I have adored Pokemon since the anime series first debuted on UK TV. I jumped in after about eight episodes had aired, and it became a part of my daily ritual before heading to school for years. I was crazy about Pokemon, to the point where I basically only played the Pokemon games, the anime was my favourite series, and it was all I would talk about at school with my friends. Prime nerd. This franchise has been with me now longer than my oldest friends, or almost any other constant in my life. Pokemon has never stopped being relevant to me, and I love it dearly. This is why seeing such a drastic change like “open world Pokemon” is absolutely terrifying to me, despite how amazing Pokemon Arceus Legends looks.
To be clear, I think it could work. We’ve all fantasised about what an open-world mainline Pokemon game could be like, and we’ve all had our theories about how it would play and handle progression – fantasies and theories that started to finally take shape after looking at the Wild Areas and expansive DLC for Pokemon Sword and Shield. Nevertheless, I am scared.
I can’t help but feel that this is, despite dreaming about it for so long, entirely unthinkable. Pokemon has always been a linear JRPG experience. You set off from a home base, make your way through often narrow and labyrinthine routes and caves in search of the next big city or town, and deviation from the set path is rare. Sure, Sword and Shield showed us what the next step could look like, but the Wild Area was basically relegated to being a sideshow for the majority of the game, only worth exploring for Pokedex completionists. The main game still had the same linear pathways Pokemon has always had, those that fix the route of your progression, and even when things open up, as when you reach Celadon City in the first generation, there’s still only one true way forward, one route that’ll progress the story and unlock Giovanni in the final gym.
Sword and Shield showed steps forward with the Wild Area, but the routes and towns – some of them a bit barebones and underdeveloped, like Spikemuth – showed Game Freak’s reluctance to let the reins loose. Now it seems the developer is finally doing that, and I have to ask: does it know what it’s up to?
An open-world Pokemon game would require either a total overhaul to how Pokemon games currently work and progress or a very, very smart implementation of open-world game design. The Wild Area in Sword and Shield is basically just a big basin in the middle of the map. They just threw in an open area, mixed up the biomes, added wild Pokemon, and it was done. You can explore it freely, but it feels like there’s little rhyme or reason to it. It simply exists, and it’s big. The DLC packs, the Isle of Armor and the Crown Tundra, were massive steps forward, introducing actual pathways and caves for you to navigate through, but you can still slap on a couple of repels and explore the entire area in minutes if you’d like. A proper open-world Pokemon game cannot be like this – it needs some kind of structure, not just a bunch of waypoints ushering you to your next goal.
One idea is – and please do forgive me, a games journalist, for saying this – the Dark Souls structure. Dark Souls doesn’t have a traditional wide open-world for you to explore, but instead the world is open, with very few locked doors blocking your exploration. But it also doesn’t give you the direct details on where to explore, and the areas you should avoid aren’t signposted. You’re just supposed to intuit that you have to turn around from the difficulty of the enemies. This could work surprisingly well for Pokemon, with caves and dungeons that are stacked and winding, breaking up the large open-world environments with extremely strong high-level wild Pokemon standing guard at areas that you shouldn’t be waltzing around quite yet. It doesn’t have to be as obtuse or as complicated as Dark Souls, but this would allow the game to keep a similar “route” formula without sacrificing the benefits of it going open world.
Alternatively, it could go for the Breath of the Wild-style open world, offering a huge map to explore at your leisure, though I don’t actually like the idea of freely dropping in on different towns and gyms as much as I thought I would.
I know that Pokemon has to change a lot in order to adapt itself from a classic, linear JRPG into a modern open-world take, just as franchises like Final Fantasy have had to before it – but I can’t help feeling a bit nervous. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and even if they aren’t actively a detriment to the game, they may irrevocably change that familiar staple of my life that has been with me for such a long time. I’m here for wherever Pokemon goes next, I just hope what I’m looking for from this franchise doesn’t get left behind in the process.
Next: Pokemon Has Been Building Up To Legends Arceus, Its Open-World Feudal Sinnoh Game, For Years
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TheGamer Guides Editor.
Am I supposed to write this in the third-person? Do you know how awkward it is talking about yourself like you’re someone else? No one would ever believe someone else has this many nice things to say about me.
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