Enter “Isle of Armor.” The expansion, which dropped last week, 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 more than 100 other creatures, including several returning favorites. 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 also separate forest areas, wetlands, an entire sea of islands to explore, as well as an intricate web of caves, all filled with literally 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 favorites return. The “National Dex” controversy (dubbed “Dexit”) started because Game Freak had to cut several old monsters in favor of new ones for “Sword” and “Shield.” In the end, the controversy did little to blunt the game’s sales (more than 17 million sold by March). But the game undeniably feels a lot more like home once you see recognizable marquee monsters like 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. “The Witcher 3” this game is not, but it’s very 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 framerate 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 quality of life upgrades, including a new soup recipe that lets your monsters reach Gigantamax level much easier, as well as Apricorns to trade in for rare items.
If the base “Sword” and “Shield” games didn’t excite you, chances are forking over an extra $30 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 if the $30 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.