This Article Contains Spoilers!
You know, for a franchise that features “evolution” as a core gameplay mechanic, the Pokèmon series has felt pretty stagnant over its 25 year tenure.
It hasn’t even been half a year and we’ve already got a new, substantial mainline Pokèmon game release. Back when Pokèmon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl came out, I wrote a fairly critical article about how the game felt rather low-effort and failed to live up to the franchise’s prior remakes. Sure, I liked the core of the games – the original Sinnoh campaign was good – but the remakes really didn’t do enough to justify their own existence, what with the DS releases still being out there. But, that’s in the past. The remakes weren’t even developed by Gamefreak, since they were fully dedicated to producing Legends Arceus. So, I guess the question is, are we finally going to see where all the effort went? Is Legends Arceus the game that finally takes the franchise to a new level, tossing the formula we’ve become familiar with for a bold, new direction? Is this finally the first modern Pokèmon game?
Well, it’s kind of hard to say, honestly. Legends Arceus takes a few timid steps out of the primordial soup and onto dry land, but it’s more of an amphibian than a reptile – it still needs to run back into the ocean to survive. What I’m trying to get at with this horrible metaphor is that Legends Arceus innovates, but it doesn’t really innovate as much as I would have personally liked to see in a game meant to embody a fresh new take on the Pokèmon identity. The game managed to surprise me in some regards, but in others it felt like I was still walking the same well-trodden path that all of the 8 prior generations of Pokèmon games had taken me, which isn’t exactly the best look for a game about forging new ground. Rather than summarizing my thoughts, let me get into my reasoning.
I’VE GOT GOD ON SPEED DIAL
The setup for Legends Arceus definitely wasn’t what I was expecting going in. You are [insert name here], standard order blank slate Pokèmon protagonist who just so happens to get Isekai’d by Arceus itself a couple centuries into the past, to an undeveloped version of what would become the Sinnoh region. The player quickly becomes a member of the Galaxy Expedition Team, tasked with exploring the world and cataloguing Pokèmon for what is likely the earliest ever iteration of the Pokèdex. In this time period, Pokèmon lean much closer to wild animals than companions, and the general populace is mostly fearful of their extreme power. The player is also granted a boon from Arceus itself, a sort of magical cellphone on which is transmitted the player’s divine quest – to complete the Pokèdex, because obviously.
This aspect of the game’s story is kind of odd, in my opinion. Having the protagonist be from the future helps lampshade how the player is likely to come into this game with a lot of Pokèmon foreknowledge and how they’re going to behave as such, and the player character of Pokèmon games having a bit of a chosen one streak has been the case since at least Generation 3, but never before have you been a literal hero on a divine quest. The Arceus-granted quest falls to the sidelines during the main story, though, as you mostly end up on a mission to quell the fury of Hisui’s nobles, a quintet of extremely powerful wild Pokèmon. In this journey, you’ll explore different regions of Hisui, meet new characters, and find new Pokèmon.
The story is, overall, one of the areas where Legends Arceus sticks to the classic Pokèmon formula; that is to say, it’s generally very uninteresting. Characters are one-note, the overarching plot doesn’t really do anything particularly compelling, and it feels like not very much effort went into crafting an interesting narrative. Still, though, the game has a lot of cutscenes and dialogue, probably a little bit too much overall. The game talks constantly of raised stakes, but it doesn’t ever really feel like much is at risk. Towards the end of the game, the protagonist gets exiled from their village and the world ends up on the brink of literal apocalypse, but as with most Pokèmon apocalypse scenarios, it ends fairly quickly by just throwing Pokèballs at whatever legendary is causing a ruckus until everything is fixed. In this game, it can be either Dialga or Palkia, depending on a choice the player makes late in the game, which I was somewhat surprised by – I was kind of expecting the big bad to be Giratina, but it isn’t. The choice you make as to which legendary dragon is the one behind it all is fairly subtle, and it’s also pretty much the only choice you make in the entire game with a substantial narrative impact. There are a bunch of dialogue options, sure, but they’re completely meaningless. Honestly, I’d have preferred it if they didn’t even give you any dialogue options, rather than taunt you with the prospect of characterization.
This is one of the areas that I’m kind of disappointed in, but also I’m not really surprised that nothing really changed on this front. Since Pokèmon Black/White genuinely tried to write some sort of compelling story a decade ago, Pokèmon games since feel like they’ve been adding more and more text, but not doing anything worthwhile with it. It isn’t quite as irritating as the Gen 7 games, which felt at times like GameFreak’s attempt to create a Pokèmon-themed visual novel consisting exclusively of exposition, but it still kind of grates. Realistically, though, nobody buys Pokèmon games for the stories, but for anyone who was sincerely hoping that this game would take a bold leap in a new narrative direction, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Where Legends: Arceus primarily seeks to innovate is in the gameplay. No longer are we playing a traditional, top-down, linear, enclosed JRPG: Legends Arceus sets us loose in Monster-Hunter style open-ended areas and tells us to explore to our heart’s content. AAA games have been trending toward open-ended design for quite a while now, but Nintendo hasn’t really leaned into the style until this console generation, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the Super Mario 3D World expansion Bowser’s Fury showcasing a new, nonlinear approach to classic Nintendo franchises. Legends: Arceus is here to show us how the company applies this new format to the Pokèmon series. The question is: did it work out?
I feel like I should confess that open-world isn’t traditionally my favorite game format. I like nonlinearity, with Metroidvania being one of my favorite game genres, but as a fairly goal-oriented player, I often find the long tracts of downtime spent traveling from place to place through empty open-world fieldland kind of grating. I love games that heavily feature exploration, but for me, the joy of exploration is primarily in the finding. Open-world games are, by their nature, heavily exploratory, but when most of what you end up finding in a game like Skyrim are copy-pasted draugr crypts, it starts feeling like there isn’t really that much to actually find. Legends: Arceus is a little different from other open-world games, with it not featuring a single, large map but multiple smaller, open playgrounds separated by loading screens. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Since the game is still tied to statistics-oriented turn-based combat, dividing the map in this matter keeps players from inadvertently wandering into an area significantly above their level, and, notably, prevents players from craftily catching a massively overleveled Pokèmon and completely subverting the game’s intended progression. I also have a strong feeling that the decision to divide the map this way was also a technical necessity, but that’s a topic for a little down the line.
With the open-world approach, an element of real-time action has been injected into the traditional formula. The player is able to toss Pokèballs at wandering Pokèmon without engaging them in battle, and can crawl through the foliage to remain unseen and sneak up on skittish monsters. Pokèmon, however, also have the option to fight back, with some aggressive species willing to attack the player on sight. The player will have to either engage in fight or flight, dodge-rolling out of the way of incoming attacks or sending out their own Pokèmon for a classic turn-based battle. Some changes were made to the battle system, with it now featuring a looser action-order system instead of a more strictly turn-based “the fastest Pokèmon goes first” formula, and it feels like the damage formula has been modified somehow, but other than that, it’s largely the same Pokèmon combat you’ve become familiar with over time.
This is one of the areas where I feel like the game most distinctly needed improvement. I feel as though Pokèmon combat’s potential strategic depth is somewhat held back by the one-on-one nature of the majority of encounters. Occasionally, if you enrage multiple wild Pokèmon at the same time, or in a few specific scripted fights, you’ll have to fight multiple enemy Pokèmon at the same time – except you still only get to use one Pokèmon. I found these encounters pretty interesting from a strategic perspective, trying to figure out what members of my party to send out when to take out enemy targets, since you would tend to trade 1-for-1 with super-effective moves in encounters like this. What I don’t understand, however, is why they didn’t develop this further and feature something akin to Pokèmon Black/White’s triple battles. With the new action ordering system, as well as the strong and fast-style moves added that allow you to influence the turn order, it feels like this was a golden opportunity to add more actors to these fights. It would make the action order system more interesting and add a layer of strategic depth that the game still generally lacks, which might make the combat more engaging. As it is, combat isn’t bad, but it feels like they didn’t go far enough in modernizing the old formula.
Legends Arceus also leans into the standard AAA open-world formula with its inclusion of a fairly obligatory crafting system, which doesn’t really do much but totally invalidate the game’s merchants (seriously; I was never wanting for resources in this game, even early on) and add another reason to explore the environment, beyond finding Pokèmon. There’s a fairly large variety of resources of various usefulness, but so long as you’re harvesting most of the veins you come across, you’ll pretty much be overstocked on most of them. One thing I do really appreciate about how Legends: Arceus approaches these resource veins is that harvesting them is lightning fast. All it takes is tossing a single Pokèmon at a resource vein and it’s yours; no need to stick around, or even get particularly close to whatever you’re gathering. This quality of life upgrade from some other games which heavily feature resource-gathering gameplay is an excellent feature that does wonders for keeping the pace up. Gathering resources becomes something you do more so passively while exploring the world, which certainly contributes to the overabundance of supplies, but also means that the tedium of gathering doesn’t bog down the exploration.
But, is the exploration actually compelling? The prime motivator for exploration is finding new Pokèmon to catch in order to progress the story, which is definitely an area where the game shines. If you like ticking boxes on checklists, you’ll probably love scouring the world for different species and completing their particular research tasks to finish their Pokèdex entries. Even though I’m far from a completionist, I found this game loop to be really engaging and consistently satisfying. The problem is, however, that cataloging Pokèmon is pretty much the only hook the exploration has. There isn’t really much to find in any of the game’s environments aside from rare Pokèmon, which is somewhat disappointing. In older Pokèmon games, you would be scouring the world for rare species, but also keeping your eyes peeled for potentially high-value items scattered throughout the map, or looking out for entrances to optional dungeon areas. In these older games, not only were high-value items like TMs or evolution stones your reward for exploration, but you would also be rewarded with unique, optional content. Unfortunately, we don’t really get that in Legends: Arceus. There are a few cave/dungeon areas that are treated as separate maps from the regions in which you find them, but they don’t really start showing up until the late game, and even then, they don’t really have much to see within them. This can make the exploration often feel bland and somewhat lifeless. I suppose the big rewards that the older games possessed is made up for by the abundance of smaller rewards in Legends: Arceus, but I definitely miss the feeling of finding actually cool things in the old games. There are few landmarks scattered throughout the maps, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the environments were all created via random terrain generation. The sort of attention to detail and landscape design that makes games like Subnautica so compelling is missing here.
That isn’t the only reason that the world feels somewhat lifeless. Wild Pokèmon are fairly disappointing with their limited interaction with the world around them. We don’t really see wild Pokèmon interacting much with each other, which is fairly disappointing. There’s so much potential with what could be done like this. What if you could spy on wild Pokèmon eating different types of foods, which you could use to discover what foods you, yourself could use to lure in and capture members of that species? What if wild Pokèmon were able to fight each other, and the player could swoop in after the brawl and score an easy capture on the winner? What if, instead of like 65% of every Pokèmon variety in the game just trying to kill you on sight, they only got angry if you did something like invade their territory, and you could more easily engage in a live-and-let-live mindset, like real animals typically do? What if a Luxray would only become aggressive if you got too close to her Shinx cubs? GameFreak had a golden opportunity to finally make Pokèmon feel real, to finally depict what actual wild Pokèmon behavior is like, and all we really got is three standard personality types and a bunch of creatures that don’t really do much of anything but fight or flee. This is, honestly, one of the most disappointing elements of this game for me, and it’s one of the points where Legends: Arceus really drops the ball.
Overall, Legends: Arceus’s gameplay is fairly solid, but it still feels overall somewhat like it’s playing it a little too safe and kind of unfinished. The lack of polish and detail in the environments and exploration feels more reminiscent of a game from the Wii era than it does something from the 2020s. Legends: Arceus is a modernization in some respects, but not in others. I feel as though the game leans too closely into the elements that defined prior Pokèmon games, and implements the bare minimum of open world design principles necessary to define itself as something unique. It’s something new for Pokèmon, but it doesn’t really feel like something new for gaming. The strength of the concept alone is enough that, even with its barrenness, I still found myself really enjoying my time with Legends: Arceus, but I can’t help but be disappointed in the abstract when I think about how incredible this game could have been if it strove to be something better. Maybe the next Pokèmon Legends game will live up to my lofty expectations; Legends: Arceus itself is kind of a significant expansion on the ludicrously underdeveloped wild area from Sword/Shield, so maybe this game’s sequel will be a huge development on it in a similar fashion. But, that game doesn’t exist right now, so we can only dream.
YEAH I’M SORRY BUT WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THE GRAPHICS
No area of Legends: Arceus feels more unpolished than its visuals. The crusty, pixelated models look like they were yanked right off a 3DS cartridge; the way wild Pokèmon more than 30 meters away drop all frames of animation except two, a detail that is especially noticeable with flying Pokèmon; and some of the exceptionally blurry textures literally look like Quake 4, a game from 2005, running on the lowest graphics settings (which is an extremely specific comparison, but just roll with it). Switch games tend to look extremely graphically outdated, and I’m not asking for realtime raytracing or anything, but could you at least try to make it look even the slightest bit contemporary? Again, the game as a whole seriously looks like a Wii game, and I’ll just never get over how crusty Nintendo Seal of Quality’d AAA products look in this day and age. I saw a social media post recently that said something along the lines of “Every Pokèmon game for the Switch looks like a game that you’d find if you typed Pokèmon into the Google Play Store and scrolled down a bit,” and no game in the series embodies that more than Legends: Arceus.
The environments are by and large where the biggest problems are. Trees and other models tend to pop in at relatively close distances, and you can usually see it happen pretty clearly. Whenever you’re on a high point looking out at the landscape beneath you, a moment that’s usually intended to present a beautiful, breath-taking vista, just presents you with like, maybe 3 total extremely low-resolution textures and an undecorated landscape. The beachside area is the absolute worst with this; The water looks like something from the PS1. Honestly, I feel like this game could have done well with some sort of distance fog effect. I know that distance fog sounds like a PS1-era solution in itself, and I don’t intend that the game needs to look like Silent Hill, but maybe having anything at all to obscure the graphical hitches would make the game feel less immensely crusty.
The models aren’t great, either. The insignia on Professor Laventon’s coat, in particular, is hilariously blurry. Substantial improvements have been made to Pokèmon animations since the previous games, but the models still lean very heavily into flat, lifeless colors. When I saw that Electrode’s mouth was literally like a stock .png of a frowny face slapped on the model like a sticker, I audibly sighed. There isn’t really any positive aspect to this game on a visual or technical front. I know some of my friends disagree and think that the game is overall fine on a visual front, but I respectfully disagree. This is the area where Legends: Arceus really feels the most stuck in the past, about 4 console generations back.
I feel as though this article comes off as exceptionally harsh and critical, so it might be surprising that I overall do still like Legends: Arceus for its compelling and fun gameplay loop, but we shouldn’t pretend like this game doesn’t have significant flaws. The lacking narrative and atrocious graphics hold the game back from being any sort of true magnum opus, but that’s fairly expected for Pokèmon in general; the presentation has never really been the strong suit for these games, especially after they went 3D. The gameplay, though, is solid enough, and I genuinely did enjoy it a lot. I can definitely appreciate a game that really nails one particular loop, and the surprisingly fluid exploration and collectathon aspect of Legends: Arceus is absolutely rock solid. Do I recommend Legends: Arceus? If you like Pokèmon, I think that I would, but if you’re new to the series, Arceus is lacking in a lot of places that might make you question how this franchise became so successful to begin with. It’s distractingly unpolished and lacking in detail, but it has an extremely solid core.
For those of you who have played Legends: Arceus, what do you think? Do you feel like the game is missing something, or are you fine with it as is? For those of you who haven’t, are you interested in picking it up, or are you going to skip this one? Feel free to leave a comment. With Kirby and the Forgotten Land coming out soon this year, we’re all going to get a chance to see how another Nintendo franchise re-imagines itself with modern design principles in mind, so definitely stay tuned for that!