The worlds of Pokemon often pass us by. Some cement themselves in our nostalgic memories, as seen in editor-in-chief Stacey Henley’s new column that revisits the brilliance of Kanto. But in the modern era it feels like Pokemon could be doing more with the global cultures it uses as inspiration across the likes of Galar, Kalos, Aloha, and so many more. Pokemon is no stranger to using our real world cultures as a foundation for its own environments, but I can’t help but feel that this homage can go so much deeper.
We are accustomed to passing through towns to reach our next objective in each game, often gawping at the scenery for a handful of seconds before being thrust into a rival battle or a gauntlet of cutscenes that serve no other purpose beyond delivering exposition. The region as a whole is normally filled with mystical legends that reinforce the wider narrative, or landmarks that make obvious references to the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, but they’re often surface level inclusions. We recognise the imagery, but the stories that pin them to the realm of Pokemon often feel fleeting at best.
This pastiche carries over into the towns and cities themselves, which from a functional standpoint haven’t changed much at all since the days of Red & Blue. You stumble into a new place and are free to walk into the majority of buildings to strike up conversations with strangers, often rewarded with new creatures or items for your troubles. To be honest, if a random child walked into my house and started talking to me I’d ward them away with a free Voltorb too. You’re a weird infantile voyeur let loose upon the world, so it would be nice to learn more about it outside the mandatory information always being fed to us.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus struck a balance of sorts. Its recreation of the Sinnoh region was drenched in history and culture, while you were placed in a position where contributing to that civilization was encouraged through the catching of Pokemon and befriending those who call this place home. But once again it felt stifled thanks to only a single hub area you could traditionally call a ‘Town’ alongside a number of distinct camps and biomes. It felt like a missed opportunity, like this version of a familiar region could have been filled with different villages all with their own different perspectives on Pokemon and their place in the world. We had yet to reach a consensus on these creatures or even befriend them, so it would have made sense for everyone to have differing opinions about their presence.
It was so close to breaking the mould, but ultimately offered an open world format with nothing much to do beyond catching Pokemon and furthering research milestones. I loved the handful of new characters I got to meet, but they merely existed in this world instead of being a fundamental part of it. Scarlet & Violet could build upon its shortcomings, especially since the next main entry is set to include an open world format similar to that of Arceus.
Wild Areas have seemingly been expanded to accommodate a greater sense of exploration while being incorporated into towns and cities far more seamlessly. Before they just felt like massive fields separating parts of the country, so many players rushed through them without even bothering to explore. I was one of those people, turned off by the dodgy performance and bland environments that offered little more than grinding.
Scarlet & Violet could change all that by making its open world mean something, by providing us with side quests that aren’t just strict objectives, but combine tasks and battles with meaningful stories that tie into where you are in the region at that given moment. It’s an RPG, but for so long it feels like Pokemon has defined our role as little more than a silent observer with a predetermined destiny we have no choice but to follow. Make me care about what this world stands for instead of being briefly wowed by its visual aesthetic, weave stories throughout the scenery and characters I stumble across instead of making them feel like stage decorations with little to no meaning.
It would be a natural evolution for Pokemon, and one I’m sure that so many hardcore fans have been waiting for. The films and anime aren’t afraid to tell new stories and expand upon this weird and wonderful planet, so it feels weird that Game Freak is never willing to do the same.
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