Pokémon Legends: Arceus has sold like gangbusters, received largely positive reviews, and achieved the highest user score of any game in the series in years. That hasn’t stopped it from being mired in controversy when it comes to its graphics, however. A week after the game’s release, the debate over how good (or bad) the game looks is still raging in some parts of the community.
Arceus is a great game for what it is, but it’s still not the big-budget console release some players have been dreaming about since they captured their first pocket monster on a Game Boy. This has created room for some heated disagreements over where developer Game Freak has focused its resources over the years, and a rift between fans satisfied with Pokémon’s incremental evolution and those impatient to see it stand toe-to-toe, graphically at least, with Nintendo’s latest Super Mario and Legend of Zelda games.
Some Pokémon players have been on a tear about the series’ visual fidelity ever since it moved to the Nintendo Switch, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus has taken the rancor to a new level. An action-RPG taking place across big, open maps, expectations for how the game would look and play got ramped up big time in the lead-up to release, despite the obvious compromises that grander ambitions often necessitate. If Breath of the Wild dazzled on almost every front when it debuted alongside the new hardware, why can’t Pokémon match it almost five years later?
That point of comparison, which even Nintendo leaned into, left fans scrutinizing the visual detail of every tree in every new trailer and bemoaning the fact that Arceus would take place across separate locations rather than within one contiguous map. “Google fucking maps looks better,” one user now-infamously quipped on the game’s subreddit. When the game leaked a week ahead of release, some fans searched for ugly screenshots and gameplay footage to vindicate their preemptive criticism. But now, a week after release, some players who’ve actually played the whole game came to a completely different conclusion: Arceus looks just fine.
These dueling sentiments were captured in two tweets that blew up right after the game’s release. “I know graphics aren’t everything but how cool would it be to have an open-world Pokemon game that didn’t look shit?” wrote YouTuber LonelyGoomba. One person who agreed shared screenshots of the detailed and expansive world from Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U.
On the other side of the fence, KizzityKaito tweeted, “Legends’ graphics look decent to great and you’re not gonna convince me otherwise.” Attached was a screenshot of Arceus’ main village at night beneath a star-filled sky.
One of the main complaints detractors keep coming back to is that Arceus’ world looks similar to 20-year-old PS2 and GameCube games. “Switch hardware is not at fault here,” wrote Digital Foundry’s John Linneman. “It’s a design issue.” He specifically took aim at how the game appeared to handle long-distance rendering, with close-up environments appearing fine while those in the distance are “hideous.” Far-off mountain ridges, lakes, and oceans look especially bad.
“I really never have cared about graphics in any game at all but these are just not good,” complained one player. “I hope Game Freak can at least improve the draw distance with a patch because rocks spawning four feet away from you in 2022 is just not acceptable.”
Others point out that while Arceus’ visuals don’t measure up to those of games like Breath of the Wild or Genshin Impact, it’s still a clear improvement on its predecessor, Pokémon Sword and Shield. The latter’s Wild Area, a clear precursor to Arceus’ biomes, has less detail and even more pop-in. Arceus, on the other hand, is an incremental visual upgrade on top of varied real-time Pokémon encounters and the seamless flow between combat and exploration. “Breath of the Wild has around 26 enemies,” one player pointed out. That includes the boss battles.” Arceus, meanwhile, has over 240. It was never going to be Breath of the Wild.
As more and more fans have flocked to defend the game’s graphics in the week since its release, one of the central arguments has been that Arceus prioritizes gameplay and the moment-to-moment feel over graphics. “The graphics aren’t that bad, the vibe makes up for it,” wrote one player on the subreddit. Sometimes intentionally, other times by accident, Arceus’ Pokémon have enough bespoke and surprising animations that they steal the show.
Whether glancing over at you in a field or lighting you up with a Hyper Beam, the amount of personality they exhibit, in many players’ views, more than makes up for bad draw distances or poorly tiled textures. Sword and Shield players complained those games looked worse than New Pokémon Snap. Arceus is a much closer approximation, but with free-form movement, battling, and crafting to boot.
Some folks simply aren’t surprised that Arceus isn’t as pretty as some of the competition. Instead, they say, this debate over its visuals is really one about changing standards. “For the 25 years+ Pokémon has been around, it has never once been known for [its] graphics, and since SWSH onwards people are suddenly going graphic snobbery on the franchise,” tweeted one player. “Like uh, I don’t know what you’re expecting now.”
For some, the expectation is that Game Freak will eventually turn away from producing nearly annual releases, updates, and DLC expansions to focus on “the big one” that will finally manage to be everything to every Pokémon fan. That would be a Sisyphean challenge under any circumstance, but especially on aging hardware amidst the current big-budget arms race led by PS5 and Xbox Series X.
The pressure points for the Arceus debate might be unique to Pokémon, but they’re of a piece with a growing trend of hyper-sensitivity whenever any big-name game appears to fall short in the graphics department. Spider-Man was dinged for its shrinking puddles. The Witcher 3 didn’t look as good as its E3 trailer. Halo Infinite was delayed an entire year for many reasons, but at least one of which included the internet making fun of the face of one random Brute. At the same time that the jump in graphics quality between old and new consoles is shrinking, certain fans seem more predisposed than ever to call out any perceived shortcomings.
In this context, a massively popular game made in just a few years for an old console only slightly bigger than your phone was destined to become a flash point. The fact that it just happened to be a Pokémon set it up to be a perfect storm. These are, after all, the same people who welcomed the last game in the series into the world with the hashtag #GameFreakLied. Perhaps Game Freak will get the last word, as regardless of the controversy, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is already on track to be one of the Switch’s best sellers.