Pokemon Legends: Arceus Review (Switch)
There is a very vocal portion of the Pokemon fanbase that has a great deal of problems with the way the series has progressed in its twenty five year tenure as a cultural phenomenon- some will cite a specific point in time when Pokemon stopped catering to them, some will cite broken promises in recent installments, and some will cite developer Game Freak’s lack of iterative improvement and modernization.
With such high expectations, there are three avenues that The Pokemon Company might decide to take in response: continue to provide a slightly enhanced experience on new hardware, cater to nostalgia with remakes, or take a new and daring approach to the formula. In many ways, the eighth generation of the series has covered just about all of these bases, the first route covered in Pokemon Sword and Shield, the second with Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, and the last being Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee.
…Okay, that last one was a joke. The truth is, the new and daring approach comes in the form of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the first official entry to integrate action gameplay into the franchise. The Pokemon Company has done well to keep details close to the chest with this title up until about a few weeks before its release, but the game is now out, and the question remains: is Pokemon Legends: Arceus a proper step in the right direction? If you’re on this site, chances are that you already have an opinion of this title, or might even own a copy. So, this review of Pokemon Legends: Arceus will not attempt to communicate any truths that you owners might not already be aware of, but instead will act as a snapshot in the history of the Pokemon series.
Whatever evolution it might take in the future, this will serve as an ode- and also a critique, to be fair- to the most marked mainline installment in the series since its introduction twenty five years ago. If you should be reading this in the future, understand that this is an exciting moment for the series and the fanbase, offering a taste at what Pokemon could be if its potential were truly realized- and perhaps a worrying sign of how Game Freak might treat the concept of Pokemon as it continues forward. We will address gameplay, narrative, and aesthetics, leaving no stone unturned- just as the developers would want, if the game’s design is to be taken to heart. There is good, there is bad, but most of all, there is potential. Let’s see where this journey takes us.
We’ll not mince words- the Legends story begins with a fish out of water arriving in the land of Hisui, the original title for what longtime fans and current owners of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl know as Sinnoh. As a stranger in a wild and untamed world, the player must earn their keep by joining the Galaxy Survey Corps, a group dedicated to learning more about the Pokemon present in the region and potentially creating a healthy enough environment for humans to coexist with them.
They wish to develop a Pokedex that is modeled after behavior and experimentation, which means they want to catch lots of Pokemon and see what they can do. As a relative newcomer with seemingly no fear of the act of catching Pokemon, you are recruited to do what most cannot fathom- form bonds with Pokemon and quell the rages of the five Nobles that pepper the Hisui region.
Catching Pokemon has become a much more streamlined activity, requiring a quick hand and occasional stealth in order to properly execute. By holding the ZR button, the player can ready one of their inventory items for tossing. These range from the classic Pokeball itself to a variety of berries to even some items meant to stun Pokemon in order to prevent aggressive behavior and increase catch rate. No matter what option you take, the success of a Pokeball toss is still heavily determined by successful odds, with weaker Pokemon much more likely to be obtained and higher level Pokemon needing sufficient distraction or even lower HP.
If you find higher level Pokemon or Alphas too aggressive to properly tame, you can initiate a Pokemon battle by switching your inventory to your current roster of six Pokemon using the X button, tossing their Pokeball at or near a wild Pokemon, and starting battle.
The nature of Pokemon battles has changed drastically, with status effects and stat altering moves now having a set time period of effectiveness in order to justify their continued use and to prioritize a fast battle. Similarly, a Pokemon’s effort points are a huge determining factor in their combat prowess- even a weaker Pokemon with higher effort point distribution can eat through a higher level opponent. This is further complicated by the addition of move styles, which come in basic, agile, and strong varieties.
If a Pokemon’s effort points are high enough, they will have an increased likelihood of acting first in a battle, some even acting more than once without the agile style activated. Priority moves still exist, but can be further hastened by the agile style, albeit with a reduction in offensive power. In comparison, the strong style is slower to act but packs a harsher punch. Stringing combinations of these attack styles together can result in an opponent falling fast- though this goes both ways, with an ill-equipped Pokemon of your own fainting just as easily.
If you’re hoping to keep a party of six healthy and happy, you’ll need to bring lots of healing items, which cost a pretty penny in Jubilife village. To circumvent this, you can scavenge for materials out in the field, which can be a great way to level up a Pokemon from a non-violent perspective. Every bit of ore and berry-filled tree is a font for experience, and bears literal fruits of labor when targeted with an occupied Pokeball. You can then use a portable crafting system as well as the options offered at a base camp to replenish your stock and keep your Pokemon ready for action. You’ll need to be mindful of your inventory space, however, as slots fill up quickly and can prevent the player from picking up essentials required for survival and quests.
Speaking of (re)quests, Legends has a much more robust set of them to complete, with villagers and other denizens of Hisui often looking for specific Pokemon or materials for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to give a Pokemon up for good, but this isn’t always the case. Many quest-givers want to know more about the Hisui region and will task the player with collecting very specific sets of resources or information. This list of quests is long, but often proves problematic due to the way the quest tracking system is limited to specific maps.
There is no way to sort quests by region, so you’ll have to go back and forth between the quest list and the map screen to pinpoint who you have to interact with, which can prove irritating. While new quests do show up as markers while exploring environments, they will only be marked if you switch on the singular tracking option from the list once you’ve actually taken them on. In other words, NPCs don’t appear with any sort of quest marker over their heads once a quest is active, which is a bit irritating.
Lastly, it is important to state that Legends is an open-zone game, and not necessarily an open-world experience. While this might be a downer for some, there are plenty of reasons to hang out for an extended amount of time in each of these regions. Pokemon and materials respawn frequently, but weather effects, a day and night cycle, and some other story-related surprises will keep a rotation of new surprises cycling through a region, and base camps offer everything you need to stay out in the wild indefinitely. Much to this reviewer’s irritation, I did not realize you could send Pokemon back to the ranch without traveling back to Jubilife until late in my playthrough, but this is an option one can access by speaking to… the traveling merchant? It’s an odd and irrational choice, which is why I hardly interacted with it.
There’s plenty to do in Jubilife as well, a place not just limited to quest-givers. Players can enlist the help of local farmers to generate materials for them while they are out in the field, shop for crafted items or buy the materials and recipes for specific combinations, and modify their appearance on a variety of levels before taking glam shots. The ranch system for Pokemon is slightly more limited than the usual affair, but released Pokemon actually factor into a positive feedback loop of items that allow the player to raise their long-staying Pokemon’s effort points. Downed Pokemon will also drop precious resources while in the field, as well, making them even more valuable for the purposes of evolution.
There are a variety of ways in which Pokemon Legends could have approached its “old world” narrative, and the result is one that, given the nature of the Sinnoh region and its legendary Pokemon, shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If you choose to avoid spoilers, understand that the next paragraph will explicitly discuss the exposition of the game. Feel free to skip it.
So, time travel is not necessarily a stretch for the Pokemon universe, which also has multidimensional beings and arbiters of eternal life and death. But the decision to drop the protagonist in the past in order to fend for themselves makes for somewhat sloppy exposition. Rather than jumping through the hurdle of being a temporal outsider, you could simply be a spatial one- although you’re technically a spatial one, because you’ve fallen through a space-time rift.
The fish out of water trope is endlessly retold, but the dimensional bent is used to justify gameplay- or rather, a thorough explanation of gameplay- that doesn’t really stick the landing. The tutorial section of the game is extremely text-heavy, which implies a more mature (or at least, literate) audience, but the actual gameplay that comes as a result is sparse and unsatisfying. For a game that wants to relinquish the reins from its audience, Game Freak still shows a distrust in allowing the player to enjoy the journey.
Aside from the opening of the game, the narrative progresses in a linear fashion but still gives the player plenty of room for exploration. The quality of writing feels much more intentional in this latest installment, with character arcs and motivations that are sometimes obscured from the player and occupy a broader range of emotion than the plucky enthusiasm more frequently displayed in the series. While this sometimes results in curveball plot twists and infuriating archetypes, there is legitimate character development present- likely a result of a smaller cast and a single hub of activity.
While the main narrative presents character dynamics and interactions that feel much more refreshing, the characters in side quests are usually very one note, though the attempt to build an authentic world wherein the bonds between Pokemon and humans are much more tenuous is much appreciated. People are distrustful of these creatures, they see their destructive capabilities. Yet, the establishment of base camps and the existence of NPCs just hanging out in the field belies this concept, somewhat. Base camps don’t really seem well-sheltered from the threat of Pokemon, and ultimately, the Pokemon themselves don’t seem to have much personality beyond being beasts. Maybe that’s what they’re supposed to be.
But it only further begs the question of their bonding and subservience to humans. Because prior to your arrival in Hisui, no one has ever caught more than three Pokemon in a row- a feat which, if you have played for more than three hours, will seem infinitesimal. If they are so violent and destructive- and trust me, they can be- why don’t we see them interact more directly with the human establishments found throughout the world? The game doesn’t want to answer this, or at least, it wants us to believe that these dangerous creatures are only dangerous enough to present an obstacle to mankind’s progress.
There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the visuals of Pokemon Legends, and there is no disputing the technical limitations of Game Freak’s world. The quality of the Pokemon models is as sharp and detailed as ever, and some new animations do allow for a greater range of expression from the critters. The somewhat muted color palette contrasts sharply with the deeper colors of Game Freak’s last set of Pokemon games, but it is merely a coat of paint over the series’ established art style. It is meant to evoke the art of real-life Japanese era upon which the game is based, but because of the modern character models, it misses the boat slightly.
Aesthetics extend to more than just visuals, however, and the sound in Pokemon Legends is an even more mixed bag. Pokemon cries still sound highly digitized in comparison with some of the more refined and realistic sound effects, but they become more grating when they occur over and over. The Basculegion cry is extremely irritating due to being tied to the press of the B button, for example, but these irritating instances are few in number. What seems slightly more inconsistent is the soundtrack, which bounces between more orchestral-oriented, grandiose tracks feeling ripe for exploration and callbacks to the Diamond and Pearl soundtrack, to minimalist tracks like the nighttime theme. It is varied in a dissonant manner that can sometimes prove distracting, if only for a moment, but doesn’t sound unfamiliar to anything you might have already experienced from a Pokemon title, or an “open-ended” experience, if you catch my drift.
Pokemon has been a series of slight changes since its inception twenty five years ago. To see Game Freak take such a marked departure in terms of transparency and access is extremely welcoming. Not only does the act of catching and scavenging level up your Pokemon, but the amount of experience gained and the rate at which one can progress through the survey ranks is so brisk that the ease of access to items and Pokemon in the field makes gameplay feel like a snowballing of activity. This is only further emphasized by the act of releasing Pokemon due to limited space, which then factors into the statistical side of battle efficiency. Though this system might be obscure in presentation, it is vital to the strength and ability of your Pokemon.
This ease of access is present in the way that Pokemon are engaged in the field as well, with stealth and action elements adding to the momentum of catching and attacking wild Pokemon. There is no separate battle screen, as engagements take place on the map, and despite the technological setbacks of the era, the player can easily transfer excess Pokemon right from where they stand and at base camps. That’s not to say that obstacles are lacking, however. Each narrative chapter ends with a battle against a Noble Pokemon, engagements that focus almost exclusively on action- or player-avatar- gameplay, not actually requiring the use of a party Pokemon at all. One of the most valuable resources- and dangerous hazards- are the Alpha Pokemon that are larger in size and possess higher effort points.
They are necessary catches if you wish to gain higher grit resources, but they are also more aggressive and tougher than a normal Pokemon… which may make one wonder as to why they might wish to catch other Pokemon. Alpha Pokemon generally require more patience to engage via stealth, but they can also eat through lesser-leveled or grown Pokemon. Their increased size also makes for a more intimidating and precious capture, and it seems a shame that non-Alpha Pokemon cannot outsize these creatures. It seems antithetical to the game’s catch-happy mindset, but then again, the Pokedex is a never-ceasing list of tasks that might not seem feasible to complete with Alphas alone.
Where most RPGs might make the checklist of tasks that are present in the Pokedex and lock them behind narrative-based quests, Pokemon Legends is again more transparent with the concept. Make no mistake, some NPCs will ask you to complete a Pokedex entry, but this doesn’t mean checking off every single box. However, each successful milestone contributes to the ability to command higher level Pokemon and the eventual encounter with the eponymous Arceus (spoiler? It’s pretty heavily telegraphed at the start of the game), though this does feel a bit like a hollow victory.
There are far more tantalizing rewards that could exist, among them being: inventory expansion that isn’t tied to a money-sink NPC, or an expansion of the ranch pastures. The former might invalidate the amount of currency one can generate within the game, but that could be easily rebalanced, and the latter might invalidate the grit system that leans heavily on Pokemon releases. Again, perhaps a different approach could be taken.
There are many things that could be changed about Pokemon Legends in order to further streamline its ease of access, but to say that its world is without anything to do would be a disservice. The swarm and dimensional rift mechanics alone encourage revisits and extended stays in areas, and the night to day cycle- though heavily favoring ghost type Pokemon over Dark types- does offer a consistent rotation and a reason to either stay out or report back in order to dump your inventory and change the time of day.
What does feel a bit imbalanced are the odds during battle, when players are unable to add Pokemon to the fray when engaged against two or more opponents. Similarly, despite the verticality of terrain and the slow unlocking of Pokemon mounts, the variation in types of locales feels a bit weak, with caves in particular being both sparing and barren. In spite of all of its bells and whistles, the game still feels very experimental.
Pokemon Legends is different. It is exciting, in many ways, but it is still somewhat barebones when stacked up against its contemporaries. The increased vulnerability of the playable character is extremely welcome, especially since the game will no longer force a fail state when an entire party of Pokemon has fainted. Likewise, it encourages the player to stop and take a look at their surroundings, flipping the previous relationship longtime veterans have had with tall grass and encouraging careful approach. A game that asks its player to sit with it can sometimes feel like a waste, but because Pokemon telegraphs its creature behavior clearly- and also because the creature behavior is ultimately simplistic- the time spent learning and respecting the game’s mechanics makes sense.
This world has plenty to do: some Pokemon appear all over a map while others stick to specific places, items pepper the world and have very tangible benefits, and events occur with enough frequency to keep an exploratory player engaged. Yet still, this appears to be a modest step in the right direction. The world could feel more alive. Pokemon could pursue the player with greater aggression, or perhaps even interact with one another. Likewise, the NPC offerings could still use a great deal more personality, and some of the game’s mechanics need a bit more time in the oven. If we have another twenty five years of iterative improvement to be done on this gameplay formula, the chance that it might also lose its charm and end up feeling archaic is something to consider.
But right now, Pokemon Legends serves as a breath of fresh air. It retains enough of the property’s essential identity to feel like a Pokemon game, but takes risks and introduces ideas that are more than welcome. With writing stronger than most of what has been seen in the series thus far and mechanics that reward an attentive player more frequently than ever, it dares to challenge the question: “is Pokemon only accessible because of its simplicity?” Even so, this game might lean too heavily on its premise, which may excuse some of its lack of refinement. Could this gameplay fit in a more modern setting? Could we see an evolution of these separate zones into something more interconnected? Could Pokemon behavior and NPC personality diversify? Could the basics of these new combat mechanics be expanded into a more engaging and thorough player versus player system?
It is hard to answer these questions, as this review is anchored to a specific turning point in time, in a gaming environment that with each passing day becomes a more ambitious and eclectic space. What can be said now is that Pokemon Legends accomplishes a glimpse at the world of Pokemon many might have dreamed of back when playing the Red or Blue version on their Game Boy, or when watching the 3D animations of these creatures on their Nintendo 64.
It is a world that is exciting and dangerous, though not entirely unpredictable, and that is the most exciting prospect of all. It is a taste of a new direction that satisfies the single player experience over anything else, and as a result becomes as interactive and enjoyable as the series has been since first jumping to mobile phones in 2016.
It is most definitely a Pokemon game worth catching.