Review: Pokémon Legends: Arceus

It´s never too late to change.

Console: Nintendo Switch
Pokémon, as a gaming series, hasn't changed itself much since its 1996 debut. Sure, we've had the upgrades you'd expect from the passage of time but there has never been an attempt to try and do something wildly different. Until now, that is! With Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Game Freak has taken a good look at the series and given us the first real open-world Pokémon experience. That, along with a new time setting, changes to the battle system and new mechanics make a new type of Pokémon game. One that feels it's finally growing the series in a new direction and is the best Pokémon game in years.

Let's dive in.

After having the weirdest dream that involved the mythical Pokémon Arceus you find yourself on an unfamiliar beach. You're found by Professor Laventon who informs you that you have fallen through space-time rift to the ancient Hisui region. After helping the Professor to catch his runaway Pokémon you arrive at Jubilife Village and are introduced to the brave explorers the Galaxy Team. In return for seeking a way for you to go home, the Galaxy Team employs you for your great skill in catching Pokémon. You put these skills to the test by completing Hisui's first Pokédex while also uncovering the mystery behind the guardians of the Diamond & Pearl clans, the Noble Pokémon, going into a frenzy.

It's not just the Prof that find you, the starters of the game (Qyndaquill, Rowlett and Oshawott) are there as well.

For every single Pokémon game, I've reviewed up to this point I've expressed the sentiment. that the story is nothing to write home about. They're passable, but very formulaic and basic affairs. The story of Legends Arceus IS something to write home about. The change to a mid-19th century-ish setting alongside the lack of the traditional story beats and a little more character conflicts results in a refreshing narrative. One I was surprised to see throwing more than one curveball at me and excited me as a result.

Not every element hits home, of course, but there´s nothing to worry over. The narrative is more engaging than the story of Pokémon games have been since Sun & Moon and will lead you comfortably to the credits.

Saying that a game is going open-world and doing the Breath of the Wild thing has become a cliché, but Game Freak themselves have clearly been inspired by it. That's because this game has put exploration front and centre. The game is a semi open-world in which you travel to five open areas from your base, Jubilife village.

A good chunk of Pokémon's mechanics are revamped to fit the (semi-)open-world genre. You catch Pokémon by sneaking up on them and throwing a Poké Ball. Only when they spot you or become agitated it becomes necessary to battle them. You know, to keep them from attacking you, the player. You can throw berries or other treats near them to distract them, throw mud or snow at them to stun them etc. There's now a crafting mechanic, requiring you to find resources such as Apricorns to craft Poké Balls. There are tons of side-quests with some neat stories to keep yourself busy with, some mini-bosses, AKA Alpha Pokémon, or further fill out those Pokédex pages.

The introduction of side-quests is something I wanted for the franchise for years now and I'm happy to see it's a lot more varied then I thought it would be under GameFreak. It's not just 'catch this Pokémon'. There is more to it, such as a side-quest that focuses on the disappointment then can occur when you're Wurmple doesn't evolve into the Silcoon you wanted it to.

All these changes work quite well in making this game feel much more organic. What doesn't quite work is the revamped battle style. Generally speaking, PLA is a more challenging game. You can't just breeze through the battles with super-effective moves alone. The Agile and Strong styles moves this game introduce change the battle system like that. In exchange for double the PP you either sacrifice power for speed or the exact opposite. You can use this technique to outsmart your enemy when you're at a disadvantage but they can use them just as well to take down your ace before you even have a chance to react.

This change is very nice but sadly feel out of place here because of how de-emphasized the battles are. It's something that only comes around sporadically, especially if you choose not to battle wild Pokémon. Because of this you only really get a glimpse of what the two styles could bring to the table.

On the flip side though, I like the game's more casual approach to the battles. In other Pokémon games, weaker Pokémon such as Beautifly would quickly become a crutch but here, you can keep using them throughout the adventure without much issue. I also quite enjoy the mini-boss style battles against the Frenzied Noble Pokémon. It's a multiple phase fight in which you have to dodge the Nobles attacks, waiting for an opening to send out your Pokémon.

The Frenzied Noble Pokémon are the game's big bosses and require a combination of skill and reflexes to take down.

Before diving into the games big weaknesses, I want to quickly mention how this game streamlines a lot of small systems. Battles in the overworld reduce load times and a lot of information is now conveyed through blurbs on the UI. No more interruptions for evolution, new moves learned etc. The pacing of the gameplay is pretty seamless as a result.

The biggest weakness of Legends Arceus lies in its graphics and performance. The graphics fall in line with the Pokémon Switch games but with improved lighting. It works but is rough around the edges, quite literally. When you look at the models you can quite clearly see the polygons that make them up. I like this style but I know plenty of people were hoping for more of an upgrade. Performance is subpar, no doubts about it. There are glaring framerate issues with Pokémon models. Where, for example, you can see a Crobat start to stutter the farther away it gets from you.

The music has always been a strong point of the series and that hasn't changed here. It's a beautiful combo of atmospheric music and rearranged/covered/sampled tracks from DPT. It fits the game very well and, as a bonus, is excellent to listen to as a relaxing/calming sort of deal.

The game does a lot to make the world feel more alive. Pokémon have size variations within species, interact with each other on the overworld and with you when you let them out of their Poké Balls. Each different species of Pokémon behave differently towards you in the wild too. Some, once they spot you, will run away immediately while others are aggressive and will attack you. The latter can be a bit annoying, especially when a Pokémon spots you while you're trying to catch another Pokémon, but it helps so much in establishing Pokémon as living beings.

By throwing out your Pokémon in the field you can interact with them, as well as see them interact with each other. Another small addition that makes the Pokémon feel less like tools and yet another opportunity to bond with them.

The only little issue I have with the Pokémon themselves is the drip-feed of the new ones. Only 30 (including new forms). It's the number I expected but it took me until the 2nd area to encounter a Pokémon that wasn't revealed pre-release and until the 3rd area to catch one. A bit too late if you ask me. And, before you ask, I think the designs of the new Pokémon are pretty good. Some weird ones, but hey, that can be fun in its own way.


Conclusion

Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes the 25+-year-old franchise and puts a new spin on things. It moves the series in an exciting new direction by going semi-open world, combining lots of elements that make these games so appealing with Pokémon. The result of this is the most refreshing and best Pokémon game in years, one that streamlines a lot of elements while honing in on what makes Pokémon so very appealing.

It has its flaws, yes, but none of them will get in the way of playing and enjoying the game unless you're a real stickler for them. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a game I can recommend to old and new fans alike. If you've never played a Pokémon game before but are a big fan of games such as Breath of the Wild then I'd give this game a shot. I think you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

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