Pokemon Sword & Shield Expansion Pass (Isle of Armor/The Crown Tundra) Review
I never wanted to dislike Pokemon Sword & Shield. While I'm sure I can't speak for every reviewer out there, I feel it's pretty safe to assume that no reviewer actually wants any of the games that they're tasked with reviewing to be bad - I certainly don't. It would be great if every game that we played were 10/10 masterpieces. Wouldn't that be grand?
I still had a good time with Pokemon Sword & Shield, a 6/10 is still a decent game 'lest it's forgotten, but for a variety of reasons I stepped away from the game disappointed. The biggest two issues, if I were to name them, would probably be the linearity of the experience as a whole, and an overall lack of scope. Once I was done with the game's story, there didn't feel like there was nearly enough post-game content for me - the type of player that I am - to justify continuing to play it after the credits rolled. While the game made sweeping cuts to the Pokedex, I didn't feel like the additions to the series' formula made a compelling enough argument for that decision.
I had other major issues with the game - such as the complete mess of local and online multiplayer that is Y-comm, for one - that I never feasibly expected to get fixed with the Pokemon Sword & Shield Expansion Pass, but I was always hopeful that the DLC could at least "complete" the game for me, and give me not just a reason to come back for the new content, but a reason to continue playing even after the story was finished. So, does the Expansion Pass accomplish what I'd hoped it would?
Let's put it this way; after Sword and Shield's basegame experience, I was hesitant to ever touch a mainline Pokemon game again. The Expansion Pass has made me more hopeful for the series future than I have been in a long time.
I won't talk much about the first part of the Sword and Shield Expansion Pass, on account of having already relayed my impressions for The Isle of Armor months ago, so I'll be essentially talking about The Crown Tundra in this review, with some broader statements on the Expansion Pass as a whole. The Isle of Armor was and is a fantastic step in the right direction, bringing proper exploration back to Sword and Shield, and offering a glimpse into a potential future which the series can take where Wild Areas replace traditional routes entirely. A glimpse that edges ever closer to an inevitable reality, if The Crown Tundra is anything to go by.
One of my prevailing thoughts upon finishing the Isle of Armor was that the level design of its Wild Area would be expanded upon with The Crown Tundra, and that exploration could become even more of a focus than it was in the first part of the Expansion Pass. I'm glad to report that this hope has come to fruition.
The name of the game with The Crown Tundra would be "finding and catching Legendary Pokemon". While some of these are locked behind the excellent new Dynamax Adventures system - more on that later - quite a few new and returning Legendary Pokemon are locked behind what can only be described as a sidequest system, where players are given relatively free reign to pick and choose the order in which to finish them. The new Galarian Bird Trio, for example, are found in each of the game's now 3 Wild Areas - with differing methods of capturing them. Zapdos requires you to chase it down on your bike; Moltres, to cut it off while it circles the Isle of Armor. Articuno asks players to not just find the bird, but to also solve an optical illusion puzzle before it will deign to take the player on in battle.
The Musketeer Trio, from Pokemon Black and White, force you to gather their tracks in certain areas of The Crown Tundra before they will even appear on the map; the Regi Trio (Now a Quintet!) have temples scattered around The Crown Tundra, some more hidden than others, but nonetheless out of the way waiting for you to discover them. Although the puzzles that they ask you to complete are a notable step down from the cryptic requirements to catch them in previous games - they're interesting nonetheless.
The Crown Tundra makes you feel like you're actively exploring to find these Pokemon. Combined with the much wider scope and grandeur of The Crown Tundra as a whole, with several legitimately winding cave networks and mountain passes (alongside other biomes), makes me feel more than hopeful for the future of this feature going forward.
It feels a bit weird for me to freak out about this, but Freezington - the sole town within The Crown Tundra - is seamlessly integrated into the Wild Area! If nothing else, the burgeoning hopes that I harbored after The Isle of Armor - that perhaps Gamefreak might be considering ditching traditional routes entirely - feels all the more certain.
The story of The Crown Tundra is still rather light, as has been par for the course with Sword and Shield, but one notable change to the formula is how Calyrex - the DLCs headline Legendary Pokemon - directly interacts with the player character during the story. I won't say more instead of ruining the welcome little surprise if you have yet to play the DLC for yourself, but it's a neat change of pace and makes me wonder how such an idea could be expanded upon in future entries of the series, if Gamefreak so chose.
Saving the best for last - Dynamax Adventures are probably my favorite endgame Pokemon activity in a very long time. In this game mode, players borrow a random Pokemon, and delve into a much larger Pokemon Den - either alone or with friends. Instead of just tackling one Dynamax Pokemon, players must grapple with 4 in a row, culminating in a final battle against a Dynamax Legendary Pokemon. Catch rates for these are 100% if you haven't already caught one, so all of the difficulty is in the lead up to the fight itself, and successfully managing to bring the Pokemon down. Even if you don't manage to knock them out, any Pokemon that you opted to catch on the way to the Legendary are up for grabs as a consolation prize, including fully evolved Hoehn region starter Pokemon, if you're lucky enough to find one.
What makes the game mode work so well is probably the inclusion of Rental Pokemon. By forcing players to use Pokemon that they might otherwise be unfamiliar with, it adds in a metagame where you might fight a Pokemon that might be harder to take down with your group's party simply due to the fact that your current Pokemon - or one of your teammate's - might well be a liability against whichever Legendary you may find yourself face to face with at the end. Players have a selection of paths to choose from after each encounter, showcasing a silhouette and at least one of the typings for the Pokemon to be found on a particular route, along with secondary benefits like a Trainer that will offer each party member a Hold Item to give to their Pokemon to use, or a pile of Berries that will heal the party to a certain amount.
In essence - Dynamax Adventures are miniature roguelike experiences built into Pokemon Sword and Shield. They never take that long in the grand scheme of things - especially since opposing Dynamax Pokemon won't use annoying shields like in normal Dynamax encounters - but they actually require you to think as a team and to consider whether to take the easier route to the boss, or the perhaps more arduous one on the chance that the Pokemon you might pick up along the way might strengthen your odds at the end.
There are a ton of Pokemon to be found in this mode - nearly every Legendary Pokemon from the series' history that isn't otherwise accounted for with the puzzles in The Crown Tundra. If players want to tackle Dynamax Adventures to catch them all, there are veritable dozens of hours of content in just this part of the DLC alone. What I love about it is the fact that even though it offers so many Pokemon - you never feel like they're being handed to you. It's exciting seeing which new legendary will pop up next; what sort of Pokemon you'll wade your way through to get there, and what strategies you and your friends can come up with to make your trek to the end all the smoother.
It's a shame that this DLC had to hit during the COVID-19 pandemic - it feels like the perfect sort of thing for players to tackle during a line at a convention, or during a lunch break at school. It's absolutely the type of content that screams for a local experience, and really lives up to the "Max Raid" moniker that Dynamax Battles were branded with in the first place. If you can find a group online to tackle these with, you'll be sure to have a great time - but even if you don't, the NPCs seem at least a bit more competent compared to those to be found in regular Pokemon Dens.
I must admit that I'm still conflicted about the Expansion Pass existing in the first place - by far my most significant criticism of Sword and Shield was that it felt like it offered less content for $60 than the 3DS games offered for $40. I didn't pay for the Expansion Pass, but for most players that means that Pokemon Sword and Shield plus the new DLC costs more than double what the 3DS entries retailed for. Do I wish this content was in the basegame? Yes, I do.
If the alternative was not getting this content at all, however, I'm glad that it exists. Pokemon X & Y were games just begging for a 3rd entry to polish up a few rough edges and to give the game a more significant endgame experience. While it seems clear that a Pokemon "Z" was originally planned - it never came to fruition, for one reason or another. Kalos never got its chance to shine, and I feel like I'm not alone in saying that Generation VI as a whole suffered for it. While I was significantly more disappointed in Pokemon Sword & Shield at launch, I feel like making a rather bold claim.
Pokemon Sword & Shield - with the Expansion Pass - is the best Pokemon experience since Black 2/White 2 on the DS.
The DLC has, in almost every way, fixed my major issues with the experience as a whole. More than that, it feels as if Pokemon now has a clear path forward. Larger, much more open areas, much like the Wild Areas found in both halves of the Expansion Pass - with seamless towns, caves, and shifting biomes. Maybe with any luck, the next Pokemon can be more or less open world! I would've scoffed at the suggestion after finishing Sword and Shield for the first time, but now the dream feels closer than ever. We'll have to wait and see, but if the Expansion Pass could win me over - I feel confident in saying it could probably win you over, too.