Monday, February 7, 2022

Even more Pokemon-ish thoughts

All right, look, I've got a more serious and writing-related blog post I've been composing off-and-on these past few weeks, but right now whenever I think too hard, I can feel my brain short-circuiting. So I thought I would at least not make this blog look totally dead, and also follow up on something I wrote a few months ago. I knowwwww, this is a professional author blog and not a game review blog, but I retain a keen interest in game development, and this is a specific topic that has piqued my interest lately.

Now that I've played both Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond and Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I've had the chance to retrospect and re-analyze how I was feeling about both of them before they came out. And, well, in my opinion, my respective misgivings and excitement were well-placed.

I'll start with Brilliant Diamond because it came out first, and because I don't really want to end on a down note. I'll just come out and say it--I was not terribly impressed with BD because it did not really innovate much for a remake. FireRed and LeafGreen had the Sevii Islands. HeartGold and SoulSilver had the Pokeathlon Dome and the renovated Safari Zone. Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby had the Delta Episode. Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee had a completely revamped Pokemon catching mechanic and the GO Park. Not to mention various other tweaks and quirks that made each of these remakes really feel like a similar-yet-different gameplay experience for those of us who remember the originals--stuff like character and environment redesigns, added minigames and useful doodads, storyline changes, and in the case of AS/OR, a totally rebooted PokeNav mechanic that took full advantage of online connectivity.

All of these things made BD/SP feel in comparison, to me, like pretty much exactly the same games as the original Diamond and Pearl, with updated Switch-era graphics. The only notable gameplay changes are the Grand Underground and Ramanas Park (and a weirdly non-functional equivalent to the Global Trade Station). And to be fair, I liked both of those. The Grand Underground with its online play made it fun to spend a good long time wandering around those tunnels, digging up goodies and catching Pokemon that I wasn't able to obtain at that point in the originals (having a Houndoom before my third badge almost felt like cheating). And I think Ramanas Park is a very sensible alternative to the Pal Park which obviously would not work with a Switch game. 

I also really liked that your Pokemon can follow you around in the overworld again (and give you rare Berries this time around), but I felt like the dialogue system was not as sophisticated and interesting as it had been in HG/SS... and if you're running around with a larger Pokemon, there's a huge problem where the Pokemon tends to block your path in tight areas and it takes the game a while to realize you want it out of the way. (Also, why can't you ride any of them?!) 

And the idea to make HM overworld effects independent of owned Pokemon greatly streamlines gameplay, but at times it felt like the world map, which was pretty much straight ported from the originals design-wise, did not take this change into account and became redundant. For example, on some routes, there are multiple paths you can take, some of which may require things like Surf or Rock Climb to navigate. In the original games, this posed a challenge because you had to take certain paths depending on which Pokemon you had in your party (and thus the HMs they knew). In BD/SP, though, when you get to these routes and can already use all of these HM techniques, the sense of strategy is gone, and it's like, then why are these breakable rocks even here in the first place? There's just some weird areas of game design in these remakes that felt to me like they were not quite thought through all the way and could have used more polish.

And maybe I'm a little biased because I actually just re-played Platinum a few years ago, but for me, repeating my Sinnoh journey nearly to the letter was rather boring most of the time. I found myself looking at the same things, reading the same dialogue, going through the same motions that I had 15 years ago, so it all felt a bit stale. Even more so because there wasn't any compelling post-game content to explore, just the same old filling out my Pokedex and racking up the wins losing horribly in the Battle Tower. 

In addition, I was very surprised to see the utter lack of material from Platinum, much of which would actually have enhanced the gameplay. When they said they were doing a Diamond and Pearl remake, they apparently literally just meant Diamond and Pearl--again, another unwelcome departure from prior remakes. I would have really loved to have seen things like an updated Wi-Fi Plaza (Nintendo Switch Online Plaza?), the Battle Frontier, the Distortion World (c'mon, the Distortion World is just plain cool), a less-pointless Amity Square, the nice graphic revamps, Looker and Charon, the Battleground, the Villa... they were all really solid additions to the Sinnoh experience that I found strange not having in BD/SP. (And what do you mean I can't partner with the Stat Trainers in the Battle Tower?! They're so much better at battling than I am)

I found myself not really enjoying the game on its own merits, simply using it as a stopgap until the release of Legends: Arceus. And that's a really unpleasant feeling to have for a game. Especially a main-series Pokemon game.

But okay, enough with the bad news. Let's move on to the good--Legends: Arceus. I've been excited for it since I first heard about it, and honestly I can say it has not disappointed me. I'm loving the open-world, exploration-based gameplay, crafting all the things, the challenge of getting more in-depth with my Pokedex completion than simply catching one of each species, the endearing characters (every time I come across someone who's implied to be an ancestor of a modern-day Pokemon character I just kinda start screaming with glee), the return of full player character customization (there were only two outfits in BD/SP that I actually liked), the beautiful environments, plenty of side-quests... it just hits so many right notes with me. My only frustration is that I don't have more time to play it! 

Also, I know people are divided about the vastly simplified battle system, but I'm actually not opposed to it. I find it refreshing and straightforward and more like the good old days of Red and Blue, before all these newfangled Abilities and gimmicky moves and Mega Evolution and whatnot. I think a more complicated battle system would interfere with the pacing--as it is, you can whack a wild Pokemon with a couple of super-effective moves and then get back to collecting Apricorns.

I was hoping Legends: Arceus would be a Pokemon equivalent to Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And it pretty much is. And that's not a bad thing at all. This kind of lush, vast experience is exactly the sort of thing I dreamed about back in the archaic days when the Pokemon world was a collection of monochrome pixels on a 2-inch screen. It feels like the culmination of decades of refining a concept. I love the innovation in this game, I think it's a great direction for the series to go, and I really want to see more of it. 

That being said, while pondering these things, a thought came to me--maybe the reason why BD/SP aren't that innovative is to counterbalance how immensely different Legends: Arceus is. Maybe the developers had a desire to not alienate long-time fans - a problem they've had in the past with Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee and Sword and Shield - and decided to see if a good compromise would be to release this avant-garde game almost in tandem with a pair of remakes so traditional that they don't actually change much from the originals. 

If that is the case, I commend them for trying a new strategy and trying to listen to what their fans are saying. (Honestly, I liked both Let's Go and Sword/Shield and have no problem with new twists on the familiar Pokemon formula, but I know not everybody feels that way.) I just feel like they maybe went a little too far in the other direction and created a game so derivative of the original that it doesn't have much to offer those who have played the original.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have an old-timey Pokedex to complete.

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