Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review: A Whole New World
Pokémon has somehow spent the last twenty-six years staying fundamentally the same game. Don’t get me wrong, the team at Game Freak have evolved the series in plenty of subtle but interesting ways, but if someone were to play the original titles for the first time and then play the newest entries, they would feel at home in the newer game. In some ways, this speaks to the strength of the series’ foundation. In other ways though, it speaks to a series which has refused to evolve and in a lot of ways has remained stuck in the past.
For years many Pokémon fans have been asking the series to evolve, but that’s always seemed a huge risk. If the developers didn’t nail it, they’d risk alienating fans who have followed them long enough to rent a car.
I’m not sure Pokémon Legends: Arceus nails things, but it comes at least reasonably close. There are a number of missteps along the way, but the team at Game Freak have managed to lay a foundation that could genuinely be the future of the series. It manages to offer a totally new way of seeing this world while still completely feeling like a Pokémon game.
A Space-Time Conundrum
You start Pokémon Legends: Arceus by falling out of the sky. Literally, thanks to a space-time rift over the area. You’re found by a Professor of Pokémon (Arceus hasn’t abandoned everything the series is known for) who happens to need some help capturing a few of his Pokémon who have gotten loose. Anyone familiar with the series will understand where this is going with you soon getting your first creature. The path to get there is a bit different from what we’re used to.
While you’ll use Poké Balls to capture the loose pocket monsters, your accomplishment isn’t seen as normal but rather as fairly remarkable. That’s because this is the earliest game in the Pokémon timeline, in a period where Poké Balls are new and the Pokédex is first being developed. Pokémon aren’t yet seen as lovable creatures everyone thinks of as friends. Instead, they’re looked at as fearsome creatures, dangerous but potentially useful, and sometimes even as holy and worthy of worship. While people having a partner or two isn’t unheard of, most people don’t and those that do work hard to get them. That you can waltz in and start gathering them by the field is considered a potential turning point.
Soon you’re recruited to the Survey Corps of the Galaxy Team, a group setting up a new settlement in the Hisui region, which will eventually become known as Sinnoh in Diamond and Pearl. They need your skills to help fill out the first Pokédex, calm some out of control Pokémon Lords, those that are worshipped by the locals, and help them really get moving in growing their settlement, Jubilife Village.
Getting To Work
Upon joining up you’ll quickly be put to work with Professor Laventon, filling out the Pokédex. It’s a little different than it is in most games in the series though. If you’ve ever read the entries in the series later titles, you may have wondered how they got all those little tidbits and facts about each creature. Apparently, thanks to you. You need to do a lot more here than just capture one of each Pokémon. Instead, you’ll be tasked with a wide variety of tasks related to each creature. The basics like capturing them or battling them are here, though now you’ll need to catch a lot more than one of each and defeat more than one as well. There are a lot more creature specific tasks as well, things like seeing them use a specific move, or using a specific item on them. These tasks help keep the game fresh and move the focus of the game away from trainer battles, not missing from the game but quite rare considering how few people actually have Pokémon, and places it back on interacting with the creatures themselves.
The process of doing all of this is a bit different too. Combat in Arceus is mostly the same turn-based system players of the series are used to, with each creature having four attacks and the same options, but everything around it is new. No longer do you get into random battles. Now Pokémon run around an overworld where you can directly interact with them. How they react varies wildly in really interesting ways. Some will run at the sight of you, requiring you to sneak up on them. Others won’t care about you at all. There are even Pokémon who will attack you directly, the trainer, giving justification to the fear so many in the area still have for them. You can be knocked unconscious too, though you’ll only take some minor penalties if you do and get back up.
The option to throw a Poké Ball without even getting into a fight first is here, similar to what we saw in Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee. It will work sometimes too, but powerful Pokémon will still need to be taken down in battle, or manipulated via a series of items you can throw at them. While you can buy some items in a store back in Jubilife Village, mostly you’ll get them by gathering resources in the wild and crafting them. You quickly get a portable crafting table which lets you do all of this on the fly. It’s a welcome change, enabling you to stay out in the field for extended periods, not having to constantly run back to town.
A Challenging Start
Well, that’s if you can handle it. Pokémon Legends: Arceus can be pretty difficult at times. Not in a way where I feel most players will be put off by it, but especially in its early hours you’ll have to work to progress. Far over-leveled Alpha Pokémon roam the land, providing a threat to be avoided, though eventually being able to take them on is certainly rewarding. You’ll also have a difficult time getting around at first. Falling in water means a few annoying seconds of being able to do nothing before things fade out and you end up back on shore. In time you’ll meet Pokémon helpers you can summon to swim through the water with, or to run far faster across the land, and fast travel is an option unless you’re actively under attack, but in the early going it can be tough.
When you actually get into a battle, things don’t necessarily get that much easier. This is the same battle system fans are used to, but damage seems to have been kicked up a notch, with it being easier than ever to one-shot opposing Pokémon. This goes both ways though; your Pokémon go down easier and even those at reasonable levels can sometimes put the hurt on you. Arceus provides a couple new tricks, to help, but they’re a mixed bag. There’s now a turn order in battle, and while its mostly back and forth, by using new abilities you can sometimes get two attacks in straight, while your opponent can do the same. You do this by utilizing a new Agile Style to do a slightly underpowered attack which might let you attack again sooner, or Strong Style which will do extra damage but leave you vulnerable to an early attack. The ability to see the attack order and what these options will do to it is nice, but it rarely felt essential or like something I had to give a lot of thought to. So many battles end so fast that it often seemed a waste to worry about.
Room To Grow
As for your quest beyond actually interacting with this world, it’s a bit of a miss. Its cast is kept fairly small but few of the character made any real impression on me. The few that did were mostly memorable because they were annoying. You’ll be sent around to help a variety of Pokémon Lords in trouble, who need you to help calm their fury. This involves a variety of special treats these powerful Pokémon love that you throw at them to calm them down. Every so often you’ll get them off balance enough that you can send out one of your own creatures to beat on them too. They’re interesting certainly, and provide some variety with you theoretically being able to get through these sequences without even sending a creature at them, but I didn’t find them a lot of fun. You’ll also be locked out of moving the story forward regularly until you complete enough tasks in the Pokédex, and while I didn’t really care about getting to another furious Lord, I did want to see new environments and what Pokémon were around the next corner, so this can be a bit of a pain.
There’s also the matter of the graphics, which are a weird mash-up of pretty good and just awful depending on what you’re looking at. Character models are great and the animations on your Pokémon are wonderful, helping to bring them to life. At the same time though, the Hisui region is filled with awful textures and draw distances that leave you noticing a lot of pop in. While few are going to the Switch expecting a graphical powerhouse, and things are a bit less noticeably awful in handheld mode, there are times the game is downright ugly. Yet other times, it can look pretty darn good for a Switch title. It makes for a strange contrast.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus nails the core of what could easily become the core of the series moving forward. Its world doesn’t look great, but it’s a ton of fun to explore and play around in. There’s definitely room for improvement in a next installment. A core quest for players to really sink their teeth into, improved graphics at least around the edges, and slightly rebalanced battles would be a great start. Still, for players who have spent the last twenty six years waiting for Pokémon to try something new, you’ll definitely want to take a trip to Hisui.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Game Freak; Players: 2; Released: January 28th, 2022; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Pokémon Legends: Arceus.