The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass is the newest instalment in Generation Eight of the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon Sword and Shield, the games this Expansion Pass follows, are hardly strangers to controversy. From the ill-fated reveal of ‘Dexit‘ to the ‘Wild Area Tree Fiasco’, it’s not been an easy ride. Despite this, Pokémon Sword and Shield have smashed records, beating Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee to become the fastest-selling game on the Nintendo Switch.
For every mainline game, there has been a game that somewhat ‘improves’ upon the previous two. Think Pokémon Yellow in Generation One, Crystal in Generation Two, Emerald in Generation Three, Platinum in Generation Four (sob, one day we’ll have remakes). You get the picture.
Instead, Game Freak has opted for paid downloadable content (DLC) for the Generation Eight, titled Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass. A one-time payment grants players access to two expansion packs: The Isle of Armor, released on June 17, 2020, and The Crown Tundra, due for release in Winter 2020.
But was this a good idea? The Pokémon fandom is, as ever, divided. Some love the new storyline and the fact they don’t have to pay for a full-priced title that adds very little to the story. Others worry that this sets a precedent for the future of Pokémon titles and aren’t keen on the fact you HAVE to buy Pokémon Sword or Shield to access the DLC. We’re going to ignore opinions for this review and focus solely on the Expansion Passes positives and negatives.
The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass Narrative
One criticism that has followed Pokémon for years is that the stories are often ‘too childish’ and have ‘too much hand-holding’. If you felt Pokémon Sword and Shield leaned in this direction, you might want to give the Expansion Pass a skip. The story is fine enough; it’s easy to follow, with enough charm I was willing to let the basic nature of the story go. There were even moments where the writing made me laugh out loud – Dojo Master Mustard might be one of my favourite characters in the entire franchise.
Now, I was playing the Expansion Pass for Pokémon Sword, so I can’t comment on Pokémon Shield’s antagonist Avery (even though I have a few friends who played both and said Avery is better than Klara). Despite that, I enjoyed Klara’s characterisation. She was a flawed, yet well-rounded character that I sympathised and hated simultaneously. She was key to moving the plot along, and, whilst the pace dragged at times (more on that later), I found myself enjoying every moment she was on-screen.
But What Are The Issues?
Despite the story’s basic structure, there were a number of plot holes that did make me stop and think. One of the biggest ones for me was the fact that Klara and Dojo Matron Honey got me mixed up for a new student as soon as I stepped foot on the Isle of Armor. This was after I beat Leon and became the new Galar Champion. Whilst I know players don’t HAVE to have completed the game to access the DLC, I’m willing to bet that the majority of people playing DID. It’s a small gripe, but do you KNOW who I AM?? Even a throwaway line like “You look a bit like the Champion!” if the save data showed the player had defeated Leon wouldn’t have gone a miss.
Especially seeing as Galar redesigned Gyms to be huge, football-like events. These NPCs are training to become Galar’s future Gym Leaders – they should probably know who the incumbent Champion is. I’ve not marked it down for this, but plot holes like this are symptomatic of the inconsistency and lack of ambition in the story that affects the Isle of Armor overall.
The story progresses to a point where you’ll have to complete two meaningless tasks for Dojo Master Mustard. And this is where the pace of the narrative really suffers. Whilst finding Max Mushrooms can make Max Soup, an amazing dish that feeding to a Pokémon with G-Max potential makes it learn how to G-Max, the tasks felt somewhat separate from the main beats of the Isle of Armor Expansion Pass storyline.
My issue with these two tasks is the fact that they are deliberately angled in a way to make the Dojo look incompetent and almost cult-like. Coming away with over 10 hours in the DLC, I’m still unsure whether the Dojo is where the next generation’s Gym Leaders are built, or a hack run by some random old guy and a handful of brain-washed, devoted followers.
Another note on these tasks is the issue as old as time – “hand-holding’. A helpful guide in the right direction wouldn’t normally be an issue, because the Isle of Armor is pretty big. But it’s the first Pokémon game in a long time where I’ve felt like exploring because I felt like I was on an adventure. I spent over an hour just cycling around before starting the story just because I WANTED to. So when I’m taken to places by NPCs, and a huge flag on the map points to where I need to go next, it takes away from the magic of discovering things for myself.
The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass Legendary
Let’s move on to talk about what you all want to hear more on. Kubfu. Are they as adorable as the trailers made them out to be?
Kubfu is the Expansion Pass Legendary. But to meet it, you’ll have to complete those two draining tasks AND THEN ANOTHER, which drags the whole experience to a grinding stop.
The “Bond With Kubfu” task sees you raise your friendship with Kubfu by travelling to specific places, speaking to specific NPCs to see a specific copy-paste cutscene of some specific environment shot. Often, these specific environment panoramas were less-than-impressive, with textures popping in and out of frame. Everything felt manufactured and artificial, which was my biggest gripe with the main story. I bonded more with Kubfu struggling to keep up with me (YES, POKÉMON FOLLOWING YOU IN THE OVERWORLD IS BACK) and playing with her in camp than I did the way the game intends on it.
It’s a high price to pay for Kubfu. But, ultimately, worth it. Their great design leads me on to talk about…
The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass graphics
Oh no. I see you rolling your eyes. It’s another Pokémon Sword and Shield review that’s going to talk about the graphics. And yes, I’m going to, because it’s a huge part of the game. And in fairness, there are a lot of positives!
First of all, YOUR POKÉMON CAN FOLLOW YOU IN THE OVERWORLD AGAIN!! This hugely popular mechanic was there at the beginning of it all (Red, Green and Blue aside, pedants) in Pokémon Yellow on the Game Boy. It was also in Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, and to a greater extent Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver for the Nintendo DS. Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! proved that the Switch was capable of handling Pokémon in the overworld. And the Expansion Pass attempt is adorable!
But. It’s not perfect. Our Pokémon are once again confined to Pokéballs as soon as we return to mainland Galar. I could almost let this slide, but the follow mechanic on the Isle of Armor isn’t great either. The charm of Pokémon following you around is the fact that they could explore and engage with the world by your side. So why are they following you a mile back? I had to angle the unwieldy camera behind me to even see my Pokémon, which meant I ran into overworld Pokémon more often than I cared for. And before anyone comes for me, I tested it on fast AND slow Pokémon – even my IV/EV trained Arcanine couldn’t keep up with me.
But I still loved it. We really hope this makes a return in upcoming games because it has a lot of potentials.
Another positive is that GIANT WAILORD IN THE OCEAN!
I almost gave this review an extra cherry, just because he was SO BIG AND LOVELY. Jokes aside, I really did enjoy the visual interest he brought to the landscape. It gave me that push I needed to explore the Isle of my own accord. And sure, this review nearly got an extra cherry purely for 1:1 SCALE WAILORD, but it would’ve quickly lost it again because, quite frankly, it’s UPSETTING to see him so small when you catch him. I’ll stick with my (not quite to scale) Wailord plush from the pop-up Pokémon Center in London.
Notable mentions also include the Style Card, which gives you access to loads more fashion choices, the impressive battle cinematics and backgrounds (even though that awful plain white background makes a return in the Dojo, of all places??) and the beautiful forest (unless you’re playing online).
But What Are The Negatives?
Unfortunately, the whole Isle of Armor Expansion Pass experience was tarnished by the rest of the graphics. All the frame rate issues with the Wild Area in the base game are still present in the DLC (which is to be expected, engine problems take longer than a few months to fix). Online is still almost unplayable, which is an issue when the Max Raid dens are the focal point of the whole game. The overworld still has texture problems – the trees and water still look like a game from 20 years ago, which is almost a meme at this point, but it IS true.
Something I haven’t marked the DLC down for, but thought was quite funny, was the decision to put a poorly rendered tree right in the middle of Klara’s opening battle. A (Poké)ballsy, and probably unintentional, move from Game Freak considering the controversy the Wild Area tress caused prior to the game’s launch, but it did make me giggle.
Something unique to the Expansion Pass was the scene where I changed into my Dojo outfit. Get your minds out of the gutter, it’s a simple fade to black. Now, I’m a girl and have very short hair. But when I changed into the Dojo outfit, the game automatically gave me a ponytail. It’s a ridiculous oversight that had me change out of the uniform as soon as I could.
This carelessness, along with the assets popping in and out of frame from the very moment you step foot on the Isle, the inconsistent frame rate even when not online, the distance of your overworld Pokémon, the poor texture quality and the lack of emotion on NPC’s faces all contributed to this part of the Expansion Pass feeling rushed, rather than the labour of love games should be.
I have to ask myself and answer honestly – did these issues impact my enjoyment of the game? Honestly, yes.
The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass GAMEPLAY
It’s Pokémon, and I wish I could say more than that. If you enjoyed Pokémon Sword and Shield, great! If you didn’t, stay clear.
I found it noticeably easier than the base game. The Level 60 cap in the overworld felt redundant, and I know I’m not alone in thinking that. If the Isle of Armor is a place for elite trainers to hone their skills, surely it should feature Pokémon of a higher level than on mainland Galar? It’s another inconsistency that removed any challenge from this Expansion Pass.
Talking of challenges in this Expansion Pass, it’d be wrong for me not to talk about the Towers of Two Fists challenge.
Kubfu evolves into Urshifu Single Strike Style when trained in the Tower of Darkness, or Urshifu Rapid Strike Style when trained in the Tower of Waters. Urshifu is, in my opinion, a much worse design than Kubfu, and shows no bonus special-ness upon evolution. Urshifu’s Single Strike Style is Fighting/Dark and Rapid Strike Style is Fighting/Water. Both forms have the same base stats but have different move sets, types, and Gigantamax forms.
This alt form evolution isn’t a new idea. But it’s cool to encourage players to make that decision and lock off the other form forever. Forever, because this Expansion Pass broke my Y-comm, meaning I couldn’t load new trades or raids when on the Isle. Forever, because Pokémon caught here didn’t transfer properly with Pokémon Home, which was a huge issue.
The Towers Of Water Gameplay
To encourage evolution, the player must fight through the chosen Tower only using Kubfu. An amazing idea! I love Pokémon challenges, so the thought of having to strategize with Kubfu was immediately appealing to me. The game recommends you level Kubfu to Level 70 before entering. This task would once seem daunting. I completed it in 18 minutes through an abundance of 5-star raids and the EXP Charm you can get on this island, which breaks an already broken levelling system. That’s a whole other issue for another day, but it’s not exclusive to the Expansion Pass, so it’d be unfair to mark it down for that.
Entering the Tower of Waters, I faced down my opponent, bag filled with X Attacks, ready to take down a team of 6 Pokémon with my girl.
Turns out, they also only have one Pokémon. Huh.
One attack and they were down.
Okay. Maybe it’ll get tougher? This had been hyped up to be the equivalent of the Elite Four.
It didn’t. I wiped the floor with every student who crossed my path.
The Champion equivalent was, of course, Dojo Master Mustard! Finally, a real challenge!
He sends out another Kubfu and we, again, wipe the floor with it, taking it out in a single move.
Oh. It was anti-climactic, to say the least.
Are There Any Side Quests?
Hop is back! Whether you love or hate him, it’s an undeniable fact that he’s grown up since the last time we saw him. His battles always felt lacklustre in the base game. But this works nicely alongside just how MEAN Klara’s fights can be. His studies with Sonia seem to have helped him a lot with his mental wellbeing, which is nice to see. Hop brings with him another series of tasks to complete. Except, this time, his tasks actually have relevance to the narrative and move along at a nice pace.
Perhaps the biggest challenge on the Isle of Armor was the Alolan Diglett side quest. This might be my favourite part of the Expansion Pass. A Trainer has lost 151 Alolan Digletts and tasks you with finding them all for him. This is optional, but I recommend it! I spent an hour zooming around, keeping my eyes peeled for those tufts of hair peeking out from the ground. Think like the Korok Seeds from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but without the annoying puzzles. Or picking weeds in your Animal Crossing town. You’ll receive Alolan Pokémon whenever you hit a certain milestone of Digletts collected, which gives you even more incentive to explore the Isle.
Is The Isle of Armor Expansion Pass Worth It?
Overall, the Pokémon Sword Isle of Armor Expansion Pass was… Fine. There’s not really another word I can use to describe it. The price point is high for what you get; I completed the main story in a few hours, tops. Often whilst playing I found myself saying “It’s a lot of fun but…” “There are some cool moments if…”. It’s worth picking this up if you can find it cheap if you enjoyed the base game. I spent an hour just exploring the island and getting lost on an adventure. Which is what Pokémon should be about. You’ll just have to be someone that can switch off the perfectionist in you to truly enjoy it.
But it’s important to remember that this is only half of what you pay for – The Crown Tundra is due for release in Winter this year.
Pokémon Sword Isle of Armor Expansion Pass was reviewed on, and is exclusive to, Nintendo Switch.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo