In the face of a complete mechanical overhaul, a semi-open world to explore, and a banging soundtrack, my favorite thing about Pokemon Legends: Arceus is how it uses its setting of the Hisui region to create a story more personal and more representative of the franchise’s world than the series ever gets to be when it’s about getting eight badges and becoming a Pokemon champion. It’s why I sincerely hope the game has DLC coming. Despite how successfully it revolutionizes what it means to take a journey in the Pokemon universe, Pokemon Legends: Arceus fumbles in its final moments to bring home what it meant to climb its mountains and sail its seas. Because it’s a game lacking a proper conclusion.
Spoilers for Pokemon Legends: Arceus follow.
Unlike most of the mainline games, Pokemon Legends: Arceus isn’t about going on a quest to become a champion in the Pokemon League, or proving your team of monsters is the best in the region. The protagonist is pulled from modern day, and sent back in time to the Hisui region. This is the land that will one day be called Sinnoh in Pokemon Diamond & Pearl, and the people of this region are just now learning about Pokemon capture and battling. Our protagonist comes from a time when catching and fighting with these creatures is a cultural touchstone.
All of this was at the behest of Arceus, the all-powerful creator of the Pokemon universe. The question of what Arceus wants from this teenager is the mystery hanging over the game just as the giant portal hangs over Hisui. They’ve been given a directive: to capture all the Pokemon in the game’s five maps, then seek Arceus out after. In the meantime, they’ve been taken in by a group called the Galaxy Team, an organization looking to capture and study various dangerous Pokemon in the region, all while trying to remain neutral in the religious conflict between the Diamond and Pearl Clans native to Hisui.
Using its open, untamed areas as a stage, Pokemon Legends: Arceus explores the origins of the Pokemon universe in a way Diamond & Pearl never did, and gives crucial context to major players in its creation they had been sorely lacking. The Diamond and Pearl clans worship Dialga and Palkia, the gods of time and space, who debuted in the original Sinnoh games on the Nintendo DS, but their role in the world was rushed into a 30-minute stretch at the end of the game, whereas here they play central, cultural roles instead of being symbols of ideas. So even as a reprise of parts of Diamond & Pearl’s story, it treads new ground and it felt significant that I, as a character dragged through time, had been spat out of the rift to intervene.
But dealing with Palkia and Dialga weren’t the parameters I had been given when I arrived in this strange land. I saved the day, yet I still remained in Hisui. The credits rolled, but I had yet to meet Arceus. But Pokemon Legends: Arceus’ post-game opened up a third act, and surely it would contain the closure I was looking for. What followed was a final collectathon to meet all the Legendary Pokemon in Hisui with the help of Volo, a merchant who had been acting in the background for much of the game. Volo had a heel-turn moment, revealing he has a self-destructive obsession with meeting Arceus and using its power to reshape the world in his vision. We battled, with him using a team of Pokemon nearly identical to his modern-day descendent Cynthia. The ancestors of both Professor Rowan and Champion Cynthia, the two most reliable allies I had in Diamond & Pearl, had both turned on me in Pokemon Legends: Arceus, solidifying my appreciation for how the game constantly went against my expectations.
After defeating Volo, he reveals the entire events of the game were due to conspiring between him and Giratina, the allegory to Satan in Christianity in Pokemon mythology. Having grown resentful of Arceus’ banishing it to the Distortion World, Giratina conspired with Volo to send Palkia and Dialga into a frenzied state, requiring Arceus’ intervention. This would have allowed Giratina to strike its creator down, and allow Volo to reimagine the Pokemon world how he liked. But thanks to the kid Arceus brought back in time, their plan was foiled. It was the final revelation that made Pokemon Legends: Arceus feel like an acknowledgment of past narrative failings. Diamond & Pearl also introduced the concepts of actual gods to this universe, but they only ever felt like ideas, or mindless weapons to be exploited, rather than individuals with motives that would interfere with the lives of its people.
But even after I had accomplished what Arceus sent me back in time to do, I was still tasked with catching all the Pokemon in Hisui before I’d be granted an audience. After doing so, I went back to Spear Pillar and met with Arceus in its own plane of existence. And it wanted to test my strength. Eventually, myself, my Raichu, Palkia, and all my other friends struck Arceus down.
Impressed, Arceus gave a “piece” of itself to me to accompany me in my Hisui journey. And I had collected the four gods of creation for my party. But…that was it. Now, I’m sitting with a save file that lets me travel around Hisui as I please, but Arceus hasn’t allowed me to go home.
I have a few hypotheses as to why the game ends without any proper conclusion. But the most probable argument is that if Arceus lets you go home, you wouldn’t be able to keep exploring the Hisui region. And why would you want to interrupt the player’s fun? But even with that gameplay complication, it doesn’t help that the entire A plot has yet to be resolved.
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It’s never outwardly expressed, but I’ve latched onto the theory that the protagonist of Pokemon Legends: Arceus is the same character we played as in Diamond & Pearl and their remakes. Known canonically as Lucas and Dawn, these two kids confronted similar world-ending stakes in their original games as 10-year-olds beginning their Pokemon journeys, and would have proven capable of stopping Giratina and Volo’s plans. In Arceus, it’s directly stated the main character is about 15. That felt significant to me, as the 10-year-old protagonist has become a staple of most Pokemon games, and given that the main characters of Arceus look identical to Lucas and Dawn when they fall through the rift, it all just seems to fit so nicely. But that narrative throughline that makes Arceus feel like a perfect circle also feels like a disservice because now, those heroes that we’ve known for 16 years at this point are stuck out of time, and they’re not the only ones.
There are further hints that the player isn’t the first person Arceus has pulled back in time, and they make the lack of a real conclusion harder to swallow. Ingo, a character who debuted in Pokemon Black & White, also makes an appearance in Arceus. He seems a little bit older, but has also lost much of his memories of his life back in present-day Unova in the process of traveling through time. But as time goes on, he starts to remember his brother Emmet and battling alongside him in a time when Pokemon and trainers fought together. He’s a tragic figure in a Pokemon story that leans more overtly into those themes than most Pokemon games ever do. As I played through Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I was hopeful that when I accomplished whatever Arceus sent me back in time to do, Ingo would be able to accompany me as I went home. But to my dismay, both for my own character and for Ingo, that closure never came.
All of those personal stakes, all of that worldbuilding, and all of those lore tie-ins result in what I’d call the most effective story a Pokemon RPG has been able to produce. At its best, Pokemon Legends: Arceus is poignant, hopeful, and sometimes even willing to critique the very basic premise that made the franchise a runaway success 25 years ago. But how well it ties all of these things together makes it feel all the more tragic when it’s incomplete. And it’s not in a way that feels like the game acknowledges the tragedy of it all and is using that as a means of storytelling. No, it feels like Pokemon Legends: Arceus just doesn’t have an ending. It has a stellar final boss fight, but never actually concludes much of anything.
Pokemon has become a mostly annualized franchise at this point, but in 2020, there wasn’t a new Pokemon game, there was only DLC for Pokemon Sword & Shield. There are a lot of questions about what the future of Pokemon looks like in the face of a game that so holistically shakes things up like this, but I hope before we have to start talking about a future game, we can stay focused on the present long enough to give it a proper conclusion. Because right now, it feels like one of the best stories Pokemon has ever put to a cartridge or disc is sitting in limbo, all in service of giving the player a way to keep playing. So if Arceus is the only Pokemon RPG we get in 2022, I hope whatever future support it receives includes closure for the characters it left behind.