To move forward, sometimes you have to go back. This sums up the approach in Pokemon Legends: Arceus, arguably the biggest shake-up of the Pokemon series in its 25-year history.
While beloved by players of all ages, there’s always been a tension between the Pokemon series, made to be enjoyed by kids, and those who want it to grow up along with them, especially as the series has moved from handheld to home console (even of the Switch qualifies for both), which is capable of something more technically ambitious and sophisticated.
Arceus ditches many of the traditional elements of a baby’s first role-playing game formula, yet at the same time goes back to basics, fully embracing its original mantra to catch ’em all.
Catch ’em your way
In Arceus, you’re quite literally dropped into the past, back to a time before the existence of Pokemon trainers or Pokemon leagues – though not so distant that there weren’t inventions like smartphone-like devices or indeed Pokeballs for catching Pokemon. You’re not going against gym leaders, trying to thwart Team Rocket, or even trying to become a champion – your main mission is to help complete the first-ever Pokedex by cataloguing all 242 Pokemon in the Hisui region.
Whether or not you’re obsessive enough to commit to this task, the way you go about it is a lot more interesting than the old days of random encounters and catching them after they’ve been weakened in battle. For starters, having all Pokemon visible in the wild means you can choose how to engage them. You don’t even have to battle a lot of them as it’s quite possible to get close to a Pokemon, chuck a Pokeball at them unawares and catch them that way, which still counts towards XP for any Pokemon in your party.
Stealth is a mechanic that’s been shoehorned into so many games over the years but it really does work wonders in Arceus since you can catch even very high-level Pokemon by just creeping through long grass or distracting them with their favourite foods. A Pokemon entry considered “complete” also only requires 10 research points, and the generous criteria, whether it’s catching, battling or observing different behaviours leaves it up to you how to want to fill it out and increase your star rank.
Still super effective
As with catching or battling Pokemon, the action all takes place in the same space rather than transitioning to a battle arena, keeping you immersed in its world. Your character can even come under peril from hostile Pokemon, which is where a dodge roll mechanic comes in handy to evade attacks. This isn’t to say Arceus is suddenly like Dark Souls or Monster Hunter, as the invincibility window granted by dodging is very generous.
When it comes to battling, however, the game reverts to tried-and-true turn-based mechanics, as you use the rock-paper-scissor formula for the most effective results – such as using a Pokemon with water attacks against a fire Pokemon, or having a rock Pokemon withstand the effects of lightning attacks, and so on. Provided you have the right team at a decent level, landing a super-effective attack means battles against a single Pokemon can be over in a turn or two.
Fans may be disappointed that this is less of a priority, especially as this decidedly single-player affair means you can’t battle other players (there’s nonetheless some light online functionality, such as the ability to trade Pokemon), but then that’s also Arceus’ ethos, where the people are striving to coexist respectfully with Pokemon. It goes some way to explain why the game’s boss fights are basically you calming frenzied Pokemon by pelting them with their favourite snacks.
Breath of the mild
Yet while the hundreds of Pokemon are full of character, the world they inhabit often leaves a lot to be desired. Arceus can’t help but draw comparisons with Nintendo’s masterpiece Breath of the Wild, notably the vast wild natural environments or the plink of a piano to set the ambience, but a game-changing open-world sandbox this is not – even if it inherits some of the repetitive checklist-type side quests in the genre.
The Hisui region isn’t quite open world, instead it’s split into five zones of varying biomes – which you annoyingly have to always return to the central village hub before you can venture back to another zone. Nonetheless, they do feel vast, loading times are relatively quick, and it runs at a stable frame rate. That however comes at the price of graphical fidelity where this looks rougher than an almost five-year-old Switch launch title.
It would be unfair to expect the graphics of say Horizon Forbidden West on PS5, but it’s hard not to notice the low-quality textures on characters’ clothes not made to be scrutinised beyond a medium-wide shot, or the poor draw distance that results in trees popping up. Ultimately, however, the appeal of the seeming emptiness of the world, save for the odd campsite or settlement, depends on whether you prefer to roam lands unspoiled by human interference, and it’s not like the game is light on content, with plenty to keep you hooked even after completing the main story. If Arceus is a first flawed attempt at a new spin-off series like Metroid Prime, then at the very least it’s got its core element right: the Pokemon.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus verdict
When measured against other open world games, Arceus falls short in scope and polish, showing up both the traditionally handheld developer Game Freak’s technical shortcomings and the Switch’s ageing hardware.
But as a Pokemon game, it’s the most refreshing and exciting the series has been thanks to an emphasis on exploring and discovering all the Pokemon out in the Hisui region, giving you more than one way to catch ’em all. This legend is just getting started.
The most refreshing Pokemon game in years.
Pokemon have never looked better
Great mix of real-time elements with traditional turn-based battles
Fun catching mechanics, including actual good use of stealth!
Environments leave a lot to be desired
Poor textures and pop-up