Isle of Armor, the first of two planned Pokémon Sword and Shield DLC titles for this year, is now available on Nintendo Switch and, as has been widely reported, its overarching theme seems to be growth.
Aside from the instances where characters explicitly use the word “growth”—because who needs subtlety – the theme creeps up in a number of ways while you play.
There’s extremely limited personal growth for new characters like Klara and Avery; emotional growth, when you as a trainer learn that pleasant views can help you bond with your Pokémon just as much as brutal battles; and some extremely literal growth for your new partner Kubfu and the Pokémon you can teach to Gigantamax.
Growth definitely runs through Isle of Armor and with DLC being a new direction for the Pokémon series – a franchise that doesn’t typically mix things up just for the sake of it – it feels like an appropriate theme for Game Freak to have landed upon.
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In some ways it’s surprising that a franchise as long-running and successful as Pokémon hasn’t dipped into something as standard as DLC before now. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the idea when Isle of Armor was announced.
When it comes to “mainline” Pokémon games, I’d grown used to the base games being my lot until the release of a standalone enhanced version the following year. That version would largely follow the same story structure—with some deviations here and there – while making improvements and adding neat new features that ranged from barely noticeable to extremely significant.
The enhanced versions largely felt like the generation reaching its peak and the new features they introduced were a chance to see where Game Freak might take the franchise next. In my eyes, DLC posed the risk of losing the exciting mid-generation tweaks or improvements I'd come to associate with the enhanced games.
But after playing through Isle of Armor, I’m going to have to eat my words.
With Isle of Armor, there are still changes and new features but they come with the added pleasure of seeing more of the Galar region’s charming personality through new characters, new items and a new location.
It felt great to pick up my Switch and be whisked off on a new Pokémon adventure with minimal preamble. No “this is the world of Pokémon”, or “what’s your name?”, and, best of all, no lesson on catching Pokémon to put dangerous pressure on my Switch’s ‘A’ button.
It was also fun to be playing as the champion rather than starting all over again as a fresh-faced trainer – even if no one on Armor had the decency to acknowledge my supremacy until the very end. The increase in trainer customization that’s been introduced in the newer Pokémon games has, I have to admit, made me a little more attached to my avatar than I’ve ever been before so to be able to keep playing with her and the fantastic outfit purchased with her winnings is a small but important pleasure.
The Wild Area was one of my favourite additions in Pokémon Sword and Shield so I appreciated that the DLC made it possible to experience the ideas underpinning this feature again but in a completely new, improved setting.
Making the old new again
Isle of Armor is just one big Wild Area with a diverse mix of caves, green spaces and islands. While it’s nowhere near as big as an entirely new region, it actually felt more enjoyable to explore than the Wild Area on mainland Galar.
This is in part because Armor's topography is more varied than the predominant flatness of the original Wild Area. It's also potentially due to what felt like an improvement in the balance between complete freedom and use of story-based tasks to organically pull you around the map.
I loved that I could arrive on Armor and immediately bike out to a cool-looking island in the distance with nothing but some rabid Sharpedo to stop me. But I also appreciated that this aimless exploration was balanced out by things like having to learn my way around the forest in order to reunite a young Pokémon with its parent or finding viewing spots for my Pokémon and I to visit.
Then there’s the fact that you can have your lead Pokémon wander alongside you. This isn’t a new feature for Pokémon by any means but it was nice to see it being used with the Wild Area mechanics, hopefully not for the last time.
I don’t know if Game Freak ever intends to release a mainline game that only uses the free-roaming aspects of the Wild Area, but I’m quietly hoping that the combination of experimentation and iteration made possible by DLC titles like Isle of Armor could get us to something like that faster. At the very least I feel like I have a better sense of what the Wild Area has the potential to be.
A personal touch
As well as trying new things with the Wild Area, Isle of Armor felt like it was trying to do something a little different with storytelling and pacing. Isle of Armor’s story is far from long and I don’t think I could say it had a great deal of depth but it definitely had its own personality.
Between the uncharacteristically fast Slowpoke, Klara's Shakespearean asides and dojo master Mustard’s general attitude, Isle of Armor managed to extract some chuckles from me.
Not only that, the journey it takes you on is refreshingly personal and a departure from the high-stakes, save-the-world stuff that’s become the formula for the main games. That’s not to say I want the overall narrative structure of the main games to change – far from it – but I definitely appreciated that Isle of Armor gave me the chance to experience a slightly different side of the Pokémon world.
All of this said, Isle of Armor isn’t totally perfect and I don’t think I could say it’s an example of Game Freak perfecting the generation in the way that I could with some of the enhanced versions from yesteryear.
Many of the visual limitations from Sword and Shield remain, some of the animations of “buddy” Pokemon are awkward, and as nice as this new Wild Area is, it doesn’t have the same distinctness of personality that you find in the towns and cities on the Galar mainland. Plus, while the story does offer something different, there’s no denying that it’s pretty bare bones.
But for now I’ve decided to forgive that because, looking at Isle of Armor through the lens of its own theme, even though it revolved around the traditional training and battling, I can appreciate that it did things a little differently and I'm looking forward to seeing what The Crown Tundra might try later this year.
I don’t know if the shift to DLC means that an enhanced version of Sword and Shield is completely off the cards but, if I could take a moment to channel dojo master Mustard, it’s hard to grow and improve without taking chances and doing things differently. With that in mind, for the moment, I’m willing to watch, wait and hope that delving into DLC will continue to allow the Pokémon games to flourish with the benefit of keeping things fresh and fun for players.
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