- Developer: Game Freak
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Release Date: 17/06/2020
Introducing: Pokémon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor Impressions
Talking about Pokémon Sword and Shield is, for lack of an eloquent parallel, like purposely throwing yourself into a pit of quicksand and attempting to climb out. No matter what you do, it’s going to be wrong and you’re going to be pulled deeper into a completely avoidable and toxic situation. Whether you love, hate, or feeling indifferent about Gen Eight, your opinion will draw someone’s ire. Our own Lachlan Bruce gave the Galarian adventure a great review – and while I’m not nearly as positive on the game as he was, I did enjoy Pokémon Sword for what it was. More aptly perhaps, I enjoyed the game for what it could be.
For everything Sword and Shield got wrong, the games also showed a surprising amount of ambition. The Wild Area in particular was a tantalising glimpse into what a nonlinear Pokémon adventure could look like. It was decidedly a half-hearted endeavor, though, and it felt more like a proof-of-concept than a fully-realised world.
With the announcement of the DLC Expansion Pass and the understanding that this content would double down on the Wild Area’s open-ended design, I was excited. Seeing Game Freak hone in on what made Sword and Shield work, bringing a more impressive picture of Pokémon’s future into focus, was an alluring prospect. Now that I’ve completed The Isle of Armor, instead of being energised by a tease of things to come, I’m wondering why this Expansion Pass is being made at all.
Two Sides of the Design Coin
The Isle of Armor is a shockingly amateurish attempt at just giving the player something to do. The content can be completed easily within an afternoon, but it feels like it should’ve been pared back to about an hour. There’s more filler than there is focused content, and I expect much more out of a veteran team like Game Freak. From meaningless story beats to fetch quests, it seems like the Isle of Armor is running on empty when it should be firing on all cylinders. Game Freak isn’t even subtle about the padding. At one point, you’re gifted a level ten Kubfu, but you cannot progress in the narrative until you’ve trained it up to level seventy. Even features such as level-scaling and walking with Pokémon barely work as intended. All of these issues just coalesce in a slog of an experience.
I don’t understand how this happened, particularly in light of The Isle of Armor itself being well-designed and engaging to explore. Game Freak assembled a locale that retains the scope and freedom of the Wild Area, while adding in aesthetic detail and cohesion that bring this place to life. From its islands to its caves, forests, and marshlands, I’ve never experienced a Pokémon world that feels this alive. Transitioning between locations is seamless and even though there is an extreme amount of pop-in, that hardly takes away from the joys of exploring. Riding across the ocean only to be charged by a Sharpedo or walking through the forest as an Emolga flies from tree to tree is dynamic and engaging. This is what I wanted the Wild Area to be, and this feeling of liveliness is what I hope that the inevitable Generation Nine capitalises on.
This is, unfortunately, the sole successful element of Isle of Armor. Outside of the flaws inherent to this DLC, Isle of Armor also serves as a crash course in where Sword and Shield went wrong initially. It attempts to be cinematic, but instead comes off as uncanny and half-hearted as its characters mouth spoken lines, but aren’t voice acted. It also never challenges the player – the battles here (save for one or two of consequence) put up little to no challenge nor do they require much strategy to overcome. Characters and Pokémon still move stiffly, and battle backgrounds are rarely representative of their overworld counterparts. Considering the ways in which Isle of Amor attempt to make the world of Pokémon more alive than ever, these issues are even more pronounced than they were in the base game.
The bottom line is this: The Isle of Armor is a disappointment. However, it isn’t a disappointment simply because it fails to offer a compelling and well-designed story vignette. It’s a disappointment because it has some good ideas and a genuinely compelling sandbox. Exploring this locale and catching over one hundred returning Pokémon is plain fun. New characters like Ms. Honey and Mustard are memorable and seeing such a lively Pokémon world is a treat for longtime fans like myself.
However, I can’t deny the fact that I had to force myself through this content over several sittings because it just isn’t well designed. Conceptually, I much prefer an Expansion Pass to a third version, but Game Freak stumbled out of the gate. I wanted The Isle of Armor to be the fully-realised world that the Wild Area tried to be. It’s undeniably closer, but we still aren’t there. With any luck, this Autumn’s Crown Tundra DLC will provide a more robust and well-executed offering than we got in The Isle of Armor.