I knew from the website shown at the initial announcement that Pokemon Sword and Shield’s first expansion, The Isle of Armor, would be more of a traditional expansion, but I had hoped – given the multiplayer features and open world feel the game introduced in the series – that there’d be something for multiplayer raid fans.
See, at release, I knew what the Wild Area was: a Pokemon main series game with a pseudo-MMO component. In fact, my friend used that area and random trading (plus a few gifts from friends) to nearly complete her Pokedex without making much progress in the main game. And she was having a blast. I’m sure the same can be done with Isle of Armor, but I have to admit, some of the buggy and weird design decisions I mentioned in the initial game review weren’t tuned at all. This is very much a single-player focused expansion.
Turning up the immersion
I’m going to avoid most of the single-player content in this piece, not just because it’s quite brief in terms of completing the main narrative but because I’m more interested in exploring Sword and Shield’s open world and multiplayer features.
To be clear, these aren’t the same thing. Much like the mainland’s Wild Area, Isle of Armor has tons of NPCs based on players running around the world, making it seem as if there are other players when there really aren’t. It’s a bit rough, since especially on launch day these pseudo-players were appearing and disappearing quite quickly, breaking the illusion, but launch day always has issues.
Separately, you have multiplayer. No, this isn’t 2v2 battles as we get in some previous titles; they’re four players vs. one giant NPC. Four deaths or 10 turns and it’s game over, so you’d better make sure your allies don’t fall! Between Pokemon moves and your own items, this could have been a fun if simple multiplayer aspect. In fact, as I’d mentioned, my friend was enjoying this to the detriment of her single-player progression, all while pursuing the series motto of “Gotta catch’em all!”
I know some people were unhappy that Game Freak and The Pokemon Company didn’t go all-in on this. I won’t lie, I feel the same. However, I also generally don’t expect Pokemon to include any multiplayer beyond trading and battling against each other. We usually have one or two gimmicks, like making mazes in bases or sending power-ups to friends, so battling with friends to get some of the best pokemon in the main series was a big deal.
Except that it didn’t quite work out that way, and I don’t mean how you can breed the best Pokemon and make shinies easier than past games. I mean that battling with friends is technically difficult, even when it just comes to joining. I’ve spent most of my time trying to raid, and just as before the expansion, menus update slowly, “available” raids are often closed, and getting a full group is rare. What’s perhaps even more disheartening is that even the hardest content can be done fairly cleanly with only two or three real people, and without their needing to communicate or focus on anything other than DPSing the giant Pokemon down.
If this were a new series, this would be a decent game. However, it’s Pokemon, and the nostalgia of our favorite, blocky, 2-D creatures joining us in a 3-D open world and once again being able to walk outside of their Pokeball… it’s a really great feeling. Bringing Pokemon I bred and raised halfway across the world seven years ago into the newest generation of games via Pokemon Home was fantastic. It is a hassle getting my Pokemon GO critters into the game because there’s still no direct link despite it initially being advertised, but it is still possible with some work.
So, on the one hand, we have great visual immersion. Lifesize wailord is great, sharks chasing you is thrilling, and bringing out that pretty good Jolteon I bred before getting bored makes me feel that Pokemon as a game series rewards me for investing in it. There is so much to love here, even if wailord does shrink for some reason when it’s no longer wild.
But on the other hand, I still want to be sharing this world with friends, and not just in that I want something more meaningful (which I’m hoping is what we can expect from the next expansion, The Crown Tundra, since we’re told it focuses more on multiplayer content). What I mean is that I want to be able to join up with random players more easily to do raids.
Because the menus don’t update fast enough, most of the raids I attempt are either done, canceled, or full by the time they reach my menu. Same as release. It’s still difficult to get people on my friends list to join for whatever reason, just as it was at release. And since many of us have been playing for a while, multiplayer content is trivialized and dull right from the start. And that’s a major issue.
Making a team effort
I won’t lie, there’s a lot that Pokemon as a main series franchise could do to improve, especially in the main series department. I could probably do a few articles on that, but I’m going to spare you and focus on this one issue: making multiplayer battles work.
As I previously mentioned, it would be nice if we could just go to our friends list and join up that way, but even with new friends in the expansion, that fails. The game’s “card” system (think baseball cards for Pokemon trainers) could have signatures so we can “call up” friends and join them, but nope, we don’t have anything like that unless we play the game via local LAN connection, and all that does is restrict play to those on the same connection as you.
The other issue, and a long-standing one, is the lack of appropriate content for groups. While there are some moves for tanking, healing, buffing allies and debuffing the enemy, those feel like valid options only if players are still progressing and/or holding back their A-game. Even an asymmetrical mode where four players team up against one with a super-powered Pokemon would be great, now or in a feature.
But for Isle of Armor, we only got one special encounter, and it’s not great. A returning mythical Pokemon, which I got no backstory for despite completing the new content, is available in raids, unless you want to catch it. Yes, that’s right, you can only battle it, which is probably one reason people don’t seem interested in it despite The Pokemon Company wanting us to beat it down a million times. It’s nice that there are easier versions so everyone can participate, but even the most difficult version isn’t really all that hard if you can get one or sometimes two semi-competent players. This is fine given how difficult it is to play with others, but still misses the bigger picture in some ways.
First, is that from what I recall of the catchless Mewtwo content, this wasn’t the sort of thing that was exactly getting people excited. I did Mewtwo only a handful of times, and while challenging, it wasn’t terribly difficult with a full group of competent players. With one fewer, we did have to play smarter, and someone did have a tank/support pokemon, which inspired me to work on one for myself and a friend, but that felt likea baseline experience future content should be similar to. Put another way, I can’t imagine the game remaining fun if every encounter feels trivial with friends, but I also can’t imagine needing voice chat to win a group Pokemon match, especially when young kids are supposed to be able to enjoy the game as well.
Oddly enough, the other issues is that while the new content is more trivial than the Mewtwo raids, it’s also less popular, at least in my experience. I did several matches with the Sword and Shield Reddit during Primetime and I never saw more than a single group doing this content at a time. Compared to when I did late night Mewtwo raids that filled up within moments, this new offering is, well, less than stellar. There were also more than a few people in Discord confused about how to do content with other people in the channel, but that’s just another example of how obfuscated online play is, even here in 2020.
Organized groups are much better than random encounters. While I was about to do several raids in under 15 minutes once we got moving, solo queue with randoms was excruciating. It could take 15 minutes just for another player to join my raid room, and often, they turned out to be people who were either inept or trolling. Maybe having something like Pokemon Go’s raid suggestion system could help some players out, but I’m used to pickup groups at least starting faster than organized ones.
Looking to the tundra
Again, we knew this wasn’t going to be an expansion focused on multiplayer, but I did think some groundwork would be laid out for it. More pokemon from past entries reappeared, we got some new mechanics to make it even easier to breed and raise high-quality pokemon, some new hair styles and clothes, and even new moves. Unfortunately, not even that last option does anything to help with the underlying issues of multiplayer, and that’s still ignoring how difficult it can be to play with friends.
Caleb Ryor on Twitter posted descriptions for all the new moves, and while they are of some interest, they don’t make raids any more interesting in my opinion. The issue is that three legendary Pokemon have special moves that deal massive amounts of damage to raid pokemon, and none of these moves stand out as being able to compete. While it’s possible to play tank/support/healer, it rarely feels like an adequate trade-off for DPS, and you’ll notice that once again, these moves don’t help any of those areas of gameplay. That means nothing if raid boss AI and encounters don’t ask players to do something different. Or, you know, maybe scale, something that was rumored about the expansion but is applied only to badges and not party levels.
We know from the above image that Tundra’s gameplay won’t be just raw battling but will involve some movement (I’m guessing choosing a path via menu rather than freely walking about), and that’s kind of neat, especially in this largely 1v1 game series. However, I do worry that the pace with which the Pokemon series is embracing virtual, shared worlds that the fanbase clamors for is far too slow. Considering the level of immersion we’re finally experiencing thanks to the open world access we’ve been given, I think it would be nice if these dungeons had mini-puzzles we needed to solve by bringing the right pokemon. Not necessarily a specific one, but maybe a large flying pokemon to carry people across a ravine, or a ghost pokemon to tell us is a trapped chest is worth opening.
My fear now is that the above image might not be a hint about the multiplayer we’ll be receiving but essentially the whole thing. Isle of Armor basically felt like a quality-of-life expansion for the single-player parts of the game. We got exactly what was described but almost too precisely. The expansion could have at least fixed the multiplayer menus for functionality so the one small, promotional event could be easily accessed, but we didn’t even get that. At the very least, I’m hoping we’ll still be able to walk around with our pokemon out this fall, even if it’s not with our fellow trainers.