For years now, Pokémon fans have been begging Game Freak for a more “mature” monster-collecting video game, ideally one that’s more difficult than the mainline games in the franchise. With Pokémon Legends: Arceus, it seems that folks might have finally gotten what they wanted–and it’s kinda unsettling. Let me explain.
While Pokémon are usually portrayed as companions, they’re also wild animals—which is to say, they can cause problems for humans. But even when these issues arise in the games or associated media, they usually don’t cross a line. Sure, death happens, and Pokémon can be responsible, but both these things exist more as abstract concepts. Death is a thing that happens to other people, not your friends, and certainly not to you. You’ll read a scary Pokédex entry maybe, or climb the towers of a pet cemetery. That’s about it. Arceus, however, is different.
In a nutshell, the game takes place sometime long ago, when the people in the world of Pokémon were just starting to form towns. As you start talking to people in the first area, you learn that the community is actually coming together because of Pokémon: Everyone’s terrified! A bewildering number of people you meet share harrowing tales of close encounters with pocket monsters, relaying sentiments that make the time period feel more cutthroat than you’d expect of a typical Pokémon game. Much of day-to-day life here seems to revolve around survival, and there’s little room for much else.
Even the fashion is functional. When one character meets you, she’s shocked you’re wearing a t-shirt and flip flops–don’t you know that wild Pokémon are dangerous, and could rip you apart in those threads? You need some protective gear! Another lady, meanwhile, says she’s heard that there’s no seasoning quite like starvation, and while she says it with a chuckle, I don’t think she’s 100% joking. Certainly not when your private quarters happen to have a sign near your bed to the effect of, “life is hardship but you have to suck it up.” And sure enough, there’s a different old lady who, upon meeting, immediately scolds you and says that the town won’t be feeding any freeloading strangers like you. Lady, I just fell out of the rift in the sky and I have no idea what’s going on but Christ, OK.
All of this forms the backdrop for your eventual meeting with the Survey Corps, where a weirdly military-esque group asks you to prove that you’re worthy of being allowed to stay in the village. Apparently nobody can just vibe there, you have to earn your keep, and to do that, you have to go out there and chase after the monsters that apparently have everyone traumatized. Sure!
While I’m early on in the game, one of the effects of this revamped approach to Pokémon has been that even run-of-the-mill creatures now feel more monumental than before. The very first monster you see after meeting all those wonderful townspeople is none other than Bidoof. In any other circumstance this meeting would be forgettable, or at best goofy.
Here, it’s neither. Instead, when I saw the Bidoof I recalled one of the townspeople saying that they don’t believe that humanity has the grit to settle down in this area over the long term. The reason? Dear reader, it’s because it’s being overrun by dangerous Bidoof. Yes, the very same creature we all treat as an HM slave is also threatening a nascent town’s existance. Pokémon aren’t widely known as tameable creatures here; Pokeballs are fairly new inventions, and most people don’t know how to use them yet. Most people would be too scared to try, really.
Later on, you do end up helping tame at least some of these Bidoof. But the starting area of the map is under a perpetual “outbreak,” one of the new mechanics that ensures a mass of creatures spawning in a concentrated area, with an increased chance of encountering a shiny colorway variant. Even as you start colonizing the world, the game mechanics ensure there’s only so far that you can go. Pokémon still rule the world at the end of the day.
Really, there’s a level of respect inherent to my interactions with all Pokémon in this universe: even the tiniest, most low-level tykes can get heated and slap away a Pokeball. I can’t just treat so-called “weaker” enemies as XP fodder, like I would in most of the games. They can and will attack you, and in certain cases, if you’re not careful, even small-time creatures can have a field day with you. Hell, sometimes you find out that all the little tykes were leading you to a much bigger alpha, who will likely be at least a dozen levels above you.
While Sword and Shield introduced the concept of Max Raid battles where you go head to head against enormous souped-up monsters, you do so with a team of people, not by yourself. Mainline games also have things like dynamax, but those enormous pokes are just as likely to be fun and cute as they are to be menacing. Alpha Pokémon in Arceus are always terrifying, at least in the portions I’ve experienced. Everything, from the zoomed-in camera angles to the enormous area-of-effect blasts drives home that you do not mess around with these Pokémon. The idea that you might one day domesticate these things almost seems absurd. These horrors have more in common with dinosaurs than they do cats and dogs.
Taking all of this into consideration, I can’t help but wonder: am I really being a hero in this world by going out there and trying to complete my dex, or am I actually just being completely and utterly brainless? After all, anyone with a sense of self-preservation would not be charging straight at a giant Ponyta with flames for eyes, would they? But since the player character comes from a world where capturing and living with Pokémon is perfectly normal, their survival instinct has been demolished. Every time my commanding officer gives me a mission, he not-so-subtly asks me not to die. If I come back, he makes a point to tell me that I could have died.
And you know what? If this wasn’t a video game, he’d 100% be right. I’ve drowned multiple times already. I’ve gotten mauled by creatures I’d never devote a single thought to in the other games, like Paras. I’ve aggro’d an alpha with a team full of Pokémon with type disadvantages, confidence brimming as a player who is used to brute-forcing my way through standard battles.
I should be dead, but in turn, Pokémon as a franchise has never felt more alive.