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What ‘Pokemon Legends: Arceus’ gets right (and wrong) about open world games

(Washington Post illustration; Nintendo)
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“Pokémon Legends: Arceus” is a fantastic game, the most ambitious title in the franchise’s 25-year history. It’s good enough to recommend to any lapsed fan tired of a series that badly needed an upheaval. Developer Game Freak seems to have finally committed to experimenting with a true 3D exploration of its monster-catching formula. This means seeing Pokémon in 3D environments that mimic real animal habitats, and going beyond the menu-driven role-playing system that has defined the series since 1996.

Most critics are in agreement: The game is a great foundation for the future of the series. But as wonderful as the game is to experience right now, there’s a nagging sense that Game Freak is only on the cusp of really knocking it out of the park. All it would take is for the studio to grasp the concepts of good open-world game design. The game gets a lot of core elements right. But there are a few things future iterations will need to finally offer the dream Pokémon game.

Breezy, ample gameplay

Let’s start with the good. In video games, “gameplay loops” refer to the mechanics that work in tandem to motivate players to accomplish certain goals. “Arceus” improves the classic find-and-catch loop of the series by adding more collectibles around the environment, all of which can be crafted to make essential Pokémon-catching tools.

The addition of crafting and collecting resources may sound tiresome, but Game Freak strikes an important balance here. Crafting isn’t required to complete the game’s goals of catching every Pokémon, but doing so will always ensure you have more than enough Poké Balls and other resources. You can still buy tools as in past games, but making the crafting system an easy-to-play and rewarding option only adds to the fun and engagement. Every jaunt through the open world is filled with purpose.

And crucially, Game Freak makes every step of this process frictionless. Picking up objects is as quick as a button press, and comes with pings and plops of audio feedback that have made Nintendo games so pleasant to hear ad infinitum.

‘Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ tips for the overconfident, longtime fan

Throwing a Pokémon at a tree will shake loose its resources — without interrupting the gameplay with menu prompts as in past games. This means skilled players can tear through the landscape, throwing Poké Balls to catch creatures while hoovering up resources by either grabbing them or by throwing their Pokémon at them. It’s the kind of palpable pleasure you might find in a shooting game — except you’re training pets.

The Pokémon mounts that help players ride, fly or swim across the landscape also add to the breeziness of the gameplay loop. Picking up items and throwing Poké Balls can still be performed while riding some of the mounts, offering uninterrupted gameplay and fun split-second decisions at almost any given moment during the gameplay loop.

Fast loading

Games on the aging Nintendo Switch machine can still struggle to load in gameplay under a few seconds. Some games are an exception, like Capcom’s “Monster Hunter Rise” from last year. “Arceus” is now among these exceptions.

In my experience, the game loads most areas in 6 seconds or less. This is a mercy, considering how much to-and-fro traveling players have to do between the game’s different regions and the central village hub necessary for trading and crafting goods. The game isn’t a looker (more on that later), but at least the game loads its low-resolution graphics quickly.

Review: ‘Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ doesn’t need to look beautiful to be a beautiful game

Snappy controls

It’s an often-overlooked challenge in game design, but nailing the “feel” of 3D controls can be challenging, kind of like making sure a car offers a smooth ride. Game Freak does an admirable job on its first full-throated effort (technically, the 2019 mainline titles “Sword/Shield” had 3D “Wild Areas”). Aiming and throwing Poké Balls and items feels snappy.

The new controls may take a bit of time to get used to, but the game will quickly feel intuitive once you start catching Pokémon in earnest. There’s also gravity and weight to consider when throwing the Poké Balls, which add to the skill-based nature of the new catching system. A well-aimed pitch of a Poké Ball rewards players with the satisfying pop of a successful capture.

The world just makes sense

Placing the cute creatures among believable fictional fauna (i.e. ice-type monsters in icy regions) has been a series staple since the beginning, which adds to player immersion and strategy. It’s a relief Game Freak was able to nail this in its first full 3D game.

There’s joy in figuring out for yourself that bug type Pokémon are in low-lying, warmer locations, and that you probably won’t find many populating the snowy mountainous areas where huge Abomasnow lumber about. It feels satisfying as a trainer to strategize and build out my six-creature team before I plan to explore a volcano, where Magmar patrol.

Game Freak appears to have learned from its “Sword/Shield” expansion pass chapters. The Wild Area feature of 2019′s “Sword/Shield” game was a halfhearted attempt at a 3D environment, with a world that didn’t really fit together or make sense. But the expansion chapters took baby steps to correct this, introducing interesting mazelike caves, large locations that stand out in the landscape and non-playable characters to advance the story.

“Arceus” takes those learnings further by giving us towns within the seamless worlds of each biome. Sure, the characters that scatter the world don’t have much to say or do, but every Pokémon game is like that. Deep interactions with characters are outside the scope of what the series has offered. But at least the placement of people, classic locations from other games and monsters is thoughtful.

The player’s impact on the world is also consequential. Complete a side quest to give a woman a Starly bird Pokémon, and over time, you’ll see her evolving her new pet into larger forms. Shop questlines end with the buildings filling out with furnishings and products. There’s considerable effort here in ensuring the player feels like what they do matters.

Flat framing

Most criticisms of the game center on how “flat” the game feels. Our review accurately calls out its “flat textures.” Accentuating this problem is how poorly the game visually frames its world.

There’s a location in the game atop a mountain, with the iconic Snowpoint Temple from the “Diamond/Pearl” games realized in a 3D environment. In front of it is a yawning lake with an island sitting at its center. Off in the distance in another direction looms Mount Coronet, this universe’s stand-in for Japan’s famous Mount Fuji. None of this sounds flat, does it? The issue is that none of these locations are framed with player location in mind. Great open-world games are able to frame various points of a map to offer players glimpses of where they have been and where they could go, while accentuating the scale of the game world, and hopefully, the player’s journey through it. Instead, the player is made to only focus on one object, giving us a lifeless visual made worse by the low-resolution textures and presentation.

The developers behind Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” anticipated how a player might approach certain parts of the world, and ensured that its foregrounds, backgrounds and overall atmosphere contributed to a distinct sense of place and wonder, always teasing what more could be explored. Its central location, Hyrule Castle, was almost always visible from any notable location in the game. It’s also why the PlayStation exclusive “Ghost of Tsushima,” a gold standard open-world title, was such a visual delight. Every frame of the game ensured there was something beautiful to witness — whether it was an imposing tree, a castle or a bright field of white flowers.

Ghost of Tsushima” is one of the PlayStation 5's most beautiful games. We have the photos to prove it.

A big part of the problem is that “Arceus” simply lacks distinctive locations. Each region features just a handful of notable sites: A big building here, an interesting rock formation there and almost nothing else. This is a shame, since past Pokémon games always provided ample player direction (usually some kind of natural signage in the environments) leading to nooks and crannies within the game world that hid secret items or creatures. Pokémon games are always about straying off the beaten path for rewards, and this is mostly gone from “Arceus.”

Lifeless wildlife

Seeing Pokémon living in a game’s world is a relatively recent addition to the franchise, first occurring in 2018′s “Pokémon: Let’s Go” releases. Before that, the series has followed the long-standing Japanese role-playing gameplay of random battles with invisible chance encounters.

Monsters in “Arceus” only interact with players, and that’s by either running away or preparing for a fight. Otherwise, they’re completely oblivious not only to each other, but to the world around them. They simply fly, float and crawl about. Some of them swim. A world that seems like a real ecosystem contributes to the sense of the game “living” even when you’re not around. Instead, just as the player’s world revolves around catching Pokémon, the Pokémon’s worlds merely revolve around attacking you.

“Pokémon Snap” and its 2020 sequel are a snapshot into how these creatures behave in their natural habitats. Monsters in those games bathe, eat, sleep, hunt and frolic in their habitats. It’s a shame that such spirited behavior is missing in “Arceus,” and it remains an opportunity for a future, even better game to finally implement this.

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‘Arceus’ could look prettier

The most obvious critique to lodge against the game relates to its graphics — and it’s a reasonable one. Even taking into account the famously small team working on the core games, what’s here needs more polish. It’s not just the flat texture work, which can be seen to anyone who’s even moderately familiar with modern video games. In caves, the player’s character will have a strange light rim around them, as if they were a badly cropped Adobe Photoshop image. Creatures in the distance animate at fewer than 5 frames per second, a dreadful sight even by late 1990s standards.

Making a game look pretty is understandably difficult work, particularly for a game with a cast of hundreds of unique combatants. And the game already does an admirable job of establishing mood and atmosphere with appropriate music in different settings, whether it’s the flutes in the grasslands or the percussion of volcanic areas. The color palette is bright, with pleasing tonal contrasts. All the more reason to insist on better graphics: A cleaner presentation would ease players more smoothly into blissful immersion.

Game Freak clearly needs more time per mainline entry. The recent conversation surrounding the “Call of Duty” series centered on a choice: either commit to longer production cycles or reap the diminishing returns of the annual churn of content. Game Freak faces a similar choice.

Still, with “Arceus,” the developers should be commended for successfully bringing the absorbing Pokémon formula to a 3D space. The frustrating and seemingly glacial pace of design evolution aside, Game Freak has shown their ability to learn from past games. “Arceus” is the right step forward for the series. The next step will be even more important.