January 28, 2022
Catching as many Pokémon as you can, learning more about them, and training them to be stronger in battle are the very foundations of Game Freak’s iconic RPG series, but few titles exemplify those core concepts as powerfully as this latest outing. Pokémon Legends: Arceus tasks you with exploring a bygone era of the Sinnoh region, then known as Hisui, and gives you more ways than ever to complete your Pokédex. While some elements don’t feel like their final forms, I love where this new direction takes the Pokémon series.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ early hours are full of exposition and long, dialogue-filled scenes. You learn most people are afraid of Pokémon, but a new invention – the Poké Ball – hopes to bring people and Pokémon closer than ever before. The beginning was slow, but once I was finally set free into the Hisui region, the gameplay loop sunk its hooks into me. With Poké Balls in tow, your primary task is to fill your Pokédex with as many unique species as possible. However, en route to completing that task, you uncover various mysteries surrounding anomalies happening around the region. Some narrative beats and character arcs did not land for me, but the story is a step up from previous entries in the series, particularly later in the game.
Running around vast, open areas in search of new creatures to add to your Pokédex is enthralling. I love how simply catching a Pokémon doesn’t immediately complete your entry for that monster. Instead, you need to perform mini-tasks to earn points towards completion; these include seeing them do specific moves, defeating them, and even using certain moves against them. The objectives can be too cookie-cutter, but I like how the system made me feel like I was actually studying the Pokémon I encountered rather than mindlessly collecting them.
You can opt to sneak up on a wild Pokémon instead of battling them, which I applaud for how it improves the flow of moving through an area. The game’s streamlined U.I. lets you easily select if you want to throw an empty Poké Ball to try and catch them, a piece of food to distract them, or a Pokémon of your own to battle them. The wild Pokémon might run if you’re spotted, but it may also attack you. You can try to escape, even utilizing dodge-rolls to evade attacks, but your best bet is to toss one of your own Pokémon out to take it out. While much of the game focused on action and exploration, I appreciate how encounters seamlessly transition you from the real-time exploration to an improved iteration on the series’ simple turn-based battle system.
Battle menus also receive a streamlined interface, allowing you to select whether you want to send out a new Pokémon or throw a Poké Ball without leaving the battle screen. Additionally, Pokémon can learn new moves or master their existing ones by leveling up. I like how the mastery system lets me be more strategic. You can choose to execute strong attacks to add some oomph and accuracy at the cost of speed or agile versions that might give you an extra turn at the expense of power. I loved watching the enemy’s life bar drain after landing a strong attack, knowing that my gamble paid off.
Hisui is full of diverse biomes, which play host to a wide array of Pokémon. These segmented areas all have linear routes that lead to destinations and points of interest. However, wandering off the beaten path to scavenge resources to use in the game’s rudimentary crafting system, discovering tucked-away areas, and finding new creatures to catch were my favorite moments with the game.
Whenever I wanted a break from the main story, I could quickly lose a couple of hours trying to further my Pokédex progress on side activities. A day/night cycle further enhances the rewards, as different monsters come out at night, giving you a reason to return when the sun sets. Hisui is full of rewarding activities that include stronger Alpha Pokémon to fight and catch, side-missions that involve collecting resources and specific creatures, and special limited-time events to help you further round out your Pokédex.
As you progress the story, you face off against a handful of frenzied noble Pokémon. Rather than engaging in Pokémon battles, you control your trainer for most of the sequence. You have to throw special balms at the noble Pokémon to drain their health bar as you dodge various attacks. At specific points in each encounter, you can use your Pokémon to try and defeat them in battle; if you’re successful, you stun them and open them up to more balm tosses. These boss battles are sometimes tricky as the attacks become more intense, but the option to restart failed battles without losing progress removes some of the sting of defeat. These fights are fun twists on the boss battles in the Pokémon universe, but imprecise controls sometimes caused me to take unnecessary damage.
A prominent criticism of the Pokémon series has long been about how the production values don’t match the standards set by other triple-A titles. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a beautiful adventure thanks mainly to its colorful art style. However, while character and Pokémon animations are a step up from previous mainline entries, they still lag woefully behind other games in the genre. Cutscenes set up action moments, only for the screen to fade to black when a character needs to perform a unique action that would require a new animation, leaving the player to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
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Additionally, the series’ lack of voice acting hasn’t been a sore spot to this point for me, but Arceus has several dialogue-heavy scenes. The prominence of these scenes makes the silence feel like an antiquated relic of the late ‘90s, alongside the digitized Pokémon cries that persist in this title. Top it all off with lackluster technical performance, full of object pop-in, frame rate drops, and low-resolution textures, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus is hardly a technological marvel.
Despite these shortcomings, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a worthwhile spin-off adventure, even if some of the concepts aren’t fully developed. With an enticing gameplay loop, fun side activities, and a story I’m glad I saw through to the end, Pokémon Legends: Arceus sets a solid foundation for what I hope is the next evolution for the series.
Summary: Pokémon Legends: Arceus charts an exciting new direction for the series, while still maintaining many of the core tenants that made Game Freak’s franchise so beloved in the first place.