After “hum-ing” and “haw-ing”, I finally forked out money for the DLC pass for Pokemon Shield. Wednesday was the launch of the first part, so after sinking in maybe ten hours of play into Isle of Armor – more or less- I kind of wanted to talk about it.

To start with, I think my thoughts regarding the additional content is a bit mixed. On one hand, I think it is great to re-acquaint myself with Pokemon of old and ones that I hadn’t even seen before – due to skipping a few generations – but I oftentimes struggle to fully commit to feeling like I am getting bang for my buck. I’ve finished about 90% of the DLC, with some of the more expensive dojo upgrades and the optional Restricted Sparring the only things not completely finished.

In this new batch of content, we are flown to an island way east of the main Galar region. After a quick introduction to your new main rival (in my game, Avery), you are then thrown into an unrestricted Wild area, like the one in the middle of the mainland. This is filled with a new selection of favourites to catch, picked from a few of the previous generations: Tauros patrol the grassland and Scyther flit menacingly nearby; Sharpedo bumrush you in the open waters, with the ocean being parted aside in its wake; Azurill hop around in the caves, barely reaching your knees.

It genuinely feels refreshing to meet these pokemon again, and I think this DLC brings Pokemon Shield/Sword closer to the vision of what fans wanted. It’s nowhere near the 800 or so that people initially expected, but its a positive start.

I suppose the thing that disappoints me a little is to which group of people this DLC is targeted towards. There are two rough groups in my mind: People who have maxed out the main dex/are returning to the game for the first time since finishing the main story; people earlier in to the game who have only just reached the Wild Area in Galar. This means unfortunately for the former group, that some of the Pokemon you have already caught will go towards the DLC-Pokedex. To some extent I feel a bit cheated by this; straight out of the gate I had about 100 of the 210 filled and part of why I bought this was to catch the Pokemon not included in the base game. With 400 or so to choose from, I would’ve liked a few more different Pokemon to be available to catch – I hope the second part of the pass can fix this a bit more.

I think the difficulty wasn’t really there either, rumours of a level scale to match your Pokemon wasn’t found in my copy. Every trainer fought and Pokemon caught in the wild was found at level 60 or maybe a few levels above and below, which didn’t prove much of a challenge to most of my party – who were around level 85. It might be different for some of the newer gamers, but I wasn’t able to test that. Most battles, even during the campaign against your rival, was capped at around the 60 mark and I could one or two shot each opponent with whoever I played.

The one real challenge came later.

As much as I gripe, there are some new forms and faces though that they have included. The most notable addition to the game is one exclusive to the DLC: Kubfu, a small, adorable martial arts bear (fighting type) that you are to bond with and raise as part of the trials – he is my son and I will die for him.

The DLC is essentially tied to Kubfu’s development and growth and is the heartbeat of the short main story. Eventually you will be offered the chance to put Kubfu through a gauntlet that will have implications for his final evolution type – a five floor non-stop battle to choose between Fighting/Dark or Fighting/Water evolutions, which is a little more challenging than the other battles. It’s a straight tower block fight up the levels with no chances to back out, so preparation was required a bit.

The game also offered up new g-max forms and moves for your starter Pokemon, (and one of Bulbasaur and Squirtle) via G-max soup, collected from ingredients on the island. My Rillaboom, for example, became an eight limbed spider on gigantic drum kits, with the other starters equally receiving exaggerated forms. Urshafoo (Kubfu’s final form) also had the option to gigantimax, with one of the two forms and moves dependent on which dual type you have chosen – and it packs a tactical punch, evading protection and barriers that opponents have put up (my boy is an absolute unit now).

From start to finish this campaign finished fairly quickly, unfortunately. I got through most of the story within about a day while meandering a bit. It’s mostly made up of a few fetch quests and maybe 10 fights before the story’s end. I think this would take a bit more time for those earlier into the main game.

Some of the story involves some stretching of gameplay to make it last.

If you aren’t mindful to stock XP packs from previous Max raids, for example, you are going to have to go through a lot of level grinding in order to prepare Kubfu for his gauntlet; I think I received him at level 10 and the recommended starting level for the challenge is to be at level 70. You can only use him for these trials, so a good chunk of the DLC is preparing for the big challenge.

This all adds to a sense that a lot of this DLC involved stalling. One of the ways the game encouraged exploration is through a hunt for Aloan Digletts. 150(!!) of them are spread around the islands and even though there is a reward of a region-specific form of Pokemon at regular checkpoints, it gets tedious really quickly. They can only be spotted from their tufts of hair sticking out of the ground, and that tends to be blended in among the flowers. I eventually found all of them, but it involved a lot of thorough studying of the roots of trees and corners of each of the biomes.

With regard to the level design and variety of terrains on the map, I think it manages to provide a pretty solid mix of environments to play with. One of the complaints for the original Wild Area was perhaps the lack of creative variety. But in IOA, you have rocky cliffs, dank caves, open oceans and lush forests; all knitted together through tunnels and bridges into an almost knot. They are of course subjected to day/night cycles and weather changes each day, which shuffles potential Pokemon captures. Exploration is constantly rewarded with a batch of TMs, apricots for recycling and treasure to sell back at the shop. I kind of wished there was a quicker method of transportation when venturing out to sea though, or even a further expansion of the Rotom Bike boost – because the many islands in the distance can take a while to get to.

From a technical perspective, I think Game Freak have polished up some of the animations here and there to address some of their fans’ criticisms. Some new animations have been included and while there is still a harsh pop-in for Pokemon spawns and various objects, there’s more of a variety of movement cycles that they use. Some Pokemon perch in trees, others have their heads bobbing just above water and a-to-scale Wailord floats off the coast of the map, flapping around. I felt that some of the in-battle animations had also had some additions – but maybe it is due to looking for potential changes – more Pokemon that I fought had their own unique animations for moves in-battle. As much as the DLC-specific rivals are designed to be annoying, I really thought Game Freak added extra care to the expressiveness of each character here. It’s a real change up from the likes of Hop, who were relegated to a few different poses. The same praise is deserved for the likes of Master Mustard (yes, that’s his name) too; this DLC at least has some character that sets it apart from the base game.

A nice little addition is the ability to let the leading Pokemon in the party follow you out of the ball, which is charming to see; something that I know loads of people have asked for In a mainline game for a long time. I spent a good amount of time swapping out my party, trying to see what most of my Pokemon looked like following me; which is definitely adding a new coat of paint to those that I didn’t think about using before. The option to return the lead to a ball would’ve been appreciated too, because they do get in the way when walking slowly.

Overall, I think Isle of Armor is a decent addition for those that want to catch more of the original Pokemon, more of their favourites. But I think more could have been done. It’s a good excuse to use when you have finished the base game and are looking for things to do, but it doesn’t do enough to provide a challenge or to introduce more gameplay elements to freshen things up, I feel. This is a small positive step for Pokemon Sword and Shield.

FINAL SCORE

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