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Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review

Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review

Some years ago now, around the release of Pokémon Black and White, I described to some friends what kind of changes I’d want to see in a Pokémon game to make me buy one again. At that point, I’d played effectively the same game so many times that the series had started to bore me and sinking another £40 into the franchise seemed like a waste of time. The game I described had a more open world with Pokémon visible and living in it. The combat would be dynamic, more like the anime, and with animations that actually made sense. My friends told me that such a game would never exist, that Game Freak wouldn’t stray from the formula that had made Pokémon the best selling series of all time.

Fast forward a decade (with change) and Game Freak has now released Pokémon Legends: Arceus. This is a pseudo open-world game with free-roaming Pokémon, an emphasis on exploration and discovery and a plot that sits back and lets the player decide. The combat is familiar, but has new elements that greatly add to the complexity of the gameplay. Could it be that the game I described lo these many years ago has come to fruition?

Let me start with some of the more apparent and over-discussed aspects of Pokémon Legends: Arceus. It’s not the prettiest game on the Switch, with some very fuzzy edges and plain textures in the scenery. However, the style matches with the design of both the Pokémon and the human characters you encounter; I personally didn’t find that the art direction detracted from the experience. The game definitely looks better in handheld mode, as the smaller resolution hides the attempts at anti-aliasing around the foliage.

Pokemon Legends Hisuian Voltorb Screenshot 1

The story is also something that I’ve seen cropping up, and honestly it isn’t good. The general gist of the story is as follows: Your character falls out of a space-time portal onto a beach right in front of a Pokémon professor. You’re wearing clothes clearly from modern day, but (as is usual in Pokémon games) your backstory is left blank. The professor gives you a tutorial for how to play the game, and eventually convinces you to join the Galaxy Expedition Team in order to complete the first ever Pokédex.

As a protagonist in a JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game), you are naturally gifted at doing just this; everyone in town is amazed at your abilities, but weirdly not the mobile phone that a god gave to you. The level of technology available is actually rather confusing: At first glance everything looks feudal, but then there is a photography studio with actual cameras. The townsfolk are seemingly only just transitioning from worshipping Pokémon to studying and collaborating with them, yet they are completely unperturbed by the existence of a phone.

However, it is entirely possible and encouraged for you to just ignore that part of the game and focus on the other, much better sections. Firstly, and this is something targeted directly at me and probably only me, but the first wild Pokémon you encounter is a Bidoof — my favourite Pokémon. As part of Arceus’ clever tutorialisation, Bidoof is friendly and will approach your trainer, allowing you to get to grips with the differences from the mainline games.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Female Galaxy Team Outfit Screenshot

Pokémon encounters no longer entirely rely on battling, and most species can be caught without ever hurting them. This plays out fairly similarly to the Safari Zones from previous games, where you can throw items at Pokémon to gain their attention or distract them. The latter takes the form of foods, primarily berries or lures, and different Pokémon will be attracted to different foodstuffs. The former generally involves throwing mud balls to startle the Pokémon, though I’ve yet to be able to switch to a Pokéball fast enough to gain advantage from startling a potential catch like this.

Alternatively, you can just bop them on the head with a Pokéball. That seems to have a similar effect if they haven’t seen you, and I’ve had a lot of success with this method. To aid with the “not seeing you” bit, Arceus gives you access to crouching and the ability to sneak through long grass. That’s right, in this game you surprise the Pokémon from the long grass instead of the other way around!

Not all Pokémon are natural friends like the Bidoof. Some are scared of people and will run when you are nearby. To capture these, you’ll need to hide and catch them unawares or battle them — a quick paralysing move will probably stop them from retreating. Others are aggressive, and will reject the Pokéball altogether until after a fight. Fortunately these don’t tend to run away, so you’ll be able to get them low with whatever moves you want to.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Screenshot 2

For the first time in a Pokémon game that I know of, the UI actually helps you. Firstly, it tells you the effectiveness of moves both in the attack screen and also in the swap Pokémon screen. It’s also significantly cleaner than previous games in the franchise, taking up only a small portion of the screen and being very easy to understand. That isn’t to say that the menus aren’t somewhat obtuse to navigate; the map and missions are in a completely separate menu to the bag, which is also where the settings menu and saving options are — though these are also kept weirdly apart, with the save option living on the players ID card. A third menu exists solely for the Pokédex, with its own confusing sub-categories and filter options, and I find myself pressing the wrong button whenever I want to access something.

Fortunately, Pokémon Legends: Arceus does make some improvements on the formula. Pokémon in your party can be brought out into the world to perform tasks such as smashing rocks or knocking fruit down from a tree. If there isn’t an enemy Pokémon or one of these collectible zones nearby though, your pocket pal will just hang around looking cute. If you get multiple out at the same time, they’ll chat to each other.

I will fully admit now, reader, I got myself a parliament of Bidoof and we had a tea party. The only thing Arceus is missing is the ability to have our Pokémon follow us around.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Screenshot 3

This cuteness aside, bringing out your Pokémon into the world is the primary way of gathering materials for the crafting system. As this game is set before Pokémon are a tamed and known quantity to the humans of this world, you need to craft the Pokéballs you use. There are a lot of new types to complement the new catching mechanics, like the heavy ball which startles the Pokémon hit by it at the expense of the distance you’re able to throw it. The resources needed are littered all over the areas, so you should never be without if you pick them up every time you see them.

Spotting them isn’t going to be too difficult either as, despite only being a partially open world, the areas feel quite empty; I think it’s mainly because the wild Pokémon don’t interact with each other. Even in the busier sections it seems like nothing is going on. There isn’t the dense foliage that you’d expect to see in a wilderness like the Hisui region, especially when you consider that it eventually becomes the Sinnoh region of Pokémon DiamondPearl and Pokemon Platinum.

The Pokédex forms the core of the gameplay, with your entire progress being stored in this book. Catching a single form of a Pokémon is no longer enough for an entry; instead you’ll need around 10 points of data to have a complete entry. This data requires specific actions, such as catching a certain number or in a certain way, or seeing the Pokémon perform various tasks like eating or using a specific move. Once you have collected the data, you need to report to the Professor you met at the start of the game. This counts up the experience points earned and progresses towards the next star, which perform the same functions as Gym Badges — they give you access to new areas and allow you to control higher level Pokémon.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Screenshot 4

On top of the Pokédex missions and the main storyline — which involves earning the trust of various powerful Pokémon and working out the origin of the space-time portal which brought you here — there are Requests. These side missions are usually easy enough to complete as you play the game; they often boil down to showing someone the Pokédex entry for a specific Pokémon or collecting a particular sample. A tip for one you get early: If you meet someone asking for a big Buizel, just give him an alpha Buizel. Big ones do exist, but he specifically wants one that is over a certain height, and they are very rare.

“What is an Alpha Buizel?”, I hear you cry. Well, as part of making Hisui seem more wild, some Pokémon are a lot more aggressive. These Alphas are bigger and more powerful than their normal counterparts, and need to be battled to be caught. They appear in fixed locations and do respawn, so don’t worry about knocking them out when trying to catch them. They are very hard to catch, so it may take a few attempts.

I would also recommend being very comfortable with the new combat system before taking on an Alpha Pokémon. At first, everything seems the same — you have a Pokémon with four moves and you take it in turns. This changes when you get your first star, as your Pokémon can master the moves that they know. This unlocks Agile and Strong styles for these moves, allowing your Pokémon to attack with new effects for additional PP. Agile style means the attack happens faster in exchange for a reduction in power, while Strong style attacks will deal a lot more damage but be a lot slower. It is possible to completely change the turn order using these styles, giving yourself or your enemy two consecutive turns. To help keep all of this in order, Arceus provides a turn list in the battle UI which can be toggled on or off.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Screenshot 5

Speed has always been a strong stat in Pokémon games; having the opportunity to go before your enemy can give you the edge in battles. In Arceus, despite there being no player-versus-player available, I think speed is the most important stat. A sufficiently quick Pokémon using Agile style and the right type matchups could win fights before they’ve even really begun.

That is another big improvement that is so nearly perfect: When fighting wild Pokémon, you can choose which of your team to use before the fight. However, when fighting other trainers, you are forced to use the one currently selected in your hotbar. Ordinarily, this would be fine, but I like having my favourite in the corner with a goofy grin cheering me on. Bidoof is not necessarily the Pokémon I want to start fights with, but as trainer battles appear out of nowhere during cutscenes there really is no way to avoid it. Just being able to choose which Pokémon to send out first for these battles, without needing to know what the opponent is using, would be a massive quality of life improvement for all Pokémon games.

While Game Freak is at it, I would love it if the animation department was just allowed to go wild with the attack animations. It made me so happy to see that the attacks actually look like they’re coming from the battling Pokémon, but most of the attacks are still a little lacklustre. If all the attacks had animations as extra as Hyper Beam (particularly when used by an Alpha Pokémon against a normal one), that would make each battle so satisfying to watch.

Pokemon Legends Arceus Screenshot 6

That really sums up how I feel about Pokémon Legends: Arceus; it is so close to being the Pokémon game I’ve wanted for a decade, but it is not quite there. The more open nature of the world is let down by its lifelessness, the significantly improved UI is let down by confusing menus, the cuteness of interacting with our Pokémon is let down by the shallowness of these interactions outside of gathering crafting materials. These are made more annoying because we’ve seen Game Freak get a lot of this right in other games. I really like this game, and it’s definitely an improvement on the mainline games for me, but if Game Freak makes another Legends-style game and builds on these systems it may very well be the best Pokémon game to have ever been made.

5.00/10 5

Pokémon Legends: Arceus (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)

The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is close to being the Pokémon game I’ve always wanted, but falls short of perfection in ways that other games in the franchise have gotten right in the past. The sequel could very well be the best Pokémon game released so far.

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
Jinny Wilkin

Jinny Wilkin

Staff Writer

Reviews the games nobody else will, so you don't have to. Give her a bow and arrow and you have an ally for life. Will give 10s for food.

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