At first blush, Pokémon Legends: Arceus sounds like a lot of things to me. It could be a feature film or a collection of anime shorts. It could be a mobile title, or maybe the official name for a hot new Pokémon Trading Card Game expansion. Heck, I’d sooner think it’s MOBA than something direct from Game Freak themselves, revealed in tandem with Generation 4 remakes Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl.
But nope. That’s exactly what this is. The question, then, is do we classify this as a mainline installment or the closest thing a Pokémon spinoff game has ever come to one? Watch the reveal trailer below and decide for yourselves, my friends.
“This is a tale from a long, long time ago,” the announcer states. “When the Sinnoh region was still a vast wilderness.” Her voice is accompanied by a style of dulcet piano tones that, even four years later, it’s hard for me not to associate with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Your humble writer cannot help but wonder if this was intentional. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is introduced to us with parchment illustrations that feel distinctly Japanese, and distinctly 16th-century Japanese at that.
Arceus tells the tale of a time when Sinnoh was wild, with harsher environments teeming with more of the beloved critters than ever before. In light of the regional lore, we’re already familiar with courtesy of Diamond & Pearl, this is surely an era in which people and Pokémon are less intertwined. That alone is an exciting prospect, a twist on the familiar formula from the past 25 years.
It’s not long before the trailer starts taking a less painterly approach, offering fans a first look at the game’s graphics. If I’m being honest here, some of the visuals strike me as not a whole lot better than the worst textures we saw in Sword & Shield. Clearly, Game Freak continues to sacrifice a certain fullness of visual fidelity to grant us wide-open spaces. Other parts, however — the player character overlooking a distant mountain at the edge of a cliff; the late-afternoon sky; the ninja-like front-flip animation when the trainer dives into stealthy grass — are rather beautiful to behold.
And make no mistake, the stealthy dives are part of the package. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is an “action RPG adventure,” and we see it in the effort to make catching a more dynamic experience and battling a faster and more visceral affair. (Speaking of catching, can we talk about that amazing ancient-style Poké Ball? I haven’t been as hip on one of these since ye olde GS Ball.) At one point, the trainer sends out their Lucario in a lightning-swift motion. That poor Staravia barely knew what kicked it.
There’s a central focus in this trailer on a sense of exploration deep within the wilderness, with periodic stops to show us what may be the game’s sole settlement, a village recently founded by travelers from faraway lands. One of the more surprising things from this fairly surprising game announcement is that your starters are not, in fact, the Sinnoh trio. Rather than repeat Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl, trainers will instead be given their choice of a Rowlet, Cyndaquil, or Oshawott. If I were to take a guess here, this reinforces the fact that Sinnoh is an unfamiliar land and you’re among the first to arrive upon its shores.
No Pokémon game is complete without a big legendary species to imbue it all with a pervading mystery
and sell people with cool box art, and it’s only natural that Pokémon Legends: Arceus elects Arceus to fill the role. A stormy CG sky introduces us to the fabled deity among deities, a suitable stopping point before the early 2022 release window reveal.
It’s hard to criticize Game Freak for playing it safe this time around. Between the highly-anticipated remakes and the better-late-than-never Pokémon Snap sequel, I would have already felt satisfied. But Pokémon Legends: Arceus is clearly the start of something new, something bold and unexpected, rooted in the old and offering fans a genuinely fresh feeling in this storied series: unfamiliarity.