Could a Pokémon really hurt you? I mean, some might look scary, sure, but they’re usually just fun friends, right? They’re designed to be cute, cuddly, marketable furballs with magical powers. But what if that adorable Pikachu had shocked your grandma so hard she passed out? Or a Snorlax sat on your car? Pokémon have always been potentially dangerous creatures, and modern humans seem to have forgotten about that. But Pokémon Legends: Arceus works hard to insert some of the mystery back into Pokémon.
Legends: Arceus takes place hundreds of years before Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, back when the Sinnoh region was known as Hisui. The era’s buildings and fashion clearly draw inspiration from feudal Japan, and there aren’t any modern conveniences to aid trainers’ lives. (That Pokédex you’re working on is just ink and paper this time around.) To survive, the community of Jubilife Village has to band together and defend itself from the dangers outside the city walls.
When you first talk to people in the city of Jubilife, many of them are afraid of Pokémon — It’s an era before man and ‘Mon learned to live in harmony with each other. One of my first side quests came from a woman who wanted me to find her a Starly, but was clearly terrified at the idea of being too close to one. When I brought the bird back, the woman kept her distance, afraid of what might happen if she got too close.
After years of playing Pokémon games set in a modern world, it’s easy to look at these ancient villagers and see them as naïve. Every playable Pokémon character is a literal child, and they control giant dragons and legendary monsters without so much as a scratch — ignoring, of course, all those times Ash got shocked in the TV show; or that one time he got turned to stone (and shocked again).
But just a few hours into Pokémon Legends: Arceus I began to understand the fear. Not only are a roving pack of Bidoofs coming into town to make trouble — an early problem I had to solve — but the Pokémon out in the wild are happy to attack you, even when you don’t have a Pokémon at the ready.
More to the point: Pokémon will beat the shit out of you in Legends: Arceus. It’s a capture-or-get-killed world out there.
It’s easy to avoid damage and capture a Pokémon if you sneak up from the bushes or let them chow down on some berries you’ve thrown for them, but things can get messy if they spot you. If a Pokémon sees that you’re invading its space, it will get pissed and start to chase you down. To avert further disaster, you can either battle it, stun it with items, or run away.
If you appease a rampaging Pokémon and just let it follow you, it’ll send a volley of different attacks your way. Razor Leaf? Scald? All those moves that used to target your ally Pokémon are coming right at your player character now. Each time you get hit, the borders of the screen start to darken, and if you get hit too many times, the Pokémon will knock your ass out. You’ll wake up back at the nearest base and lose some of the items you were carrying.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus does a great job of turning what used to be tiny GameBoy JPEGs into threatening creatures. It tells you that Pokémon are worth fearing, and then it shows you just how dangerous they can be. But it also shows how the villagers learned to live alongside Pokémon. Instead of the Pokémon Professor just giving you a speech about how humans and Pokémon work in harmony, Legends: Arceus actually shows that special bond in action.
Part of your job in Legends: Arceus is to help teach people to work with Pokémon. Sometimes it’s bringing a local night patroller a Zubat so they can inspect it, or bringing a guard a Wurmple so they have a friend to talk to in the lonely, early morning hours. For the rest of the game, I watched that patroller roam around at night with the Zubat pal I gave him, and I watched that Wurmple evolve with his new owner. A rambunctious Mr. Mime I chased down in the village now helps keep the gate shut with its invisible walls. You get to witness the people around you accept Pokémon into their lives because of your actions. So the next time we get a modern Pokémon game, watching a human and monster work together will be far more meaningful.
Pokémon can be scary in Legends: Arceus, and that fear has made me truly think of them as monsters for the first time in decades. On its own, that’s an interesting change in perspective for a series as old as Pokémon. But it’s the way Legends: Arceus takes that fear, and subtly changes it to respect, that makes its storytelling so unique.