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Pokemon’s Remake/Premake Strategy Shows the Franchise at Its Most (and Least) Risky

by Alex Culafi - February 27, 2021, 1:35 pm EST
Total comments: 1

Poké Fan Alex offers his take on Pokemon Legends: Arceus and the Gen 4 remakes.

In celebrating Pokemon’s 25th anniversary, The Pokemon Company announced two new core titles set to release on Nintendo Switch in the next year or so.

The first was a pair of remakes: Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Pokemon Shining Pearl. They’re remakes of 2006’s DS titles Diamond and Pearl, scheduled to come out in “late 2021.” Should the game hit its target, that probably means sometime between very late October and very early December.

Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are being developed by ILCA, who also created the cloud-based Pokemon storage app Pokemon Home. This marks the first time in 25 years that a core franchise game has been led by a developer other than Game Freak. That said, Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda carries a co-directing credit alongside ILCA’s Yuichi Ueda.

The second announcement was for Pokemon Legends: Arceus, an open world RPG with action elements slated for release in early 2022. Like Diamond and Pearl, it takes place in the region of Sinnoh, but the game is set hundreds of years before its modern counterparts in a world that looks more like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild than the comparably small-in-scope DS games it’s based on. It’s a new prequel story with a new structure, and this one is developed by Game Freak.

Why am I telling you all of this stuff you probably already know? Primarily, I need to set a baseline here so I can explain exactly how weird both of these announcements are. In some respects, it’s weird in a good way. In others, it’s weird in an “I’m a bit worried” kind of way.

Take Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl (which is probably already being called “BDSP” around the net). Outside of the circumstances surrounding its development—I think the idea of having multiple skilled development studios working on core Pokemon games to take some of the burden off of Game Freak is an excellent idea in theory—it’s strange because of how unexceptional of a remake it appears to be.

Unlike the new story beats, areas, gameplay styles, Pokemon forms, art direction, and/or general content additions of previous remakes (on top of gameplay modernizations), the new versions of Diamond and Pearl seem to be playing it straight. Between the chibi art style reminiscent of the original games (said style looks very strange brought up to HD) and the frequent use of phrasing like “faithfully reproduced” and “carefully preserved” on the remakes’ website, I’m expecting something akin to the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, where the focus is on HD visuals and gameplay modernizations rather than significant content additions.

I’m not expecting no new content per se, but I think the goal here is preservation and modernization—not creating a brand new game like the other remakes were. I’m hoping ILCA puts in a “classic gameplay” option that doesn’t force the Exp. Share effects and allows me to grind like I did 15 years ago, but since the last two releases didn’t even allow players to turn the feature off, my hopes aren’t high.

I could be wrong about all of this, of course. It’s all speculation, albeit speculation that I think is very reasonable.

But it’s how this announcement seemingly points to such a safe-looking remake that makes for why Pokemon Legends: Arceus is so fascinating. I already mentioned the open world structure, but it goes much further than that. There’s that far-past setting with steam-powered PokeBalls and a focus on unexplored wilderness (with no Pokemon League to speak of). There’s also the presence of three starter Pokemon from three different generations (Rowlet, Cyndaquil, and Oshawott).

Then there’s the gameplay. It seems like the core Pokemon RPG battling is mostly preserved. However, everything outside of battles differs greatly from the core structure. Catching Pokemon here seems to utilize stealth mechanics and some Let’s Go-esque “throwing PokeBalls outside of a conventional weaken-and-catch structure” gameplay in at least certain cases. There’s also strafing and what looks like a dodge roll, though we haven’t seen how these new moves will be utilized.

I think there’s a lot of potential for a more open world, BOTW-inspired take on Pokemon gameplay. That said, I’m also concerned. I’m not the first to point out that footage ran at a low framerate and everything looked, to put it generously, “visually inconsistent.” However, the game isn’t coming out for a year, assuming no delays, and there’s plenty of room for the game to improve as its release approaches.

My bigger problems are with the open world. Game Freak has built some solid open areas in Sword and Shield’s expansions, but everything here looked empty. The Sinnoh we saw showed terrain and Pokemon, but no discernible landmarks outside of the town shown, and no humans beyond those playable. The trailer reminded me of the Zelda BOTW gameplay reveal at The Game Awards 2014, which had a similar level of in-development emptiness not representative of what we got. I wonder if something similar is happening here.

On a positive note, I’m so glad they’re doing something with Arceus. I’ve always felt the divine creator Pokemon was among the most underutilized in the whole series, and a story centered around it is an extremely exciting idea. This raises more questions about how the story will work and what the narrative goal will be. I wonder if catching them all will, for the first time, take true center stage in a core title.

Pokemon Legends seems extremely ambitious, which I love. But of course, my excitement is cautious. As we see in the gaming industry on what feels like a quarterly basis, unchecked ambition can sometimes result in less-than-ideal outcomes.

In summary, we’re getting two games based on Sinnoh. One is a two-version remake of Diamond and Pearl that seems to be taking very few risks and may offer little new beyond HD visuals and modern gameplay. The other is a large-scale prequel (humorously called a pre-make by Pokemon on social media) with action-RPG elements that looks more like a console Zelda game than the linear JRPG it’s based on.

I think the best way to look at these announcements is as two sides of the same coin. If you want to replay Diamond and Pearl, that’s coming. If you want something new in a familiar context, that’s (hopefully) coming soon after. Even for a franchise that likes to mix up its release structure quite often, this remake/premake concept is quite clever, and I hope it succeeds despite any (valid) concerns that may have come out of this initial showing.


MASBFebruary 28, 2021

For Brillant Diamond and Shining Pearl, I wish the art-style had gone with a refined Let's Go-style. Why put in all the work for that engine if you're not going to use it? In battles, the game seems to shift to the Let's Go look, so why not be consistent? Do players really feel that much nostalgia for the chibi-style of the DS originals? Or is this a case that they don't trust the devs to make a game with those graphics at the necessary scale the games demand? I and others did get a good laugh when they said the game was made by the people who made Pokemon Home. What a pedigree! That surely prepared them for this! On second look at the Pokemon Direct, the game looked better than I initially thought, but it's still uninspired to my way of thinking. Because of that, I don't think these games are going to sell nearly as well as they could have. They'll still sell millions, but I tghink it will be a drop off.

For Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I thought the same as you, that this initial footage reminded me of what Breath of The Wild looked like when it was shown in 2014. Hopefully, the game will come to life just as Zelda did. Otherwise, it kind of looks like an empty tech demo. Not an impressive one at that. Some said that they wonder if this was the game that Monolith was advertising positions for last year. I hope not as I think it would be a waste if a team there was "stuck" making a Pokemon game versus Xenoblade or whatever other original game they could be working in instead. It's clearly using the same engine as Xenoblade X and BOTW, so I imagine at least some devs from Monolith are assisting Game Freak.

If Game Freak can fulfill their apparent ambitions for Arceus, it could be huge for the series going forward and for sales. They'll need it to make up for what I think is a loss as far as Brillant Diamond and Shining Pearl are concerned (in terms of both sales and ambition).

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