On the one hand, it’s radically different from how older Pokémon games are structured and played. On the other, it’s the most innovative and refreshing Pokémon game in years. Game Freak and the Pokémon community need to decide whether it’s a glorified spin-off that tests new ideas or the next step for the series’ future.
After spending several days heads-down in playing Pokémon Legends: Arceus, it’s clear that it’s both. Game Freak has lots of room to grow and expand Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ mechanics. With several regions and a series worth of dense lore to explore, it’d be a shame if the experiment stopped here. Game Freak is only getting started.
I play and enjoy Pokémon games every year, but even I can admit that the series had standardized by the late 2000s. Since then, the series has toyed with game-exclusive gimmicks, with Pokémon Sun and Moon’s trials being the most different from the norm.
Still, Game Freak never fully committed to abandoning the series’ traditional turn-based setup until now. Pokémon Legends: Arceus features no gyms, towns interconnected by routes, Pokémon abilities, multiplayer, or Pokémon League. Players are instead thrust into an ancient Sinnoh where a lot of that doesn’t exist yet. It plays with the concepts and power of godlike legendary Pokémon in one of the series’ best narratives, alongside Pokémon Black and White, and lets players roam free across five different open biomes, capturing and battling new and old Pokémon.
Some traditional Pokémon elements are here, but it pulls from open-world and RPG games like Monster Hunter World, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and even Death Stranding to create a lively, dense world that players have a lot of freedom to explore.
It feels fresh, even if it’s far from perfect. The visuals are terrible, noble Pokémon encounters and the satchel retrieval system don’t have a lot of depth to them, and the lack of multiplayer means fans of competitive Pokémon won’t pay much attention to the game. There’s a lot of work yet to come if Game Freak sticks with this formula.
While those issues are part of what has some fans conflicted about whether or not this should set a precedent for upcoming games to follow, it’s also one of the main reasons why Pokémon Legends: Arceus should be the genesis of Pokémon’s future. Game Freak moves slowly, implementing minor but ambitious changes with each new Pokémon game. Its work over the past decade allowed it to make this giant leap with Pokémon Legends: Arceus, but that now means were back to square one.
Game Freak needs time and support to flesh out all of the ideas established in Pokémon Legends: Arceus to make future games in this style much better, just as it improved on the formula established in Pokémon Red and Blue for over 25 years. With proper time and effort, experimental features can become more fleshed out.
But if this game is considered just a spin-off, then Game Freak might think it’s better to regress into the standard formula fans know and love. If that happens, we’re back to having fun but unambitious turn-based RPGs that only have one or two defining gimmicks to make them unique from the rest of the series.
For Game Freak to capitalize, it’ll need to find a way to bring requested features like multiplayer battles into the Legends format, bridging old and new. The release precedent set by Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl could give the developer the time it needs to sharpen the idea. As Game Freak works on a Pokémon Legends: Arceus follow-up possibly set in another region with dense lore like Johto, Unova, or Kalos, The Pokémon Company can fill the gap with more traditional remakes between Pokémon Legends entries. That release cadence could jumpstart a renaissance for the series.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus might be different from everything that came before it, but it should be lauded, not discredited for that. If it’s a blueprint for what’s to come, I’m the most excited I’ve been about Pokémon since it made the jump to 3D.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is available now on Nintendo Switch.
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