Pokemon Legends: Arceus is an Open World JRPG developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. It was released in January 2021 as a Nintendo Switch Exclusive. MSRB is $60.
Prelude: Not Ready for Love
It’s no secret that I named my blog Hookshot, Charge Beam, Revive after the three game series that impacted me the most, both as a child and as an adult: Hookshot is from The Legend of Zelda, Charge Beam is from Metroid, and Revive is from Pokemon. I started this blog in 2018 expecting that I’d probably discuss these 3 series the most. The Switch was still young in its lifecycle back then, and I was anticipating exciting and bold new releases in all three of these series.
We got exactly those kinds of games from Zelda and from Metroid. But sadly, it’s been a rough string of years for Pokemon. I liked Pokemon Let’s Go: Eevee — it was flawed, yet charming. But playing Pokemon Sword left me with highly mixed feelings. The new Pokemon designs were lovely, and the Pokemon Formula was still just as enjoyable as it ever was. However, the game was obviously rushed, with an incoherent story (even by Pokemon standards), and shallow route design. To me, that’s where the Gen 8 truly fell short. If the caves and routes had engaging level design, and if the story actually tried to make any sort of sense, then I think most people would’ve forgiven Dexit and the N64 trees.
But then The Pokemon Company unveiled Pokemon Home at the beginning of 2020, and that’s where my issues truly began. It’s literally taken me this long to get the foul taste of this service out of my mouth. Pokemon Home is essentially ransomware disguised as a Pokemon trading/storage app. I don’t want anything to do with it. I decided to not buy the subscription, leaving my Living Dex of all 807 Gen 7 Pokemon on my 3DS, and I’m so glad I did.
You know, in 2016 the discourse surrounding Pokemon was completely different than it is today. It’s bewildering to remember. Back then, everyone was excited about Pokemon Go, and Pokemon Sun & Moon were an ambitious (albeit flawed) pair of games on the 3DS. Of course the fandom had a wide variety of opinions, but it felt like everyone was at least having a good time. People discussed the flaws as well as the highlights, and even the fans who disliked the games were at least civil about it. But then, beginning with 2017’s Pokemon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon, discussions only got more heated and more bitter. I understand why people on both sides feel the way they do. I have a lot of mixed feelings myself. It was… difficult being a Pokemon fan for the last 5 years.
I know, I know, I’m five paragraphs into this post and I still haven’t talked about Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the actual subject of the review. But I need to explain the context for this game’s release, as well as my own headspace as a reviewer. I never bought the DLC for Pokemon Sword & Shield because: 1) I wasn’t in the mood to give The Pokemon Company more money, and 2) it just wasn’t fun talking about Pokemon anymore. I bought Pokemon Legends: Arceus with a lot of skepticism. As a long-time fan, I believed that the Pokemon Formula didn’t need fixing — it was everything else about these games that needed improvement. I was worried that this game would miss the point entirely and just rehash the same mistakes from Pokemon Sword & Shield: uninteresting level design, sloppy story, and a rushed development cycle.
It turns out, changing the formula helped the game a lot. And even more to my delight, Pokemon Legends: Arceus fixed many of Pokemon Sword & Shield‘s mistakes. It didn’t fix all of them, mind you, and it even introduces new problems… but overall it ended up better than I anticipated. I’ve never had this much fun with the Pokemon series since I got back into it as an adult.
Exploring a New Genre
After a slow hour of story setup and tutorials, the game will set you free to catch Pokemon to your heart’s content. All of Game Freak’s previous experimental work combines into the best possible outcome. Wild Pokemon behave in a variety of ways – some will ignore you, some will nervously flee from you, and some will attack you on sight. You can throw a Pokeball and try to catch the Pokemon directly, or you can send out one of your partners and begin a traditional turn-based battle. But that’s just the beginning — you can lure the Pokemon with food, stun them with an object, or wait in the grass for them to turn their back. All of these options makes interacting with wild Pokemon dynamic and surprising.
Incentivizing you to do all this is a new kind of Pokedex. Each creature has a variety of options for you to study it — you can see a specific move in battle, or discover one of its type weaknesses, or evolve it. Thankfully you don’t need to finish every task in order to mark a Pokedex entry as “complete,” just some of them. I want everyone to know that because some tasks are literally “defeat this Pokemon 40 times,” and I don’t need to explain to you how repetitive that would be. My biggest complaint about this is that even after 70+ hours of playtime, I still don’t understand exactly how this “Complete” rank is calculated. Most of the time I achieve it after finishing one-third to one-half of the tasks… but it’s never exact. Even then, though, none of the work is completely wasted. Any and all Pokedex tasks will help you rank up in the Survey Corp., this game’s main progression system. Overall, the new Pokedex is one of the many delightfully refreshing parts of this game.
Not every new element is delightful, though — some are terrifying. Pokemon Legends: Arceus introduces Alpha Pokemon, which live in key points on the map. You can tell them apart by their massive size and glowing red eyes. In the early area I was surprised by how tough they really were. I barely survived my second ever Alpha fight, and it was exhilarating to overcome such an unexpected obstacle.
More Growth, More Growing Pains
The turn-based combat itself, however, gave me mixed feelings. The fighting has been completely turned on its head — there are no held items, status effects have been altered, and many attacks work differently now. At the beginning of the game, these changes made me sit up and pay attention. I had to throw out my old strategies and try new ones, and I appreciate that. The most dramatic change is the way you can modify an attack to Agile or Strong Style. Agile Style reduces power but allows for extra turns. Strong Style increases damage at the cost of speed. And thankfully the game even includes a turn order list to help you with that strategy. It seems like Agile Style doesn’t usually give you an extra turn right away, it’s more like an investment that you can only see later in the fight. Once again, despite all the time I had with the game, I’m still struggling to understand how the turn order works. Opponent Pokemon would take two or even three turns in a row… even when I didn’t use a Strong Style move. I had no clue why. I couldn’t strategize or plan if I couldn’t predict my enemy at least to some degree, which led to the wrong kind of frustration during the relatively few Pokemon trainer fights.
The one last kind of encounter you’ll see is the Noble Pokemon. These are epic boss battles that act as the capstone for each open area of the game. These fights play out more like an action game, not unlike Monster Hunter. Occasionally you may throw out a Pokemon and help weaken it, but that is entirely optional. During most of your open world exploring with aggressive wild Pokemon, the dodge works just fine; however, in these Noble Pokemon fights it’s apparent that your player character’s movement just isn’t quite as polished as other Action games. A few hours playing Metroid Dread or Monster Hunter Rise will make it clear that the movement in Pokemon Legends Arceus needs more tweaking and tightening up. I welcome the Action elements as a change of pace, but the execution needs more work.
Generally, the world is well-designed, with plenty of biomes and terrain types to navigate. The beginning areas sorely needed some more landmarks, but the later areas made up for it. My favorite locations include the small volcanic island, the shipwreck, and the giant ice temple. Thoroughly exploring will usually reward you with a rare item, a sidequest collectible, or a rare Pokemon. I love that you send out your partner Pokemon and they will either hit the tree or break the rock, helping you gather the materials for crafting. Every now and then the game will trigger a space-time anomaly, in which rare Pokemon and rare items will spawn. There’s enough going on in the world that makes the game feel like a living, breathing place.
Thankfully the ride Pokemon make moving around this world quite fun as well. From bounding around on Wyrdeer, to swimming on Basculegion, to flying on Braviary, your momentum is almost never interrupted. You’re almost always moving from one thing to the next. Gameplay goes by at a pace so fast that Dragon Quest XI and Shin Megami Tensei V feel slow by comparison. Game Freak has finally created a fully-fledged world that approximates the other great open world games we have on the Switch.
That world’s not perfect, though. Parts of this game feel surprisingly unpolished. For example, I often found a bug where Pokemon would “rewind” to a previous spot. Any “aggressive-type” Pokemon will always insist on harassing you, even if it’s a puny Level 2 Shinx coming after you and your Level 60 party. Consequently, your attempt to sneak up on a rare timid Pokemon may get interrupted by a particularly observant angry Pokemon. And sometimes several of them will pursue you in quick succession. In these moments, aggressive Pokemon lose their intimidation factor and become quite tedious to deal with. Furthermore, whenever you enter a cave, you have this strange white border around you, as if the game can’t render your body in the dark. Then there’s the frustrating mess that is trying to catch sea-dwelling Pokemon on Basculegion’s back. And of course, the game’s mixed graphical performance doesn’t do it any favors, either. It’s true that this is Game Freak’s first open world game, but it’s not like other games have already solved these problems on the Nintendo Switch. Most of these issues could be improved with a patch, but at the time of this review, these flaws are still quite noticeable.
A Legend That’s Just Too Farfetch’d
One thing that can’t be easily patched is this game’s… peculiar story. I guess I’ll start with what I like, and then we can talk about the rest. I like the setting. It’s entirely unique for any video game, let alone a Pokemon game. It appears to take place in the 19th Century, in the same region as Pokemon Diamond & Pearl, serving as a sort of prequel to those games. I adore the little details that remind you of the time period, like Pokeballs shooting out steam and fireworks. The characters genuinely fear Pokemon and do not trust them. You are part of the Survey Corps and you’re helping Team Galactic (before they turn evil in Diamond & Pearl) explore the land as well as bring the inhabitants together. Your home base in Jubilife Village is a full-scale town, something that the Pokemon series has sorely needed to help with its immersion, and Team Galactic HQ has multiple floors, like any realistic Headquarters would, with all sorts of divisions and managers that serve as minor NPCs.
Now on to the flaws. The beginning premise of the game, to me, is really silly, and not in a good way. I don’t expect Shakespeare from Game Freak, but past entries like Black & White and Sun & Moon prove that they’re capable of writing interesting characters, a cohesive plot, and some thought-provoking themes to tie it all together. That’s all I ask. The opening hour of Pokemon Legends: Arceus wasn’t off to a good start, though. Without spoiling anything, it required a large suspense of disbelief and it was burdened by many slow cutscenes. It’s obvious by now that the Pokemon games need voice acting. My eyes began to glaze over as the characters sat around and chatted for several minutes, and the game was completely silent. Voice acting could’ve at least attempted to rescue those cutscenes.
That being said, the game does try to investigate the deeper lore of the Pokemon world, with heavy references to its own creation myth. Much of its theming is owed to Diamond & Pearl, but the game aims to take it a step further, making the player think about big concepts like the immenseness of time and space. This was where the game should’ve shown the player rather than tell them, because these concepts are only brought up as a brief flavor to cutscene dialogue. But still, it’s an attempt. And thankfully, the ending has an exciting climax, as nonsensical as it was.
The Side Quests are a mixed bag: you’ll see generic fetch quests alongside endearing short stories. I’m still working on some of the long-term ones, like finding ghostly wisps scattered around the world and catching the well-hidden Unown. My favorites included the balloon racing minigames and helping an old lady adopt a Chimeco that appeared on her porch. You’ll be helping people form relationships with Pokemon, something taken for granted in the modern games, and I found myself saying “aww” after finishing most of these.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus definitely has some rough edges, but it also solves a multitude of problems plaguing the Pokemon series, and it introduces a compelling new gameplay loop that I didn’t even know I wanted. I haven’t even mentioned the improvements to Pokemon learning attacks, or how you can take your Pokemon out of their balls and talk to them. I still want to keep playing this game, even though I’ve watched the credits roll and I’ve finished most of the post-game quests. I haven’t wanted to do that since Pokemon Sun & Moon was released in 2016. I love exploring, I love mastering a new set of mechanics, and I love bringing people and Pokemon together.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus feels like the closest Game Freak has ever gotten to fully realizing Satoshi Tajiri’s original concept of embarking on a grand adventure with your Pokemon friends. The other mainline Pokemon games on the Switch all have their pros and cons, but I can only recommend them to very specific types of people. Pokemon Legends: Arceus is the first Pokemon game on the Switch that I can recommend to basically anyone who’s generally interested in video games.
Congrats, Game Freak, you actually made it fun to talk about Pokemon again! I’m so happy to play a Pokemon game that didn’t leave me feeling conflicted. In fact, I think I’m ready to go back and look at the Pokemon Diamond & Pearl remakes. It may be time to do a developer spotlight on Satoshi Tajiri at some point as well. I can only hope that whatever is in the future for this series, they’ll use this game as a blueprint for even more improvements and changes.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to catch a tree-sized Alpha Bidoof.
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