Pokémon Legends Arceus: Something New
SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Pokémon Legends Arceus.
Pokémon has been around for twenty-five long years and they’ve stuck to formula with every consistent release throughout their time dominating the entertainment market. With each new game they’ve put out, players have come to expect the same thing with some new mechanics sprinkled in to keep things relatively fresh. And for the most part, it’s always worked. The core Pokémon gameplay has been fun enough to carry the company for their entire twenty-five year run so far. But at some point, something has to change. They can’t put out the same game for twenty-five years without anyone starting to notice. So now we have Pokémon Legends Arceus, the latest entry in the Pokémon franchise that sets out to finally redefine what it means to be a Pokémon game. Set in my personal favorite region, Sinnoh, with the added twist of taking place in a long-past time where the idea of humans and Pokémon working together is yet to be heard of. Right from the announcement, I was all for this idea. It was such a novel idea for the Pokémon universe, especially being set in Sinnoh, the region all about creation myths and ancient legends, and when they announced that they were trying something new with the gameplay I couldn’t wait to see what this game would be bringing to the table. Pokémon possibly more than any other franchise has been long due for a remix of their formula and Pokémon Legends Arceus has given us just that. Placing the player in the world of Hisui to chart the wilderness and freely explore and capture Pokémon, we’re finally seeing a whole new side to Pokémon and what could be the promising future fans of the series have been hoping for for the longest time now.
GAMEPLAY AND WORLD
Being out in the wild and allowed to freely traverse and explore is a lot of fun and the freshest Pokémon experience we’ve had in ages. Catching Pokémon has never felt better and the simple act of lobbing a ball and capturing a stray Bidoof or a new species to update your Pokédex is designed so seamlessly and organically that it never once got old throughout the entire playthrough. Each Pokémon exhibits a different kind of behavior which really helps to bolster that experience of actually being out in the wild and dealing with living creatures. Ideally, if we were to see more games that follow this style, I’d really love to see more behavioral styles for wild Pokémon, because as it is it kind of just boils down to three types, those being aggressive, will flee when they spot you, and literally just toddles around. It’s still a really nice feature to have but it could definitely use a little more variation. On top of that, exploration is a lot of fun. I always found myself excited to look around each new corner to see what kind of Pokémon I could find next. The way battles are integrated so seamlessly is such a monumental improvement for this series. And the layout of the world is neat to explore as you discover the areas that you know will evolve in to the modern Sinnoh we’ve come to know. This style of gameplay is the exact breath of fresh air that Pokémon has needed for ages now. Down to the little details like being able to send out your whole team of Pokémon at the same time just to chill, Pokémon having size variations and being scaled a lot more appropriately now, and move animations looking better than ever the gameplay and formula this game introduces do so much right and do wonders for the Pokémon series as a whole.
A big complaint I’ve been seeing crop up in a lot of places is that the world looks ugly. And they’re not totally wrong. The world of Hisui does often look very rough around the edges. Especially when you’re flying, the world from afar tends to un-render itself and the Pokémon start to move at about two frames per second and it’s a real atrocity on the eyes. In the moment-to-moment gameplay, I didn’t find myself too hung up on how the world looks. The environment definitely doesn’t measure up to some of the other open-world games (given I know it’s not technically open-world game) out there but it’s fine enough to play through and it only really starts to get ugly if you stand still and look at it for too long. It definitely does feel a tad empty, though. With a few more structures and landmarks the world would feel a lot better but as it is it does feel a bit empty and bland. The map is segmented into five different major areas for the player to explore. The division helps to make the game digestible and diverse and getting to discover the new Pokémon in each different area is always compelling. Each area offers a decent amount of area to explore and manages to keep you engaged as you get lost in the world of Hisui. The individualized areas aren’t always the best game design decision though, as late in the game having to jump through the hoops of reporting to the professor and waiting through a conversation just to go back to Jubilife Village before turning around and going back out again to a different area can be very tedious.
Another mechanic that’s been revolutionized by this game is the ride Pokémon. You can call Pokémon to your aid to help you traverse around the region which, admittedly, isn’t something new but it really has never been done better. Galloping around with Wyrdeer feels good and makes traveling around the map consistently easy. You also have Braviary for flight, Basculegion for sea-faring, and Sneasler for scaling cliff-faces at your disposal. In a way, this isn’t only an evolution of ride Pokémon but also HMs, effectively killing two old and lame game mechanics with one efficient and enjoyable one. As you progress through the story and unlock more Pokémon, maneuvering the landscape becomes more fast-paced and seamless as you can freely cycle between your ride options allowing you to barrel through the terrain swiftly which is a good bit of fun to do.
Unfortunately, the story is the worst part of this game. Given such a unique and creative setting with a previously established region being reimagined in a time where capturing and training Pokémon is still a fledgling concept, the story really falls violently flat on its face by representing the most dragging and sluggish segments of the game. Gamefreak had an entire creation myth to work with and mold into something that we’ve only heard legends of before in past games and instead they waste it on a parade of entirely way too many different flat, one-note characters. Don’t get me wrong, I like that they play up the whole “ancestor” angle by designing characters with likenesses akin to previously established Pokémon characters but the problem is Pokémon just hasn’t ever written an intriguing character. Nobody plays a Pokémon game for the human trainer characters, and that’s understandable because they’re rarely anything more than just one personality trait like “scared of bugs” or “bad at directions.” They’re lucky to have even one to milk dry because otherwise they’re left to the endless line of Pokémon characters whose only personality is being a walking tutorial. There are only faint traces of actual characterization between endless exposition or tutorial dumps that just relentlessly flood forth in a perpetual stream of text boxes. You don’t even get to start playing the game until you’ve trudged through roughly thirty minutes of boring exposition and tutorial.
You’d think that if they couldn’t make any interesting characters they could at least use the genuinely really decent idea of a setting to tell a halfway interesting story but they even screw that up. Every time you walk up to NPC and the screen fades to black to fade back in to a close-up shot of your character standing and talking to those NPCs that’s the game telling you that you can put the game down and mash A for a while because it’s just gonna be non-gameplay for a little bit. The last time a Pokémon game has felt this needlessly saturated with hand-holdy dialogue was back when Sun and Moon devoted their entire first of four islands to tutorial. This game is at its best when it’s not hammering you with a string of consecutive dialogue heavy “cut scenes” and instead lets you get lost in its world and discover Pokémon, which can be said for pretty much any Pokémon games as their all guilty of being a little obtuse with dialogue heavy explanatory dumps obstructing the player from the actual gameplay but the highs and lows of the old trade-off are higher and lower than ever with long, more egregious spiels on information either already known or completely self-explanatory on its own and explorative gameplay that’s compelling enough to make those spiels worth sitting through.
If I had to say one nice thing about the story, I’d have to give props for it maybe trying to be a little bit more mature? Although, I’m not entirely sure if mature is the correct word… See, this game has stakes. And it’s not a shoe-horned DIY apocalypse scenario you must stop that the evil team leader pulled out of their ass like 99% of past Pokémon games, it has personal stakes. As in you, the player character, will personally be mauled by savage wild Pokémon and die painfully on your lonesome if you’re not careful. There’s a point in the late-game where the character is actually excommunicated from the hub village which felt like an actual serious situation in a Pokémon game. There are mentions here and there of Pokémon dying and people being left in the wilderness to fend for themselves. It’s not anything huge, like of course there’s no scenes of gratuitous gore where a Luxray rips a man’s throat out or anything, but I still appreciated the few and far between allusions to actually serious shit happening out there in the Pokémon world.
Arceus is probably the most difficult Pokémon experience we’ve gotten so far. Which you should of course take with a grain of salt since Pokémon games have never been difficult at a base level, but this one definitely offered some real uphill challenges that could be felt even from the beginning. Wild Pokémon are notably tougher than usual and sometimes simply having the type advantage won’t cut it as easily as it has in prior games. Trainer battles are very few and far between but the few that are there tend to be more tense and challenging than the typical trainer battles we’ve grown used to, making every move more important and battles in turn more strategic, rewarding, and fun. The strong-style/agile-style system serves to mix up the combat formula in a way that plays with the fundamentals more intimately than other gameplay innovations have dared to before. A lot of mechanics we’ve come to know so well over the years have been totally overhauled and some totally tossed out for the sake of simplicity. I can understand this decision to an extent, but I did find myself missing some of those mechanics throughout my playtime like held items, abilities, and definitely breeding. Be it what it is, the game proceeds just fine without them and it definitely does benefit in many areas from these redesigns. I really appreciated the added modicum of challenge it brought to the table.
Gamefreak really tried to step out of their comfort zone with the noble battles, in which you directly participate by dodge-rolling and chucking balms at a frenzied Pokémon to calm it down enough to do actual Pokémon-on-Pokémon battle. I’ve always found it immensely underwhelming when these big cinematic boss battles are built up to in Pokémon games and then you just cycle a million ultra balls or one-and-done the whole thing with a master ball. That has always sucked every last drop of grandeur out of every major Pokémon encounter in past games for me but now when you face a Pokémon that the game wants you to take seriously you have this tense little high-octane minigame you have to waltz through first and that really makes the battles feel more worth it and climactic. Even more so considering that some of these fights are considerably difficult. The last noble Pokémon of the campaign in particular took me a few tries before I actually beat it. It’s these kinds of innovations to this series that I absolutely love to see and want to see more of. It’s a huge step forward but there's still so much more room for improvement. These skirmishes, while a significant game changer for the Pokémon formula, are kind of just dodging and throwing when it comes down to it. They could be a little more diversified with actions the player can take. Still, it’s a big movement in the right direction and I’d love to see more of this kind of ingenuity and game design.
Modern Pokémon designs have been hit or miss over recent years and nowhere is that more obvious than with legendary Pokémon. After Gen 6 there must have been some pretty significant staffing changes in the art direction team at Gamefreak because ever since there have been some real odd eggs in the basket. There are still some decent looking designs, for example they never try to get too experimental with the box legendaries; Solgaleo/Lunala and Zamazenta/Zacian (which still fall way short of past box legendaries) look cool enough… but then you get those secondary legendaries that end up looking super wacky. Take for example Celesteela or even Eternatus where it’s so vague or not immediately recognizable what they’re trying to represent with their designs that most of the appeal is just gone. The best Pokémon designs are recognizable and then the appeal comes from the charm of that unique interpretation.
In Pokémon Legends Arceus, they wanted to keep the legendary experience feeling fresh so they had to give us a new twist on the old Sinnoh legendaries, enter Origin forms. I’ve gotta say, these are some of the ugliest designs for Pokémon, let alone unique forms. It’s so difficult to understand what they were trying to do here, the designs are so half-baked and awkward. Dialga has some awkward geometric shape in it’s trachea now and we’re given zero explanation as to why. It’s even more of a let down because of all the speculation leading up to this reveal. Back during Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, they spiced up the Hoenn legendaries with Primal forms which were both kick-ass conceptually and well-designed. Since then, fans have been theorizing about possible Primal forms for Dialga and Palkia, especially given Primal Dialga literally exists in Mystery Dungeon spin-off titles. And now that Gamefreak has had the golden opportunity given the fact that it’s Sinnoh in olden times, they fumble that with immensely wonky-looking designs and no given explanation for why they just look like that. It’s just a shame that they had to go and pervert old Pokémon designs that were already solid and beloved and give them the new legendary treatment.
Thankfully I can say that the rest of the legendary cast in this game is brought directly from Sinnoh’s pre-existing roster of legendaries and mythicals, which is one of if not the best of any generation. They made every legendary openly available through different side quests or post-game missions (unless you count Darkrai and Shaymin which are technically only available if you have save data from other Pokémon games) which was nice considering how many of these cool Pokémon were locked behind events or other limited-time offers in the past that many players missed back in the day and now have a chance to actually experience encountering these Pokémon in-game. Also, Landorus, Thundurus, and Tornadus are here along with an entirely new fourth addition to the trio? Which is cool, I guess. It’s also worth mentioning that despite being featured in the title of the game, Arceus doesn’t actually appear anywhere inside the main campaign barring a luminous silhouette that appears for a minute during the opening introduction. Instead, Arceus is kind of a secret postgame final-final boss that you can only encounter after completing the Pokédex. It’s not really a big deal but it probably would have been cooler if Arceus had played an actual role in the story since it’s literally the god and creator of the universe and seeing it actually playing that role in a story where it’s participation would have been perfectly implemented could have been neat but I guess it being a reward for completionism is cool, too.
How does this game measure up? Personally, I can’t help but give props for finally doing something different and taking bold steps in a new direction with a game formula that’s remained majorly stagnant for two and half decades and that kind of innovation is hard to ignore. This game has brought new life into the Pokémon franchise in ways that make me earnestly excited for the future of the franchise. As a standalone experience, it’s definitely got a whole slew of flaws that are difficult to ignore and many of its problems are very Pokémon problems but the good ultimately outweighs the bad by a very strong margin here. From a brave new style of gameplay that reimagines Pokémon in a way that harkens to our childhood daydreams down to the quality of life enhancements that mean so much to long-time fans of the series, this game has set a new high standard for Pokémon games to come and is a treat to both returning fans and newcomers alike.
So, where do we go next? I genuinely can’t tell you what I think Gamefreak’s next move will be. Will they return to their old formula or continue with this new reimagined Pokémon? I can’t say it would be off-brand for them to just carry on pumping out the same old formula as if Legends Arceus had never happened… But at the same time, this kind of innovation for such an old and already established game series is pretty hard to ignore moving forward. Maybe we’ll get the best of both worlds, with them pumping out an old-style game along with a new Legends-style entry similar to how Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl dropped within such a close release window to Legends Arceus. Of course I’m almost certain that one’s just my wishful thinking; far too good to be true. One thing is for sure, though, wherever Pokémon goes next I’ll be there and I’ll do my best to put down my thoughts for a review.