Image: The Pokémon Company / Nintendo Life
There’s not a person alive who doesn’t know what Pokémon is these days, not a single soul who couldn’t correctly point out Pikachu in a line up of every pocket monster there has ever been. The series’ success has seen it spread its easily merchandised charms to all corners of commercialism, from Funko Pops to painfully expensive handmade headphones. We all know what it is, because there’s no escaping Pokémon or its message of working hard to be best friends with a colourful and compliant pocketable pal. There are new Pokémon, old Pokémon, regional Pokémon, and removed Pokémon but they all amount to the same thing; a bundle of stats to inevitably catch and battle with, another thing for the internet to draw cute fanart of. Pokémon are pleasant, predictable, and passive — until now.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is quick to rewrite everything we think we know about the series; so quick we don’t even know it’s happening. Why is everyone so afraid of battling pokémon, when that’s what Pokémon games are for? And why are they all talking about how dangerous the world outside the village is with a steely seriousness that can’t be anything other than a bad attempt at a joke? ‘But what if you get killed?’ Killed? By a Pokémon? Hah, right!
That first stroll out, that first chance to take in Arceus’ beautiful skies and sweeping vistas after being tasked with doing something as brainless and familiar as catching a few basic pokémon, soon turns into a very different experience when you’ve been blindsided by a lightning bolt unleashed from somewhere off-screen. For the first time since forever Pokémon don’t exist exclusively for our amusement, or for us to snap; they’re there because this is their territory. We are a complete novice in wild lands, not an official trainer merrily strolling through neatly defined routes, and the Pokémon aren’t happy about us disturbing them.
This unexpected shift of power is perfectly demonstrated by Arceus’ long grass. Before, it was where we went to flush out Pokémon to help fill our precious Pokédex, and now it’s the best place for us to cower in the hopes all of those angry bird and bug Pokémon — the ones we tend to shove in a basic Poké Ball because we can and then forget about forever — don’t see us as we try to hurriedly craft just a few more life-saving potions using materials gathered from the rolling scenery that surrounds us.
Arceus does a lot of things right, but one of the biggest is that it restores some dignity to the Pokémon themselves, transforming these saleable creatures fond of repeating their own names (perhaps for fear we might forget which plushie to order from the official store) back into the things they were always described as in their respective Pokédex entries; those memorably dark tales of lost souls, missing children, dead parents, and terrifying things you must never, ever, see. For once you can really believe that these are spirits said to lure away young children and carry them off to the afterlife (Drifloon), beings so angry they look like the embodiment of death (Zoroark), or are as plain spiteful as their descriptions imply (Sneasel). The villagers were right. Pokémon can be anything from “just” wild creatures to the souls of the dead, and even the smallest Paras is to be approached with caution — if it’s even worth running the risk of approaching at all
Images: The Pokémon Company / Nintendo Life
And that’s just the standard Pokémon. ‘Alpha’ Pokémon are an entirely different prospect altogether, deliberately pitting that urge in all of us to do just one thing when we see an incredibly large and powerful creature — fight it and catch it — against Arceus’ new reality, which is that these beasts are far more than just ‘tough’ and ‘impressive’, they’re monsters sporting nightmarish red eyes, awesome power, and an aggressive attitude that they’re more than happy to turn on you after they’ve wiped out your entire team with little effort. You do not take them on unless you’re well prepared, and if you’re not prepared, you’ll live a lot longer by either streaking past in a blind panic and hoping they can’t follow, or carefully creeping around the sides of a landscape that’s dangerous in itself. Careful of the edge there, it’d be a shame if you slipped and drowned in deep water, or fell off a high ledge and blacked out…
This new way of presenting not-so Pocket Monsters that have been so familiar for so long changes everything. Arceus’ Pokémon are far more than their stats and move lists — they have patterns of behaviour and relative levels of danger. They may be hiding in trees, under tempting mining spots, gathered at the shore with their backs to you just begging to be caught, wandering within a brief tear in the fabric of reality itself, or floating around at night, blinking in and out of existence as they please, leaving you suddenly twisting your view around and hoping you spot them before they spot you. They can go on the offensive — several of them at once — simply at the sight of you (whether you’ve seen them first or otherwise) and they won’t politely wait for you to choose your best teammate before spreading poisonous gas in the air or hurling body fluids your way. Fight or flee are the only choices you get, over and over again.
Arceus has turned out to be the game that brought a huge dollop of maturity to Pokémon, and has done it in a way none of us expected — by giving these creatures the space to be their true selves. It’s Pokémon in the way the series always hinted it could be; the lab-grown experiments, the tower dedicated to housing the graves of hundreds of dead Pokémon, the threatening behaviour that was often described but rarely seen, the monsters themselves recast as dangerous, unpredictable beings. They’re wondrous, thrilling creatures to observe.
Be careful out there, newcomer — with all those Pokémon around you might not survive the night…