Pokémon Legends: Arceus — a video game that offers a fresh take on a stale franchise

“We know this,” says Professor Laventon in Pokemon Legends: Arceus“Pokémon are terrifying creatures.”

Really? They are? Even as a long-term devotee of the series, this is news to me. All Poké-fans know that the word “Pokémon” is an abbreviation of “pocket monsters”, but there has never been anything remotely monstrous about these cute dueling beasties. That is, until a couple of hours into this new game, when I’m ambushed by an enormous Snorlax with flaring red eyes and knocked out cold.

It comes as something of a shock. There is rarely a surprise in a mainline Pokémon game—if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. While The Pokémon Company has spun its IP into the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, encompassing movies, merchandise and trading cards, there has always been an uncomfortable tension in their video games: that they are supposedly about the joy of adventure, yet have proven remarkably unwilling to tread new ground for 25 years.

Back in the early Game Boy days, gaming worlds were crude, leaving players to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. The first Pokémon titles relied on potent fantasy storylines and the compelling gameplay loops of leveling up and collecting to draw in millions of fans. Yet as gaming technology evolved, the series never did. There were successful spin-offs — the augmented-reality Pokemon Goonline battle arena Pokemon Unitethe eccentric photo safari Pokemon Snap — but the mainline series has barely changed over eight generations of game development.

Perhaps this conservatism has been part of the series’ success. It wasn’t broke, so they didn’t fix it. Yet while Pokémon has never been broken, it did start to feel stale. Every child who grew up loving Pokémon holds in their hearts an ideal version of the game that they always wanted to exist, but never has. With Arceus, developer Game Freak is finally trying to do something new and envision what that might be. The gamble has paid off, with this release selling 6.5mn copies in its first week and becoming the fastest-selling Switch game of the series.

A large part of Arceus‘s novelty is its setting. You are cast as a standard-issue plucky anime teen, thrown back in time to a Poké-world modeled on feudal Japan. Seemingly unperturbed by this rift in the space-time continuum, you join the Galaxy Team working to study dangerous Pokémon in the wilderness. While in other games Pokémon and humans live in harmony, this title looks back to a time when Pokémon were still savage beasts, asking you to usher in a new age of coexistence.

On the surface you’re still doing the same things as ever: adventuring, assembling a team by catching wild Pokémon, trying to fill up the Pokédex encyclopedia by encountering every species. Yet how you do this feels thrillingly new. Game Freak has finally accepted that vast swaths of previous Pokémon games were crushingly tedious: the constant interruptions of menu screens, glacial scene transitions, the wearisome parade of Gym battles and random encounters.

Here, huge environments are yours to roam, while gameplay is seamless and fast-paced. Your Pokémon can battle while you attend to other tasks and you can dispatch Poké Balls with a quick button-press before continuing on your way. New gameplay mechanics are cribbed from popular genres, such as the focus on crafting items alongside stealth sections which demand players hide in that most ubiquitous of video game vegetation: conveniently located waist-high grass.

Great attention has been washed on the Pokémon themselves, which are beautifully animated, with personality to spare. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the world itself. While the influence of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and monster hunter is obvious in the open-ended exploration and epic hunts, this game lacks both their aesthetic imagination and technical polish. Instead, environments are ugly, empty and charmless. It’s shocking, given how much money The Pokémon Company has at its disposal, that ir would release a game that looks 15 years old. There’s certainly plenty to do here, and fun to be had while doing it, but it seems Game Freak forgot that they need to give players a world worth exploring.

Like Harry Potter and all the most successful franchises for younger audiences, Pokémon sells a dream, a world that children desperately want to be real. As a kid I yearned to make life-long friends with magical creatures, to actually feel like a Pokémon trainer by going on epic adventures with trusty familiars by my side. Arceus is not the Pokémon game I dream of, but it gets close. Game Freak has swapped the series’ aging skeleton for a promising new set of bones, creating a Pokémon game that feels fresh for the first time in over a decade. It achieved this by finally taking a leaf out of its own book — to make like a Pokémon and evolve.

‘Pokemon Legends: Arceus’ is out now on Nintendo Switch

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