Review: ‘Isle of Armor’ expansion for ‘Pokemon’ is really for hard-core fans

Those who have played “Pokemon” long enough know that the games come out in an ebb and flow. The first titles introduce a new generation of pocket monsters and a subsequent release — often a year later — offers a more complete game with new content.

With “Pokemon Sword” and “Pokemon Shield,” Nintendo is taking a different tack. Instead of forcing players to buy a new title and replaying through another adventure in the Galar region, the publisher is taking a cue from other franchises and offering an expansion pass for its 2019 hits.

The downloadable content is coming out in two parts and the first half, The Isle of Armor, launched this June. It adds a new island complete with a Wild Area for players to explore and it introduces a new story, characters and, of course, Pokemon.

Although it sounds like a lot, the Isle of Armor is more of an appetizer rather than a full-course meal. The expansion brings players to the titular locale, where they end up becoming a student at the dojo of Master Mustard. He’s a Pokemon master who trained the previous champion, Leon, and was the top trainer in the region himself. Players also encounter a rival — depending on the starting game, it’s either Karla (for “Sword”) or Avery (for “Shield).

As a new student at the dojo, players must pass three tests that essentially introduce newcomers to the island and its flora and fauna. Fans can expect to discover four new Pokemon — Galarian Slowpoke, Galarian Slowbro, Kubfu and Urshifu — and pocket monsters from previous entries that will fill out an Isle of Armor Pokedex of 208. Like previous entries, some Pokemon that appear in the expansion will be different depending on if players started with “Sword” or “Shield.”

To catch all the Pokemon in the “Isle of Armor,” players will have to trade with others and explore every inch of the locale. While they do that, players will also experience a short story arc that follows players as they care for the new legendary Pokemon, Kubfu, and watch it grow into an Urshifu. The fighting Pokemon fits with the Asian-inspired theme of the island and its inhabitants.

Players won’t find a town in the locale, but instead the dojo acts as the central location where trainers heal their Pokemon and buy supplies. To do any of that though, players will need to spend a resource called Watts that they have gathered by checking Pokemon dens scattered through the world. By giving Watts to Honey, the wife of the dojo master, players unlock a barber, vending machines and other amenities that make the training ground feel more like a town.

In terms of design, the “Isle of Armor” adds notable biomes such as swamps and beaches that the main Galar regions have lacked and which Game Freak filled with Pokemon that match the zones. Weather will change that up at times, but it seems more coherent than the main game.

The big issue with “Isle of Armor” though is that there isn’t enough story content or reason to explore these beautiful zones that Game Freak created. That makes this first half of the expansion feel empty without the lore to give the Wild Areas any meaning.

“Isle of Armor” seems to focus on giving hard-core players more ways to fine-tune their Pokemon teams. Players can unlock Gigantimax forms for certain species of pocket monsters. They can reset some of their Pokemon’s hidden stats. This is a must for those in the competitive scene. Players even have an island filled with Dittos to help trainers selectively breed strong and shiny Pokemon.

This is the nitty-gritty stuff that hard-core players will eat up, but if players looking for a compelling story or even a challenge against a new boss Pokemon will likely have to wait for the second half of the expansion, “The Crown Tundra,” due out later this year, to scratch that itch. That’s where players will encounter more new Pokemon and Galarian variants.

If “Isle of Armor” is a taste of Game Freak’s new approach at offering gamers new content, here’s hoping that “The Crown Tundra” can be a satisfying main course when that part of the expansion is released later this year.

‘Isle of Armor’

Expansion for ‘Pokemon Sword’ and ‘Pokemon Shield’2½ stars out of 4Platform: Nintendo SwitchRating: Everyone

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Author: Gieson Cacho