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Game Review

by Jennifer Sherman,

Pokémon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor
As the first main-series Pokémon games for Switch, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield became two of the fastest- and highest-selling games for the system to date. The Isle of Armor is the first of two expansions for the games, and it adds a set of islands with impressive diversity and new Galarian experiences. The expansion lets fans get more out of Galar in a brief storyline with the new Legendary Pokémon Kubfu.

Before I could get into The Isle of Armor, my $30 took a one-hit KO. I was among the not insignificant number of players who got overly excited for the expansion, bought the wrong version, and got hit with a wave of confused regret. After purchasing the expansion, I was perplexed to see a Pokémon Sword icon appear on my Switch home screen next to my Pokémon Shield file. I realized what was wrong after loading my Shield game and not finding a way to access the Isle of Armor. According to initial online reports, Nintendo wasn't planning to refund the mistaken hasty purchases. It seems, though, that enough fans piped up about their frustration and caused the company to change its tune. Why were players even able to buy an expansion that they had no ability to play? Nintendo began telling people to contact support about the mistaken purchases a few days after launch. When I did so, the support staff asked me some basic questions, reminded me to be careful, and offered the refund as a “one-time exception.” Phew, I dodged Nintendo's Pay Day attack and got away safely.

Going to the Isle of Armor in the (correct) game felt like starting a new Pokémon journey. Unlike previous generations with their enhanced remakes, The Isle of Armor offers a fresh take on adding new content to an existing main-series Pokémon game. Gen VIII now seems less likely to get another installment to complete a triad. The benefit of The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra—the sister expansion coming in fall—is that players can have a fresh adventure without having to start from scratch.

To a limited extent, The Isle of Armor adapts to wherever players are in their main Sword or Shield games. It's entirely possible to play through the main story of the expansion without having earned all eight badges and becoming the Champion of Galar. In fact, players who have yet to beat the main game have a certain advantage. The levels of wild Pokémon will be much lower if you're still working through the main game. You encounter Pokémon with levels in the lower teens upon arrival in the new area, but some of the symbol encounters can be up to level 50 as you work your way to the deeper parts of the island. The few Trainers you battle will also have lower levels, and you can defeat the Tower of Waters or Tower of Darkness with Kubfu at only level 30, compared to the requirement of level 70 if you already beat the main game. The lowered levels create accessibility for slow or new players, and lets players who have made decent progress in the main game to breeze through the expansion's couple hours of new story content.

On the other hand, many players are upset that The Isle of Armor lacks full level scaling that was hinted before the release. The levels of Pokémon in your party will not affect the levels of the Pokémon you encounter. I never planned on using the expansion to grind with a team of level 90s, so this doesn't bother me. However, some players who completed the main game months ago are disappointed that most of the Pokémon they encounter will have a max level of 60, with a handful of level-80 monsters available. For advanced players hoping to rake in the XP from high-level encounters, the expansion fails to live up to expectations. Players who have yet to become Champion of Galar may still be able to level up their Pokémon quickly, especially by grinding Chanseys that appear regularly.

Players who can get past the lack of true level scaling can find plenty to appreciate in the shallow but diverse experience of The Isle of Armor. The graphics objectively are nothing to brag about, but they break new ground in comparison to Pokémon games of yore. Music is not what anyone comes to Pokémon for, but the expansion's soundtrack is pleasant and matches what we've come to expect from Galar. The story is short and straightforward with no rush to complete it. The rival characters can be annoying, but the brief new story means you aren't stuck dealing with them for too long. You can freely roam around the different habitats and explore to your heart's content even without completing the story. From forests and caves to rivers and coves, I really enjoy the opportunity to scratch my exploration itch. The expansion has a pretty large footprint with terrain reminiscent of the Wild Area in the main game but better. There is so much variety in the landscapes, but it flows together well and has a lot of hidden touches to uncover. I love feeling this living, breathing world unfold around me in The Isle of Armor. Sometimes the encounters can get a little too real; I've never felt the sheer panic in a previous Pokémon game that comes when a Sharpedo is barreling across the ocean at me.

If easy-going exploration is your thing, you might love the Alolan Diglett side quest that tasks players with returning 151 of the Ground Pokémon to one really irresponsible Trainer who lost them. It can be tedious because the three little hairs on Alolan Diglett's head are the only indicator you've found one. Some sadistic developers made little rocks match the size of the tip of the Diglett's head just so you get your hopes too high when seeing a spot in the distance. Finding 151 needles in a giant haystack is a lot, but at least it's not as bad as, say, the Korok Seeds in Breath of the Wild

Speaking of collecting, The Isle of Armor offers more than 200 new Pokémon. This is an obvious response to the National Dex controversy with players complaining about the decision not to include all previously released Pokémon in the main game. Toxic controversy aside, the wealth of new Pokémon gives collectors hours of completionist satisfaction to pursue. Galarian Slowpoke and its family are a wholesome treat, while the new Gigantamax forms of Rillaboom, Cinderace, and Inteleon give battle fanatics more options. The new Legendary Kubfu and its evolution Urshifu embody a nice blend of cuteness, versatility, and power. Players who have completed the post-credits main-game story can also complete a final questline in The Isle of Armor to add a powerful form for the expansion's signature Pokémon.

I initially thought The Isle of Armor was pricey at half the cost of the main game, even with all the editions. Then I remembered that this is only half of the total content, considering The Crown Tundra is part of the Expansion Pass. The first half of the expansion is not as dense as I would like, but it's a worthy first attempt at Pokémon DLC. The Isle of Armor offers one step closer to the open-world adventure I've been yearning for, and I'll be keeping my Poké Balls waxed until the expansion's other half launches this fall.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : A-

+ Diverse environments, many added Pokémon, inches toward open-world ideals.
Light story, shallow content, underutilized potential.

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