When it comes to the Pokémon series, one can expect to experience some variation on the recurring formula of turn-based combat, a simple story and element-themed gym battles. Fans of the games have been begging for an open world entry for years, a desire which seems set to be fulfilled next year with the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus. However, one question remains to be answered: will Pokémon be able to go back to the normal formula after Legends?
The trailer for Pokémon Legends suggested a much more seamless battle system than normal. It appears that players will no longer be transported into a battle arena but will instead fight on the world map, akin to how combat works in modern action RPGs. This system alone brings with it the ability to change the Pokémon series forever, as it seems likely that players will enjoy this enough to request that it be implemented in the next mainline instalments.
Players have been clamoring for a change in the series’ admittedly successful formula for years, so when Pokémon Sun and Moon were released it looked as though the series was moving in a new direction. Sun and Moon discarded the gym challenge to which players had grown accustomed, instead opting for the “Island Challenge” which saw players completing different tasks and puzzles to progress through the story. Design choices such as this came across as a breath of fresh air for the fan base and, in spite of a slow pace to the story, cemented Sun and Moon as two of the best Pokémon games to date.
Sadly, The Pokémon Company took one step forward and two steps back when developing Sword and Shield. Their design mentality after Sun and Moon seems to have been centered on a return to tradition, bringing back the gym battles and a general feeling of monotony to the world. It only further illustrated the need for a full shake of series conventions going forward. Enter Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the new prequel to Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. Legends takes place long before the latter games, with players set to explore the Sinnoh region in a new way.
The version of Sinnoh shown in the trailer looks vast in scope and colourful in aesthetic. Furthermore, the brief gameplay footage showcased indicates that players will be able to sneak up on unsuspecting Pokémon and catch them without a fight, a first for the series. Battles will take place in the open world and in real time, thus excising turn-based combat entirely.
This could be a significant turning point for the mainline series if Pokémon Legends is received well. The next major game could start the process of implementing a more open world structure into the wider Pokémon franchise, using systems from Legends. Experimentation with new features or design approaches isn’t new to The Pokémon Company, given their willingness to introduce concepts like Z-Moves and Dynamaxing. We suspect that Legends will be no different as players set off to explore Sinnoh like never before and complete the region’s first Pokedex.
Lending further credence to this possibility is the fact that Sword and Shield used a semi open world structure, which in retrospect appears to have been laying the groundwork for the development of Legends. One should also consider how Nintendo has been playing with the structure to great success, as games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the Bowser’s Fury expansion for Super Mario 3D World demonstrate. For as obvious and natural a trajectory as this may be, however, Pokémon being so far behind in this regard is setting off some alarms in our heads.
Consider how The Pokémon Company has seemed content with their formulaic design for years, coming across as unwilling to make widespread and lasting changes from game to game. Instead of making small improvements with each subsequent entry, Pokémon has instead become infamous for delivering huge gameplay gimmicks that vanish by the next game. Gold and Silver had traveling companions and two regions, Black and White opted for rotation battles, and Ruby and Sapphire’s hook was the inclusion of secret bases. For such a long running franchise about training and evolving what are basically magical wild animals, Pokémon sure is averse to self-improvement and iterating upon interesting ideas.
If Legends sells well, this could be a fine start to a spin-off series that may also inspire the core games to do what once seemed impossible. Instead of throwing out systems after one use, it would make for a stronger game if The Pokémon Company and Game Freak were to build upon these mechanics. Having a mainline Pokémon game that allows players to roam from region to region, perhaps with a companion or two, and compete in fully 3D battles would make an amazing departure from the norm.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus has the potential to bring the games into the modern age, in the process attracting old fans and disinterested folks alike to the franchise. However this new game turns out, it’s apparent to all that Pokémon needs to break free from convention and try something new, if only for its own survival. It may not be a main series entry, but if all goes well we’d like to see the most compelling aspects of Legends in future mainline titles.