Good news: The Pokémon franchise might have finally been saved.
Not that it was really in danger, in a technical sense; Pokémon remains one of the biggest media entities in the world. But after spending more than a dozen hours running around the open world of the franchise’s newest Nintendo Switch game, Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I feel like my old Pokémon Master self again. The itch to dive back into this exciting, expansive game as soon as I have a free moment is something I haven’t felt with a Pokémon game in years—which seems fitting, because Legends is unlike any other entry in the series 25 year-plus history to date.
When the Pokémon games first made the jump from Nintendo’s handheld systems to the more versatile Switch, they began to lose their luster. The series’ youthful, playful energy was replaced with a hollow imitation of itself, as if the Switch games were Steve Buscemi saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?” to its players. The first Switch attempts, Let’s Go, Eevee! and Let’s Go, Pikachu!, copied the basic, newcomer-friendly gameplay of the Pokémon Go mobile game in an effort to draw its massive following toward the newest Nintendo hardware. While some of these changes were exciting, like allowing wild Pokémon to be spotted in the overworld so as to more easily engage or avoid them, its Go-like simplicity rendered it a forgettable blip in the series canon.
Pokémon Sword and Shield, the eighth-generation entries in the main game series, was a similarly limiting experience, combining graphical and gameplay overhauls with a strange emptiness that permeated the all-important world for us to adventure in. I’d never found a Pokémon game in to be so lifeless before, but these were full of wide-open areas underpopulated with Pokémon, with a storyline that burned out fast to boot. Sword and Shield highlighted what could have been an insurmountable issue for the series: maintaining the core sense of wonder. When Pokémon lived exclusively on handhelds, the system allowed the imagination to color in the rich world we knew existed just outside of screen. Visual details were easier to execute because the windows of focus were so small, but when the game gets the big boy hardware treatment, there’s a hell of a lot more screen to color in—and, in this pair’s case, not enough inspiration for our imaginations to help do that work.
In the interim, there have been other Pokémon games on Switch, several of which returned to old ideas with varying levels of success. March 2021’s New Pokémon Snap took the Nintendo 64 original and brightened it up with luscious landscapes in which to photograph hundreds of Pokémon. On the other side of the spectrum, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were lackluster remakes of the Nintendo DS fourth-generation entries, adding no modern innovation to 15-year-old games. They were so bare-bones that they left me wondering if Pokémon had gone to a joyless, money-grabbing place it could not come back from.
That brings us to Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which is both the culmination of the brand’s Switch experimentation and a clear template for the series’ best direction forward. It is unlike any of the previous entries in the franchise, let alone on Switch, forgoing the traditional “catch ’em all” formula for an altogether new focus. Legends instead juggles numerous genres, from stealth to action, without sacrificing the core of what makes Pokémon so special—a difficult endeavor that it accomplishes with more success than a weary, wary fan like myself could have expected.
Legends is about a young trainer thrown through space and time to an ancient region and their efforts to help the people of the region solve the mystery of the space-time rifts that have appeared in their world. The gameplay is like if you threw the Pokémon and Monster Hunter series in a pot together; there’s rudimentary item-gathering and crafting, lots of sneaking around to hunt wild Pokémon, and a mix of turn- and action-based fights. Exploration is the main focus here, more than battling and collecting; it’s so much of a priority that wild Pokémon are just as inclined to attack you, the human trainer following them around, as they are other monsters.
Having the choice to either sneak around in the grass, in an effort to catch the wild Pokémon unseen, or throw out your own Pokémon to engage in battle is a fresh twist, as are the battles themselves. On top of the standard turn-based battle system are new moves that either strengthen or speed up your monster for one turn, which makes every battle feel a bit less predictable. And even disengaging from battle is fun; instead of rolling the dice hoping your Pokémon would run away, you can immediately call them back and start running away on your own two feet, hoping that the monster doesn’t catch up with you and pummel you into submission. These added levels of excitement—and fear—throw a welcome dose of vivid realism into the game.
The realism doesn’t fully carry over to the story, which is what I’d expect from a Pokémon game. But its anime-adjacent absurdity refreshingly shifts away from the conceit of “defeat these eight gym leaders and stop an evil crime syndicate as a child.” Instead, Legends stars a bevy of new characters with different interpersonal conflicts, motivations, and secrets. Completing tasks and requests for them helps give the central hub town, Jubilife Village, more of a sense of place and style than the entirety of Sword and Shield had. In other words, it gives Jubilife Village … well, life—to a degree which no previous Pokémon console game could achieve.
As an open-world game—another huge first for the franchise, the kind that fans have been begging for throughout the years—there is an added level of scrutiny that Legends must face, however. Holding it side by side with other major games in the genre, like Nintendo’s Switch launch game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, proves there’s a lot left to be desired visually. This is not the best-looking video game out there. But as I ran around the region’s large areas teeming with Pokémon, I didn’t feel like I was looking at a poorly executed environment. I was in a world fit for literal cartoon monsters, and that was enough for me. While I definitely have my issues with the smooth-bodied lack of detail in Switch game sprites, I also don’t want detail in the other extreme, where I can see every hair on a Bidoof’s back, and this game’s world finally made me appreciate how Pokémon can translate into 3D in ways that I hadn’t before.
As a Pokémon fan, I have learned to expect the worst from whatever new comes out, because it’s foolish to hope for anything otherwise. Pokémon has burned me time and again since its first Switch game released more than three years ago. But if the next Pokémon games adopt even half of what makes Legends great—those fun, daring attempts to incorporate the best of other genres the franchise has never before explored—then Pokémon once again will be an essential piece of Nintendo’s library, instead of just a fading piece of nostalgia. I’m still working on becoming Pokémon master, but that’ll only happen if Pokémon get even closer to mastering the Switch.