At one point in time, it seemed like The Pokémon Company could do no wrong, their endless army of mascots printing money across video games, anime series, a card game, and various merch.
Then the Nintendo 3DS came out, and you couldn’t make a 2D game on that, right?
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With the jump, Game Freak began cuting numerous features from the series over the course of its 3D outings, such as the Battle Frontier in Pokémon X and Y and the National Dex in Pokémon Sword and Shield.
As more features began to disappear, more players began to feel as if the series’ challenge and sense of adventure was beginning to drop off.
Though they claimed that such cuts were made in order to accomodate development of 3D models, this chain of removals saw even die-hard fans becoming bitter, leading to a sense of mistrust towards the developer that eventually culminated in social media riots over Sword and Shield’s overall quality.
Game Freak have been stumbling ever since.
Yet, in spite of this recent bad blood, fans were excited for Pokémon Legends: Arceus from the very first trailer.
The glimpses of a more open-world gameplay style and better animations were taken as a sign that Game Freak truly wanted to address past criticisms.
Despite it being a spin-off, there was also a thin glimmer of hope that some of its features could be melded into later mainline games, as many hoped the game would be serve as a potential reboot for the 26-year old franchise.
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I come to you as one of those die-hard fans who moved on as the games failed to surpass their legacy. The opportunities I had to review later titles for other outlets only further reinforced that opinion.
So, is Pokémon Legends: Arceus everything fans prayed for and more? Has Pokémon finally caught up to its peers, or is it still a relic of franchise that refuses to give a bigger budget?
The answer may surprise you.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus begins when, after being isekai’d by Arceus – a Pokémon who is essentially God, don’t worry about it – your character awakens in the Sinnoh region at a point in its ancient past.
It’s around this time the land was being settled, and most people are still scared of Pokémon – natives aside in both cases.
Further, the Pokéball and the idea of catching Pokémon are new concepts to the people of this time, so few know how to do it.
Stranded, you’re on a mission from God to catch ’em all, helping man and Pokémon come together along the way while also earning your keep in Jubilife Village.
Along the way, you’ll help deal with the local phenomena of strange lightning sending Pokémon berserk, with such victims of these random strikes including the Pokémon Nobles – descendants of Pokémon granted powers by Arceus to defend the land.
At times, the writing is a hair sharper than the series’ usual saccharine dialogue, with much of the game’s interesting intractions born from how so many of its NPCs are living a very harsh life while surrounded by literal monsters.
As an outsider, you’ll unsurprisingly have to earn these ancient peoples’ trust. Even so, this reputation system also features a few contrivances which can cause NPCs to turn hating you on a dime.
The plot itself does enough to nicely dress your objectives in intrigue and discovery, even featuring a few twists along the way.
It certainly shows more personality than past blasé attempts by the series at family-friendly plots and characters.
However, the real meat of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is its gameplay. Not to undercut my conclusion, but Pokémon is fun again – Hallelujah! It only took throwing out nigh-everything except the series’ core concepts, and even those have had some rough edges shaved down.
While past games saw increasingly linear gameplay paths, Pokémon Legends: Arceus finally feels like an adventure again.
Tasked with a respective goal, you’ll find multiple routes to accomplishing it across the fields of ancient Sinnoh, likely even being tempted to go down some side-paths and complete several sub-tasks in the process.
Main and side missions are, unsurprisingly, typically centered around catching Pokémon.
To do so, you’ll need to sneak up on the unsuspecting beast, use items you scavenged and crafted to distract it, then hurl a Pokéball and pray it doesn’t break free.
Admittedly, you could just hurl balls willy-nilly at some of the more dim-witted Pokémon as a time-saving measure or even abuse the lack of i-frames to keep trying to capture a Pokémon after it breaks out of a ball, but the base gameplay provides so much fun that you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself enjoying it long into your quest.
However, easy Pokémon and exploits aside, there’s usually more challenge to catching them than first appears.
The more skittish wild Pokémon can suddenly bolt, so even when locked on your ball hits nothing but air. This attitude extends to battling them directly, as those who tend to avoid you on the field usually run away from battle the first chance they get. As such, these cases usually dictate that stealth is your better option.
Of course, despite the surprising fun of waiting for the optimal time to strike provided by this simplistic stealth gameplay, it might feel a bit sacrilegious going all Solid Ekans on Pokémon instead of catching them after a fight.
Luckily, the game also offers you a chance to engage in some of the series’ classic gameplay.
Amidst the scores of Pokémon who will run from you in fear or state at you in cautious indifference, others are more aggressive, hunting you down and outright murdering you on sight, particularly following failed attempts to catch them.
While these Pokémon offer plenty of wind-up when targeting a human, their attacks can be surprisingly fast, wide-hitting, or even home-in, thus requiring players to pay more than a passing attention to their actions.
Further, in this enraged state, a Pokémon can only be caught during a battle. While held items and abilities are absent, battles still provide enough challenge to chew on.
In contrast to previous entries, stat boosting moves aren’t as common, there seems to be a focus on shorter battles overall, and while lower level Pokémon are able to hold their own a little better, damage output seems higher across the board. Sleep and Freeze status conditions have also been reworked so they don’t leave you locked out of being able to act.
The forumla itself has also been changed up a little, as particularly speedy Pokémon can now act more than once, the introduction of Agile or Strong styles provides a new way for players to chip away a foe’s health or manipulate their way into a one-turn win, and there are scenarios where wild Pokémon are either a much higher level than you or gang up to turn the numbers in their favor.
Boss Pokémon like Alphas and Nobles don’t pull their punches either, thankfully, ensuring that they actually live up to their fearsome reputations.
As mentioned before, Pokémon Legends: Arceus provides players with a lot more freedom. Thus, if you want to take on something that’s got better stats on top of being vastly above your own level with your own party – go ahead.
In fact, The most fun I had was going way-off track, coming across randomly spawning Space-Time Distortion events, and pushing my luck to find new areas, Pokémon, and items.
As gaming has increasingly become more hand-holding and on rails, Pokémon has managed to become one of the few mainstream games to successfully reinvent itself, even further doing so in a way that appeals to both newer and older fans after years of being dumbed down in the hopes of appealing to a wider audience – in this case, kids “who usually play short mobile games“.
The whole game is a sign that Game Freak is more willing to experiment. I don’t get how it happened either.
If anything, it seems like Pokémon Legends: Arceus is designed so no matter what you do, you’re fulfilling your overall goals and making life easier for yourself.
For example, in past games, there was never really a reward for catching a Pokémon you didn’t want, other than completionist’s sake.
Now, your Pokédex has Research Missions. Catch a Pokémon X amount of times, beat a certain number of them in battle, see it use a certain move over and over – they’re a fun check-list that helps propel your adventure, though with the sheer number of Pokémon found across ancient Sinnoh, they can eventually feel like a chore.
Nonetheless, completed missions eventually increase your Rank, and better Ranks will allow you to craft better quality items, receive more money when you complete research tasks, and control higher level Pokémon.
Eventually, after venturing out to fulfill Research Missions and capture over a dozen of the same Pokémon – and a few others besides – you’ll have to pick a few to keep in order to make future research easier and release the rest.
However, this is not without its benefits, as releasing Pokémon back to the wild grants you Grit, an item used to improve a Pokémon’s Effort Level.
This stat, which replaces the IVs and EVs of prior generations, serves as the inherent strength determinant of a Pokémon’s given stat.
Further, breeding is gone, so you don’t have to spend a small fortune on vitamins, chain-breeding genetics, or fighting the same species over and over again in order to boost a Pokémon’s EV.
Game Freak even streamlined some of the more annoying parts seen in past games. No longer do you have to talk to specific people to relearn old moves or change a Pokémon’s nickname, as these actions can now be done straight from the menu.
You also dictate when your Pokémon evolves, thus allowing you to avoid having to constantly deny its transformation should you wish to complete some Research Missions first.
The battles and exploration of Pokémon Legends Arceus really highlight the feeling that it was designed to be a single-player game first, as opposed to recent mainstream entries which have felt like obligated regular releases first, multiplayer games second, and a singe player experience dead last.
Yet, there are caveats to this praise, as the game still invites a few criticisms that should sound more than familiar to fans.
Once again EXP is shared among the whole party, even those who didn’t contribute. Unsurprisingly, this does lead to you, at times, being over-leveled.
This usually doesn’t matter in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, as Alphas and Nobles will still usually require the help of several Pokémon to take down. In theory, the sharing of EXP should be a great way to limit the player’s need to grind and help them level up weaker Pokémon.
The issue is that there is too much EXP handed out, and your Pokémon so quickly dwarf your opponent’s levels that the challenge in battling them eventually withers away.
While you could certainly combat this by constantly rotating your team’s line-up, but this comes at the cost of growing less attached to your band of brothers.
This EXP issue also affects your overall sense of adventure, as you’ll constantly find yourself wrestling with the decision to do something other than the story, lest you become even more over-leveled.
In essence, you’ll be tempted to resist fun and freedom in favor of squeezing just a little more challenge out of the main game.
The lack of challenge also rears its head during the handful of trainer battles you’ll experience throughout the game.
While they use more than one Pokémon, Game Freak seems to have forgotten that, in addition to the aforementioned over-leveling, they’ve been giving you enough Grit items to max out your Pokémon’s stats.
By the time you starting fighting full teams with decent stats, you’re already at the end game.
You also can’t switch your Pokémon party freely out in the field, which, while lore appropriate, feels like an unnecessary restriction amidst such other curiosities as possessing a smartphone from God and being able summon ridable Pokémon out of thin air.
Further, your Pokédex is oddly selective in when it can be used.
You can bring it up while targeting a wild Pokémon to see what Reseach Missions are available for it, but the same can’t be said for mid-battle or while examining your caught Pokémon in the pasture to decide who to release.
The continued presence of these issues could be due to the developer’s lack of experience with this open-world, fear that their target audience has no attention span or skill, or lack of budget and development time for the game’s scope.
Even the game’s exploration aspect, for all it’s positives, is somewhat bungled.
On paper, players should be chancing their arm with how long they stay out in the field, turning back and returning to Jubilife when supplies are low.
In reality, Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ quality of life changes allow players the ability to teleport back to their nearest camp, wherein they can heal up, switch their party around, and free up inventory space by dropping off excess items.
Even in the few cases where you’re unable to instantly warp back to camp, such as when you’re being pursued by an aggressive Pokémon, the rideable Pokémon you unlock make it easy to quickly go back to where you were.
This also applies in the reverse, leaving any faux survival game vibe Legends was aiming for is shattered as players really only lose a few seconds of time and a handful of items for blacking out in the field.
This capacity for quick escapes to what is essentially a mobile Pokémon Center, combined with how Sinnoh’s pure abundance of materials allow you to craft as many Pokeball and healing items as you’ll need, leaves you with little reason to turn back to Jubilife unless you’ve got a mission to complete or a Rank to earn.
As for the game’s graphics, while they do feature a few design choices that show an earnest attempt at a worthwhile, these sadly do little to save the visual package.
Looking dated overall, the comparisons of Pokémon Legends: Arceus to games from the 2000s aren’t without merit.
I’ve never been one to push for more realistic graphics in games, least of all Pokémon. As most Pokémon already look like they’re made of plastic – a design choice ostensibly done to make it easier to accurately replicate the series’ style across its various products – a more colorful and cartoony world is more acceptable and appropriate for the series.
However, Legends decides to take a step in the opposite direction, covering its Breath-of-the-Wild-test-map-looking landscapes in different shades of green, brown, grey, or white, and topping them off with, at best, a smattering of trees.
While it’s usually distinct enough to navigate by and even answer such regular questions as “Where the hell did I find that Monferno last time?”, the world bears little major landmarks, instead standing as an endless series of hills, mountains, and rivers, dotted with the occasional cave or ruin.
The memorable areas of Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ open world maps – outside of story-exclusive areas – can be counted on one hand after woodchipper accident.
The Pokémon running around in clusters of three to four are the only thing stopping the world feeling completely barren and empty.
By comparison, the village of Jubilife looks great and feels vibrant, slowly evolving over time as more villagers move in and shopkeepers update their wares. Residents even appear in different spots throughout the village almost every time you visit.
These small details leave the village, with its residents hanging currently hanging onto survival by a thread, feeling more alive than Sinnoh’s untamed wilderness.
As for textures, models, and animation, while the former is the usual sub-par affair – passable as long as you don’t get too close – the latter two have been vastly improved.
This time around, Pokémon (and even the player) can actually move around in battle, attack animations are more varied than ‘static image of a Pokémon moving forward’, and human characters are far more motive in their faces – the last improvement really helping to sell the aformentioned dialogue.”
It’s a small step forward along with the improved animations we’ve seen, though it’s admittedly hard to ignore if a Pokémon gets stuck in a tree, or the grass starts having a seizure.
To that end, however, special effects are usually used to mask the fact that there’s only one animation for any kind of physical contact. Moves can also lose a bit of oomph not having the fancy camera work anymore.
Additionally, you can sometimes see jagged shadows, distant NPCs with terribly low frame-rates (especially flying Pokémon, unobscured, high in the sky), Pokémon vanishing into thin air when they run away, and attacks that are dodged or totally resisted failing to fully play out their respective animations.
I also want to note that, as a result of the third person camera and black cinematic borders, you have to choose putting all the action essentially on a quarter of the screen, or your fat head getting in the way.
Regarding its sound design, while it has its own soundtrack, Pokémon Legends: Arceus sometimes pleasantly blindside you with tracks and samples from the games in which the Sinnoh region first appeared, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl.
When you recognize these tunes, much like when you catch the ancestral NPC references to future series charcters, you can’t help but crack a smile.
That being said, even after improvements prior generations, Pokémon cries have returned to digital sound. They play in different ways to convey different events, such as when a Pokémon is attacking or when one is larger than usual, but these variations only serve to highlight how dated these cries sound overall. It almost makes you wish for stock animal noises instead.
At the end of the day, while you might have to make some concessions to work against over-leveling, Pokémon Legends: Arceus does a great of job of making you feel like you’re always making progress, rather than just spinning your wheels.
Whether the action elements are what the series’ mainline games need is hard to say, and I’d never vouch for turning a turn-based game into an action RPG. What I do know is that what was offered here was fun and shows great promise for the series in the future.
Admittedly, though Pokémon Legends: Arceus might be annoying at times, for the first time in a long while, I can finally say a Pokémon game is fun for more than just the diehard fans.
It seems that following the word of our lord and savior Arceus might just be the way to Pokémon’s salvation.
A review copy of this game was provided by Nintendo.
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- Trying to find Pokémon and catch them by stealth or battle is fun.
- Finally feels like an adventure, open-ended exploration and freedom.
- Every little victory rewards you, and helps fuel further successes.
- Can cheese catching Pokémon in stealth.
- Barren and forgettable world with simple textures and assets.
- Easy to over-level if you don't plough-on with main quests, bosses easy until the end.