Hot Take: Pokémon Legends Arceus is set to be the most important Pokémon game yet
Nintendo's looking to reinvent the mainline Pokémon RPG formula, and boy is it about time.
Right off the bat, let's set the record straight. I'm a fairly big Pokémon fan, but I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore one in any sense. I've played all of the mainline RPGs, and even a collection of the spinoff games, but I really couldn't care less about the anime or any of the wider Pokémon universe. Regardless, when it comes to the games, I have a wealth of experience to pull from, an experience that like a lot of people, I have been accumulating ever since I was very young, and because of that I have a variety of opinions on where Game Freak has been taking the franchise over its history. Some positive. Some not so much.
But, why am I bringing all of this up? Well last week marked the launch of the latest mainline Pokémon RPG: Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl, and following a week of mucking about, catching a variety of pocket monsters and filling up the Pokédex, I've been left with the same bittersweet taste that I've been experiencing ever since Black and White debuted in 2010, which is that none of the games have quite offered a better RPG than what HeartGold/SoulSilver brought to the table in 2009.
I truly believe that the dual-region serving at the tail end of Generation IV was the best RPG that The Pokémon Company has ever delivered. It featured the best of the Johto region, and then complimented it with an endgame serving that tasked you with tackling the Kanto region. This part was almost like a brand-new adventure, except you got to bring your powerful team along for the ride for a doubly-difficult challenge where trainers and gym leaders offered vastly higher-level Pokémon to have to battle with. This sprawling adventure reimagined Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal, and offered a truly memorable take on the RPGs that at this point in time had become immeasurably iconic in the games industry.
When looking back now, HeartGold/SoulSilver does lack in the more modern improvements that are perhaps not celebrated enough these days. The Wild Area in Sword/Shield offered a new way to catch Pokémon with more freedom than before, and the addition of Mega Evolution in X and Y made battling even more exciting, despite the fact that it's since fallen by the wayside. So, to be clear HeartGold/SoulSilver wasn't perfect in any sense, but when we look at the ways that Pokémon RPGs have changed over the past decade for example, it's hard to not see the late Gen4 games as the peak of what Game Freak has offered.
As of late, Pokémon games have been getting easier and easier. Not so much in the manner of the battling or the strategy involved (if you think this is so, it's probably down to your knowledge of the games being far vaster), but in the ways that you explore and tackle the RPG systems at its core.
Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl has a bunch of mechanics that limit how we approach a Pokémon RPG, be it the unremovable Exp. Share, or the guide in your options that tells you specifically where to go and what to do. Now I don't believe that these are bad design choices to include, but the lack of a player having the choice to utilise them compromises the integrity of the RPG, as there are less and less options to tackle the game as you please. And this is particularly obvious in Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl as there are very few ways to approach the game without doing exactly what it wants you to do, exactly when it wants you to do it, which is a massive step back compared to the more free nature of Sword/Shield, which looked to shatter this with its Wild Area and more open world design.
But the real reason for this 'Hot Take' is that the way we enjoy video games, and what they can bring to the table has advanced since 2009, and yet HeartGold/SoulSilver still feels like one of the most entertaining entries we've seen. It was the last game to offer up more than one region (granted Gold/Silver/Crystal should be credited for this), but it also gave us the Pokéwalker for anyone who wanted their adventure to feel more physical in nature. Sure as far as devices go, it wasn't exactly ground-breaking, but it was something unique and that should be commended.
Mainline Pokémon RPGs are falling into a lull of being overly safe, and Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl is the most blatant example of this, even if the signs have been there for some time. While I've played every Pokémon RPG since 2009, none of the games or their worlds have quite left me with the same renewed feeling as what was delivered beforehand, even if I do think the new features in Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee (bringing Pokémon to the overworld and the Poke Ball Plus) and Sword/Shield is on the right track to rectify this.
But Pokémon Legends Arceus has a weight on its shoulder like very few Pokémon games before it. It's seemingly a vastly different RPG that could signal the start of a new era of Pokémon if it goes down well. If not, I fear we're in for another decade or so of the same linear, repetitive RPGs that we've been offered since Pokémon first stormed onto the scene in 1996. Game Freak knows how to make a fundamentally great game, but these headlining RPGs can be so much more, and they should be so much more. Especially since Pokémon is arguably Nintendo's most recognisable franchise these days, even if Mario and Co. will fight till the death to argue against that.
With the sheer resources that The Pokémon Company has, I find it shocking that the RPGs are so similar at their core each year, and that's precisely why I think Legends Arceus could be the most important Pokémon game ever. TPC don't have to take risks because fans will buy the games regardless of feedback and limited evolution, but Legends Arceus is a risk, one that could backfire, or rather could change the way we see this series as we work through the 2020s. I truly hope this game delivers because I'm not sure I'm ready for a remake of X and Y, or Black and White, which is most likely on the cards following the sales of Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl. So here's to hoping that Game Freak and TPC can round out Generation VIII with a game unlike anything before, a game that could be the spark to reignite the slowly dimming flame that are mainline Pokémon RPGs.