Welcome to the Great Plateau of this post. You can read any paragraph–any sentence, even–of this article in any order you want. Of course, you could always do that, for written works are far easier to experience non-linearly compared to a video game. Well, most video games, anyway. For today we shall be discussing open world games. I don’t have a lot to say that’s interesting, and I’m really just trying to put something out there by the end of the month, and I’ve been playing a lot of Pokemon Scarlet, and I’ve been thinking about Pokemon Legends, and I’ve been thinking about Breath of the Wild, and
Movement in an open world game is the most important thing to nail. A well-designed world might be what you’d expect to be most important, but the act of actually moving has to be engaging so that the player will want to see the entire well-designed world. Movement has always been crucial since the first real-time video games. It feels really fun simply having Mario run from left to right in Super Mario Bros because the game is at a speed that is fast but not difficult to keep up with mentally. Compare that to other 2D platformers: Mega Man games feel very stiff because the titular robot has no sense of momentum–he stops dead in his tracks once the input is gone. Sonic games feel very loose because it’s even more about momentum than Mario. This translated to 3D games as well. Super Mario 64 was famously developed in a way that the devs refused to create the levels until Mario’s movement in a 3D plane felt good enough.
The three key features of Pokemon Scarlet’s open world are Gyms, Titans, and Bases. The two key features of Breath of the Wild’s open world are Sacred Beasts, and Shrines. The only shared key feature across Pokemon Legends’ areas are the Pokemon themselves–individual landmarks in the areas aren’t reused. Each game uses something different to entice the player to explore with a central goal at the end of it. Scarlet dangles the mystery of the crater of Paldea. Breath of the Wild has the central figure of Calamity Ganon to stop. Legends has a paper-thin excuse of a plot to motivate the player. These all have their advantages and disadvantages. I appreciate Legends’ uniqueness across regions but found that there really could’ve been some sort of metaprogression to find other than Pokemon. I think Scarlet might have made too many goals for their open world and thus made the world too big to compensate for the relatively less engaging movement compared to Legends and Breath of the Wild, but honestly I adored the density of respawning collectibles. And Breath of the Wild has by far the best style and movement and I really loved that exploration was usually done by the player simply because exploring was fun, but I have to relent and say it could’ve used maybe one more thing to fill some of the space.
In these three games, you are a human exploring a world. Scarlet is closest to an old mascot platformer like Spyro the Dragon in that you will do the bulk of your movement across the world on an agile animal, but you are still a human on top of this animal. Breath of the Wild allows you to use a horse to traverse Hyrule, but I say “neigh” to that because I love the freedom of controlling Link. Legends also provides steeds to ride that are generally useful, but I also rarely used them since I wanted to roleplay what it felt like to be a human in the world, and the game supported that usually. All three games allow the player to climb. However, in Scarlet and Legends, a Pokemon is climbing with limitless stamina, while Link must use his own two hands and will fall if his stamina runs out. Somehow, despite the inconvenience, climbing with Link is the most gripping experience, pun intended. I think a lot of joy from a well-designed open world comes from grappling (again, pun intended) with minor inconveniences to reach the goal. All video games are like that, actually. But open world games are usually the ones that make you tackle minutiae that most games automate. And Breath of the Wild making the player use wits and patience to climb a mountain is just more fun than having Koraidon scale it.
It’s unfair to actually call Pokemon Legends: Arceus an open world game, because it was never billed as one. People who saw the initial trailers and hype definitely felt it was going to be open world while Nintendo quietly released a statement a few months before the game released stating that it was an “open area” game instead. Open area just means that Legends has 7 or so large areas to explore that are connected by a menu rather than by, well, walking from one into another. Presumably, this is more convenient for developers since they can just build one area and not have to worry about the tectonic digital plates causing earthquakes when put together. It does make Legends feel… I don’t know, just a little less than it could’ve been. It’s very strange, but I, and presumably others, would’ve liked it more if they just… actually put the levels together. Scarlet can do it when it would’ve been easy for the devs to have all the Areas not connected and instead have them accessed via menu. Breath of the Wild is a bit harder to imagine being traversed via menu. Though I guess having the ability to teleport to specific spots in Breath of the Wild and Pokemon Scarlet kind of make them open area games in a very cynical interpretation of the idea.
Combat is in most open world games. Some open world games are also “walking simulators” with no conflict and that is perfectly valid. But Scarlet, Legends, and Breath of the Wild have combat to spice up the constant walking. The conceit of Pokemon has always been that your loving pets are the ones to fight for you which hasn’t changed. And that’s why Breath of the Wild’s combat, while flawed, is slightly more fulfilling–it’s “you” fighting. I also prefer the speed and simplicity of Legends’ fights compared to Scarlet. Battles go by super quick. Scarlet is by far the slowest of the games since it is trying to be a traditional Pokemon game, which has always placed a ton of emphasis on its battle system, while Legends was free from those constraints. I can appreciate the complexity of Scarlet’s battling, but it feels incongruous with wanting to explore the world, and the 10 seconds wasted by Koraidon crashing into a tiny Pokemon leading to animations of the battle starting before I can run away adds up and is super annoying. The game could’ve used repels and some way of turning animations off but oh well.
Stuff to do and an enticing layout are parts of an open world. But the world must also feel “lived in” else it comes across as Jolly Roger Bay from Super Mario 64. Pokemon Legends is the one that fails here. There are very few details in the environment because it is about the player being the first to really explore and interact with the world you find yourself in. Funnily enough, one of those few details is an abandoned, beached ship like Jolly Roger Bay. Legends could’ve still salvaged the feeling of a lived in world if the Pokemon interacted with each other, but, alas, they feel as they are part of another world than the people and other Pokemon around them. Scarlet has great details. While exploring part of the game’s vast ocean, I came across a rocky island with Pelipper (think Pelicans), and a Magikarp nearly fell on me after escaping a Pelipper’s mouth. I found a Raichu, an electric Pokemon, on a sandy beach in the middle of the ocean, nearby. It knew the move Surf thus showing to me how that thing got there. There’s a lot of little stuff like this that makes Paldea feel real. Breath of the Wild had very fine details in text, environments, and enemy interactions that have slipped from my mind, but also added to the world feeling real.
On that note, the core environmental narratives of the three are interesting comparisons. Legends is a pre-industrial revolution game–the technology is steampunk (down to the Poke Balls emitting steam when used), the land is unexplored, and the people are scared of Pokemon due to their mystery. It is up to the player to be the first person to positively interact with Pokemon and assuage others’ fears of the creatures. Breath of the Wild is a post-apocalypse game where the people are afraid of going out because the world has ended. It is up to you to thwart the vestiges of what ended the world so that others may gain the confidence to return. Finally, Scarlet is… set in modern day Spain. Where many people have already traversed the world before you, and it is even an officially-named and recognized process to explore the world in the universe of Scarlet. It is quite unique as an open world game in this regard. The feeling of being the first to explore an area is super enticing and a common premise for open world games. But everywhere you go in Scarlet, you’ll run into another trainer. Well, save for one place, which is the game’s promise that your character will be unique should they get there. It’s kind of refreshing.
Music and sound design. A video game is first and foremost about the sights. Ears are the easiest way to augment that. All three games have quite good sound design. Breath of the Wild’s smack of weapons as they strike their target is extremely satisfying. The sound effect you’ll hear most in Legends is of a Poke Ball hitting some poor sap in the back, and it is great. Scarlet has the weakest sound effects because it is required to carry many traditional effects over and overall it works but fails to add much. For instance, there really should be a better sound for pulling out stakes since it lacks an animation, so having the sound do the storytelling when you cannot see it would do a lot. The music in Breath of the Wild is deliberately sparse, alienating, lonely, and, well, sad. It sells the post-apocalypse. Legends Arceus kind of goes for that same vibe but it doesn’t quite jibe with the game’s tone as a pre-apocalypse, pre-explored world environment. Scarlet also has very traditional music for the most part alongside some very good new themes. It has a lot more melodies and actual songs compared to Breath’s and Legends’ tracks of “hit random keys on a piano in a discordant manner” and it fits with the atmosphere. I won’t go out of my way to listen to Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack, but it adds so much to the game’s overall package. Legends is a bland imitation that has some good tracks, and Scarlet has very good music.
This is a strange commonality, but you can glide in all three games. And it is super satisfying in Breath of the Wild and Scarlet, and quite satisfying in Legends. The sad thing about Legends is that you get the glide super late. Or, well, I got it super late because I refused to progress in that game unless I got done with the research on every Pokemon in a given area, and the glide is received in the final zone. Scarlet’s glide comes after conquering 4 titans. Both Pokemon games have you ride Pokemon to glide. Legends’ birds are great at gliding. Scarlet’s glider stars nosediving quickly which is too bad because there’s so many glides I want to make that they refuse to make. But it’s still very very satisfying to glide somewhere you don’t think you’re intended to go, like a stake that is barely reachable by gliding off a tower. Breath of the Wild’s glider is the best and most satisfying because you can glide, hit a mountain, and start climbing that mountain while the Pokemon slide off. I cannot express how fun it is to climb in Breath of the Wild. It is so rewarding. All these small things that Breath of the Wild does to make the overall open world feel full and fun to navigate are what make it the best open world game. The Pokemon games are awesome games in their own rights, but not quite as good at being an open world. But they have the appeal of the actual Pokemon to make up for it and are extremely good games as well. In short, all three games are really good and loveable. Breath of the Wild nailed a lot of things first try while Legends and Scarlet could use some polish, but they’re all extremely good.
Writing in an open world game is a tricky subject. There are many open world games that have a billion books of lore that are lying around and will each be 200 pages of backstory like “Lord Griffon came to the Veldt Core nearly 175 years ago and created the Order of Magiscribes to snuff out the Den of Inquiety” and it’s just terrible. Breath of the Wild had a little of that, but mostly balanced the depressing post-apocalyptic world you could feel every step outside a town with a collection of super cheery towns filled with happy residents. It’s a nice balance. Legends’ has a smattering of NPCs, mostly concentrated in the central town, that aren’t the most interesting to talk to since they usually say “egads! a Pokemon!” and then faint. But I love how the central town builds itself up as you progress into a more populated place with people that aren’t quite as scared. Scarlet has standard Pokemon writing to go with the standard Pokemon tone, and it’s fine. I appreciate how many of them have their vapid dialogue appear without having to actually press A and wait a second to load the dialogue.
Legends and Breath of the Wild are deliberately lonely games for single players. Scarlet is a traditional Pokemon game that is in a series that has always forced players to ask other players to play with them to complete the Pokedex. As such, Scarlet is unique in this group as a deliberately cooperative game. You can at any time connect to the internet and link up with strangers or friends to roam Paldea. I think it’s very cute but not what I look for in an open world game. I think the loneliness is important in making my character’s actions feel special. But I do understand how crucial such a thing is for Scarlet as a traditional Pokemon game and do not hold it against it.
Graphics aren’t everything. But artstyle is super important. I really like how everything that isn’t a Pokemon or piece of environment looks in Legends. It’s super sleek, snappy, and gets out of the way quick, which fits with the game’s breakneck pace. Scarlet’s look is just… boring? It doesn’t really have an artstyle. But it does have a lot more fun animations and little graphical touches compared to Legends. Like the insane designs of the Gym Leaders like Larry, or the genuinely really well-designed cities that dot the map like Porto Marinada. They all feel very unique and fun to explore because of that. The Pokemon themselves look good. But, man, every Pokemon game, people will take Gamefreak to task for how sad the animations are, the general blandness of environments, and the many graphical bugs that pop up. Scarlet is a way worse offender than Legends which has blandness but not many bugs. Scarlet has a lot of bugs. I haven’t mentioned Breath of the Wild once here but all I can say is that the game has immaculate art design. It might be the best in any game, period. It looks super good. I don’t know how they did it. As a launch Switch game, it has performance issues, but is gorgeous and has stunning locales. I especially love the Zora Domain with its mix of waterfalls, stone, and embedded artifacts with script on them–it is beautiful.