Friday, June 21, 2024

Pokémon’s Isle of Armor expansion is a level-up for Sword and Shield

Pokémon Sword and Shield may be the most controversial core entry in the monster-battling franchise’s long history. The eighth generation of Pokémon launched on Nintendo Switch in November 2019, the first instalment to land on a home console. Buoyed by the glow-ups that The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario saw with their respective debuts on Switch, some fans expected Pokémon to receive similar treatment – and early previews had some thinking that would mean a fully open world for the first time, rather than the series’ traditional rigid, top-down routes.

When it turned out that the open sections were restricted to the Wild Area, and that the game would lack a “National” Pokédex to catalogue every single Pokémon, enthusiasm waned for some players. Which is a polite way of saying “the internet lost its $#!T”. However, the arrival of the first of two planned expansions, The Isle of Armor, might be on course to bring Sword and Shield a little closer to what players had expected from the main games.

The additional chapter, available now, has you taking your trainer to the eponymous island, where the core storyline sees you joining a dojo and ultimately training the new legendary Pokémon, Kubfu. First though, you’ll need to pass a series of trials set by Mustard, the leader of the Master Dojo. These are all from the Karate Kid, wax on-wax off school of martial arts though – chase down some unusually fast Slowpokes, find some mushrooms, take Kubfu on a sightseeing tour. Throw in some quirky side quests, such as finding 151 Alolan Diglett hidden around the island or sprucing up the dojo, and it feels like a storyarc from the Pokémon anime; weird little slice of life adventures wrapped around fun characters living life with Pokémon – no bad thing, and a nice diversion from the main game’s slower tale of ancient heroes and half-forgotten legends.

Avery serves as rival to Pokémon Shield players – and serves big non-binary energy, too (Image ©Nintendo)

It would also be remiss for us not to acknowledge Avery, your new rival on the Isle of Armor if you’re playing Pokémon Shield (Sword players will face Klara instead). Although Avery uses male pronouns, he has a very androgynous appearance. Avery’s clothes are mostly feminine-coded, sporting high-waisted shorts, frilly socks, and buckled shoes, though a traditionally masculine top hat blurs gender lines. Physically, their soft features and long hair present more female than male, and even their name has increasingly become gender neutral, despite masculine roots. Nintendo or Game Freak are unlikely to ever officially declare Avery as non-binary, genderqueer, or trans, but players in those communities will immediately recognise and appreciate the visual cues the character gives off.

It’s the structure of the expansion that really elevates Isle of Armor though. Unlike the main map, the entire island is open world, like the Wild Area, and you’ll be able to explore a variety of environments. It feels far closer to what the (perceived) promise of Sword and Shield was – a living, breathing world where Pokémon roam freely. The island is surprisingly large too, with plenty of secrets to find, and everything feels better woven together – the aforementioned Diglett subquest serves as both reason to investigate every nook and cranny, while rewarding players with a selection of Pokémon Sun and Moon’s Alolan Form Pokémon for finding them. Overall, it’s a far more interesting location to spend time in.

Kubfu and You: an Island Adventure (image ©Nintendo)

Isle of Armor also brings dozens of Pokémon from previous games into Sword and Shield, albeit siloed off into a separate Pokédex. It’s a little annoying for completionists to have to flit back and forth between the two, and even more confusing when some Pokémon appear in both – series mascot Pikachu is #194 in the game’s main Pokédex, but #085 in the Isle of Armor Pokédex, for some reason. The dream of a complete, logical National Dex is still a way off, it seems, but at least the game supports more Pokémon for battles and trades now.

Pleasantly, all of this isn’t endgame content – once you’ve purchased the expansion pass, you’ll be able to visit the Isle of Armor even if you haven’t completed Pokémon Sword and Shield’s main story. You might want to have progressed past the sixth gym battle in the core story though, just to unlock the Rotom Bike as a means of travelling on water and therefore better exploring the island’s rivers and surrounding ocean. Otherwise you can come and go as you please, and it all feels like a very organic bolt-on to the core experience.

Hardcore trainers may be disappointed in the lack of challenge though – while the difficulty scales slightly depending on whether you visit the Isle of Armor before or after becoming Champion in the main game, it’s pretty low effort throughout. There are also, somewhat bizarrely, no trainers to battle on the island other than those the story presents for you to smash – and they nearly all have only one Pokémon each. It feels as though Game Freak still doesn’t quite know how to integrate rivals into an open space. However, new move tutors can be found, as well as service characters who can reset a Pokémon’s EV numbers, allowing you to re-spec them through training for competitive play.

Choosing which form to evolve your Kubfu into is Isle of Armor’s toughest challenge (image ©Nintendo)

Frankly, the biggest difficulty is going to be a personal one – whether to evolve Kubfu into the “single strike style” Urshifu, a Fighting/Dark type, or “rapid strike style”, a Fighting/Water type. Whichever you choose, the other path is locked off to you – and given you can’t breed more Kubfu, it really is a tough decision.

Ultimately, the Isle of Armor expansion doesn’t fix all of Pokémon Sword and Shield’s problems, but it does move the whole package forward in a way that those central games didn’t quite so successfully manage. The story is that bit more engaging, the characters feel warmer and more interesting, and the environment is more exciting. While there’s no way to retroactively make the main world into a giant Wild Area and deliver that open world Pokémon dream, this may be the next best thing.

The Verdict: 4/5

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