Nintendo and Game Freak aimed to revolutionize the Pokemon franchise with Pokemon Legends: Arceus. "Action meets RPG in a new kind of Pokemon adventure," the marketing promises. The game's release has left everyone wondering if the newly introduced mechanics will impact upcoming games, or if the changes are even beneficial for the future of the series. Unfortunately, Pokemon Legends: Arceus also made it impossible to answer that question succinctly.
Every system has elements of both traditional Pokemon games and open-world or action RPGs. But it seems like they were too conservative to dedicate themselves to truly revolutionizing the franchise or simply improving the quality of life in the Pokemon everyone's come to expect. I'm going to break down some of the new systems and changes Nintendo implemented in Pokemon Legends: Arceus and talk about whether they should keep them, adjust them, or toss them in future games.
Learning Curve and Tutorials
Frustratingly, in a game that bills itself as an open-world and action-oriented take on traditional Pokemon games, Arceus still keeps its players on rails. Especially at the beginning of the game, you can scarcely take 10 steps without being interrupted by dialogue or a cutscene. Tutorials aren't elegant; they're blunt and too loaded in some places while being too spread out in others. They also fail to introduce you to some of the more nuanced mechanics, giving you just the basics and leaving you to scratch your head later.
They should lean into better explaining the complex, hidden, or sophisticated gameplay aspects like the change from effort values to effort levels, while also taking a more hands-off approach to basic elements like throwing a Pokeball, which essentially had two full tutorials dedicated to it. Similarly, give us the freedom to explore and flesh out mechanics in our minds, allowing us to purposely interact with objects and NPCs to continue the story, rather than triggering and forcing interactions.
The classic journey of taking on gym battles and becoming the new champion is fun but stale. Arceus made the primary goal the completion of the Pokedex, adding research tasks and even tying in shiny odds to how much knowledge you'd accumulated on each species. This is a welcome departure from having Pokedex completion be an unachievable or unrewarding subgoal for the majority of players, leading many to not interact with that objective at all.
I tentatively say that they should keep this new system, but I don't know if they'll be able to keep such a heavy emphasis on filling out the Pokedex when new games will presumably be set in the present. If they revert to the gym challenge, they should at least keep the longer, more engaging, and more frequent side quests, and preferably brainstorm ways to renew the Pokedex's importance or add new elements of progression.
The open world was a potentially stunning innovation, but it didn't get the respect or attention it deserved. I don't mind the painterly art style they went with in Arceus, but the world feels empty. There are scarcely any towns or settlements to stumble across, which is partly a consequence of the feudal setting, but also not a good excuse. In your exploration, you often find swaths of the same Pokemon over and over again. When you're on a cliff overlooking an area, you'll often see an environment devoid of nature, plain, repeating land and water textures, and a flat skybox. Simple or sprite-based graphics are not necessarily bad, but if you want a living and breathtaking open world, you need graphics to back it up.
If they want to lean into the open world, make some graphical enhancements and fill the world so it doesn't feel so bland and barren. Give us dungeons or puzzles to distract us. Decrease the draw distance or add a little more detail to mountains and lakes. Do justice to the kind of game you're making.
In Arceus, you keep excess Pokemon in pastures back in town instead of as bytes on a PC. While this is arguably more humane, it also seemingly gave them lore justification for why you can no longer freely swap Pokemon in your party with Pokemon you have stored away. I understand why you can't magically transport Pokemon to your side, but the ability to swap without trekking back to camp or town was a much-needed and much-loved quality-of-life feature in Sword and Shield and Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Please, leave this archaism in Hisui.
On a more positive note, Arceus added two great quality-of-life features: the ability to change your Pokemon's nickname anytime from the party screen, and the ability to swap moves in their move set with any move in their pool that they've learned from leveling, evolving, or tutoring. I think my verdict here is clear: Keep these features. While preserving the move change naturally means Pokemon can learn fewer moves, otherwise some would be vastly more versatile and overpowered than others, I think there is room for a hybrid system. They could keep the move pool system and add TMs back in, but make it so that moves learned via TM are not added to the pool and will need to be relearned if replaced.
On the surface, catching Pokemon requires strategy and consideration in Arceus, but in reality, it's still full of scripted scenarios and doesn't allow players the freedom they desire in a traditional open world or action RPG. Pokemon come in three varieties: shy, neutral, and aggressive. Shy Pokemon run if they see you coming, so you have to catch them from behind or by hiding in tall grass. Neutral Pokemon more or less ignore you unless you initiate battle or throw a ball. Aggressive Pokemon will attack on sight.
The problem with this system is that it all but forces people to play how they want you to play. While you can catch aggressive Pokemon from stealth, it's clear the developers want you to engage in battle to do so, likely because battling would be very infrequent if you didn't. And if you miss a throw or get found out by a shy Pokemon and want to battle to assert your right to catch them? Good luck -- they'll probably run away the first chance they get. Catching needs to be more dynamic. They also need to better explain what some battle cues mean, e.g. when a Pokemon is "looking around" or "on guard," as well as what makes them more likely to flee during battle.
The battling system was shaken up in Arceus with a sort of initiative system for turn order based on speed. This means sometimes a Pokemon will take two or more turns for its opponent's one. The agile and strong battle styles also contribute to this -- an agile move is faster but less potent, while a strong move hits harder but might move you down the turn order. However, the math behind the scenes is pretty obscure. It's based on a Pokemon's speed, but feeding into that is their nature, level, base stats, and effort levels. If they keep these battling mechanics, they need to be more transparent about how exactly turn order is calculated, because currently the system is at once refreshing and confounding.
You can also move around the area during battles now. It's great! And it's completely pointless. I'd love to see them keep this aspect but make it matter. Aggressive and Alpha Pokemon will already attack the player in the overworld, why not have the opposing Pokemon in a battle aim at the player sometimes? If you can't dodge in time, make it so Pokemon with high friendship have a chance to jump in and take the hit for you. Give us the opportunity to sneak around behind the Pokemon while it's distracted battling and throw a ball with a slightly increased catch rate. Don't get me wrong, it's cool to be able to move in a Pokemon battle, but it'd be a lot cooler if it served a purpose.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus could have innovated and revitalized the long-standing franchise. I don't think it succeeded in that respect. But it could still be the stepping stone to a new kind of Pokemon game if Nintendo and Game Freak are more ambitious and commit to switching up the style in future games.