, even though The Isle of Armor is probably most appealing to those who already finished the main game and want more to play, the experience is set up to be perhaps at its least enjoyable for these players.
However, the Isle of Armor as a location is lovely. It was sold as an expansion to the Wild Area, but to me, feels less like an expansion and more of an improved re-imagining. The different areas are still diverse, but the actual landscape and layout of the map is much more sprawling and almost haphazard, but in a good way. I actually found myself getting lost a lot at first, as there were so many more paths and routes to take through it all. This was really fun; all the features that made it a “Wild Area” felt so much better incorporated than that of the main game, which I still enjoyed, but this just felt so much more natural.
Of course, the main draw of the DLC for many players, myself included, is the re-introduction of some of the older Pokémon that were left out of the Galar Pokedex. For those who might be unaware of the huge drama that unfolded around Sword and Shield (and I envy you), for the first time in the series, the decision had been made to remove the National Pokédex, essentially meaning hundreds of Pokémon were completely inaccessible, leaving in only 400 of the over 800 that exist. Well, thankfully, over 100 more have made their return, which may not completely fix the problem, but has certainly helped (there will also be more coming back in The Crown Tundra expansion later this year).
Right, spoiler warning for the next three paragraphs! Nothing story related, I’ll just be discussing features that weren’t shown in the trailers. However, if you’re not yet sold on the DLC, I recommend reading on to see if there’s any game changers for you, as there’s one thing in particular I can’t believe wasn’t revealed before. …Are we good? Fab!
So, the biggest shocker! After a short amount of story progression, you’ll be able to have any of your Pokémon follow you in the overworld! This is a feature that fans have clamoured for the return of since its last appearance in HeartGold and SoulSilver back in 2010, and understandably so, as it helps you feel so much more connected to your Pokémon pals. There are a few little changes to it from HGSS; you can turn around to talk to them, but there aren’t any cute descriptions of what they’re doing or how they’re feeling like you used to get. Also, something that is in some instances hilarious but is often just kind of annoying, is that the Pokémon have the walking speed of whatever they have in Pokémon Camp. This means that some of the little fellas like Snom and Meltan, who move at literally a snail’s pace, will continue to do so. When a Pokémon gets too far away from you, they’ll just be teleported to you and the cycle continues, which is disappointing as there’s not really any point in having these slow buddies follow you. It would have been easily, and adorably solved by allowing you to pick them up and carry them around on your shoulder or in your arms, but alas, no. This is still definitely my favourite new feature of the DLC despite this though.
So, back to the run time. If the story is so short, what else is there to do to fill the time? Find Digletts, of course! Very shortly after your arrival on the Isle of Armor, you’ll find a rather interesting NPC who wants you to help him find his Alolan Digletts that have run off. Easy right? Good luck finding all 151. It’s so ridiculous, but finding these stupid Digletts by spotting their three little hairs sticking out of the ground has honestly been my favourite thing to do in the DLC. It’s actually really challenging to spot every single one, so it definitely stretches out the play time, and you also receive Alolan form Pokémon as rewards for hitting different Diglett milestones. Any guesses as to what the last milestone of 151 gets you? …Yeah.
Also, after you’ve completed the story, you’ll unlock the “Restricted Sparring” battle mode at the dojo. It operates kind of similarly to the Battle Tower, in that you use three Pokémon for a challenge, they’ll all be brought down to level 50 if they’re above that, and you’ll earn BP (Battle Points) for your wins. The twist, however, is that you must only use Pokémon of a certain Type that you choose (with no duplicate Pokémon). You also aren’t automatically healed between battles, but have two opportunities per challenge to restore your team, forcing you to be as careful and calculated as possible to ensure a good win-streak.
So to start wrapping things up, is the Expansion Pass worth it? It’s a little bit difficult to answer at this point, since you can’t buy the pass just for The Isle of Armor, you have to buy the full thing which includes The Crown Tundra as well. Therefore, I’m going to be judging if The Isle of Armor itself is worth half the cost of the pass, and so my answer to that is that it honestly depends on what you’re looking for from your Pokémon experience.
I believe that The Isle of Armor is more tailored for those who are looking for greater replayability; the mode mentioned in my final spoiler paragraph, all the new (or rather, old) Pokémon to catch to fill out the Pokédex, as well as new dens for Max Raid Battles give players plenty of new things to do if they’re a bit of a completionist. However, if you’re someone who’s really just interested in the story, and once you see the words “The End” pop up you’re probably just going to put it down, you’re not going to be getting your value for money from this, and you might be better off holding out to see if The Crown Tundra will add in enough content for the cost of the pass to be worth it.
Overall, what is included in The Isle of Armor is really fun; the dialogue in particular had me smiling a lot, as the dojo leader, Mustard, who leads most of the story, is really funny – it definitely seems like the writing team had more fun with this than they did the main story. The new music is also really pleasant, and as mentioned before, the location itself feels so much more full and alive than most areas of the main game. However, I can’t honestly say that this is an experience you won’t want to miss, as I think it’s the extra replayability options that really help sell this rather than the story or characters. If you were wanting gripping new lore, more depth to the Galar region, or something that makes Sword and Shield feel finally complete, this isn’t it. Although enjoyable, The Isle of Armor isn’t a game changer, and I doubt that anyone who felt strongly let down by Sword and Shield would find themselves reconsidering their opinion after playing this. But, if you’re looking for some more ways to invest your time in the Galar region, and want to catch ‘em all (or at least, all of ‘em that you can) The Isle of Armor does its job.