If you played Pokémon Red when it first released, all those years ago, you may recall its cartridge, which bore the image of a Charizard. With a tail like a torch, the beast stared and flared, and the plastic that housed it had been roasted to a palm-prickling red. You may also recall actually playing the game, staring at its vales through the grey-green windshield of the Game Boy, and seeing the creature reduced to a sprite. Stone-coloured and stooping, its majesty had been compressed, and the developer, Game Freak, relied on our imagination to reverse the process—to stoke it from gargoyle back into dragon.
Ever since, the long-term Pokéflicted have yearned for a playable vision to match the one raised in their heads. And ever since, they have come away from each game with that yearning intact. This sounds an awful lot like good business. The franchise, not unlike the critters that caper through it, is manifold, impossible to truly encapsulate, and itchy with the will to evolve. Some folks hunger for a true open world, others for an online game thronged with other players—World of Warcraft with a welcome jolt, courtesy of Pikachu’s electronically charged cheeks. Now we have Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which delivers neither. What we have is an R.P.G. in the vein of Monster Hunter, in which we set out from a village, into a string of hubs, in search of anything that walks, wafts, or scampers, in order to fetter it lovingly into our service. Plus ça change.
This time around, however, we get a retro kick. The Poké Balls are carved from wood, with a neat metal clasp, and, when struggling to digest a freshly ensphered quarry, they emit puffs of steam with the effort. The premise of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is that you, a t-shirted youngster, have been cast, through a portal of swirling shadow, into the dusty past. We know it is the past not just because of the locals’ predilection for wicker footwear, but because the place is distantly familiar. As distant as last November, in fact. We are back in the Sinnoh region, the setting of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and its twin, Pokémon Shining Pearl (remakes of the series’ first brace of games on the Nintendo DS). What was Jubilife City is now Jubilife Village, a rustic settlement of dirt roads, guarded gates, and nervous citizens. The resident professor—whose job, in games past, is to gee us up for adventure—summarises the town’s attitude: “Pokémon are terrifying creatures!”
This advice, when you’re met with the goofy gaze of a Bidoof, is difficult to heed. Nonetheless, there are things to be feared here. A furious bear, called Ursaluna, for one, with patches of grizzled pelt, whom you must battle in the rain. Plus, there are the Alpha Pokémon: larger variants, with blazing red eyes, who hare toward you, spoiling for a fight. They bring to mind the Illumina phenomenon, from New Pokémon Snap, which saw your subjects swell to bus-height and bloom into an eerie glow. Not to be churlish, but is that all it takes to innovate? Head into Photoshop, click-drag your chosen specimen to a new and imposing dimension, and imbue it with a radiated gleam. Job done. To be fair, we do also get some new monsters for our trouble. My personal favourite is Kleavor—a rocky relation to Scyther and Scizor, with battle-axes for arms and a brow of furrowed basalt.
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The bulk of your time, in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, is taken up with a kind of extended spin on the Safari Zone. That hallowed pleasure ground—available as far back as the first pair of games, set in the Kanto region—gave us the chance to espy rarer varmints and armed us with fistfuls of bait and rocks, the better to lure and agitate. Here, in a knowing reversal, you are the danger that dwells in the tall grass, from where you take aim at unsuspecting wildlife and, rather than igniting a clash, go straight for the capture. And why should you be doing all of this? Your mission, is, as it was in New Pokémon Snap, one of research; but if, like me, you tire of that worthy, emulsion-thin pursuit, rolling your eyes as the professor’s widen in wonderment, there are other kicks on offer.
Where Pokémon Legends: Arceus is most intriguing is in the ways it sets itself apart from its predecessors, and loosens the traditional formula. Only, I wonder how people who haven’t spent large chunks of their lives hurling balls of digital plastic at animals will react to some of the game’s flourishes. They won’t think, Woah, the Pokédex is no longer a chirping mini-computer but a real book! Rather, they will presumably shrug, at a list of quaintly bound objectives, and move on. Likewise, your freedom to walk around during battles—and even riskily into the midst of them, putting yourself in the line of Fire Punch—will seem positively staid.
The people who are most likely to cherish Pokémon Legends: Arceus are those for whom the years represent an ongoing search. While playing, I was reminded of Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness—decent R.P.G. adventures, on the GameCube, that afforded glimpses of something glorious and left me faintly underwhelmed. If Game Freak hasn’t managed what Nintendo did with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and made something that cuts to the heart of a series’ appeal while beating a new rhythm, that is because the appeal is so tough to pin down. Instead, its made a game about yearning: about the strange way that Pokémon is there to be loved, even as it lets down our craving. I have enjoyed my time with Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Its world may feel sparse, and the battles may have slackened (no moves are forgotten, merely relegated to a sub-menu, to be swapped in and out before fights), but there is a welcome shot of difficulty to its action. More than that, though, it bids you to look back over this odd franchise and inspect your connection to it. In short, it puts you in the shoes of its hero: wide-eyed and insatiable, thrown through a gale of darkness, and eager to probe the past in the name of investigation.