Pokémon needs a renaissance. The pocket monsters themselves are a visual delight, and the intricate choice-driven battle system continues to provide all sorts of meaningful decision points for players. But the series’ formula is beginning to show its age.
Every three years, a new mainstream Pokémon title is released. Game Freak adds new features that tweak and complicate the time-tested core, but the fundamentals don’t change. While Pokémon Sword and Shield added open Wild Areas, Pokémon camps, and the ability to embiggen your monsters with dynamaxing, there were still eight Gym Leaders who slavishly use a single type of Pokémon, a dubious evil team, and a climactic battle with the Pokémon League Champion.
This formula is long past being stale and is now dangerously moldy.
I will battle across the land
Breath of the Wild shows just what can be gained by reinvention. Nintendo returned to the fantasy the classic 2D Zelda games offered and tried to capture that for modern consoles, dispensing with the traditions that didn’t serve its new focus.
Breath of the Wild was a bold step for Nintendo and presented a vast, rich, and interconnected open world. Pokémon Sword and Shield flirted with this idea by adding the Wild Areas: explorable zones in the middle of the map where players could seek out Pokémon and even rotate the camera. Though a welcome addition to the game, the fact that the Wild Area was literally fenced in from the rest of the world spoke volumes.
The Wild Areas of Sword and Shield felt like a tacked-on extra, a gentle nod to the idea of open-world play, timid in comparison to Breath of the Wild. A step forward from Red and Blue’s corridors, it was a far cry from the vast horizons of Zelda’s open-world Hyrule.
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet aim to take this further, making the majority of the map into a Wild Area-style region and giving you legendary pokémon with which you’ll be able to glide, swim and ride across the world. On paper, this seems promising. However, this change is concerning within the context of wider stagnation for Pokémon.
Searching far and wide
Reinvention doesn’t mean scrapping what’s good about Pokémon but sweeping away the systems and features that get in the way of its glittering heart.
After more than 25 years, it’s amazing how well Game Freak’s sophisticated combat holds up. It’s still exciting to pick through your squad in the thick of a battle, finding the perfect counter to the monster you face or, if you fall short, trying to level the playing field with support moves and items.
However, even after all these years, it’s surprising Game Freak rarely gives Pokémon’s combat a chance to shine.
Are you headed to the Fire gym? Go and catch a couple of water-type pokémon, and you’ll walk it. The gym leaders still field only one type of pokémon, making battles a simple case of stocking up on a single counter type ahead of battle.
The battles that break from this formula show you what Pokémon can be. Raihan, the eighth and final gym leader in Pokémon Sword and Shield, ostensibly specializes in Dragon types but uses a wider variety of Pokemon than you’d expect. He also specifically emphasises using environmental conditions like sandstorms to change the battlefield in his favor.
I was thrilled when his Torkoal, a fire-type Pokémon, used Solar Beam, a grass-type move, on my water type out of nowhere. In an instant, my Intelion went down like a sack of potatoes in a clutch moment worthy of the Pokémon anime. You see, he’d used Sunny Day a turn earlier to allow his Torkoal to instantly use Solar Beam rather than charge it up like usual. This move set the stage for a phenomenal Pokémon battle that made my inner 12-year-old happy.
The fact that this is the exception, not the rule, speaks volumes about the limits of Pokémon’s worn formula.
The power that's inside
Pokémon Legends Arceus did offer some promising departures in the form of open-world exploration along with a fun and slightly bonkers story. Though it had flaws (especially regarding graphical presentation), it was bold and deeply refreshing and clearly took pains to do justice to the Pokémon fantasy.
Scarlet and Violet continues to step in the right direction, but it may well be the case that Pokémon needs a break. Every three years, we are treated to a new iteration of the same formula, which, usually boasting interesting quirks, does not offer the revolution that the series sorely needs.
Perhaps Game Freak should stop tweaking and set their minds to building something new and exceptional. After all, isn’t novelty a big part of what made Pokémon so inspiring in the first place?
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.