Pokémon Legends: Arceus Is a Step in the Right Direction
But is it enough?
To start with a notice of sorts, I have to say that while I started playing Pokémon back when the Game Boy Color was relevant, I don't have as much love and nostalgia as other fans. I've skipped several of the latest games due to a perceived stagnation from them. While I don't hate the franchise, I also don't love it unconditionally.
With Arceus being the biggest shakeup to the franchise's formula in many years, I've come back to try it out, so let's break it all down to see what works and what doesn't.
So, starting with the visuals, I have to say that they are disappointing. This is a full-price game, half a decade after Zelda: Breath of the Wild, from one of the world's most successful and wealthy game publishers, and it looks like this.
I wouldn't go so far as to say it looks terrible, but it could look much better. It's not just the texture resolution, but the looping textures found in the sea, mountain, and cave areas that make the game look outright amateurish. And for some reason, there are strange reflections on a lot of the surfaces that do nothing to improve the game's sub-par reputation. While the Pokémon and their moves look good, character animations during cut scenes are pretty basic.
There's also an obvious lack of variety for NPC models. In the starting town, you'll find many characters with the exact same models, with Ichika, Miki, Yoshimi, Tsumugi, and Wanda a few examples of the trend. The story is the same for Dorian, Kew, Beauregard, Perri, Ren, and Bagin, and all of them can be found in the village.
Despite all this, the game runs at 30fps with dips below that in certain parts. Thankfully this doesn't impact the game's turn-based combat, but it can significantly hamper the overall experience from time to time.
For some, none of this will matter, as they get to see Pokémon roaming around, and maybe you'll even catch them sleeping from time to time. This does help make the world feel alive to some extent, but the game engine's less-than-ideal draw distance has the opposite effect.
That's not to say it's all bad. Starting a Pokémon battle at your will and seeing it take place exactly where you're standing, rather than some rough abstraction of the environment, is almost magical.
I feel more positively toward the game's audio, particularly when it comes to sound effects. The noise you make at different speeds, the sound when you throw a Poké Ball that fails either because they are hostile or because you threw it from too far away, and attack sounds that vary based on their effectiveness are all examples of the top-notch work done here. Audio cues also help offset the draw distance a bit, as you'll be able to tell if a Shiny Pokémon has appeared close to you, which is important considering their rarity.
When it comes to the music, you can still enjoy the battle theme and the atmospheric tunes that play when you're roaming around. But there are also negatives - Jubilife Village's theme, while good, quickly grows tiresome. You normally don't listen to it for a long time, but you listen to it often, so you hear the same basic loop over and over.
The worst musical sin of all is the few seconds of "song" that play when you meet the Miss Fortunes (though it happens in a few other situations as well). It is just the same few seconds on repeat, and it wears out its welcome long before it has stopped playing the first time around.
I don't expect anyone to buy Pokémon for the story outside the Mystery Dungeon series, and you shouldn't buy Arceus for its story either.
So while I think you can safely skip this section of the review, I'll give a crash course of what happens. This section and this section alone technically contains spoilers, so skip this section in order to avoid them.
The crash course is that our protagonist was transported into the past by Arceus and given a sweet Arceus phone that'll provide stuff like maps and tasks, all while players can see a rift up in the sky. We are now in the Hisui region, which will later be called Sinnoh, and appear just outside Jubilife Village, which will later become a city. Found by a professor who takes us under his wing, the village was made by the Galaxy Team (which will become Team Galactic eventually, but aren't yet evil) and they offer no free meal - they will have to join the survey corps and prove our mettle to earn a roof over our heads.
Though you're considered suspicious after popping out of nowhere, you're given a lot of important tasks soon after joining, including quelling the noble Pokémon that populate the different areas of the region and became frenzied recently due to lightning strikes coming from the rift. But despite your best efforts, you'll be blamed with what's happening, as not long after quelling all the Pokémon the sky will turn red.
Because you're considered suspicious, you'll be kicked out of the Galaxy Team and even expelled from the village. Given your past accomplishments, you'll be allowed to leave in order to investigate what's happening, rather than just being imprisoned. For some reason, you don't even get escorted out of town, they just let you go.
After roaming the world for a while you'll be presented to a new character that'll guide you in order to save the world. To do that, you'll need to meet Legendary Pokémon in order to craft an item to heal the world to its original state. Of course, you'll first need to battle and catch those Legendary Pokémon. After doing all this, the red sky and the rift itself will disappear, and you'll be stuck in the past.
While I'm guessing the ending is supposed to be tragic or bittersweet, we never really get to see the protagonist be distressed about his predicament so it doesn't carry much emotional weight. It would have been difficult to achieve that regardless, as we never actually see the protagonist's dialogue.
The game also has more stories and missions after finishing the main story, but this was just a summary of the main event.
The other thing that is worth mentioning is how the game features locations (and one particular NPC) that are featured in other Pokémon games, so if you're a long-time player you can get a bit more out of this world.
Something I should mention first, is that compared to previous games, this one has a bigger focus on collecting Pokémon rather than battling them, though of course there are still battles. With that out of the way, let's talk about the game's mechanics.
Right off the bat, you might notice that you can crouch, roll, and run - no need to get running shoes, but unfortunately, you do get tired here. These movement options are there to handle wild Pokémon before entering battle, as you can actually throw poke balls at Pokémon that aren't hostile towards you in order to try and catch them.
While I don't think the game should let us climb everything, it would have been nice if tiny slopes weren't enough to stop our protagonists dead in their tracks. The fact that we later get mountable Pokémon that increase our mobility makes these limitations even more obvious, especially in towns where the only option is to walk.
This game expects you to research a lot of Pokémon. Depending on the species you are tasked with catching a number of them in different forms, catching them without being spotted, defeating them with certain moves, giving them food, seeing them use certain attacks, etc. Having an option to catch lots of them fast is really helpful for our mission. Note that each Pokémon goes up to rank 10 depending on how much knowledge has been gained about them, and thankfully it isn't required to clear every task in order to get there.
By researching Pokémon you'll get points that increase your own rank within Galaxy Team, allowing you to control higher-level Pokémon and providing you with Poké Ball and potion recipes to use in the game's crafting elements. But this isn't Minecraft, you don't put items on a grid or experiment, you just select a known recipe, and if you have the ingredients, you get your items. It's simple, but it does beat having to return to town just to buy Poké Balls.
Most Pokémon seem to be somewhat nearsighted, but they have good hearing, so you'll often need to crouch around them if you want to catch them without a fight. Depending on the species, after being found, Pokémon will either try to run away or become hostile (note that sometimes Pokémon from a species that normally runs away might become hostile too!). After a Pokémon becomes hostile you won't be able to use a Poké Ball to catch them unless you're in a fight.
Hostile Pokémon will attack you, but they can't force a fight to start. Instead, the protagonist will take damage that will auto-heal over time, but if your life depletes you'll be transported elsewhere and will lose some objects in your satchel (which other online players can return).
It also should be noted that the game features a variation of Pokémon, called Alpha, which are much bigger than normal versions and are higher level than the Pokémon surrounding them. If in doubt, look at their eyes - if they glow red, they are alpha.
If you want to increase your odds of catching Pokémon, you'll try to catch them unaware and hit their backs, even better if they are sleeping or eating, there are also special poke balls that have a shorter range but work better when hitting their backs.
Different Pokémon species like different foods, but it seems that you can use the ubiquitous Oran berry with all of them anyway. You can also use food strategically to position them somewhere it's easier for you to target them.
If your intention is to catch all Pokémon, know that some only appear at certain times, a few depend on the weather, and some species have just a single Pokémon spawning in the area.
Progressing through the main story gives a new Pokémon with which to ride and reach new areas, as well as faster movement, so we'll be able to climb some slopes, swim, and fly. There is also one that can unearth hidden item or pieces of an old document.
Besides catching Pokémon and collecting resources - some of which, like ores and fruits, require Pokémon to retrieve - we can find satchels throughout the game, some left by other players. Finding them will give us points that we can use to buy rare items. After starting its respective quest we can also find wisps, for which we'll receive rewards - and finding all the wisps will be necessary for tracking down an elusive Pokémon.
Some areas of the world can feature space-time distortions, seen from a distance as dark domes whereupon entering, and after spending some time there, items and Pokémon will be transported in through the distortion. These can even include Pokémon that aren't part of the era, like Porygon. Shards, evolution stones and other valuable items can also be found in these distortions.
Normally, you'll find 3 Pokémon transported together, so challenging them can be a problem.These distortions are the only place in the game that certain Pokémon can be found, so avoiding the areas to keep from facing the 1-on-3 confrontation isn't feasible.
There are also mass outbreaks that can happen in an area while you're in the Jubilife Village, wherein a dozen or so of the same Pokémon spawn into a small area. These are mostly useful for those hunting for Shinies as your odds are considerably higher than they are while just roaming around.
This is the place that will let you go to the different zones of the game (you can't move from one to another, you have to go to the village), and also where you'll get most of your quests. There are a few more things you can do here, but it's mostly things you can do while out of town as well:
- You can sleep to heal and change time. You can also change your appearance
- Buying, selling, and crafting items, as well as managing the ones in your box
- Switching Pokémon with those on your computer (pastures in this case)
- There's a farm where you can pay to harvest some materials
- You can pay to learn moves and use special items to "master" moves (more on this later)
- Increase the space in your satchel for increasingly bigger fees (I recommend saving your money to this)
- Posing with your Pokémon to take screenshots
- Trade Pokémon
- Notably absent is the option to breed Pokémon
Before entering battles (unless they are forced by the story) you can do things to gain an advantage. By throwing your Pokémon at your enemy's back you'll get an extra turn or two in the battle where they won't be able to do anything. On the other hand, if you target them from the front when they are already hostile they'll attack before you have a chance to do anything. You can move around while in battle, but it has little value in the battle itself, besides being able to run away. Note that if you are in the middle when a Pokémon attacks, your character will fall but won't actually take damage, so don't worry about fainting.
Moving during battle allows you to position yourself for when it ends, for example, you can go move to tall grass so you can hide the moment the battle ends. When you enter the battle, any Pokémon that isn't part of it disappears from the screen, so you can reposition yourself during battles to catch more Pokémon.
Noble Pokémon battles are special in that your task is to throw balms at them - the same way you throw Poké Balls - in order to calm them down. At some point, you'll get an opening to battle them, and if you deplete their life the balms' effectiveness will increase temporarily.
Arguably the most important change in the battle system, is that battles aren't strictly "turn-based" in the sense that you can expect to do a move, then your enemy, and you again. Instead, depending on your speed and the moves you use, you might find that you (or your enemy) can perform 2 or even 3 moves before the other can react.
Then you have the Mastery system which affects this order as well. When you have a Pokémon in your party and use a Mastery, it will upgrade one of its attacks, and when you master a move you can use "agile" or "strong" styles for it. The agile style trades faster attack speed for reduced damage, while the strong style makes it stronger (shocking!) and increases accuracy at the cost of being slower.
But the way the turns work isn't the only big change. Held items don't exist here, and a number of moves were removed, like those related to switching Pokémon. Some moves were simplified, like those that increase strength (like Sword Dance) or defense, which now target both special and physical stats at the same time, and run out after a few turns instead of being semi-permanent.
If there are several hostile Pokémon nearby when you start a battle, they'll join in (the most I've seen is three working together) to take you down. While outside of battles you can have several Pokémon out at the same time, once the fighting starts you'll only have a single Pokémon at a time, so tread carefully.
Sleep and freeze were changed with drowsy and frostbite, with the former having a chance to prevent an attack, and the latter halving the effect of special attacks and reducing life each turn. Additionally, status effects disappear after the battle ends.
So while the game simplifies some things, others got a bit more strategy to them. But as a whole, I'd say it's simpler than previous mainline games. And perhaps these significant changes are the reason why PVP isn't available in Legends.
While most of your time will be spent exploring at your leisure and completing side quests, you'll need to complete objectives in the main story to unlock new zones to explore and new Pokémon mounts. And just as the story isn't something I found to be particularly worthwhile, it also is too long - you can't skip cutscenes, and surprisingly there's no option to increase text speed.
It's also unfortunate that there's some disconnect between story and gameplay, most notably with the noble Pokémon who need to be calmed down after being frenzied. It seems their role is to protect their land, and having them be frenzied should probably be an impediment to that, but there are no differences in the gameplay after quelling them.
I think that a "cheap" way to make this part of the story meaningful to the gameplay is to have a few Pokémon species appear after the fact, which could be justified by them being scared and hiding during the nobles' frenzy.
Another example of the disconnect saw a group of evildoers run away to an island using Gengar, just when I was trying to do the same thing. The story allows them to get there, but not me, as I had to follow the quest line and go through a bunch of different steps to get to the island. Not fair!
Side missions don't really seem to acknowledge the current state of the story, another bit of annoyance that could have been fixed. While it'd be a bit of work to have a different set of messages for everything, I think even disabling a number of said missions while the endgame is going on would help make the world feel more cohesive.
Besides the quests that have a lot of "get me this item or Pokémon" (as well as some "special" ones like dealing with a Mr. Mime's invisible walls), you have some balloon mini-games where you throw things to break them and receive a prize based on your score, or a balloon mini-game where you use your rides to blow up balloons in a path.
Even with these mini-games, most of your time will be spent just exploring and catching Pokémon so that you can complete your Pokédex.
There are some general changes and quality of life changes, but also some things that could be improved.
- When a Pokémon can evolve it won't try to do so automatically, instead, you'll get a notification, and you can evolve it whenever you want.
- Being able to get several Pokémon out at the same time to collect
resources more efficiently is great, and helps maintain the pace of the game.
- Crafting means you have fewer reasons to stop catching Pokémon to get objects.
- Pokémon don't forget their moves - they are added to a pool of moves you can switch to whenever you want.
- You can keep track of several missions, and you can often get directions for them if you select them.
- A new rare item allows you to evolve Pokémon that require trading, without actually trading.
- You can switch Pokémon and throw items during battle without opening a submenu.
- A single game rather than two versions!
- There's no way to sort your pastures (read: computer). When the game encourages catching 25 of the same kind of pokemon, you'd expect a better way to sort them; being able to sort by their number or type, would be a start.
- A better way to check the Pokédex entries for your party is needed.
- The evolution animation is longer than it needs to be and can't be skipped for some reason.
- Even though your characters run with the L3 button, the mount requires holding B in order to dash, which makes controlling the camera a bit of a pain. They should have either maintained the same controls or given at least the option to have B act as a toggle.
- No option to turn off attack effectiveness messages when the audio cues are more than enough. Doing so would help make the fights advance a little faster.
- Map locations can't be changed without returning to the village.
- If you are in front of an NPC who made a request and you meet the requirements to progress it, the game will give you no visual prompt of that fact unless you have their particular mission selected.
- Can't throw items nor Pokémon while using a mount other than Basculegion - having the option to do so at least with Ursaluna (the slowest mount) would be great, or at least being able to gather resources without unmounting it.
- When going from point A to point B you'll often take a lot of detours to collect items and Pokémon. Having the option to get some sort of compass would help ensure going in the right direction without having to check the map.
Pokémon Legends Arceus is a flawed but fun game. While I'll probably skip the next mainline Pokémon game I'll be keeping an eye for any sequel for Legends. Being around Pokémon, the battles happening on the spot, increased interactivity, and new options to tackle the start of battles made this game the most fun I've had with any Pokémon game in at least a decade.
There are changes that can be made to improve the formula, like adding more that you can do with your own Pokémon in the overworld (being able to feed pokemon you've already captured would be nice), and quality of life improvements in many aspects of the game to enhance the interactivity and pacing. And I hope that a better story, or at least a way to skip it more effectively, will accompany a sequel - if it ever comes.
While there aren't that many new features to keep you surprised for most of the game, the main loop is solid, and it'll be enough to keep you busy for a few dozen hours at the least. If you like the franchise as a whole but have been feeling burned out by the main formula, I can easily recommend this game to you despite its rough edges.
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