Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield were under a dark cloud before they even launched. Poor graphics and many of the classic critters not returning sent fans into a frenzy.
This didn’t change on launch with our review; being far too easy, missing many features of older games, and restrictions on what Pokemon you can catch until you have enough badges.
Nonetheless, the games sold like hotcakes and have their defenders. Rather than the customary “third version” as fans had come to expect, Game Freak announced true DLC for the first time in the franchise’ history. An Expansion Pass taking players to the Isle of Armor now, and the Crown Tundra this Fall.
Is this first half of the Expansion Pass worth jumping aboard now? Does it improve the overall experience? Will this almost tropical island bring sunshine to the hearts of those who were let down by the main game? To be blatantly honest: no, no, and no.
Pokemon Sword Expansion Pass and Pokemon Shield Expansion Pass
Developer: Game Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date: June 17th, 2020 (base game November 15th)
Players: 1 (Online Multiplayer)
The premise is designed to slip into nearly anywhere in the main game’s plot, hand-waved away as the locals not getting news from the mainland that often. The player is mistaken for the new student of the island’s dojo, and is quickly whisked away without chance to object.
However, Klara or Avery (depending on the version you are playing) are deeply concerned that you’ll outshine them. This leads to them trying to bring you down while you try to complete Master Mustard’s trials.
The plot is paper thin, but more serviceable than the main game’s. NPCs are also much more expressive during cut-scenes this time around, and some of the writing is genuinely giggle-worthy. Klara puts the toxic in being a mean girl, while you don’t need to be psychic to see Avery thinks he deserves everything.
They come across as a classic “jerk rival,” and while the extent of their actions are “please don’t go here” and “I’ll battle you for the thing,” their writing helps sell how far they will go to avoid failing again and become Gym Leaders.
Their final battle even involves cheating by setting up things in their favor- something used in the Pokemon Sun and Moon generation with stat-boosts on your opponent at the beginning of battle. It’s something the games need to use more for bosses, if they’re not going to tweak enemy stats for a single-player challenge.
In some ways, it makes them more of a villain than Team Yell or the main game’s true antagonist was. It may even handle the character arc of struggling to improve better than with Hop.
Another surprising improvement was the game’s geography. You have free reign to run around the whole island from the start, and despite its small size, it feels more fun to traverse than the main game’s Wild Area- something around three times in size.
Everything loops back on itself, with the forest feeling like a proper dungeon from the classic games. Nothing more complex that Mt. Moon, but it feels more fun to explore than any of the areas in the main game.
The Diglett finding side-quest is the perfect compliment. You’ll roam around the island seeing what new Pokemon are about, take on Raid Dens, and find important items that spawn each day. Nature-changing mints, IV lowering berries, items that grant Gigantimax forms, Apricorns; and Diglett you overlooked the first time.
That being said, you will still find muddy textures that looked like they came from two console generations ago. There are some vistas that probably looked amazing as concept art, and right in shot you’ll see flowers and bushes made up of two intersecting flat planes like they came from Super Mario 64.
Some wild Pokes even refuse to open their mouths in the over-world. Wild Pokemon being somewhat accurate to the player’s size is great, and totally shattered when you see them shrunk down in camp or when battling.
This also takes the joy out of your lead Pokemon following you. Not only is this not allowed in the Wild Area back on the mainland, but slow Pokemon will quickly be left in your dust. The camera also defaults to being zoomed in, and you won’t really notice them unless you keep zoomed out, or your camera pointing behind you.
The game makes raising and catching Pokemon a little better. Watts can be spent to upgrade the Dojo with more facilities- most importantly the ability to buy cheap vitamins. Winning Max Raid battles can also net you Armorite Ore; which can be spent on a move tutor, wiping a Pokemon’s stats, or more Watts.
As Watts can be used to buy Wishing Pieces (which open up a den for a Max Raid), it finally feels like there’s a true cycle to the gameplay. Find Max Raid dens for Watts, beat Raids for Armorite, use Armorite to improve your Pokemon or get more Watts, spend Watts to take on more Max Raids to catch powerful Pokemon.
Since you’ll be roaming the island to check out new Pokemon spawning based on weather, or hunting down items or Diglett, you’ll feel more encouraged to take on the Max Raid battles while doing other things. In the main game, you just made a bee-line between active dens.
The system was almost perfect with the new item crafting as well. The ability to turn all the useless junk you’ve picked up into items you need, or using rare sell-ables for something other than money seemed like a blessing. That is, until it turns out the recipes are so convoluted, they might as well be random.
Every item has an unreadable value (weight, used for the move Fling) and type. The first item’s type and the weight of all items in total determines what you get. There’s no way to learn this, except from online guides. The only way to discover a recipe is to get a random one given to you by an NPC for some Watts, and you don’t even have a log-book to note it all down.
You’d easily assume the recipes are all random, as the Pokeballs produced by Apricorns appear to be random. Hope you don’t have your heart set on getting lots of Johto Pokeballs, because you’re more likely to get the same Pokeballs you can buy in the shops.
The system even allows you to make infinite money- in a game where your bank account was probably at bursting point. Even so; once you work out the optimal crafting tree to get Golden Bottlecaps, Ability Capsules, and rare Technical Records, you’ll be laughing.
It’s just a shame the system was so close to being great; as Max Raid battles can reward you with items. That extra step could have meant every action you perform would go towards something to get a Pokemon, make it better with items, or give it something to hold in battle.
The are plenty of other blunders as well. The main story to the expansion can be beaten in a day or weekend, and even then it has padding. If you treat the trainers within the Towers as a single trainer (and you might as well, since they only use one Pokemon each), then the total number of trainer battles during the story can be counted on two hands.
It’s no wonder there are NPCs that tell you what wild Pokemon you can find. This is because you won’t encounter most of them in the few trainer battles there are, meaning the only other way you’d know they exist is to stumble across them, or through a guide.
You do unlock “Restricted Sparring”- a challenge to beat as many foes as possible with a team that all share the same type. Damage carries over, with only two chances in your run to fully heal. It is far too easy to be railed by Pokemon that have move that is super effective to most of your team.
As such, you’re encouraged to abandon strategy. Pick something fast that can hit hard, and has moves to counter types they’re weak to, or bring a wall or tank to stall out your opponent. Combined with only the single battle format, and it feels like a distant third to online battles and the Battle Tower; where comparatively more advanced tactics are rewarded.
Previews claiming the DLC had level scaling were also partially right. It appears to be based on the number of badges you have- rather than the level of your party. Since you are given a key item that increases the amount of EXP you get early on, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to save this for after the main game (where over-leveling is all too easy).
Keeping in mind the Champion’s strongest Pokemon is level 65 in the main game (70 in rematches). Your first trainer in the Isle of Armor has two Pokemon, with the strongest at level 60. Most trainers then have less than three Pokemon, before the DLC’s final boss has six; with the highest at 75, and an unlockable trainer with their highest at 60.
There are so few trainers, and nothing stopping you from getting to the final boss battle so quickly, that you will need to grind through catching wild Pokemon, or use your abundance of EXP Candy from raids. Assuming you don’t bring an over-leveled party in the first place.
UPDATE: Further research has revealed that the levels change purely based on whether a certain event has occurred in the main story. The levels steadily increase from 10 to penultimate battle at level 25, while the final battle is still at 75. As the levels in the main game don’t change, this only serves to over-level you, and delay the finale until later.
Another element of the aforementioned preview that got people’s hopes up were how wild Pokemon did more than roam around, shout at you, and then charge within a limited range.
The preview cited a flying-squirrel Pokemon (Emolga) gliding from tree branches, and a shark Pokemon (Sharpedo) barreling towards you out at sea. This is certainly true, and these are the only two examples of it. Even Amoongus- a Pokemon that disguised itself like an item ball in the over-world akin to Voltorb in past games- just walks around out in the open.
The least dynamic thing however is the Gym Leaders- literal cameos who will occasionally appear on the island to say words to the effect of “I’m training, hope to fight you soon.” They never battle you outside of the main game content, and don’t use any of the new Pokemon regardless.
Speaking of, the only brand-new Pokemon in this expansion is Kubfu, it’s evolution, and the Galarian forms for Slowpoke and Slowbro. The rest are all returning Pokemon.
If we treat Pokemon that evolve (or don’t) as the same “line,” there are 48 returning lines of Pokemon- and ten or so gift Pokemon. The rest of the wilds are filled with Pokemon already in the main game. Just under half the Isle of Armor Pokedex are Pokemon already from the main game.
Two mechanics based on how many Pokemon you have caught- critical capture rate and meeting shiny Pokemon- are also borked thanks to the addition of new Pokemon. If you have a decently filled Pokedex from the main game, odds are you’ll have an easier time catching Pokemon, stripping a little more challenge away from you.
Based on the current online meta, one of the gift Pokemon demand low IVs in Speed to be used effectively, and the other is based on your choice of starter Pokemon.
As one of these Pokemon is rather important to the current meta, it can be infuriating, though nothing you can’t obtain from Pokemon Home, or a friend with the game.
That is ultimately what this expansion pass boils down to in its current state. The adventure is a footnote (though a fun little jungle-gym to crawl around), so if you can gain the new Pokemon fully trained, and with the desired moves by trading with friends- do you need the expansion? No. Absolutely not.
Some of the new tutor moves are shaping the online meta game, and these cannot be passed down through breeding. As such, you’ll need a friend to print you the team you want, or delve into the expansion to remain competitively relevant.
$30, half the price of a full game, is far too steep an asking price at this stage for the content. This is especially considering how the main game didn’t feel like it warranted a full price tag either.
If you’re only interested in the online battling, the question begs why you would not seek out a certain third-party browser-based Pokemon battle simulator, and enjoy your showdowns there with teams you can build in minutes. Then again, I ask this of the main game as well.
The Isle of Armor has not stood up to Pokemon’s defense. While offering a great many tools for anyone who wants to take the multiplayer by storm; the asking price, length, and little content make it hard to recommend. It’s a third of the length of a main game that wasn’t worth full price.
If you loved Pokemon Sword or Pokemon Shield, then this is a worthy addition. If you had any doubt, and aren’t fussed about catching Pokes and beating blokes, then this island should be deserted.
Now the burden falls entirely on the Crown Tundra to make the expansion worth it. Will it also give players the cold shoulder, or will the few specks of hope from the first expansion inspire the next step? I’ve already bought in, so “isle” be sure to let you know.
Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield Expansion Pass was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.