Pokémon’s ‘Isle of Armor’ expansion outshines base game

Gene Park

THE WASHINGTON POST – Last year’s Pokémon Sword and Shield games had flashes of brilliance, marred by technological barriers. The game’s Wild Areas – free-roam landscapes populated by wandering Pokémon – hinted at the seemingly unattainable dream of a fully online Pokémon game. As implemented, though, Sword and Shield had fewer monsters than prior games and didn’t look as good as they could, especially compared with other Nintendo Switch titles.

Enter Isle of Armor. The expansion is the first piece of downloadable content (DLC) to drop for the Switch era of Pokémon. It features the titular isle and a new legendary monster, Kubfu, as well as over 100 other creatures, including several returning favourites.

Most impressively, the new content is all Wild Area, and it feels more cohesive and true to the world than the Wild Areas in the base game. For one, the desert isn’t just a patch of sand in the middle of a valley.

The erratic weather system is also gone, replaced with distinct named areas with their own weather patterns, such as the Forest of Focus and Challenge Beach.

There are separate forest areas, wetlands, an entire sea of islands to explore, as well as an intricate web of caves, all filled with endless amounts of Pokémon and items.

The things you do in the Wild Area remain the same: catch monsters, get items, and do raids. But the context of a more cohesive map makes it all a bit more fun to find. It’s a delight to see old Pokémon favourites return.

Photo shows art from Pokémon’s ‘Isle of Armor’ expansion (L) and the upcoming ‘Crown Tundra’ expansion. PHOTOS: GAME FREAK

The ‘National Dex’ controversy (dubbed ‘Dexit’) started because Game Freak had to cut several old monsters in favour of new ones for Sword and Shield.

In the end, the controversy did little to blunt the game’s sales (over 17 million sold by March). But the game feels a lot more like home once you see recognisable marquee monsters such as Jigglypuff and Marill roaming the fields.

There are a few caveats here. The story campaign is short, which is to be expected. The narrative revolves around getting and evolving Kubfu, all done via “hardcore training” disguised as a series of menial tasks.

Most of the quests are boring. One of them has you taking Kubfu around to see the sights and… that’s it. But it’s how these missions are structured that makes the DLC interesting. The missions and story all play out in the open world. Witcher 3 this game is not, but it’s encouraging to see Game Freak, the series’ developer, experiment with mission structure outside of narrow corridors.

Game Freak is a famously conservative studio, and the slow evolution of the Pokémon series is a reflection of that. But more importantly, it’s not a studio experienced in playing around with genres outside of what’s familiar in Pokémon. Only last year, the studio admitted to shifting focus to other projects to grow the staff’s experience in game creation.

The Isle’s Wild Area still has many of the same flaws as the base game. Going online is a pain. It’s still hard to connect with other random players for Pokémon raids. The fields might still show other Pokémon trainers running around, but it’s not actual players, just avatars representing them.

And every second of online play in the Wild Area is weighed down by frame-rate dips as the game needlessly streams in these “shadow” trainers to populate the field. Nintendo’s developers famously struggle with adding online features. Game Freak is trying, but the result is still a far cry from the desired outcome.

And for all its interesting design choices, the game’s main methods of engagement are still limited to what was in the base game: raids, catching monsters and finding items.

Dedicated trainers will love a number of upgrades, including a new soup recipe that lets your monsters reach Gigantamax level much easier, as well as Apricorns to trade for rare items.

If the base Sword and Shield games didn’t excite you, chances are it isn’t worth it. But if you’re intrigued by the future of the series, Isle of Armor is worth a glimpse. It lays a decent outline for where the series could go next. And this fall’s Crown Tundra DLC promises to be even bigger. You can always wait until then to see whether it is worth it.

Maybe we don’t need various numbered routes to act as loading-screen-filled thoroughfares. Maybe soon we can have a persistent Pokémon world to explore. It’s taken us decades to get this far. The ultimate dream of a massive and persistent online Pokémon world is frustratingly close, and Isle of Armor is a promising sign of change on the horizon. Let’s see what Crown Tundra will bring.