The first expansion for Pokemon Sword and Shield, called Isle of Armor, is here. It's super-weird to see my social media feed alternate between grim, sweaty close-ups of Ellie from The Last of Us 2 and snapshots of candy colored Pokemon frolicking to and fro. Like everything else 2020 has thrown at me, I choose to take it in stride.
I am not The Last of Us 2 material, so I decided to fly on over to the Isle of Armor on the assumption it wouldn't show me footage of anyone getting brutalized or disemboweled. So far, so good. Isle of Armor is bright, fun, and lively. It's already clear DLC is a better alternative to buying a "complete" version of a Pokemon game, like we've been doing since Pokemon Emerald for the Game Boy Advance. I'm enjoying Isle of Armor, and I'm excited to see what Crown Tundra offers later this year.
Isle of Armor is accessible as soon as Pokemon Sword and Shield lets you loose in the Wild Area. Your main purpose for visiting is to introduce yourself to the master of the island's dojo, and eventually form a friendship with an adorable Pokemon who knows kung-fu. Once that main task is done, however, you're free to wander the entirety of the island and scope out its unique Pokemon, its challenges, and its terrain.
Last year, Pokemon Sword and Shield faced controversy—a lot of controversy—for not being the best-looking Nintendo Switch game in the universe. Isle of Armor's visuals won't blow away anyone who obsessed over Sword and Shield's "N64 trees," but Game Freak has clearly taken at least some of the fans' criticisms to heart.
Most of Isle of Armor works like Sword and Shield's Wild Area, i.e. it's a 3D space where Pokemon roam and you have full control of the camera. But I immediately noticed Isle of Armor is more varied and more compact with a wide range of biomes. There are streams to ford, caves to dive into, and forest paths to wander down. Items are scattered everywhere, which makes it worth your time to shimmy into every nook and cranny. There's a mini game that involves rounding up some Alolan Digletts that got away from their trainer (Way to spread an invasive species, dude.) You can upgrade the dojo where you meet Kubfu and add some pretty cool stuff to the space. I got a chuckle when I added a Rotom terminal to the dojo and watched the lady of the house flip out because she was also required to buy "proprietary software" to make it work. Oh, we've all been there.
Most notably, Pokemon are everywhere on the Isle of Armor. The faces you see are new, yet familiar: over 200 of the Pokemon infamously cut for Sword and Shield are living their best lives on their new island home. Game Freak's faced some heat for adding initially-cut Pokemon back into Sword and Shield via DLC (you don't have to buy the DLC to add the "new" Pokemon, however), but I can't deny I find joy in running into old favorites. I found Sandile; I named him Hamburglar. Life is good.
I haven't experienced everything Isle of Armor has to offer just yet, because evolving Kubfu involves beefing him up enough for a tower challenge. I'm fighting wild Pokemon of course, but I'm also chasing after every Fletchling I find until I grab one with "Amazing!" stats. You're more or less on your own in Isle of Armor, and it begs a question: Between the DLC and Sword and Shield's Wild Area, is Game Freak gently nudging us towards the idea of Pokemon being a more open-ended experience? In the next generation, will we meander to Gym Leaders on our own good time instead of being guided along the same set path we've more or less been following since Pokemon Red and Blue?
I'm excited about the prospect, because rolling around Isle of Armor's varied biomes in search of items, challenges, and my favorite Pokemon is a good time. But going back to the present, Isle of Armor offers proof that DLC works well with the Pokemon series, and I'm looking forward to the Crown Tundra expansion coming this fall. Bring on cassowary Zapdos!