Squirtle isn't in this game, so it is bad
Legends yield insight into both the past and the present, but they come with a caveat: what gets passed down from one generation to the next gradually gets filtered through many personal lenses. As an idea continues to be passed down, what may have once been clear distorts into a mess of personal interpretations and expectations. As a large and ongoing series, Pokémon similarly captured peoples’ imaginations and subsequently became open to interpretation.
I bet nearly everyone exposed to the series has conjured up their own personal “legend” of Pokémon - what the games are all about and what the next game should be like. That makes talking about, and certainly working on, Pokémon difficult.
Does the series need major changes, or is it perfectly fine as is? Do the graphics need to compete with modern contemporaries? Should you be able to put tiny hats on your Pokémon, or is that giving the player too much power? What really matters at the end of the day? Questions like these undoubtedly led to Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which aims to tackle a commonly understood “legend” of an open-world game that Pokémon must eventually become.
Although Legends: Arceus differs from prior games, I hesitate to call it a full-blown revolution. Rather than revolutionize, I’d say Legends: Arceus seeks to conform. In some ways it conforms to a widely vocalized version of what a Pokémon game should be. In other ways, it resembles prior Pokémon experiences more than you might expect.
First, we must address the Phanpy in the room. Despite whatever feelings the key art for this game may evoke, this is not an open world game in the vein of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Legends: Arceus may be better described as an openish world game. Rather than take place in a seamless, connected world, the game splits its world into five maps that can be selected from a menu. These maps seem large when on-foot, but after spending some time in them, and especially after unlocking alternate modes of transportation, the more restrained scope becomes obvious.
I don’t find that approach to be a particularly big deal for what this game aims to offer within its mechanics. Legends: Arceus does not emphasize traversal, exploring to find new areas, completing tasks from one waypoint to the next, solving puzzles, or otherwise trying to convey that you are on a continuous journey. Instead, the game primarily focuses on one thing: catching Pokémon.
Pokémon are everywhere and they are ripe for the picking. Unlike previous games, you don’t need to activate any random encounters or pick Pokeballs out from an item menu; you just aim it yourself and chuck balls at them in real-time. If you’re hiding in grass, you can line things up just right to smack a Pokémon in the head to give it a mild concussion. It’s fun. The developers could probably make a whole game around just the act of throwing balls at Pokémon. They kind of did!
While there is a more structured story to experience, the primary way to progress the game is to increase your research level. Without a high enough research level, the game bars you from entering new areas. You increase your level by completing tasks that basically boil down to catching and fighting Pokémon en masse. This decision pushes repeated confrontations with Pokémon into the forefront.
That might sound like it gets old, but the real-time nature of the catching element ensures the game moves at a quick pace. A familiar pace. More than Breath of the Wild, more than some completely new and never before seen Pokémon idea, what Legends: Arceus really reminds me of is the hit smartphone game Pokémon GO. You may have heard of it.
It makes sense that a game mostly about catching Pokémon would draw from a game mostly about catching Pokémon. Pokémon GO’s success has led to a lot of changes in the overall design of mainline Pokémon games, some more overt and beneficial than others. Despite the lack of a “GO” in the title here, the familiar elements are present: Pokémon walk around the map minding their own business until you engage them, within seconds of throwing the ball a Pokémon can be yours, and catching as many as you can (even of the same type) is highly encouraged. With this game, it feels like they translated the basic elements of GO into something that contains a more traditional video game structure.
What Legends: Arceus adds to the GO formula is an element of danger. You are frequently told in this game that the Pokémon are out for blood and you will die if you aren’t careful. Pretty hardcore, right? Well, kind of.
Pokémon can certainly mess you up. The initial baby-tier Pokémon will just hang out or run away when they notice you, others will actively maim you by shooting out attacks. You can roll away from these attacks, somewhat akin to an action game. While interesting, I don’t think there’s enough in these mechanics to claim it adds much depth to experience, even when it gets taken to the extreme in boss fights. I still appreciate that they are trying to make Pokémon into more threatening forces of nature. I appreciate the idea, at least. In reality, no matter how much you lose you’re just going to “black out” and end up back at camp rather than actually find yourself in mortal peril.
Now I am not saying Pokémon games need to murder you. That’s probably a bit much for the target demographic. However, I do feel like the game shouldn’t be threatening death in the first place if it isn’t serious. It seems odd to me that the writing of the game would try to set your expectations in that direction at all.
Speaking of expectations, much ado has been made about the game’s graphics on a technical level. Personally, I find the true shortcoming of the game’s presentation to be how it attempts to marry its gameplay with a more living, breathing environment.
It’s cool to see Pokémon wandering around the map initially, but it soon becomes clear that there’s little variation or surprise to that approach. I understand why you would want the Pokémon to be clearly visible, it makes the game easier to understand and play. As much as people may hate random encounters, however, some of the imagination gets lost when you just see clusters of the same Pokémon walking around versus not knowing what you’re in for whenever you walk in tall grass.
A lot of the time, the Pokémon don’t feel like they are truly part of the world. Every creature simply walks around - that’s what made me think of Pokémon GO more than anything. They aren’t doing anything interesting, and they don’t interact with each other. Other than an occasional Pokemon you can knock out of a tree or rock, they have no distinguishable presence in their environment. The open areas basically exist only as set dressing for you to find Pokémon in.
I imagine crafting a natural world has been the major barrier holding back a bigger Pokémon game in line with people’s expectations. Even game developers that are willing to sink all the money, time, and technical know-how into crafting large, connected worlds, don’t make them feel alive to the extent the world of Pokémon implies. Hundreds of creatures must be translated to the world in a detailed way while also making them fully interactable within the confines of the game mechanics. This would be a tall order for any developer, and if Legends: Arceus is any indication, we are still a ways off from seeing that kind of world fully realized.
What the developers crafted instead feels more akin to various playgrounds that Pokémon nonchalantly waddle around in. To be clear, that’s fun too. I only really began to find the presentation tedious from a gameplay standpoint in the post-game, when my experience became less about capturing or fighting everything I saw and more about specifically following the will of Arceus by hunting down the last remaining Pokémon needed to complete my Pokedex. For the main game, at least, Pokémon Legends: Arceus offers a satisfying take on the GO premise.
Beyond all the Pokémon catching, the game generally offers what you’d expect from Pokémon up to this point. As mentioned earlier, there are main story quests. These typically involve following markers from Point A to B, watching cutscenes, and occasionally partaking in Pokémon battles. If it weren’t for the research levels and the fact that you are free to wander off catching Pokémon between the marker following, this game could easily suffocate the player just as much as other recent entries by guiding them along a fairly straightforward path. As things stand, I think they’ve reached a nice compromise.
The battles themselves occur fewer and farther between than usual. Like most Pokémon titles, though, they are unlikely to push you too hard. If you’ve played basically any Pokémon RPG, this one contains the usual rock-paper-scissors-gun-ghostgun strategic considerations of type matchups the series is known for. The main change this time comes from the implementation of “styles” to Pokémon moves. Strong style powers your Pokémon’s move up at the cost of a turn, while Agile style moves might give you an extra turn before your opponent gets one.
On one hand, I am glad that they are shaking up the battle system with more nuance than “here is my ultimate super move/transformation, the battle is over now.” On the other hand, I don’t know how much sense a turn economy system makes in a game where battles tend to be over in one or two moves anyway. If they wanted a system like this, it would make sense to introduce more dramatic changes that would allow Pokémon to take more damage. As is, turn order only really comes into play during battles where multiple Pokémon gang up on you at once.
While I never came close to a total loss in battle, Pokémon on my team were frequently defeated. One Pokémon in particular endured many beatings. I apologize to any particularly squeamish readers. We are about to enter The Rowlet Hate Zone.
The Rowlet Hate Zone
Never before have I witnessed a Pokémon get obliterated more frequently or consistently than my Rowlet. I don’t claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Pokémon matchups, but it felt like absolutely everything I encountered had a move my Rowlet was weak to, even when I knew he was supposed to have the type advantage. You know it’s bad when you’re pitting a tiny bird that uses Gust up against another tiny bird that uses Gust, and somehow your tiny bird dies instantly. I buy into the logic behind type-matchups to some extent, but at some point it begins to feel like the universe itself works against Rowlet’s very existence. Maybe Arceus hates Rowlet?
I kept Rowlet around, of course. I chose him as my starter Pokémon, so it’s not like I could just abandon the little loser. However, he soon occupied the strategic role of designated punching bag. Whenever I knew a tough Pokémon fight was coming up, I made sure to send Rowlet out first to take the opening hit that the far stronger and faster Pokémon was likely to inflict. At least he can help out a little that way, you know?
In a way, my true starter Pokémon ended up being Bidoof. When Rowlet dropped the ball, I could always count on Bidoof to pick up the slack. Good old Bidoof has no obvious weak points. He’s an impregnable fortress of fur and teeth. The problem is that once he evolves into Bibarel, he loses his touch, and becomes allergic to electricity and the like. Unfortunately, I eventually traded him up for a Gyrados and didn’t look back. I guess the major theme with this Pokémon stuff is that it’s hard to live up to expectations even if you have your own merits.
Unless you’re Rowlet, who I find impossible to have expectations for in the first place.
Now Exiting the Rowlet Hate Zone
Okay, I was playing things up a bit for the camera. Rowlet and I are still friends. Or at least business colleagues.
To be honest, I feel a little more disconnected to my Pokémon in this game compared to prior ones. Maybe it boils down to the battles. The perspective no longer leaves your character’s view, so all the action tends to occur far away unless you run right up into the middle of it and eat some attacks for the heck of it. You generally don’t get to see the animations clearly, and the lack of dramatic camera changes does little to pull you in.
The difference may also lie in the lack of ways you can actually bond with your Pokémon. I admit, they probably went a little overboard in recent games. The affection system and its myriad of effects on your Pokémon’s abilities dominated battles to an almost comical degree, and the ways to build that system up through petting and gifts could get goofy.
I still wish the developers retained a more tangible way to connect. In Legends: Arceus you can only throw out your Pokémon and…talk to them? Pokémon don’t really have much to say, though, so it’s one of those conversations where you feign interest to be polite but you’re kind of in a hurry to get them back in the ball and do something more interesting.
It’s a shame, because I otherwise find how the game explores the connection between people and Pokémon to be one of its greatest strengths. The game’s story delves into mini arcs about those connections and the theme serves as a narrative throughline, but the story itself is not where I find the idea to be executed most effectively.
In between your research excursions, Jubilife Village serves as a home base you repeatedly return to. This is where the real magic happens. At the start of the game, nearly everyone in the village fears Pokémon. Due to your direct actions, however, that fear dissipates. You’re often told that your research will contribute to society, so the main game mechanics are intrinsically tied to the idea in that way. However, there are also more overt contributions to make.
Side quests frequently pop up asking that you do things like show completed Pokedex entries to or catch certain Pokémon for the villagers. With these small acts, you gradually bring the villagers and Pokémon closer together in tangible ways - the Pokémon stick around, they build structures, and help clear farm fields. The villager dialogue will update based on their changing attitudes. The village fills out in tandem with the bonds you nourish through both these side quests and the main story. Even the village’s music grows fuller as things progress.
That connection taps into my own personal “legend” of Pokémon. When I think about what I enjoyed about the games when I was a child, it was how they captured my imagination in the sense of “what if Pokémon really existed?” What would it be like to actually go out into the world to discover these mysterious monsters with cool powers and actually get to live with them? I want a Squirtle!
Creatures obviously exist in the real world. I saw a dogasaur outside just the other day. Unfortunately, the average person doesn’t share quite the same relationship with real creatures as the ones depicted in Pokémon.
The world of Pokémon differs by promising a far more collaborative and exciting existence. Unlike real life, no matter how cool or tough to find a Pokémon may be, it could ultimately end up at your side as a companion. You could go to the ends of the earth in search of a legendary Pokémon or as far as your backyard to happen upon a giant bug with sword hands, and either way you’re finding something cool that can probably shoot energy beams.
Legends: Arceus encapsulates that old sense of imagination to me more than anything else. Yet, I can’t say the game fully expands on that idea. I also can’t say it lives up to the legend of the perfect open world Pokémon game. That might be okay. There are many things this game is not.
Pokémon as a series often struggles with player expectations, some more reasonable than others. Whether or not the latest game lives up to its full potential will likely be an endless debate. In the here and now, however, Legends: Arceus shows its charm and merits in less expected ways, and offers an interesting take on the series regardless of whatever expectations you may have going in.