When we were children, I’d reckon most of us played or watched a friend play a Pokemon game. For myself and many others, it was a wild dream to have an open-world Pokemon game where we could run around the environment and catch any Pokemon that we laid eyes on. Game Freak’s latest adventure Pokemon Legends Arceus’ premise is just that, but can it really deliver on all our hopes and dreams?
For some context, my first games in the series were Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver, and I played every entry from those up until Sun and Moon. By that point the formula was getting stale, and hardcore fans wanted more innovation. Sword and Shield were definitely not that, with many fans including myself passing on the games after the “Dexit” scandal. For those who didn’t follow it, essentially Game Freak for the first time excluded the ability to transfer some of your favorite old Pokemon from previous games into the latest one, while making clearly false statements for why they weren’t able to do so. Thus, Legends Arceus is my first mainline Pokemon game in five years, though I tried to keep my expectations in check after the Sword/Shield fiasco. Immediately with the reveal of the first trailer for this game, it drew comparisons to Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW) game, which similarly reinvented the Zelda series for a modern audience. I also recently played Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei V (SMTV), another monster collecting game for the Nintendo Switch that scratched a lot of similar itches to what this game strived to achieve last year.
While previous Pokemon entries have felt like “regional forms” of the same game, Legends Arceus manages to break out of the mold set by the original Red and Blue. This is apparent immediately when beginning the game, where your amnesiac player character is introduced to the world by a voice that is clearly Arceus itself rather than the traditional professor, and immediately falls through a void onto a beach of the Hisui region, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. You don’t have a home, you don’t have your mom to send money to, and you’re clearly from another era based on your clothing style. This immediately grabs the player’s attention and differentiates itself from pretty much every previous mainline entry.
You’re quickly introduced to the main town of the game, several key characters, and are walked through a tutorial that doesn’t overstay its welcome in my opinion. However as the game opens up, one of the biggest gripes with the game becomes apparent in its research task system. While the goal of the game is to complete Hisui’s very first Pokedex (a fresh but predictable change from the usual goal of becoming the Pokemon Champion), catching each Pokemon once is not enough. Instead you need to perform a bunch of mundane, repetitive, and tedious tasks for each Pokemon in order to complete the entry. These range from catching multiples of each Pokemon (a la Pokemon Go), catching them in specific ways, defeating a number of that Pokemon, and using certain moves a select number of times. This process bogs down the game, and since a certain amount of progression is needed to enter new areas and unlock better items, it quickly becomes a grind.
However, perhaps a similar system is necessary for a game that actually makes it surprisingly easy to actually “Catch ’em All” for the first time in series history. The vast majority of Pokemon (including evolved forms that previously were never found in the wild) can be found prowling around in one of the five areas, so you don’t need to grind levels on specific Pokemon to evolve them for the Pokedex. Rarer and more powerful Pokemon can often be found in the field as “Alpha Pokemon”, individuals of excessively large size that are often far over-leveled compared to your team and other Pokemon in the area. They’re like minibosses, similar to those found in more traditional open-world JPRGs like Xenoblade Chronicles. It is exhilarating to fight and try to capture these Pokemon, especially earlier in the game when they can easily defeat your entire team.
There are a few duds in the process of Pokedex completion, however, with certain Pokemon only spawning in random “Space-time Distortions,” which are too infrequent and random to easily obtain all the Pokemon that can appear within them. I will also shout out Cherubi/Cherrim for being so rare and bugged (literally uncatchable in certain conditions for an earlier version of the game) that most players can’t complete one of the early quests involving them until after the credits roll. Another (dis)honorable mention goes to Spiritomb, which requires you to hunt down 107 “wisps” across the region, with no markers showing where you missed any, or even which ones you collected. While they aren’t well hidden, due to the poor draw distance in the game it can be difficult to spot the wisps even when they are right in front of you at times. I contrast this with the excellent system in SMTV that allows you to purchase a map of each of their similar collectables once you complete a given area. However you will want to “Catch ’em All” regardless, for that is the criterion to actually meet the titular character in the game.
If it isn’t apparent already, the pacing of the story in the game is questionable. While most of the game is entertaining, it is extremely back loaded in terms of plot and lore: a bunch of moderately entertaining filler for the vast majority of the game, and then huge reveals and very high stakes at the end. The ending bits felt too abrupt, with several plot twists coming out of seemingly nowhere, leaving me dissatisfied with the story as a whole. Confusingly, the credits roll abruptly, before the main story is really complete, with many questions left unanswered. A handful of hours into the main missions of the postgame serves you a more fitting ending, which leaves me baffled as to why Game Freak played the credits when they did. The titular character not being seen or referenced in the main story until the very end as essentially a completion bonus is also a confusing decision. They easily could have named this game “Pokemon Legends Sinnoh”, which makes arguably more sense taking the story into account, yet Game Freak went with a Pokemon not even directly referenced or name dropped until after the credits rolled. While overall I did enjoy the more mature themes presented in this game, I can’t help but notice a large amount of plot parallels to the excellent Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers games, which arguably did these story beats better.
Another letdown is the game’s overall presentation. Immediately after the game was revealed memes cropped up online comparing it to PS2 games, and quite honestly, they were not too far off. While the models of the people and Pokemon are sharp, all of the environments and textures are dull and can blend together between areas. Game Freak is clearly still not comfortable developing 3D environments; perhaps they should have requested help from Xenoblade developer Monolith Soft, which BOTW did to great success. Some locations try to reference those found in the Gen 4 games, but end up feeling just as forgettable as the rest of the areas. Even the Pokemon themselves just sit around waiting to be caught until they spot you; they’re not meaningfully interacting with other species or the environment as they do in games like New Pokemon Snap, which is a bit disappointing for immersion. The music, taking obvious inspiration from BOTW, is more ambient and largely forgettable – a blemish on a series with so many classic and catchy tunes. The few battle themes that are in the game are excellent, however I can count them on one hand.
The side quests of Legends Arceus are a mixed bag. While some are unique and memorable, such as a woman trying to find a new home for a Pokemon that has taken a liking to her, others just feel like glorified fetch quests. It feels acceptable when these fetch quests unlock more customization options and items in the shop, which incentivizes completing them. However, there are many others that also boil down to “complete the Pokedex entry for x Pokemon”, which is simply just a grind, and the rewards for quests outside of those that unlock new shop features feel meaningless. On the bright side, as you do more quests and progress through the story, the main town expands, with more buildings being built and the music changing as well, which makes them feel like more of an accomplishment. I only wish that future installments have more of these sorts of hubs, as having only a single big town is a bit disappointing compared to the dozen or so in previous games. At least Jubilife Village really felt alive, especially due to all of the NPCs who are visually and thematically ancestors of those that appear in the original Diamond and Pearl games, which Legends Arceus serves as a prequel to.
Legends Arceus also introduces a crafting system akin to that of BOTW, a staple for open world games, yet it felt half baked. The only items I found myself using throughout most of the game were the variety of Pokeballs, Potions, and Revives, as well as Oran Berries. There was clearly effort put into making different items and recipes but they all just end up feeling redundant. There are items to throw at Pokemon to stun them from attacking so you can catch them easier, which I didn’t use much because it felt more rewarding to sneak up on them instead. You can craft stronger potions, and items that buff your Pokemon in battle, however these are not necessary to complete the game either. There are very few actual Pokemon Trainer battles with two or more Pokemon, thus you can save resources by healing between battles. I only needed more than the basic Potion/Revives one time during what was essentially the final boss. Each Pokemon likes different foods that can be used as a distraction and bait, however what’s the point when they all like Oran Berries as well, which take up less inventory space? Perhaps the extremely limiting inventory space is the real problem here, as it encourages you to only take with you the items you actually need. Otherwise your bag fills up and you can’t carry, for example, a rare evolution store that you randomly came across. While you can upgrade your bag storage, it gets exponentially more expensive for each extra slot and you never reach a point where you can carry around all the items you might want to craft without grinding for money. This also diminishes the experience of actually collecting items in the field as well, leaving it as more of an afterthought during gameplay.
The only items I found myself crafting consistently were differing types of Pokeballs, since catching Pokemon is the main gameplay loop of the game, and despite all my criticisms, is insanely addicting. It takes the Pokeballs throwing mechanics of Pokemon Go, blends it with a bit of the item placement of Pokemon Snap, and completes it with main series battles. Upon spotting you on the field, Pokemon will either do nothing, attempt to flee from you, or attack your player character. That latter option is an amazing addition to the franchise, since now you as the player feel involved in the action in addition to your Pokemon. Wild Pokemon attacks can make your player black out and drop some items, however with the dodge roll in this game it rarely ever actually occurs. In fact the dodging is so smooth that I was able to beat all but one of the bosses of the game without actually battling them, but by simply throwing stuff at them. If you prefer though, you can still battle any wild Pokemon as you normally would, weakening them in order to have improved chances at catching them. However, it is much quicker and more streamlined to just sneak up behind them in some grass and then throw a ball at their back for improved chances instead. There’s something just so satisfying about lining up that perfect throw. Unfortunately, there are only three main types of Pokeballs in this game, each coming in the three tiers you’d expect from previous games of Poke, Great, and Ultra. There’s the regular Pokeballs, ones that travel further and are useful for sniping hard-to-hit swimming and flying Pokemon, and ones that travel a very short distance but are extremely effective if hit on the back. That last type travels so short that they feel clunky to use and I rarely did during my playthrough.
This is not all to say that the battle system is bad; far from it in fact. The turn-based system receives a refreshing overhaul with the addition of Strong and Agile Style moves. Essentially, the turn order is no longer fixed, and depending on your Pokemon’s speed stat and type of move you are using, either you or the opponent can potentially use two or more moves in a row without the opposing side getting a chance to act. Agile Style moves deal less damage, good for trying to weaken Pokemon to catch them, but also give you more of a priority in terms of turn order for a second potential turn. Strong style, on the other hand, deals more damage but can leave you unable to act for two opponent turns, similar to how moves like Hyper Beam used to work in older titles. Both also use two power points instead of one. This addition makes battles feel like nothing you’ve seen before, with an opposing Pokemon being able to Agile Style for an extra turn, and then follow up with a Strong Style to do crazy damage to your team for example. Battles feel faster and more difficult than before but never unfair.
Some sacrifices had to be made to get this system working however, and that came once again with the lack of Pokemon Abilities and Held Items, similar to Pokemon Let’s Go. While some might enjoy the simplicity, others might feel a lack of depth compared to main series battles as a result. I fall somewhere in the middle. With the new battling system, Game Freak introduced a revised level curve, such that a Pokemon’s Base Stats matter more and levels matter less, which definitely helps reduce grinding in this open world style of game. Since most battles are against wild Pokemon without the ability to switch out, status effects and buff/debuffs now only last a few turns before you have to recast the move; exactly what was implemented in SMTV. Moves in general also have far less variety, especially with status moves, and most with unique effects from previous games are missing.
Opinions on the battling system aside, they don’t really matter much considering the fact that the game has no online battles whatsoever; the most disappointing omission from previous games. The only online features of this game are a system of finding fallen players’ lost bags for points to exchange into evolution stones, and trading, but in an extremely dumbed down fashion. You enter an eight digit number and the game matches you with the first person who also enters that code and the trade proceeds as normal. This definitely isn’t the Global Trade System of past games at all.
However trading matters less than ever thanks to new quality of life improvements. As stated previously, most Pokemon, including trade evolutions, can be easily found in the wild; and since this is a single-player-focused game, it introduces new methods to evolve Pokemon that used to only evolve by trade. EVs/IVs are merged together into a single Effort Level system which you can completely customize with ease by using relatively common items. You can also change the natures of your Pokemon through mints which you receive later in the game. This ensures that you can keep using your favorite Pokemon for the entire game, as there is no worry of bad IVs/natures making it objectively worse than others of the same species. While breeding is also missing in this title, Shiny hunting is made easier than ever by hunting Mass Outbreaks (and Massive Mass Outbreaks in a later update), and you can find more starter Pokemon in Space-time Distortions after beating the game. HMs continue to not exist in this game thankfully, replaced by rideable Pokemon which you obtain in each area. They all are natural progressions of your movement options, from the first one being essentially a bike from previous games, the second acting as a Dowsing Machine, and the third allowing you to swim, for example. These feel better than they should because of the sluggish movement and lack of jump in the player character’s moveset. You can also simply pay money for new moves for your Pokemon instead of having to hunt down TMs, you can switch between any four moves a Pokemon knows at any given time without going to a move tutor now, and you can fast travel to the equivalent of Pokemon Centers at almost any point in the game.
As for the Pokemon themselves, most return from the selection in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. There are just under twenty new regional variants/forms/evolutions of existing Pokemon to discover, similar to what those two games did over fifteen years ago. I wish there were more of these, as well as more completely original Pokemon to discover. In addition, many of these new Pokemon are rather difficult to actually obtain as most of their evolved forms don’t appear in the wild. Even the pre-evolutions are often rare and found in out-of-the-way locations. Making matters worse these evolution methods can be quite obtuse to actually figure out the requirements for. Some require new evolution items that you have to grind the Dowsing Machine Pokemon and Space-time Distortions to obtain. Others require you to use specific moves in Strong/Agile Style 20 times. Another requires that you take a bunch of recoil damage without fainting or healing at a campsite. Yet another requires one of those new evolution items, but also at a full moon which you really have to go out of your way to see. I wish more of the new Pokemon were available earlier on in the game and were less confusing to evolve, as I really did love their new designs as well as signature moves created for every new evolutionary line.
All in all, despite all my critiques I really enjoyed this game. It really made me feel like a kid again, living out those dreams of an open world Pokemon Adventure. With all of the flaws come genuine innovations and changes for the better that make for an extremely different and refreshing Pokemon game. While it’s not perfect, it’s still a step in the right direction, an evolution for the franchise, but perhaps the middle stage evolution before its final form.
Soon after I originally wrote this, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet versions were announced, with the reveal trailer showcasing several returning features from Legends Arceus, but featuring a greatly enhanced visual style. It’s never been a more exciting time to be a Pokemon fan.