I was talking to my mate about Pokemon the other day, and I said “ ”. They looked at me, laughed silently with their eyes closed, then stared dead ahead with a flat expression as the conversation continued. This didn’t actually happen, but I can only assume that’s how Pokemon developers think conversations go, which is why all conversations in Pokemon games go the exact same way. It’s getting pretty old.
When Pokemon began 25 years ago, it stuffed a colossal amount of personality into its dialogue boxes. Backed up by the game’s brilliance, the pop culture relevance of the anime, and my own childish nostalgia, those pixelated letters felt alive. “I like shorts! They’re comfy and easy to wear!” is still a classic to this day.
Related: If Hisuian Gastrodon Isn't In Pokemon Legends: Arceus, I'll RiotUnfortunately, as time went on, Pokemon never got out of this rut, and other games have left it behind. Our own Eric Switzer recently wrote about how poor its turn-based mechanics are compared to its competitors, and the dialogue is no different. I know part of this owes to Pokemon’s design traditions – as a JRPG, using text boxes to convey speech instead of voice actors means it fits into the conventions of the genre. However, most JRPGs have significantly more dialogue than Pokemon, a much wider cast of characters, and operate on a comparatively minimal budget. It’s not like Pokemon would be alone in embracing voice acting either.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake features full voice acting (and some of the most gorgeous faces our medium has ever seen) to help convey the powerful emotions and character dilemmas at the heart of the game. The original, though a masterpiece, relied on you filling in the blanks yourself, much like Pokemon Red & Blue. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, though so stuffed with speech it often uses dialogue boxes for general conversation, has fully voiced cutscenes for all character events. The closest Pokemon has tried to meet us in the middle was New Pokemon Snap, which claimed to have voice acting but only used it around half of the time, despite the fact that conversation across the game as a whole is rare.
Pokemon’s graphics have improved, although even that feels behind the times. New Pokemon Snap feels like it’s at the level we should expect of a Pokemon game on the Switch, but both Sword & Shield and Legends Arceus feel dated, especially when you look at the background models. BDSP opted for a chibi art style that didn’t really work, and the whole thing feels like a mess, but at least if Pokemon committed to an art style more often it might cover for the fact it still looks like a GameCube era title. Pokemon meets Wind Waker would be cool, but for that to happen there would need to be a deliberate, thoughtful decision behind the game’s design choices, not just vague cartoons with shitty trees in the background.
A bad tree doesn’t actively influence my enjoyment of Pokemon, but it does underline the fact that Pokemon games don’t seem to get the care and attention their massive worldwide popularity would suggest.
I don’t like calling developers lazy. It is, ironically, a lazy criticism. I don’t think individual developers working on the Pokemon games are lazy, but it’s clear that the game is made with too few developers to properly build the Pokemon experience. Legends Arceus was teased as open world, before being revealed as more of a pared back Monster Hunter World experience, with set hub worlds of the the main base, and even though that might be for the best here, it’s strange that in 25 years, a game with a budget that should be limitless, a game so perfect for wider exploration and innovative discoverability, is still repeating the same story, in silence, and only getting inches closer to a vivid open world.
It just means Pokemon feels so lifeless. I’ll still play Legends Arceus, I’ll probably enjoy it. New Pokemon Snap came second in my GOTY list. I know I’m part of the problem. It’s Pokemon, if you make a game about it, I’ll buy it no questions asked. It’s only once it’s in my hands that I’ll start asking questions, questions like “Why is there no voice acting? It’s 2021 and you’re one of the biggest franchises not just in gaming, but in the world.”
And Pokemon will look at me back and say “ ”. Classic Pokemon.
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