I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Pokémon Legends Arceus when it was first announced. Sure, the fundamentals of it were easy to grasp - a semi-open world Pokémon adventure that placed an emphasis on exploration and Pokédex completion instead of the tried and tested formula of battling to become the region’s Pokémon Master. But the real question was: could developer Game Freak create a Pokémon game this ambitious?
Now that Pokémon Legends Arceus is out, I’m still not quite sure we have an answer. Don’t get me wrong, Legends is an extremely enjoyable game, and the changes to the long-established Pokémon formula feel fresh enough to set the game apart from its mainline counterparts. But therein lies a problem unique to the Pokémon games - where does the mainline series go from here?
It’s very easy to get immersed in the ancient world of Hisui and the satisfying gameplay loop of consistently filling out your Pokédex, so much so that I hope the Legends brand will continue to be its own thing. The question is, then, should Legends become the new standard for Pokémon games going forward, and is that really what the series needs?
For the last few years, it’s been evident that the Pokémon games have flailed around more than a stranded Magikarp in terms of what they wanted to be. For better or worse, the games have been hugely experimental, arguably since the release of Pokémon Sun and Moon way back on the 3DS, which changed up progression by eschewing gym battles for encounters with singularly powerful Pokémon.
Since then, we’ve had Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee, which returned players to Red and Blue’s Kanto region and placed an emphasis on catching Pokémon using the unique motion controls of the Joy-Con. Those games were followed by the next mainline entries, Pokémon Sword and Shield, which reintroduced familiar elements such as gym battles, but were infamously divisive for being intensely linear and dropping the National Dex in favor of a smaller, curated roster of Pokémon.
In the years between then and now, we also saw the release of New Pokémon Snap, which arguably failed to capture the magic of the N64 original, and the Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Gen 4 remakes which again proved to be divisive due to an odd aesthetic choice and overall lack of graphical fidelity compared to even pixelated entries like the superlative Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver remakes from 2010.
It’s no shock, then, that Pokémon Legends Arceus has received near-universal acclaim from fans and critics alike. The game offers a meaningful shakeup to the Pokémon formula, and it does so by further honing gameplay features from this very experimental phase.
There’s a ton to love about Pokémon Legends Arceus, and a lot of that is down to the foundations laid by other Pokémon titles released across the last decade. The emphasis on catching from the Let’s Go games, for example, as well as Sun and Moon’s boss Pokémon encounters. Not to mention Sword and Shield’s free-roaming Wild Area taken to its logical conclusion. These games walked so that Legends could run.
The Next Generation
But if Legends is the culmination of this experimentation, then, where do the Pokémon games go from here? It’s likely that The Pokémon Company, Game Freak and other associated teams already know the answer, as there’s bound to be more Pokémon projects in pre-production and active development.
A new Pokémon game is as certain as death and taxes, but in a post-Legends world, it’s become a little harder to predict how the next big Pokémon game will take shape. Okay, catching and battling are a dead cert, but now that Pokémon Legends Arceus has disrupted the formula to such a degree, what the next Pokémon game will look like is, to an extent, up in the air. That’s both exciting and slightly nerve-wracking.
For my two cents, the days of traipsing through cities and towns connected by routes and caves in order to shore up an octet of gym badges should be over and done with. That gameplay loop worked admirably for a time, but Pokémon and its various development teams deserve to work on a more ambitious project than that. And if Pokémon Legends Arceus is the first step on that path of ambition, then I say fantastic. More of that, please.
That being said, if that ambition takes the shape of a game with a much larger world and a much greater variety of Pokémon, it’s going to need better hardware, because Legends is buckling under the pressure of the Nintendo Switch’s relatively limited specs. As lovely as Legends’ art direction can be, it’s not quite been able to shake the reputation that recent Pokémon titles are ugly, and while I don’t strictly agree with that assessment, some visual elements are too intrusive to ignore.
Object pop-in is extremely noticeable, especially when you’re blasting through the wilderness on a Ride Pokémon like Wyrdeer. Trees, grass and NPCs phase into existence mere meters from your character. Individual texture maps are large, making the seams between them occasionally noticeable. What’s more, there’s no anti-aliasing whatsoever. That’s a norm for Switch titles in general, but it makes object shimmering and the low-quality shadows supremely evident.
Pokémon Legends Arceus, I feel, absolutely does move the series in a positive direction. It’s managed to lift the games out of a near-decade of stagnancy, but I also think that there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and a lot of that comes down to management of the franchise and Nintendo’s ability to release more powerful hardware.
To that point, it’s likely that the next big Pokémon game will launch on the Switch, for better or worse. What’s also likely is that it will maintain a typically tight development cycle, given that the games do - unfortunately - have to stay on track with the Pokémon franchise as a whole. That includes merchandising and the ever-popular anime, neither of which wait for any man.
Pair this with the fact that Game Freak is still a relatively small, independent studio, and I imagine the developer continues to find itself in a difficult position - tasked with creating ever-more ambitious Pokémon games on a constant cycle. However, Pokémon Legends Arceus, in my mind, demonstrates that Game Freak is well up to the task of creating a truly excellent Pokémon game, but it’ll need some help from its benefactors before that happens.
As such, I expect the next big Pokémon game won’t leave quite as much of an impact as Legends has in the short term. I’d love to be wrong, but I do feel as if the series will once again go through the motions, at least for the next half-decade or so. I will of course still look forward to any future Pokémon titles - especially a Legends follow-up - but I’d love for a new Pokémon game to genuinely blow me away.