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The Pokémon Isle of Armor Uninspired Design

by Willem Hilhorst - July 21, 2020, 9:00 am PDT
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This doesn’t feel part of a united kingdom.

By now, most of the die-hard Pokémon fans will have finished all there is to offer in the initial DLC for Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield: The Isle of Armor. The first DLC added to a main-series Pokémon title, it returns over 100 previously cut Pokémon back to the game, adds a lot of new training options for competitive players, and focuses on the locals of the titular island. While the DLC has been received fairly well by both players and reviewers, I was struck by how much the design of the island was lacking in comparison with the mainland of Galar. After doing some more research I think that the Isle of Armor might possibly be more detached from Galar than we originally thought.

So what do I mean by the lacklustre design of the Isle of Armor? Well, I’m not referring to the actual layout and locations of the island itself; it’s actually really fun how many different locations, flora, and fauna the island holds. I especially like the long coast that goes around the island, the little desert to the north and the tunnel system that connects to some of the rivers. As far as in-game locations are concerned, the isle has a lot of unique and varied places for you to visit and find those hidden diglets. But it is weird how detached the Isle of Armor is from the design inspirations behind Galar proper.

Now Galar, as you might have guessed based on the marketing, has its design and world very clearly inspired by a lot of sights and locations from the United Kingdom: places like Motostoke (Manchester), Hulbury (Liverpool), Turfield (Cerne Abbas), Hammerlocke (Birmingham), Glimwood Tangle (Sherwood Forest), Circhester (Bath) and Wyndon (London). Now, the marketing for the Pokémon DLC has stated that the Isle of Armor is inspired by the Isle of Man, and the Crown Tundra is inspired by Scotland. At first glance, it’s easy to see the inspiration. The Isle of Man and the Isle of Armor are both located off the coasts of Great Britain and Galar, respectively. The Isle of Man is well known for having a large wildlife preserve and varied ecosystems. Whales can often be spotted in the waters near the Isle of Man, but sharks are also surprisingly common. Every player who has visited the Isle of Armor has certainly met both the large wailord on the ocean and the many Sharpedos chasing you around. The Isle of Armor being a complete wild area isn’t too out of place when compared to the Isle of Man.

But aside from some generous assumptions about the Pokémon selection found on the Isle of Armor, it seems to be where most of the connections end between it and its supposed inspiration. For this piece, I spoke with several people from the UK who are familiar with many of its landscapes. I also spoke with someone living on the Isle of Man, who played the DLC. He was surprised at how little actual inspiration was taken from the island for this additional content. For how small the island is, you might be surprised that it has an incredible history and is officially considered its own governing state within the UK, a so-called Crown dependency. In fact, the Isle of Man (also called Mann) has a capital, Douglas, with about 28,000 citizens and is well known for being a large port used for trade with Great Britain and other countries. Even the two biggest sights on the Isle of Armor, the Tower of Waters and the Tower of Darkness are not actually based explicitly on locations from Mann. There are actually three towers on Mann, The Tower of Refuge (which has more of a castle-like appearance), The Albert Tower, and Milners Tower (all built near the end of the 1800s). As you might expect, these towers have a distinct European design and look absolutely nothing like the more Japanese-inspired towers in the game. The general connection to a dojo and fighting also doesn’t seem to fit, but my contact on Mann did point out that there are clubs for Martial Arts, but as far as he knows, these mostly take place in school assembly halls. The Forest of Focus has little in common with forests on the island, there is a distinct lack of a desert in any part of the UK (including Mann), and even Honeycalm Island seems to have no association with any island near the UK.

Missing in action are unique traits that the Isle of Man does have. The first one that was pointed out to me was Laxey Wheel. This is the largest working water wheel in the world, with a diameter of 72.5 feet. It’s so iconic that, aside from the tourist trips, it is also on the back of the £20 bill printed by the Isle of Man government. The aforementioned Tower of Refuge is also a famous sight that is part of the Port of Douglas. Worldwide, the Isle of Man is most well-known for the annual TT motorcycle races that go entirely around the island and that are celebrated on the island for over two weeks. This would have made for a fantastic sidequest or event on the Isle of Armor. One of the people I talked to noted that they could’ve held Dodrio races, similar to one of the episodes from the original television series. But even the lack of Rotom Races on the Isle of Armor is astounding since that is essentially a motorcycle race. What gives GameFreak?

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The disconnect you might’ve felt while playing the DLC maybe isn’t just because it is additional content, separate from the main game. Seemingly from its foundation, the Isle of Armor isn’t nearly as inspired by sights from the UK and the Isle of Man in particular. It seems to be a scrambled idea devoid of any clear inspiration that harkens back to the main Galar region. The question this leaves us with is “why.” Why is the Isle of Armor so devoid of landmarks and sights that are most often associated with the history and culture of the Isle of Man? I can’t speak for GameFreak, but I can speculate on the possible relationship between the design of Sword and Shield and GameFreak’s first outing with mainline DLC. Bear with me while I put on my tinfoil hat.

As confirmed by the developers, the DLC for Pokémon Sword and Shield started before the main game was released. Now, this is far from uncommon. Most large studios use leftover ideas to fill out post-release content. We’ve seen this from a dozen of other titles like Super Mario Odyssey’s additional costumes to additional content in Fire Emblem: Three Houses and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That last one in particular does seem to share some similarities in its approach to DLC. Both Zelda and Pokémon have DLC that are sold in one pass, releasing about six months after another, with one part focused on combat and enhancing the main game’s experience and the second part being more story driven. Now of course we haven’t played the Crown Tundra DLC for Pokémon just yet, but we do know the region is based on Scotland and that it contains new Galarian forms for a lot of legendary Pokémon. Legendary Pokémon almost always play a role in the story of the games and I suspect this DLC will be no different. We’ve seen a full cutscene with the legendary birds, and even the Galarian Regis have been shown more than the new Pokémon Calyrex. With the Isle of Armor focusing more on fighting and having a very tenuous connection to its real-life inspiration, especially when looking over the care that seems to be poured into the Crown Tundra, my mind started thinking:

What if the Isle of Armor was originally meant as a post-game battle frontier, but was changed to be a part of the DLC in order to spread out the content for over a year?

This would explain a lot. The Battle Tower is always a post-game reward for players who just want to grind out battles and train their competitive teams. Meaning there is no need to adhere to a general theme that lines up with the rest of the region. There is a battle tower of course in Wyndon, but there is very little that actually makes it stand out from other Gyms in the region of Galar. The isle does feature an original battle-tower mode called restricted sparring, which is unlocked after completing the story mode in the DLC, and this would’ve made for quite a unique challenge much like the Battle Facilities in previous battle frontiers. There’s also move tutors on the Isle of Armor, teaching you exclusive moves. The only addition I can think of that wouldn’t have been a part of the original design for the Isle is it being a fully functional wild area. With the extra development time, they could focus their attention on adding in the older Pokémon that would fit the region. Hence, this is why the Pokémon selection seems to be in line with the wildlife that can be found on Mann. There isn’t much else there to suggest it would be based on a real-life location and not just pulled out of thin air by GameFreak. The inspiration seems to be much closer related to Japanese fighting culture on islands like Okinawa, where a lot of martial arts like Tomari-te and Shuri-te were taught and founded. It has very little to do with anything from the UK, Mann, or even Ireland.

Of course, we may probably never know the design philosophy behind the Pokémon DLC and its approach to the Galar region. It will be interesting to see, however, what the Crown Tundra will offer and how closely it relates to Scotland. I’m looking forward to writing another piece later this year comparing the regions and seeing what parts GameFreak took inspiration from. In the meantime, I’ll just keep searching for those hidden diglets on the ‘Isle-of-definitely-not-Man’.

I’d like to give a special thank you to my consultants for this piece who gave me a lot of insight into their experience of the Galar region and the Isle of Armor. In particular I’d like to thank Jon Lawton, Athena Paradigm and Jonathan Stone for their contributions.

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