One of the best parts of Pokemon Sword and Shield was exploring the Wild Area, an expanse of rolling hills, sand dunes, and lakes that made collecting the games’ 400 Pokemon especially enticing. The first DLC for the games, The Isle of Armor, improves upon the original Wild Area–in fact, the island is all Wild Area, with far more variety and much more interesting locales to explore. While it doesn’t alter the game much, The Isle of Armor recaptures the joy of exploration and catching new Pokemon, and it makes me especially eager to see where the next DLC takes us.
In my original Pokemon Sword and Shield review, I said that “the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day’s weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It’s all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven’t caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn’t realize you could catch in the wild. There’s constantly something new to do or discover, and it’s there to engage you right out of the gate.”
The Isle of Armor doubles down on this. The island is bigger and better than the regular Wild Area, and its various biomes all feed into each other more naturally. Open fields transition to wetlands, which border a beach and a forest. Rivers flow out to the ocean, and following a river can sometimes lead you to a cave. Changing weather patterns make more sense than they do in the Galar region’s main Wild Area, too, where weather shifts seemingly at random as you bike through similar-looking fields. Instead, because most areas on the Isle of Armor are separated by rivers or caves, the transition from rain to sunshine to fog isn’t so abrupt. It’s overall an even more satisfying place to explore.
This DLC adds about 100 returning Pokemon not in the original Galar Pokedex, and they, too, make sense within the Isle of Armor’s landscape. Bouffalant and Quagsire roam the wetlands; Amoonguss and Tangela lurk in the forest; and Sharpedo charge at you at high speeds while you ride your Rotom bike across the seas. You can even spot a giant Wailord out on the ocean from the mainland, in a rare example of the Pokemon being represented at its correct size in any of the video games. Encountering and catching the new additions is its own reward, of course, but it’s also just a delight to see them in their “natural” habitats.
Driving your exploration of the Isle of Armor is a light but cute story about a martial arts dojo and the adorable new Legendary Pokemon Kubfu, who becomes your training partner. The story has a quirky kung fu-movie energy, from the rather mean-spirited rival to the kooky master who teaches you wisdom through seemingly unrelated tasks to Kubfu overcoming his shyness in order to master his martial art. Kubfu is absolutely the star, and I didn’t really want to evolve mine, considering how spirited and teddy bear-like he is.
I also got surprisingly invested in a side activity that has you searching for 151 Alolan Diglett across the island, which had the effect of getting me to scour the entire map for their three little hairs sticking out of the ground. It brought me to the areas that the story didn’t, necessarily, and kept me busy as I searched for Pokemon and items. I was incredibly satisfied with myself when I found the final Diglett, and the rewards are great on top of that.
On that note, items are another strong suit of The Isle of Armor. While Sword and Shield made a lot of key quality-of-life changes for the series, most of which take out annoying grinding and make high-level competitive play far more accessible, there were a few gaps–some important items were still ridiculously hard to get. Those items are now more plentiful on the Isle of Armor, including the elusive Flame Orb, which was the bane of my existence for several months. These kinds of tweaks are small, but they do improve the experience overall.
The Isle of Armor is open to you almost from the very beginning of the main game, and while that’s great, it doesn’t add much in the way of endgame content for returning players. There is a battle arena that challenges you to defeat a series of trainers using only one Pokemon that have a particular type, like water or fire–and it’s cool to see a Pokemon game give a platform to a very popular battle format among fan groups (where it’s called “monotype”). I actually already had a fully trained electric team in Shield, and I still found these battles pretty challenging, which was a nice surprise that made me want to try out other monotype teams.
DLC is new to the main-series Pokemon games, and it’s certainly a great alternative to replaying the same game a year or two later when the souped-up rerelease comes out. But like the traditional third or “Ultra” version, The Isle of Armor does refine much of the experience we had in vanilla Sword and Shield, with a more interesting Wild Area to explore and some small quality-of-life tweaks that further the progress Gen 8 has made in that regard. It doesn’t totally change up the game, to be sure, but The Isle of Armor is definitely a delight.