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Last year's base Pokémon Sword and Shield games were fine, I think we can agree on that (here's our review, to remind you of just how fine they were). The gameplay had evolved very little from previous titles and the narrative left much to be desired, leaving most of the plot progression 'to the grown ups'. The only real standout feature was the new Wild Area, and the Pokémon raid dens that came with it. This exciting new addition to the franchise finally delivered on the promise of a fully open-world area with Pokémon roaming freely for you to interact with. But there lies the problem: it was just one area, and a fairly sparse one at that.
The first part of Pokémon Sword and Shield's Expansion Pass, The Isle of Armor takes place entirely on a Wild Area-style island, with over 100 returning Pokémon missing from the original Sword and Shield game experience. And by taking on the learnings and mistakes from the original release, the DLC delivers a much more enriching open-world Pokémon experience - one that's only really held back by its appropriately short DLC-length narrative and the constraints of the base game it adds on to.
Pokémon still pop in from out of nowhere at an awkwardly close range; the frame rate stutters at times; and general texturing just isn't up to the quality we expect from AAA Nintendo titles, such as Breath of the Wild. Performance-wise, Sword and Shield didn't, and still doesn't, live up to Nintendo's stellar reputation. But, despite the baggage that comes with the base game, The Isle of Armor is still a lot of fun and, in my opinion, worth the price tag.
The first thing that stood out to me when arriving on the Isle of Armor was the use of scale. The world, although fairly small, has a sense of height, using verticality to naturally block off areas from view and tease landmarks poking above the hills in the distance. The world always feels bigger than it really is, and that to me was first illustrated when walking out of the station to see a massive Wailord floating out in the ocean. That thing is a beast. At level 80 it's the highest-level wild Pokémon I've managed to find so far - with everything else at a comfortably scaled level 60 - so I couldn't resist trying to battle and successfully catch it.
I'm not going to focus too heavily on the story here, as it mostly serves as a reason to introduce and give you the brand new Legendary Pokemon, Kubfu. The cute little fighting-type bear is the main crux of the story and most of your gameplay will be assigned to training him up (unless you have an abundance of Rare and EXP candies) to be strong enough to defeat one of the two five-level battle towers.
During the fairly basic but passable narrative you also meet two new great additions to the franchise, Honey and Mustard, the owners of the island's Dojo - both of whom are surprisingly endearing. Oh, and there's a guy who's lost 150 Diglett, and he tasks you to find them all. A more patient collector may love this, but it's not a task for me, cheers.
During the story you'll have reasons to visit the varied locations across the island, travelling from the Loop Lagoon in the south to the northern Potbottom Desert and Honeycalm Island, discovering all the different Pokémon that reside in those areas. But, here again we reach another inherited issue. Pokémon Sword and Shield are not open-world games and when first you're trying to orient your position when first exploring, it can get surprisingly confusing. The world map, as you'll remember, is very basic. Your character location is never exact, only there to display which area you are in - which is fine on a more linear path, but here more exact placement would have been welcome. Actually, a standard waypoint compass would have been ideal - oh, and an arrow on the map displaying your orientation.
Of course, once you become comfortable with the island, navigating is second nature and these features no longer feel like a necessity. But if this one DLC is a vision of where The Pokémon Company is looking to take the franchise in the next mainline entry (and they 100% should), then developers Game Freak need to take a serious look at bringing in some more well-known RPG elements.
The Isle of Armor DLC feels like a glimpse into the future of what Pokémon is going to be. It's just a shame that elements from the base release hold it back. Let's hope the next half of the DLC, The Tundra Crown pushes the gameplay to even greater heights.
Before I wrap this up, it should be pointed out that you do not need to buy the expansion pass to unlock the returning Pokémon for Sword and Shield. A patch was released alongside the release that allows these Pokémon to be traded in from previous titles, albeit through the Pokémon Home service. The Crown Tundra will also bring back a bunch of classic monsters when it releases in the autumn (or the fall, for our American readers) this year.
The Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass is out now for £25.99 on the eShop and includes access to both The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra. If you take that to mean The Isle of Armor is £13, give or take half a penny, then for me this first portion of the expansion pass feels well worth the price.
Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass - The Isle of Armor is out now on Nintendo Switch. Game code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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