With all the excitement and controversy surrounding the release of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet this past week, it’s easy to forget that there was indeed another Pokemon game that came out earlier this year. Pokemon Legends: Arceus was generally pretty well-received and praised for finally doing something different with the series, but it was also criticized for its poor graphics and bland open-world.
Hindsight is 20/20, but with Scarlet and Violet releasing with way more pressing graphical issues and bugs, Arceus almost looks like a masterpiece in comparison. And maybe it is, at least as far as the concept of a Pokemon open-world is concerned. After spending almost a full weekend plugging away at Pokemon Violet, I found myself longing for the radiant sunsets of the Obsidian Fieldlands in Hisui, so I went back to playing Arceus instead.
Graphically, the difference is night and day. Pokemon Legends: Arceus isn’t the most graphically impressive or groundbreaking game around, but its art direction keeps it looking pretty and consistent, and at least you don’t have NPCs walking around at 10fps. Going further than that, though, I quickly realized how much I missed the open-world exploration of Arceus, and how it got so many things right on the first try that I wonder how Scarlet and Violet took so many steps back this month.
To start, the Pokemon models in Arceus aren’t sized realistically like they are in Scarlet and Violet, but that’s actually a quality-of-life feature. Too often in Pokemon Violet, I found myself squinting at the screen trying to figure out if that was a flower or a Pokemon on the ground. Tiny Pokemon in the open-world make it difficult for players to identify them clearly, and not only that, it’s also nigh impossible to tell if they’re Shiny.
There’s also the fact that because the Pokemon are so tiny, it’s easy to keep accidentally triggering battles with them when you just want to ride off on Miraidon. It’s beyond frustrating to get out of one battle, and turn around only to immediately enter another one with a random small Pokemon you didn’t even see in the first place.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus completely avoids this issue by allowing the players to engage when they want to. Running into a Pokemon doesn’t start a battle, and instead you have to throw a Poke Ball at it to engage at all, whether you want to catch it right off the bat or fight it instead. There’s no slowdown in the pacing either, as Arceus just lets you throw a Poke Ball at one target and immediately follow that up with another toss at another Pokemon that might’ve caught your eye.
The result is an open-world that feels dynamic and exciting. You have Berries you can use to distract wild Pokemon while you sneak up on them from behind, there’s the critical back capture mechanic that increases your chances of landing a catch, and perhaps the best part of it all is that the time taken to transition between battling and exploration is so insignificant compared to how it is in Scarlet and Violet.
There’s very little in Pokemon Legends: Arceus that holds you back. The freedom of exploration and being able to choose what you want to engage with is an important part of open-world games for me, and Arceus understands that. On the other hand, even if Scarlet and Violet were suddenly magically free of performance issues, its open-world would still feel tedious to explore thanks to how slow capturing and battling is.
This isn’t to say that Arceus is the perfect Pokemon game. Of course it isn’t. The lack of trainer and Gym battles was something I sorely missed in that game, which I greatly enjoyed returning to in Pokemon Violet. There is a lot of repetition and tedium that comes with completing the Pokedex in Arceus as well, as you’re often required to catch multiples of a single Pokemon and fulfill other various conditions.
With all that said, though, there must be some sort of middle ground between Arceus and mainline games like Scarlet and Violet. Pokemon Legends: Arceus lay the foundation for what could be a truly amazing Pokemon open-world game, and all it needed was the classic formula of fighting eight Gym leaders and the Elite Four to really bring everything together. Instead, what we have in Scarlet and Violet is just a rehash of wild areas, slow battles, having to meticulously whittle down a Pokemon’s health down to the red before you can catch it, and did I mention slow battles? Because each time Klawf’s Anger Shell ability triggers and I have to sit through five stat changes and animations, I age about 50 years.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus got the open-world right the first time. Game Freak just needs to build on that, and the future of the Pokemon series could really end up being something to be excited about. Oh, and I guess not having the player character fall through the world whenever we try to catch a Pokemon would be nice too.