Now that we know Pokemon Legends works, the next game could incorporate mainline features like abilities and breeding, plus accessibility options.
As Game Freak revisits the Generation IV Pokemon games with the remake “Pokemon Shining Pearl” and the prequel “Pokemon Legends: Arceus,” the franchise is at a crossroads. Is it time for the series to change?
“Shining Pearl” was certainly controversial when it was released on Nov. 19, 2021. It’s a competent game in a vacuum, but as a remake of Generation IV, it’s an unambitious sidegrade instead of an upgrade. For every interesting addition like the Grand Underground, it subtracted something else, including quality-of-life and story improvements added to Sinnoh in “Pokemon Platinum.” That’s not even mentioning the lifeless visuals and admittedly hilarious glitches.
I’ve had fun with the last couple Pokemon games. I haven’t loved them, though, and the Switch has seen some of the franchise’s worst. When other Nintendo franchises reinvented themselves with games like “Super Mario Odyssey,” Pokemon RPGs stagnated. It felt like Game Freak was going through the motions, releasing a half-baked game every holiday season knowing we’d buy it (which, based on sales numbers, we did).
“Shining Pearl” represented Pokemon needing to change its formula. Three months later, “Legends: Arceus” was released, marking the franchise’s biggest departure yet. While developer ILCA was assigned to create “Shining Pearl” and lessen the workload, Game Freak used that extra time to polish “Legends: Arceus” – and it paid off.
“Legends: Arceus” expands on Sinnoh’s mythology by taking place 100 years ago, when Sinnoh was known as the Hisui region. Longstanding questions about the Pokemon universe are finally answered in a surprisingly interesting story with likable characters. Compared to the happy-go-lucky main series games, the danger of sending teenagers to fight godlike creatures is frequently addressed, which feels more tonally appropriate and leads to some genuinely funny dialogue.
One might assume “Legends: Arceus” is open-world due to its obvious visual inspiration and crafting mechanics from “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” However, it’s structured more like the Monster Hunter series, in which players leave a base village to explore wide but unconnected maps. By no means is that a bad thing, but it helps to start the game with that expectation.
Rather than challenging the Pokemon League, “Legends: Arceus” centers around documenting Hisui’s first Pokedex. Dex entries aren’t completed just by catching Pokemon, but also by doing research tasks, observing their behavior and interactions. These tasks are satisfying to complete and encourage different tactics, hinting at evolution methods or catching strategies. Aggressive Pokemon like Shinx must be fought, while timid Pokemon like Wurmple will flee unless you approach stealthily.
Players advance at their own pace, tackling story missions or exploring for research. In fact, completing research tasks progresses the player’s star rank, which unlocks better crafting recipes and higher-level catches. By the time I fought the first boss, Kleavor, I’d spent ten hours observing everything the Obsidian Fieldlands had to offer, reached fifth-star rank and caught several Pokemon above level 40. For reference, Kleavor is level 18.
Surprisingly, “Legends: Arceus” remains a fair challenge even if you’re over leveled. Multiple wild Pokemon can cooperate, and strong Alpha Pokemon can devastate you instantly. Pokemon can upgrade attacks to agile or strong styles that give tactical advantages. These leave you vulnerable if not used carefully, and wild Pokemon can also use them. Paying attention and playing strategically is the only thing saving you from death by a thousand Bidoofs.
Any game in which basic movement is fun automatically has value to me, and “Legends: Arceus” fits that criteria. Players can dodge attacks, sneak up behind Pokemon for backstrikes and instantly switch between Noble Pokemon to ride on. Throwing items determines your strategy against wild Pokemon; you can throw food to distract them, instantly throw a Poke Ball or send out one of your Pokemon to seamlessly initiate combat.
The remixed music in “Shining Pearl” had mixed quality; with some exceptions, the overworld themes were excellent while the battle themes were mediocre. Thankfully, “Legends: Arceus” excels in both categories. Along with some incredible boss themes, the trainer and wild battle themes are easily the best we’ve had since Generation V. Sinnoh always had strong leitmotifs, which are effectively reinvented through Hisui’s music.
“Legends: Arceus” is the first Pokemon game I’ve loved since “Pokemon Moon” was released over five years ago. With that said, should Pokemon Legends completely replace the previous formula? Absolutely not. Even though I haven’t loved a new Pokemon game for some time, I’m still more than capable of having fun with this formula, and there are valid reasons to keep it around besides my own nostalgia.
Prior to the Sinnoh remake and prequel’s release, I replayed “Pokemon Platinum” over summer 2021 and I had a blast. I still vividly remember my team and the memorable stories I made with them, from seeing Porygon’s adorable back sprite for the first time to an epic showdown of my Magmortar against Volkner’s Electivire. Despite having grown up, I can still enjoy Pokemon the way I did as a child.
As an action game, “Legends: Arceus” isn’t accessible to everyone. Accessibility in Pokemon is often conflated with its low difficulty, but even easy games become impossible when they don’t accommodate players’ needs. Mainline Pokemon games don’t require precise timing and have simple controls, which makes them more accessible for disabled players. They aren’t perfectly accessible – visual and audio accessibility would be much appreciated – but they’re more accessible than “Legends: Arceus.”
Both of these series should continue adding accessibility options. One of the most underrated additions to “Pokemon Shield” allowed for single-handed play; it surprisingly didn’t return in “Shining Pearl,” but it should absolutely return in Generation IX. As for Pokemon Legends, games like “Ratchet and Clank: Rifts Apart” have proven that extensive accessibility menus in action games aren’t just possible: they need to become industry standard.
The mainline games have broad appeal, but Pokemon Legends can tell more ambitious stories across time periods. Will there be more period pieces, like a 70’s martial arts story about Mustard, Opal and Peony challenging the Galar Champion Cup in their youth? If we’re exploring the past, then why not the future? Could we ever see the alternate universes that “Pokemon Ultra Moon” introduced in which evil team leaders succeed?
The most exciting concept I can think of would involve the Kalos region – not because I love Kalos, but precisely because I don’t love it. “Pokemon Y” had a bland story, minimal mythology and generic store-brand characters (whose names I only remember because I store Pokemon trivia in the part of my brain meant for math skills). Pokemon Legends could give Kalos a rich history on par with Hisui.
Mainline Pokemon games and Pokemon Legends should coexist and learn from each other. The mainline games can introduce new regions with simple controls, while incorporating the fair difficulty curve and engaging content of “Legends: Arceus.” Meanwhile, Pokemon Legends can expand existing locations with ambitious stories. Now that we know Pokemon Legends works, the next game could incorporate mainline features like abilities and breeding, plus accessibility options.
Neither of these formulas are bad, but the recent mainline games stagnated because of crunch. These games release like clockwork to meet the holiday rush, and “Legends: Arceus” only avoided that trap because ILCA took on “Shining Pearl.” However, if Pokemon games will sell well regardless, they have nothing to lose by skipping holiday releases. Give the developers enough time and healthy working conditions, and the games will improve.
“Legends: Arceus” is an extremely promising start to a new subseries of Pokemon games. However, if Game Freak takes valuable lessons about what worked from this game, then Generation IX could be even better. For the love of Arceus, though, please don’t release it until at least 2024.
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Sean Mullins (she/they) is the managing editor and webmaster for the Journal, formerly the opinions editor during the 2021/2022 school year. She is a media studies major and professional writing minor at Webster University, but she's participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Her passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment mediums. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club. She enjoys playing games, spending time with friends, LGBTQ+ and disability advocacy, streaming, making terrible puns and listening to music.