Have you ever been transported to a faraway land, to a world where monsters rule? You may be thinking, “That’s the English intro from the 1999 anime Monster Rancher.” It is also the impetus of the story for Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which involves your chosen player character getting sucked through a space-time distortion by Arceus itself in order to save the Hisui region. Legends: Arceus is a massive shift in tone and gameplay for the Pokémon series, ambitiously revamping how players approach the world design and even battles. So, is Legends: Arceus yet another mediocre Pokémon game, spinning its wheels on the successes of its predecessors, or is there something really special in this package that players new and old will enjoy? Let’s find out.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus starts off reasonably well, once you get through the tutorial and are able to explore of your own volition. The player is basically ripped from his home by god and thrown into a Meiji-era Sinnoh region called Hisui. You’re effectively told to work or starve, and quickly prove your Pokémon catching skills are invaluable because everyone else is too afraid to interact with Pokémon, explaining that they can be quite dangerous. Apparently some serious domestication took place in the Sinnoh region, at some point. The setting is different, and there are some new interesting boss battles in the Noble Pokémon, but Legends: Arceus is both a lot more of the same, as well as uniquely different, in the Pokémon series.
The best part of Legends: Arceus is the exploration. You’ll wander through large, open fields replete with berry trees, ores, and various other items you can grab to fuel your crafting addiction as you’ll largely be crafting your own Pokéballs and healing items. Wild Pokémon litter the landscape, each doing their own thing, making Legends: Arceus probably the first game in the series to make the Pokémon world actually feel alive. While it does have its flaws, it’s always a treat to sneak up on and catch multiple Pokémon. Should an aggressive Pokémon spot you, they might attack you directly which can require you either escape them, or send out your own Pokémon to subdue your attacker. Wild Pokémon can even gang up on you in 3v1 battles- there are no rules in the wild.
The environments of Legends: Arceus are not without flaws, however. The large, open spaces are predominantly empty, covered with average to ugly textures that even budget games on the Switch outperform. What makes the environments work, however, is the namesake of the series: The Pokémon. Different wild Pokémon have different behaviors depending on species, where they are, what time of day it is, and more. Nosepass, a Pokémon with strong magnetism that can function like a compass, will always point North when they’re idle, while a wild Blissey will actually run up to an injured player and heal you, then scurry away (“Can I offer you an egg in this trying time?”).
Some Pokémon’s behaviors can change based on what other Pokémon are around, too, like how a wild Teddiursa by itself may get startled and run away from you should they notice you when they’re alone, they’re just innocent little teddy bears, after all, but if you encounter Teddiursa nearby an Alpha Ursaring, they immediately cry out for mommy or daddy to come deal with the intruder, and will take pot shots at you while you’re battling the Alpha Ursaring! Alphas are a new, and fantastic, mechanic where a wild Pokémon will be larger and more powerful than usual, demanding you either capture them stealthily, or prepare for a much more challenging fight than usual.
Players who enjoy catching Pokémon will probably love Legends: Arceus, because you can still engage wild Pokémon in battle and whittle down their health in order to catch them, but there’s a lot of new flexibility afforded to players when it comes to capturing. You can hide in grass and sneak up on unsuspecting Pokémon, or if you don’t like playing budget Thief games, you can bonk a Pokémon with a ball of mud and capture them while they’re stunned. This game basically marries the experiment of the Let’s Go games with the traditional Pokémon titles, but does so in a more organic and natural way that’s more in line with what we’ve seen in other Pokémon media like the anime or manga, which does a lot toward making such a rigidly segmented series feel more integrated and, well, special.
The Noble Pokémon boss battles are a bit hit or miss- they’re wildly different from anything the series has experimented with in the past, but it’s good they’re so few and far between. You’ll encounter Pokémon inflicted with a frenzy, and you’ll resolve the conflict by tossing balms at their faces and dodge rolling. These aren’t like the Totem Pokémon from generation 7, you actually just toss balms at them until you knock the Noble down for a moment, in which case you can send out your Pokémon to make an even bigger opportunity to… toss more balms at them. For the most part, these battles are extremely easy, and it’s not until the very final one of the game do they have any challenge at all (the dodge roll has tons of i-frames so rolling through attacks is very easy if you’re patient).
To compensate for how easy it is to catch Pokémon in Legends: Arceus, now, the Pokédex doesn’t simply update fully after catching a Pokémon once. You’re tasked with filling out the first ever Pokédex, so you will have a variety of research tasks to check off for each Pokédex entry. Each Pokédex page has a bunch of tasks for you to complete, and they’re considered “complete” if you reach Research Level 10. Reaching level 10 is surprisingly easy, as you can hit that easily by capturing several, battling a few of them, or just seeing them use specific moves.
So, it’s up to you if you want to catch multiple Shinx to hit the required research level, or if you just want to use Quick Attack and Bite of your own Shinx to knock out several wild ones. It’s entirely up to you. Of course, should you be a completionist, checking off every single research task of a Pokédex entry will give you a higher chance of finding that Pokémon’s shiny variant in the wild. Since there’s no breeding in Legends: Arceus, that can be useful if you’re chasing after a particularly rare shiny Pokémon.
Speaking of breeding not returning as a gameplay mechanic, held items and abilities are gone as well, and the stat system has been completely revamped. Since there’s no player vs player content in Legends Arceus, no held items isn’t the worst thing in the world, but some Pokémon are a lot less useful without their abilities. Wild Pokémon deal significantly more damage in this entry, and players are encouraged early on to utilize precious Grit items to raise your Pokémon’s Effort Levels. EVs and IVs are basically gone, replaced with something a lot more like generation 2’s DV system, but without getting too into the weeds: Feed your Pokémon Grit items to raise their stats, and do so religiously throughout your adventure. An easy way to obtain more Grit items is to just catch a lot of Pokémon and release the ones you don’t need- it’s nice to have access to easy sources of Grit considering the gulf between an Effort Level 0 and 10 stat is huge.
The combat system in Legends: Arceus is different as well. Speed no longer solely determines when a Pokémon gets to attack, because with the new attack speed system some moves may delay your turn or give you two moves in a row. If your Pokémon is a good deal faster than the opposing Pokémon, it’s not uncommon to fire off a Swords Dance to boost your attacking stats and then get to take a second turn to hurt the opposing Pokémon hard. This also has interesting consequences where you can knock out an opposing Pokémon during one of the few trainer battles in the game, and they switch in a new Pokémon who gets to launch two attacks against you before you can even choose to swap Pokémon.
The new battle system is actually great for single player challenge, and there’s even new strategic elements in the Agile and Strong system. Upon mastering a move, a Pokémon can use Agile style to decrease a move’s power a bit but increase your attack speed, greatly increasing your chances of getting to move twice in a row, or you can use Strong style to increase a move’s power, but lower your attack speed enough that your opponent will get two attacks against you. Add in that Alpha and trainer Pokémon will be able to use the different styles, and might quickly come across a number of Pokémon that set up in your face and then hit you pretty hard.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a more challenging game compared to a lot of recent Pokémon entries- you may not lose a battle, but your Pokémon will probably faint more than your entire playthrough of any 6th, 7th, or 8th generation Pokémon game. Legends: Arceus has, what is likely an uncontroversial statement, the most challenging Pokémon game since probably Colosseum, especially if you’re trying to catch and fully complete everything the game has to offer.
For downsides, for some reason Legends Arceus decided not to implement a mini-map, which is a strange thing to do in a game with such large, open areas. So expect to be popping your map open with regular frequency. Legends: Arceus can also be extremely ugly at times, with poor resolution textures showing up all over the place. For example, it’s wild that the Professor of the game will be shown right next to the player character, but the Galaxy Team logo on the player looks fine, while the one on the Professor looks pixelated and gross. There are moments of sheer brilliance and attention to detail in relation to the Pokémon and how they interact with the world (Sudowoodo straight up pretends to be a tree if it notices you, very unconvincingly), the new animations for Flamethrower and Hyper Beam look flashy and stylish, yet the textures on characters and environments are a completely mixed bag, for some reason.
Overall, Legends: Arceus is probably the most adventurous Game Freak has been with the Pokémon series in at least a decade. Interacting with Pokémon and exploring the different environments of Hisui is a fantastic time, and while it’s not without flaws, it has likely one of the best single player experiences in the entire series. Crafting your own Pokéballs, smoke bombs, and healing items works well in the gameplay loop, encouraging exploration and reducing the need for players to spend all of their money on Pokéballs (because you’ll be spending it unlocking more slots for your bag). Quite frankly, if you were on the fence about Legends: Arceus, don’t let an initial bad impression or ugly texture here or there dissuade you: The obsessive collecting and strategic gameplay the series is known for is alive and well, and hopefully Legends: Arceus is the foundation from which further Pokémon titles will be built.
Developers: Game Freak
Platforms: Nintendo Switch