I’ll be referring to the duo of Pokemon Sword & Shield as “Pokemon Shield” in this article as that’s the version I’ve played and it’s less cumbersome.
The essence of every Pokemon game is that of the personal journey. From humble beginnings you meet and train a ragtag group of monster friends, battle your way through the land’s toughest challengers, overcome geographic obstacles with the tools they provide, and after your region-trotting trek become The Champion. It’s the same tale every time because it works on the basest, most fundamental level of id. That triumphant thump in your chest every time you take down a gym leader or add a new Pokemon to your dex is the reward for tangible progression-oriented achievement. An achievement achieved explicitly through your own agency over the team and strategies you utilize. There’s a reason this is all done under the guise of an avatar: Pokemon is your journey.
And it’s for such reasons that I can’t talk about my return trip to Pokemon Shield after the release of the Isle of Armor expansion without first giving context about the state of my life when I first visited Galar.
Pokemon Shield could not have launched at a more turbulent moment in my recent life. For one, the weekend of its release coincided with me covering a major anime convention as press. While such a thing is plenty fun, it’s also exhausting and stressful (and more work than it seems from the outside). But compounding this was something more emotionally challenging: I had gone through a rough breakup days prior. My ex had dropped by my apartment to pick up her stuff and say a final goodbye the day before the game’s release so the wounds were fresh, though the hectic nature of my work didn’t afford me much time to ruminate on what had transpired. When I finally unwinded from convention coverage by way of Pokemon, I was setting out on a new journey whilst my mind was freed to wander around the past.
The franchise had actually played a major transitional role in my life before with Gold & Silver accompanying my move from a cul-de-sac of Pokemon-playing friends to a town far away where I knew nobody. After a tearful final goodbye to my friends (parallels!), I met Totodile at the airport and set off to adventure in two new worlds. Being the first new region added to the franchise, Johto captured the mystical awe and wonder of the unknown juxtaposed to a singular known. The surprise return to Kanto after the Johto journey wrapped was made ever so poignant because of it; I was virtually returning to those friends whilst making new ones at my new home due to a shared love of Johto.
Shield wasn’t afforded such a positive spin. While I made my way through Galar, I was decompressing from the aforementioned physical, occupational and emotional exhaustion. I was in no state to “start anew” and as such couldn’t connect to the journey in the same way past me was able to. State of mind absolutely has an impact on how you experience a piece of media — positive or negative or whatever it may be — and to get “the most” out of Shield given the circumstances, I had to allow myself to get a bit braindead. It’s arguable that the game actually came out as the perfect time because it was a distraction that didn’t require extreme brainpower and for sure there’s some truth to the benefit of escapism, but it was to the detriment of fully immersing myself in Galar’s art-designed beauty.
Yet it wasn’t only a time-and-place problem that colored my Shield experience; there was also the added context of boundless controversies surrounding the omissions of many pocket monsters and corridor-esque, exploration-light linearity. I didn’t feel too strongly about the former but the game designer side of me couldn’t help but feel let down by the latter. It wasn’t simply the linearity; Pokemon games have always been that, honestly to a greater degree than fans disillusioned with modern entries want to admit. It was rather linearity in a world where you could see boundless hills of green gated off by often man-made arbitrary barriers. They cried to be explored while you were instead funneled down a narrow path across a slice of Galar. The miniature open-world Wild Area experiment, which felt geographically uninspired and completely asynchronous from the story, didn’t show the promise of what the series’ future could be in a substantial way. The sense of untapped potential permeated every facet of Galar and the further you got, the more disappointing it felt.
This isn’t to say I disliked Shield. I ended the game feeling whelmed with it. A fine distraction for sure, but not the mainline console experience I had imagined for over two decades (which didn’t necessarily boil down to “open world” but at least something more expansive in feel). I enjoyed a lot of the heavily European-themed touches that went into the world and Pokemon designs but the limited level design made it all feel like shallow window dressing. Once the credits rolled on capturing the box legendary and after messing around with it for a short while, I powered down and plugged Smash Ultimate back into its rightful cartridge slot. While I’ve not been one for Pokemon post-games since the Battle Frontier days, I’ve always hoped the franchise would compel me to keep playing in such a way again. The announcement of the two expansion passes were as such beacons of hope, both in the opportunity to return to a game I otherwise wouldn’t and to see Game Freak expand upon the design possibilities of the Wild Area.
Upon booting up Shield again to venture to the Isle of Armor, I landed in Wedgehurst, a town in the midst of rolling hills as far as the eye can see. It’s the quintessential example I mentioned earlier of showing a gated-off world you’re desperate to explore; there are even areas where literal paths into it are roped off, fueling the desire. Yet while these negative feelings hit, I also felt a warmness in returning to the (too much for its own good, perhaps) beautifully art-designed Galar. Hopes were high that what I was about to witness was a glimpse of the franchise’s future.
For those unfamiliar, the Isle of Armor is an entirely open-world island set apart from the main continent. It’s teeming with newly reintroduced Pokemon, tons of little explorative pockets across multiple biomes, and embedded narrative locations. Whereas the Wild Area was largely a flat plain with patches of ’mon spawning grass, The Isle of Armor is full of distinctive, carefully-crafted locales, a cornucopia of Disney Weenies. Each section of the island seamlessly blends into the next, emulating the “go-anywhere” feel of modern open world design (albeit on a small scale). This is showcased best in the open waters where you can water-bike to smaller islands with their own exclusive batches of Pokemon and treasures, as well as inlets that connect back into the mainland in ways that give the place a feeling of interlocking cohesiveness. This sense of natural discovery stands in stark contrast to the Wild Area where at one glance you basically see everything on offer. Traversal became fun. This is the level design that Pokemon on the TV deserves.
But my main point of interest going in was how story content would be implemented in an open world setting, something thats absence from the Wild Area made it feel fragmented. What The Isle of Armor achieves in this regard is simple but effective. Your main hub — a dojo of fighting-type trainers — offers a handful of challenges that acclimate you to the island before handing off Kubfu, an expressive new best-friend-type little-buddy Pokemon. After a bit of training (read: I filled him up on XP boosters), he challenges trainers in one of two landmark towers to evolve into the associated form of Ursafu. After this, there’s a final showdown with the dojo’s master, an off-hand line teasing the upcoming second expansion, and finally a black screen with the simple words “The End” identical to that of the main game. In other words, the experience is a one-sitting affair. The amount of story beats it had to tell were minimal and only required three structures (only two of which you utilize). But visiting them amongst an open space elicited a greater sense of adventure than being railroaded to story landmarks alongside hyper-linear passages. These structures naturally existed in a more believable world. Now, open-world game design is no easy feat and expanding beyond this bottled scenario is an infinitely tougher task, but this start shows promise.
If I were to judge the expansion as a Pokemon campaign player solely on its few-hour story length, I’d be disappointed that I essentially paid $15 for a demo of an open-world narrative experience. As such, I decided to get my money’s worth and explore the island’s every nook and cranny. I would catch a Pokemon to my liking here and there, but initially through my exploration became strung along by finding 151 hidden Digletts, something I had no intention of doing at the outset.
After a few hours, the island had completely sucked me in. The Isle of Armor was a place I actively wanted to hang out in and naturally that led to collecting every Pokemon not yet a part of my collection. I even recruited a friend to help with a few tough raids. And when I had exhausted much of the island’s offerings, I wasn’t sated and made my way back to the Wild Area to continue my catching spree. After a few runs through that, I opened my Pokedex and visited a few of the locations it recommended to catch Pokemon I missed on my main journey. I will likely never use most of these Pokemon but the sheer collection became an unexpected hook. Looking for some variety, I also completed every level of the 1v1 Battle Tower. In essence, I got sucked into Shield’s initial post-game by way of its expansion because it does an exemplary job of hooking the player into the gameplay loop. Whereas in the main game those goals are things you actively have to seek out, The Isle of Armor places the carrot in every direction you look. The line of “end game” and “main content” is blurred.
Now I do need to stress that my feelings towards Galar’s design still stands, especially when juxtaposed to The Isle of Armor. The Wild Area is still uninspired and the routes are akin to hiking trails that forbid you from taking a dip in the river running alongside them. The world Gen 8 is trying to build is undermined by its contrived design. At the same time, a fresh perspective allowed me to realize many of the core tenants of the series (battling and catching in particular) were still as great as ever, and revisiting places I previously encountered under poorer circumstances gave me the clearer headspace to better appreciate their beauty. In fact, if I’m to take Shield’s personal journey to encompass not just the main game but also its expansions, the game becomes especially meaningful as I draw parallels between it and myself. The lack of impact from my initial playthrough due to the circumstances surrounding it was recontextualized by returning during a different phase in life. The immediacy of the breakup is now months behind me, and the COVID-19 quarantine has blown my free time wide open. Again, state of mind and place and time strongly impact how you react to media.
We’re always growing as people. Who I am right now is not who I was in November 2019, and the same goes for Pokemon. When The Crown Tundra launches in a handful of months, I’ll again not be the same person I was this past week and hopefully Pokemon will evolve alongside me. So even if it’s on the most personal of merits, returning to Galar gave me a newfound appreciation for what it represents. It’s not poignant to the extent that Gold/Silver were (few things are), but it’s certainly a piece of media that has more meaning to me than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps this is what makes Pokemon so special and enduring for me. I can recall the exact moment I played every entry… where I was, what I was feeling, what life was like during that snapshot of time. This is a phenomenon likely true for whatever franchise has stuck with a person throughout a majority of their life, but Pokemon’s specific messaging of the personal journey amplifies its role as a timeline of my life. In certain cases like Shield that timeline ends up holding particular significance and The Isle of Armor gave me that, regardless of any opinions I may hold about the core game.