Pokémon hasn’t changed much since 1996. Game Freak has been reluctant to meddle with their formula of a set of challenges taking you around the game world culminating in five, more difficult battles. It’s definitely understandable, Pokémon is the biggest franchise in the world for a reason. However, due to this success, I think we’ve all lost sight of why Pokémon was fun in the first place. Sure, the “Gotta catch ‘em all” premise could get you invested initially and keep you playing long after the credits rolled, but that wouldn’t mean anything if the game itself wasn’t a fun, engaging, and easy to grasp JRPG at its core. Despite the massive changes, that’s exactly what Pokémon Legends: Arceus is: a great JRPG.
Legends begins with the titular character sending you into the Hisui region, an ancient version of the Sinnoh region that looks a lot like the Meiji period of Japan. You are quickly recruited into the Galaxy Team, a group which established Jubilife Village in order to study the Pokémon of Hisui. As part of the Survey Corps, your job is to not only catch Pokémon, but learn about them by completing Research tasks to fill out the Pokédex. These can be anything from catching multiple of the same creature, seeing them use a certain move in battle, or even giving them food you gathered or crafted. The main story will guide you through each of the game’s open world areas, but completion of the Pokédex is almost entirely at your own pace.
The main story asks you to visit each area and resolve a problem the Diamond and Pearl clans have encountered, all while filling out your Pokédex to gain ranks in the Galaxy Team granting access new areas. This makes Hisui a very rewarding place to explore, with Pokémon hidden just about everywhere. The story itself isn’t great or anything, but it is more interesting than previous games which, in my opinion, places it on the level with Shin Megami Tensei V, the more adult oriented monster collecting game on the console. The character designs are interesting to look at and unique, and you can customize your character to some extent, though there’s not as much variety as I would like (most of the hairstyles are ugly, and almost all clothing is just kimonos). There’s also plenty of side content to sink your teeth into and a substantial endgame, so one could consider this a bold new direction for a series that has been stagnant recently.
The big new thing in Legends Arceus is an open world structure, which brings with it a lot of smaller changes to the battle system and progression. Generally, after being introduced to a new area, the main quest will ask you to trek across the entire map to get to the next cutscene. On its surface this sounds tedious, but in practice it’s anything but. I have spent hours exploring these zones explicitly avoiding that quest marker because I was having so much fun seeing what’s around the next corner and what Pokémon I would encounter. Legends doesn’t add very many new mons, but it doesn’t have to because seeing creatures we’re already familiar with in their natural habitats and interacting with each other, much like New Pokémon Snap, is still so novel.
This approach makes catching Pokémon far more interesting as well. While you can still use the tried and true method of throwing out your own Pokémon and weakening them before throwing a Poké Ball, I much more often opted to sneak up on them and catch them while they were unawares or distracted. In the bottom right corner of the screen are your items and Pokémon in your satchel and party. You can swap between these lists by pressing X and scroll through the list with L and R. Holding ZR will ready your selected Pokémon or item, and releasing the button will throw it. To actually initiate a battle, you have to throw out your Pokémon, otherwise you’ll be the target of their ire and, if you take too much damage, you’ll black out and lose some items. Instead of just strolling up to these dangerous, wild beasts you can press B to crouch and sneak. Walking into some tall grass while sneaking will make you virtually invisible much like Horizon Zero Dawn, and from there you can throw a ball to catch your target, an item like food to distract them, or one of your own Pokémon to start a battle.
Basically any approach you take will lead to filling out your Pokédex, so you’re encouraged to try different methods instead of just throwing your best ball at a creature’s back for the greatest chance of a successful catch. The only thing that doesn’t help you with the Pokédex is getting hit, so be sure to tap Y to dodge out of the way of attacks.
Your dodging skills will need to be sharp in duels with frenzied Noble Pokémon you encounter in the story. To calm these Pokémon worshiped by the local Diamond and Pearl clans, you throw balms of their favorite foods at them much like you throw Poké Balls. Eventually, after dodging enough of their attacks they’ll get tired and you can then throw out your own Pokémon for a short battle. If you win, the Noble will be stunned for a moment so you can throw even more balms at them. These face offs are a fun way to test your mastery of each gameplay style and, while I never found them too difficult, feel like the culmination of skills you build simply by exploring and catching Pokémon.
Battling remains familiar at its core, with the usual focus on type differences for super effective moves, but it’s changed just enough to feel fresh. First off, turn order works very differently. Instead of choosing an action then having who goes first determined by the Pokémon’s speed, you choose an action when your turn comes around with the frequency of your turns determined by speed. You can further manipulate this order with the new Strong Style and Agile Style variants of moves.
Pokémon will master moves after meeting certain conditions, and you can then choose between normal, strong, and agile variants of that move by pressing left and right. Normal is self explanatory, while Strong Style increases power at the expense of speed and Agile will increase speed at the expense of power. While this could have really changed up how you approach battles, outside of some trainer battles in the end game I hardly used these. It can be useful to lower the damage of a super effective move so as not to kill a Pokémon you want to catch, then be able to throw a ball immediately after, but I really forgot these existed after a while because the game is just so easy. I don’t expect a Pokémon game to be difficult in any sense of the word, these are games for young children after all, but I would like it to be engaging enough that I don’t forget about a mechanic for the majority of the playtime.
Speaking of, I think this lack of challenge is holding back the story, surprisingly. At the beginning, characters emphasise how dangerous Pokémon are, how you could die in any encounter with one, and how most people are afraid of them. In practice, however, most are pretty docile and no threat to you. With the exception of Alpha Pokémon, some legendaries, and the aforementioned Noble Pokémon, they’re all really easy to avoid or catch and I only “died” once when recklessly chasing after a Thundrus. This is partly thanks to how easy it is to sneak, but mostly because of the Ride Pokémon you gain access to.
As you progress the main quest, you’ll occasionally get a new Pokémon you can summon at any time by pressing Plus. These include a quick and agile deer for ground traversal, a large fish to cross bodies of water, a sturdy Pokémon who can climb cliffs, and even a bird to fly around on. I found these to be a bit of a mixed bag overall. On one hand, it makes sense you would employ the help of Pokémon to get around faster and reach new areas. On the other hand, they trivialize exploration, allow you to escape danger effortlessly, and generally detract from the magic of the world. On top of that, they can be a pain to control. We’ll use flying as an example since its flaws are most obvious. While you’d think you’d be a master of your domain after summoning this Pokémon, expecting to fly around like in Mario 64 or Skyward Sword, the truth is far less glamorous. Upon pressing the button, this Pokémon will send you slightly higher into the air with your height quickly and constantly decreasing as you glide around. It feels like a very stiff and somehow unwieldy version of Breath of the Wild’s glider, and that feeling extends to just about every other Ride Pokémon. The minigame that asks you to pop balloons on a course using all of these Pokémon feels almost impossible as a result.
Ride Pokémon also bring out another glaring flaw in Legends Arceus: the visuals. Putting aside the pleasant color pallets, this game is straight up ugly. You are constantly bombarded with pop in as you explore with some Pokémon, collectables, or even terrain appearing when you’re right on top of them. When Pokémon do appear in the distance, you can sometimes see them T-pose and slide around which is really jarring to see in, I repeat, the world’s most popular and successful franchise. Upon closer inspection things don’t look much better, with bafflingly low quality textures in both the environment and on characters. The lighting also has some very weird problems I’ve never seen before, with white, pixelated halos surrounding characters in caves or sometimes on dark nights. While the lack of visual quality does allow the game to run at a fairly consistent 30 fps, there are games on the Switch that look and run better. The general aesthetic is great, from the green rolling hills of the Obsidian Fieldlands to the calm streets of Jubilife Village, this is a world I would love to get lost in were it to live up to the suggestion of a place the visuals currently offer.
Like a lot of current open world games, there’s a disappointing lack of music in Arceus. You will mostly be hearing trees rustle in the wind, the slow trickling of a stream, or Pokémon cries as you explore, but occasionally some music will pop in evoking the routes these areas will become in Diamond and Pearl. It’s a really cool touch, and the music itself is a joy to listen to. One of my favorite moments was returning to Jubilife Village after completing some side quests to find that the town’s theme had begun to build to the Jubilife City song from DP. From that point on, the game would randomly pick either the base theme or the enhanced version whenever I returned to town so I could still enjoy both. I really wish there were more tunes, because what’s here is very good.
As a final note, Legends is oddly missing a few staples like multiplayer battling and breeding. I really appreciate the convenience features, like having Pokémon remember all moves they’ve learned, being able to choose when they evolve, and having multiple ways to achieve certain evolutions, but given the social nature of these games not being able to really play with others feels like a missed opportunity. Legends is trying to be a JRPG first and a Pokémon game second, and while it greatly benefits from that approach we did lose a few things in the translation.
Despite some flaws in its design and the poor visuals, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is fun. Like, really fun. I haven’t been this engaged with a Pokémon game since Black and White 2. The story takes a page from the Mystery Dungeon spinoff’s book and, while it’s nothing to write home about, I can actually remember what the game was about as opposed to whatever happened in Sword and Shield or Sun and Moon. The open world structure brings a breath of fresh air to a series that has relied mostly on linear corridors since its inception. It feels like Pokémon is finally catching up to what modern RPGs have been doing since the PS3, and if that relatively small step forward is this enjoyable I can’t wait to see what further modernization could bring to the series. Now, if only Nintendo and company could figure out how rebindable controls or accessibility options work.
David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus
Pokémon Legends: Arceus still has some lingering flaws from the series' rough transition to 3D, but is still an incredibly fun time from start to finish. Catching and battling Pokémon hasn’t been this fun in over a decade, and despite the wealth of things to do in Hisui I’m still hungry for more.