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Pokemon Legends: Arceus Is A Stick Or Twist Moment

Pokemon Legends: Arceus has reviewed incredibly well, and by all accounts has lived up to its billing as one of the more ambitious and experimental titles in Pokemon’s recent catalogue. While the spin-offs have brought something new to the table, the main series games have stagnated. The only real exception there is Let’s Go, which many would count as a spin-off anyway. This leaves Pokemon with a big question – stick or twist?

Even 25 years on from Red & Blue, you get the feeling Pokemon is surprised by its own success. It does not operate like a traditional triple-A game. It has not even attempted to keep up graphically, and while the visuals aren’t the main draw in Pokemon, a series that makes this much money should be pushing the Switch’s capabilities a little more than it is. But it’s also married to the idea that ‘every Pokemon game could be someone’s first’, and while that’s technically true, I think Sword & Shield sold about 16 gazillion copies. Maybe I need to double check that figure. It’s a lot, anyway.

Undeniably, Game Freak is correct. In the most literal sense, every Pokemon game could be someone’s first. But as the most popular games series on the planet, you’d like to think the existing players would get a bit of consideration too. It’s like that weird period in the mid ‘00s when every company made offers for new customers only, then realised that meant everyone jumped ship after six months and instead invested ideas in keeping their current base.

Pokemon, of course, does not need to try that hard. Most of those 16 gazillion copies were bought by returning players, and many, like Pavlovian dogs, bought both versions. It’s not just that designing for newcomers means an extra long tutorial every time, it also means no sequels, no building on new ideas, no innovation. I’m yet to play Legends: Arceus myself, but it sounds like innovation is a core building block. Yes, there is probably a tutorial that runs a bit long, and no, it’s not quite the true open-world format many were hoping for, but it’s not just the same Pokemon game, and that’s important.

For the record, I’ve always said I’d like it to feel more Genshin Impact than Breath of the Wild, with busier, enclosed regions rather than a massive map, and that the Monster Hunter structure it seemed to be adopting was the right move. For that reason, I’m relieved it didn’t go all out with a massive open world that Pokemon’s development ethos might not have been able to handle. Pokemon likes to hold your hand, and dropping you in the centre of Hyrule then saying ‘off you go, do whatever,’ is the exact opposite of that. Legends: Arceus seems to be a healthy middle ground.

Progress comes from the healthy middle ground. Fans ask for the Earth, developers say “not quite, but how’s this?”, and game by game series develop in new ways. With Uncharted 4 fresh in my mind thanks to its recent remaster, you only need to look at how far the series has come from the first game. It’s still Uncharted, it’s just bigger, better. There are more things you can do, more ways to explore the world, more ideas flowing into it. Pokemon, by far a bigger series than Uncharted, might look a bit better than it did ten years ago, but the ideas are the same.

And Uncharted is the rule, not the exception. Pick any triple-A series with a handful of releases in the past 15 years and you’ll see progress heading in a steady upwards direction. Pokemon is just a flat line. Legends: Arceus might be the defibrillator ready to bring it back to life.

Legends: Arceus is not more of the same, but already the question is ‘what next?’. Let’s Go was less different than Legends, being Pokemon Yellow meets Pokemon Go, but it was still a change of direction. It was followed by Sword & Shield and Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl – two very safe Pokemon games.

We know nothing of Gen 9 yet. We have no idea where it might take us or what new ideas it might introduce. But it needs to follow Legends’ footsteps. It doesn’t need to be an old region revisited or a Monster Hunter structure – in fact, just copying Legends only sets up this problem to reappear later down the line – but it needs to do something. Pokemon has been playing with house money for a long time. Sooner or later, it needs to place a risky bet.

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