Outside my kitchen window is a birdbath. A moderately sized green and yellow parrot stands on the side of the bath, takes a few sips, then steps in and furiously flaps its wings. After a few minutes, the thoroughly soaked bird looks around as if baffled that the water is gone.
In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a Zubat stares at me with no eyes. I have just thrown a Poké Ball and missed. I freeze, hidden in the grass, but it’s too late. It knows I’m there, and it is furious. It shrieks at me, and I start to sprint away. It swoops towards me, spinning in an attack I have no interest in confirming would hurt a lot. I dodge out of the way and keep running until I’m safe.
These interactions with birdwatching and Pokémon Legends: Arceus might seem dissimilar, but to me, they’re different facets of the same joy: the joy of watching nature.
In real life, it’s best to leave animals alone, but in a video game, you can feed them, fight them, put them to sleep, bonk them on the head with a mud ball, or just catch them in a Poké Ball, and this all fills me with joy. I’ve never tried throwing a Poké Ball at a bird, but I’m fairly sure I’d get arrested.
There’s a sidequest early on in Pokémon Legends: Arceus where a woman asks to see the completed Pokédex for Starly, a bird Pokémon, simply because she thinks it’s so adorable. In a way, I think this captures the essence of the game.
In previous entries, interactions with Pokémon were limited to battling. You could see them, battle them, and maybe interact with them in a minigame, but that was it. In Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the game wants you to be like the Starly lover. They want you to observe the Pokémon, to interact with them, and to think they’re absolutely adorable as you catch dozens of them to level up your Pokédex.
Pokémon aren’t real. Their programmed behaviors are fairly simple, mostly ranging from getting angry to running away, along with some standard walking animations. They’re never going to be as fleshed out as real animals. But I absolutely love watching a little Shinx trundle back and forth, seeing a Pichu take a nap, or observing a Ponyta trotting along before ruthlessly throwing a Poké Ball at all of them. It feels so fresh and alive compared to previous entries in the series, and it reminds me why I fell in love with Pokémon in the first place.
This is the first time a Pokémon game has wanted your core interaction with the game to be with Pokémon behavior. Pokémon Snap came close, but the interaction was one-sided. You could interact with the Pokémon, but they couldn’t interact with you. Now, I can live out my dream of being zapped by an angry Pikachu or trampled by a rampaging Snorlax.
On top of this, the environment itself matters more than in any Pokémon game before. If you’re going into an area filled with aggressive Pokémon, you’d better know where you can run, or be prepared to fight. If you go into a cave, there’s no grass to hide your approach for a close-up Poké Ball.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus finally attempts to fulfill a promise of the Pokémon premise: a world brimming with Pokémon you can actually interact with. You can no longer treat them solely as RPG battles waiting to happen. Now they’re creatures that move in unique patterns, get aggressive or scared depending on their species, and start to feel like they might be real.
Sure, it might not be quite the same as watching a parrot enjoy my birdbath a little too enthusiastically. But it gives me a bit of that feeling, and that’s a great first step.