The Pokémon franchise of today is at a crossroads. On one hand, the series has long been mired in tradition, afraid to make drastic changes to the formula, while on the other, there has been a desire to push the series in a new direction. The upcoming titles in the franchise, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, as well as Pokémon Legends: Arceus, represent this crossroads; one pair of games is stuck in the past, extremely faithful remakes of games from 2006, while the other is a radical departure from the tried-and-true Pocket Monsters formula we are all so familiar with, taking the series into a truly open world for the first time.
Look, I love Pokémon just as much as the next guy. Pokémon Red & Blue were games that shaped who I am as a gamer to this day. I was inducted into Game Freak’s cult of Pocket Monsters at the impressionable age of seven years old, and the excitement as I unboxed my Game Boy Color on Christmas morning and hunted down its accompanying games still washes over me whenever I feel nostalgic for times long past.
All these years later, on the eve of my 30th birthday, I am still a loyal fan of Game Freak’s monster-collecting franchise, and while I do not have the single-minded obsession with it that I had as a child, I still look forward to each new installment. I love the thrill of exploring a new region and hunting down rare or legendary Pokémon. I love the feeling of setting out on an adventure with my starter Pokémon and building a team of loyal companions. Hell, I even love the oftentimes simplistic and campy narratives that drive the plot of each game.
But I will not let my nostalgia blind me into thinking that Game Freak can do no wrong with the Pokémon franchise. As the title of this feature indicates, this article is not to gush over the legacy that Pokémon has created. I do, however, want to say that it is fine if you enjoy Pokémon in its current form. There is nothing wrong with that. If you love the games for what they are, that is absolutely fine. But if this is your mindset, I want to ask you a question: should Game Freak settle for just “fine?” Do you think other developers settle for “just fine?” Or do you think they are constantly challenging themselves to push beyond previously established boundaries?
Yes, I know that Pokémon Legends: Arceus exists; and yes, I know that it looks freaking awesome. But let me rant about my frustrations with the current series before I gush over what I love about this new entry and what it represents for the future.
Pokémon has not traditionally been known for risk taking—at least, not in its mainline titles. While Game Freak has certainly made moves to balance and refine the series’ flagship battle system into what it is today, they have preserved (perhaps to a T) the essence of what makes a Pokémon game. Despite the new gimmicks introduced with each generation, every new entry into the Pokémon series is the same old beater car with a fresh coat of paint at its core—and it doesn’t take long for that paint to start chipping to reveal the rust bucket underneath.
Most Pokémon games are linear by design. You set out on an adventure to collect eight gym badges and become the best trainer in all the land. There may be more open-ended exploration between towns, but your destination is dictated not by you, the player, but by where Game Freak wants you to go. Parts of the world are gated off until you reach a certain threshold, and while there have been some efforts made to open things up a bit in recent titles, it is simply not enough—especially not when massive, open-world adventure games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild exist.
Even the most open-air titles in the series to date, 2019’s Pokémon Sword and Shield, fluctuate between a series of highs and lows. The Wild Area, an expansive open area where the camera is freely controllable for the first time ever in a mainline Pokémon game, gates progress until you have earned a certain number of gym badges. While you can encounter strong Pokémon, you cannot capture them until you hit a certain level threshold. Outside of the Wild Area, there are linear routes between towns that have a single entrance and exit with little-to-no exploration involved in navigating them. It is frustrating to have such limits placed on you as a player after getting a taste of what Pokémon could be, if only Game Freak would let it be so.
Perhaps the worst part is the immense potential that the series has to become something even more special than it already is. We have seen Pokémon RPGs in the past that are not afraid to shirk conventions and try new things, and they were some of the most fun games I have ever played. Look at Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness for perfect examples. These games have stories at their hearts while preserving the traditional battle formula from previous games. Still, they take creative liberties like limiting players to double battles (an interesting strategic decision that gets players to think creatively about party synergy and strategies) and controlling which Pokémon you have access to at any given point (challenging players by limiting resources and encouraging them to get creative to solve tough battles). So, if we can get Pokémon games like these, why can’t we get others in a similar vein?
It might sound like I’m being harsh about your favorite franchise, and that is because I am. It’s also MY favorite franchise, and it is crucial to think critically about the things that we care about. I want to see Pokémon evolve (no pun intended) in a way that it hasn’t before. I want the series to grow up in the same way that its older player base has. It’s great to keep it kid-friendly, but come on, give older players something more substantial to chew on.
All that said, I am all for giving credit where credit is due. The Wild Area of Sword and Shield was a big change for Game Freak to implement, and there are certainly going to be growing pains that come from transforming a traditionally linear experience into a more open one. For example, look at the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLC; both offer more freedom in exploration, the kind of freedom that the main game could have benefited from. There are more ‘Mons to find, more items to collect, and more areas to get lost in. It’s a clear-cut improvement over the Wild Area, however slight.
Thankfully, it appears that Game Freak has wised up a bit and is now actively working toward creating a future that not only preserves what has cemented Pokémon in the minds of gamers worldwide, but seeks to expand upon it and create something entirely new. I am talking, of course, about the upcoming titles in the Pokémon series: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl and Pokémon Legends: Arceus, both of which were initially revealed during the February 2021 Pokémon Presents presentation and later expanded upon this August.
I would argue that the recently announced remakes of 2006’s Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, aptly named Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, would fit in the previously mentioned “just fine” category and certainly are not huge risks by any stretch of the imagination. They appear to be 1-1 remakes, very similar to the remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening that we received on the Nintendo Switch in 2019, even adopting a similar chibi-esque art style that is reminiscent of the pixel art of old. Now, I absolutely adored Diamond and Pearl back in the day, and even I was like, “What am I looking at?” when I saw the announcement trailer. I’ll admit, I was expecting something a bit more in the vein of Sword and Shield, with the scope of Sinnoh fully realized in a 3D environment.
Which is why I just about lost my mind when I saw Pokémon Legends: Arceus.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus represents a notable shift for Game Freak, one that I doubt anyone saw coming. Legends: Arceus takes place in Sinnoh’s distant past in a region called Hisui, a wild landscape where people and Pokémon still live separate lives from each other. The player character is responsible for creating the region’s first Pokédex. Suffice to say, this is the open-world Pokémon game that fans of the series have wanted for all these years. At least, it has the potential to be, with an infinitely more exciting premise than “Go here, beat up some Gym Leaders, and become the very best.” Whether it lives up to the hype or not has yet to be determined.
The footage from the announcement trailer had many folks worried. It was clearly quite early in development at that point, as textures appeared simple and uncomplicated, and Pokémon roaming around the wilds of Sinnoh did so at astonishingly low framerates. Thankfully, these fears seem to be alleviated thanks to the most recent Pokémon Presents presentation, which showed the game running much better.
What’s more, the presentation also detailed some of the changes to the battle system and gameplay loop that was, up until now, so familiar to players. Legends: Arceus appears to borrow certain elements from other action-adventure games. Pokémon can and will attack your player character, and if you suffer too much damage, you will black out as if all of your party Pokémon lost all their health. There is also a new system in place using attack styles: Strong Style and Agile Style. By default, Pokémon take turns in order based on their stats, but you can influence this by using these styles. Strong Style increases the power of your attacks but slows down your turn speeds, whereas Agile style does the opposite, decreasing the power while boosting your turn speeds.
All of this said, I am extremely hopeful that Legends: Arceus gets the attention it deserves for being such a major departure from what Pokémon is and always has been. The biggest reason that I am so hopeful for Legends: Arceus is also why I am most concerned: it is being developed by Game Freak. While I am glad that Game Freak has given the reigns of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl to ILCA so they can focus on innovating and making Legends: Arceus the best game it can possibly be, I just hope that they don’t play this entry too safe. This is the most considerable risk the franchise has taken in a very long time, and I hope it pays off in spades. If done correctly, Legends: Arceus could show Game Freak that branching out and taking some risks every now and then can not only be a good thing, but also breathe life back into a franchise that has remained stagnant for the past two decades.
I can’t even fathom the fanbase’s reaction if Pokémon Legends: Arceus were not announced alongside Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Imagine the vitriol that would have been spewed across the Internet, accusing Game Freak of being lazy developers. While some of that certainly still exists, I, for one, am extremely excited by the immense potential that Legends: Arceus presents for the franchise, and I am waiting with bated breath to see more about this game before it launches on Friday, January 28th, 2022.