Pokemon Legends: Arceus – Putting the Breaks on a Certain Comparison
If you were anywhere that is somewhere near online Pokemon chitter-chatter this past Friday, February 26th, you may have heard about the new ‘open-world’ Pokemon game, Pokemon Legends: Arceus. This new entry into the series, announced during the Nintendo Direct-esque, celebratory 20-minute ‘Pokemon Presents’ video that aired on the same day (and which included a sleek introduction highlighting Pokemon’s 25-year history of infiltrating virtually all aspects of popular entertainment that is worth watching and even re-watching for nostalgia’s sake), was immediately billed by nearly all corners of the Pokewebs as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild-meets-Pokemon!
Finally! The game we Pokemon trainers have been waiting for two decades to play! A truly open-world Pokemon game where you traverse large swathes of exciting landscapes, consisting of incredibly diverse fauna and your favorite Pokemon critters hiding amidst crisp, swaying(!) — realistic-looking! — tall grass! There’s just one problem:
That’s not the game that I saw or heard about during the ‘Pokemon Presents’ reveal.
But allow me to first backtrack briefly. I wholly confess that in my ripe age of 33 I have grown somewhat sour on the Pokemon series, and even more skeptical in my belief that Game Freak is a developer really capable of realizing the franchise’s full potential, let alone a game that belongs in the same sentence as Breath of the Wild (come on, people). Putting aside that Game Freak’s last best effort was Little Town Hero (a game that I cannot fairly criticize as I never played it, but can point out that it currently sits at a 64% on Metacritic, for what it’s worth), I expect reviews next year for Pokemon Legends: Arceus to be more or less on par with that strange title than anything involving rupees, Master Swords, or Monolith Soft-assisted open-worlds (the brilliant team behind the excellent Xenoblade Chronicles series also had a hand in crafting 2017’s iteration of Hyrule’s mind-boggling expanse). Ahem, excuse me, I again get ahead of myself.
Why do I sound almost bitter about the reveal of (or rather, the subsequent reactions toward) Pokemon Legends: Arceus? To make a long story short, this classic fall-from-grace saga begins just over 20 years ago, when I was an 11-year old lad playing Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow (yes, I owned all three at some point back then), totally addicted to the craze, sporting Ash Ketchum’s hat everywhere I went, a small Pikachu figurine always propped up on my shoulder to emulate the furry little rodent’s relationship to its trainer as depicted in the anime (if you think I am being hyperbolic, my mother’s photo albums from all those years ago still bear the proof of my utter devotion to the franchise).
Yet, over the next few years, as each, shall we say, ‘evolution’ of the game came along, I began to lose interest… entirely. After nearly fifteen years in which I did not touch a single Pokemon product sans Black version on the DS (gifted by a friend), and reinvigorated as a gamer in general due to the release of the Nintendo Switch and the incredible entries of the mainline Zelda and Mario games that same year, I had high hopes for Sword and Shield. Very high hopes. These were riding the coattails of the Let’s Go games, which, though they didn’t break any radically new ground, were lovely and faithful remakes of the Game Boy classics and proved that Game Freak was actually both capable and willing to take some intriguing risks with the core gameplay mechanics.
Then Sword and Shield came out. I walked in a Sapporo blizzard to my nearest game store and, after brushing up on my Japanese, politely asked the woman behind the counter, ‘Pokemon Soudo wa arimasuka?’ I nailed the line on my first attempt, and understanding me fully, she sent me home with the game and a cool Sobble keychain. I couldn’t have been happier… until I actually played Pokemon Sword.
This isn’t a review or a critique of those games, but let me just say, I wasn’t impressed. From the dull writing, the linear design of the Galar region — excepting the minimal effort placed into the creation of the ‘Wild Area’ — the silly, cheapened look of the new Pokemon, etc., that is, all those things that others have pointed out countless times before, to claim that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I swore off Pokemon forever, and vowed that so long as it was in Game Freak’s hands I would never, never again give in to the hype and buy another Pokemon game.
Before you write off what I am going to (finally!) suggest about Pokemon Legends: Arceus, let me confess to one more thing: I absolutely love the cutesy look of the newly announced Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remakes. I never played the originals, and yes, while I expect them to essentially be the same Pokemon games I once-loved-but-have-since-grown-to… well, I won’t say hate, because I don’t think these latest remakes could lack all heart and soul as much as I felt that Sword and Shield did, their art style still looks preposterously charming — like it belongs somewhere between the gem that was Harvest Moon 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake. Ah, but my confession: I’m probably going to buy Brilliant Diamond. But I didn’t break my vow! Development for these 2021 holiday stocking stuffers is apparently being (partially) handled by ILCA Inc. (who?). So, um… it’s all good, right? RIGHT?!
Okay, with all of that out of the way, let me get back to Pokemon Legends: Arceus and boldly declare: This is not going to be the open-world Pokemon game people have long, painfully — nay, vainfully — dreamt about. It’s not going to be Breath of the Wild-meets-Pokemon. Set aside the questionable visuals (let’s be honest, the Bandai Namco-developed New Pokemon Snap looks WAAAY better) or frame rate concerns that have arisen from the trailer; after all, they still have one year to fix all of that (one year?! Seriously?!). Just take it from the narrator of the ‘Pokemon Presents’ video when she was introducing the new game:
‘The events in this game unfold in the Sinnoh of old… In this era people have journeyed to Sinnoh from all over and founded a prosperous village in the hope of learning more about this land… With the village as your base, you’ll venture out to the different corners of the region on your quest to complete Sinnoh’s very first Pokedex.’
Did you catch it (all)? This new Pokemon game takes place long ago in the past… meaning not only are there going to be a lot of absent Pokemon (and angry consumers), but the world is also going to be very… bare. No towns and villages to travel between as in Breath of the Wild or other truly open-world games that capture the sense of adventure and immersion we’re all yearning for from Pokemon. No, this game will have one central village, the main hub, and a wild area surrounding it in which you will be tasked to go out and catch Pokemon, and then return to the hub for updated challenges.
Now granted, I am somewhat speculating here, but what else am I supposed to take from the above quote, and the fact that they are planning to release this game in one year? Sure, it could be delayed, and hopefully it will be if it means improving upon what I suspect will be the outcome, but as it stands, I don’t think this is going to even offer the traditional adventure elements of the old Pokemon games!
My hunch is that the Pokemon Company analyzed the online data of people playing Sword and Shield and figured, hey, people spend a lot of time in the ‘Wild Area’, why not make a game that is just a wild area and nothing more? And this is what I believe we are getting. But in Pokemon’s case, under the direction of Game Freak, the world of Pokemon Legends: Arceus will not be anywhere near the size of Breath of the World’s Hyrule. I’m willing to bet that it will not be nearly as interesting, or offer anything like the addicting gameplay-loops and distractions of Zelda either.
And with what sounds to be but one single town at the center of it all, I have an aching concern that the current hype about an ‘open-world Pokemon game’ is going to once again turn into all-too predictable disappointment over what will amount to another gimmicky addition — albeit one that still manages to sell millions of copies and ensures the continuation of the series’ ongoing mediocrity.
Of course, in a year’s time, I hope to be proven wrong about all of this and to appear a fool. But for now, at least, can we please stop invoking Breath of the Wild as if we have seen or heard anything up to this point that justifies such a lofty comparison?