Up until now, the “main series” Pokémon games have been strictly turn-based RPGs following a young protagonist on a quest to become a powerful Pokémon trainer. Each successive game has layered on a slate of new Pokémon to wrangle and, more recently, increasingly absurd and bloated mechanics to try and spice up a system that fundamentally remained unchanged. So at last, we have Legends: Arceus: the reinvention we asked for. Developer Game Freak has scrapped nearly everything I’ve come to expect from a typical Pokémon game — Gyms, random encounters, an Elite Four, trainer battles on the overworld, an evil team bent on world domination — and started over, rethinking even its most basic systems like Pokémon encounters and evolution from the ground up. A lot of this impressive transformation pays off, in that we get to interact with creatures that have never felt more alive in more dynamic ways, but Pokemon’s evolution is not yet complete, because the semi-open world around all of that feels like an unimpressive afterthought due to its bland emptiness.

There are many and varied reasons why people come clamoring back to Pokemon year after year, but at the heart of it perhaps is the enjoyment derived from collecting a veritable army of interesting monsters, customizing and bonding with a specific team of powerful ones, and overcoming increasingly difficult challenges alongside them. In that regard, Legends: Arceus is still the Pokémon we know and love. But everything surrounding it — how you encounter these creatures and learn about them, how you fight against and alongside them, and the challenges you face together — has been flipped on its head.

The way Legends: Arceus completely reimagines how you go about capturing and battling Pokémon is exemplary. Pokémon wander the overworld as they did in Let’s Go and Sword and Shield’s Wild Area, but instead of touching them to start every fight, here you have a buffet of options for how to approach each encounter. You could, for instance, toss a PokeBall right away for a capture attempt, or send out one of your Pokémon for a battle, or play it safer and use items like berries to distract them or mud balls to stun them. Some Pokémon will flee the second they see you, requiring you to stealthily hide in tall grass to get a good shot in. Others might attack you directly – your actual character, not your Pokémon – and you’ll have to dodge-roll or take a hit to your limited health bar. Granted, this doesn’t sound like a radical idea if you’ve ever played an action game, but for Pokemon RPGs this level of real-time action and peril is a new and welcome change that properly casts Pokemon as the actual, dangerous critters they are.

The way Legends: Arceus completely reimagines how you go about capturing and battling Pokémon is exemplary.

Tied in with this are many of Legends: Arceus’ more impressive touches, specifically in how wild Pokémon react to you or simply exist in the world as actual creatures with distinctive behavioral quirks. For instance, Nosepass will always fall asleep facing north, Sudowoodo freeze in a tree pose when they think you’ve spotted them, and Magikarp will stupidly flop right up to you because they have no idea you’re packing a team of level-80 behemoths that could eat 10 of them in a single bite. Not every Pokémon has this level of personality, but the many that do feel real in a way Pokémon haven’t in any other main series game, if not quite at the levels of liveliness we saw in Pokémon Snap.

Even more thrilling are the occasional “space-time distortions” that appear across Legends: Arceus’ five separate, self-contained biomes, bringing with them a bevy of rare and powerful Pokémon rapidly spawning in and out to create a scene of delightful chaos. And then there’s the pure, delicious terror of running across a massive, red-eyed “alpha” Pokémon in the wild and having it chase you halfway across the map. Listen, you haven’t really experienced Pokémon until a Chansey has blasted you straight into the ocean with a well-placed Hyper Beam. All of this makes the creatures of Hisui feel much more lively and dynamic than any previous game, though naturally it doesn’t approach the level of detail we see in something like Breath of the Wild.

You haven’t really experienced Pokémon until a Chansey has blasted you straight into the ocean with a well-placed Hyper Beam.

Battling, too, has received an overhaul that adds a new strategic layer to encounters, most noticeably with the addition of Strong and Agile attacks. If you’ve played any of the Bravely Default games, this will feel a bit familiar: aside from normal attacks, you can also opt to either sacrifice attack power to bring your turn back sooner with an Agile move, or give up future turns for an extra-powerful hit now. The system does fail in a couple ways, however: for one, most wild encounters are over so quickly that much of this isn’t always worth bothering with. For another, the strategic element of sacrificing power for turns or turns for power doesn’t work as well when either you or your opponent is switching Pokémon in and out constantly, forcing the turn order to shift and reset again and again. That makes it harder to strategize when you’re getting your butt kicked by a powerful monster, and nigh impossible in trainer battles when you’re both just one-shotting each other’s Pokémon back and forth. On the whole it’s a good idea, but the fights Legends: Arceus usually provides don’t always allow it to shine.

What works far better are the subtler changes to how different moves and status effects are used in battles. I won’t go into all the details here, but if you’ve been a Pokémon fan for years, you’ll immediately notice that moves like Rollout don’t work the way you remember them, or that status effects like Sleep seem different from usual. The vast, vast majority of these changes are for the better, serving to tighten up battles and working well within the faster-paced, damage-heavy framework. Other major changes are noticeable outside of battle, too, with both evolving Pokémon and changing up their movesets now conveniently available directly from the menu as soon as certain requirements are met. No longer do you have to trek out to a Move Tutor and pay them in rare items to relearn older moves – every attack a Pokémon has ever learned is always available to swap in at any time outside of battle.

Every attack a Pokémon has ever learned is always available.

Legends: Arceus also does away with series staples such as held items, breeding, eggs, and abilities, and doesn’t have an equivalent to Mega Evolution Z-Moves, Gigantamaxing, or any of that other nonsense; it doesn’t need it. It’s not that Legends: Arceus isn’t a complex game – far from it, in fact – but that complexity has been shifted into strategic approaches to encounters, capturing, and team building rather than an increasingly tall tower of systems layered atop one another.

Once Upon a Space and Time

Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place in the Pokémon world before many of the technologies and discoveries about Pokémon we’ve come to rely on in the main games were made. Your PokeDex, for instance, is styled as a hand-written notebook instead of a digital index. With no PCs to store Pokémon, you instead leave them in a pasture at Jubilife Village (though storage and withdrawal is still convenient and quick). Pokémon breeding and eggs hadn’t been discovered yet, so that system isn’t available; nor is it yet known that Pokémon can hold items. Trading Pokémon with others still exists both locally and online (though we didn’t get to test it), but Pokémon that would normally evolve by trading now evolve simply by using certain items you can find through normal play. The past was a simpler time, certainly, but in many ways it’s a lot more convenient!

It doesn’t hurt that Legends: Arceus is much more difficult than any Pokémon game in recent memory, especially when you combine the turn-based battle mechanics with the more action-oriented movement required to set them up in the first place. Wild Pokémon overall just seem to do more damage across the board, and even early on you can run across massively powerful Pokémon that will wreck your entire team and your character if you’re not careful. In the first area, for instance, wandering down a particular path will put you right in the sights of a massive, red-eyed Rapidash at an unreasonably high level. You can run if you like, or try to catch it and risk losing, but there’s no denying it’s a sobering early moment for those who are used to Pokémon games being a cakewalk. This is a welcome removal of Pokemon’s historical training wheels, especially for fans like me who have been craving more challenge from Pokémon for years. But it does lose a lot of the series’ past accessibility as a result (and there’s no easy mode), which is worth keeping in mind given its wide-ranging, all-ages fanbase.

There are plenty of good real-world reasons why Game Freak thought an overhaul was in order, but in the world of Legends: Arceus, battling and catching Pokémon is the way it is because you are, by and large, actively inventing both as you go. Rather than the usual plucky young pre-teen setting out on a gym challenge, you play as a modern-day teenager flung through time and space to a past version of the Sinnoh region from Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, known in its own time as Hisui. You’re instructed by a mysterious voice to meet every Pokemon, and then dropped near a settlement called Jubilife Village, where Pokemon are known as terrifying creatures that humans must fear and avoid. This pleasantly surprising twist allows for a completely new perspective on the, frankly, quite frightening monsters we’ve been collecting for the last two decades, as you join an expedition team instructed to investigate the 242 different Pokémon that live in the region in an effort to help humans learn to live safely and peacefully alongside them.

Legends: Arceus is much more difficult than any Pokémon game in recent memory.

And what better way to do that than by compiling a PokeDex? Except this, too, is not the PokeDex we’re familiar with. Beyond just catching every Pokémon once to complete the encyclopedia, you can only fully fill out an entry by completing a number of bonus tasks unique to each monster. Catching at least one is required, but other research tasks include things like battling a certain number, witnessing them using certain moves, encountering them in specific ways or at certain times, and more. For example, a Bidoof will be one of the first Pokemon you catch, but to fully research it you might catch multiple, evolve one into Bibarel, defeat several in battle, or finish a sidequest in Jubilife Village where a bunch of Bidoof are causing an annoyance. Such sidequests are available aplenty, and help the citizens of Jubilife work through their fears of the monsters they live alongside… and even learn to love them.

What We Said About Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

If a good remake is defined by its loyalty to the original, then Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are very good remakes indeed. They are Diamond and Pearl down to nearly every detail, looking nicer than ever before with a few small tweaks, most of which are pretty good ones. It leaves in some of the original’s roster flaws, but they’re largely forgivable if you’re like me and have some degree of nostalgia for a time when Pokémon’s scope was smaller. And yet, I can’t help but be disappointed that Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl weren’t braver in how they improved upon the originals in the same way other Pokémon remakes were, bringing even some now-historic improvements back to correct history’s mistakes. Of course, I still had a perfectly pleasant time revisiting both Sinnoh and the simultaneously simpler yet more challenging era of Pokémon that took place within it reminded me of a time when this series asked a bit more of us. – Rebeckah Valentine, November 19, 2021

Score: 8

Read the full Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review

Filling out the PokeDex improves your rank in the expedition team, which is required for certain progression milestones and rewards, but it’s also a wonderfully fulfilling task on its own because it’s so open-ended. I often found myself wandering off from the main story path into forests, caves, mountains, and rivers looking for new monsters to catalog, watching them move, and spending time getting to know them so I could discern how best to tackle each new research task. When combined with the new capturing and battling systems, Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ main loop of visiting a new area, working on the PokeDex, turning in progress, and repeating proved fun and enticing for hours on end.

But fun as it was to catch and catch and catch Pokémon, Legends: Arceus’ brilliant new systems come with a major downside: they all exist within an ugly, empty world.

Filling out the PokeDex is a wonderfully fulfilling task on its own.

Now that the Switch has multiple lovely, stylized open-world games with big grassy fields and roaming monsters, this particular world comes off as especially disappointing. With the singular exception of its pleasant skies, it’s just not nice to look at, ever. Its five areas, which include the Obsidian Fieldlands, the Crimson Mirelands, and the Cobalt Coastlands often look depressingly similar to one another. Textures are ugly and repetitive, grass and trees are excessively simple and obvious, and the water effects are utterly bizarre, especially when Pokémon are swimming. Objects pop in and out at close range, and large wild Pokémon spotted in the distance run at an agonizingly slow framerate that makes them look like stop-motion animations. And to be very clear, none of this is a rarity – it looks like this constantly, in both docked and handheld mode (though handheld is a bit better), and often kills the immersion of running around what should be an exciting natural world stuffed with Pokémon.

If anything, it looks worse the further you get: when you begin to unlock Pokémon that enable you to gallop, surf, and fly over the world rapidly, the visual disappointments – and the awkwardly placed, artificial barriers at the world’s edges – become even more obvious and difficult to look past.

What’s more, while Arceus’ overworld is massive in size, so much of it is functionally empty. Sure, the lore explains that the Hisui region is still largely uninhabited by humans, so it makes sense not to have tons of massive, bustling cities. But when I say empty, I mean empty, even of interesting natural phenomena or roadside curiosities. I cannot emphasize enough how much of this world is just long stretches of grass patches or bare, empty mountains covered in Geodudes, especially in the later areas. It’s just all Pokémon, all the way down. There are a number of map-named places referencing towns or landmarks in Diamond and Pearl that are clearly intended to be their precursors but, aside from maybe having a few extra flowers or trees or slightly differently colored grass, there’s little reason to really explore or appreciate them. Just catch your Pokémon and be on your way, nothing to see here.

While Arceus’ overworld is massive in size, so much of it is functionally empty.

The handful of landmarks Hisui does have are frequently disappointing, too. So, so often in Legends: Arceus I saw what I thought might be a cool mountain cave or interesting ravine or island, only to find it inhabited by more of the same Combee and Buizels I’d been bumping into since I got to Hisui. A couple of small settlements parked around the region have absolutely nothing to offer beyond a sidequest or two – you can’t even use them as camps to heal your team. Even the music that backs up your adventure is lackluster and oddly inconsistent, fading in and out at odd times and featuring a mix of calming Breath of the Wild-style piano melodies and energetic remixes of Diamond and Pearl route themes. Essentially, exploring and getting to know Hisui is entirely about cataloging its Pokémon – the region, world, music, and landscape itself is an underdressed, inelegant afterthought.

Even worse, without interesting landmarks, Hisui is also entirely devoid of anything resembling dungeons, or even puzzles, really. There’s one sort-of dungeon about 20 hours in with a couple of extremely basic shape-memorization puzzles, but then you never see anything like it again. Part of this is likely due to the fact that riding on Pokémon has entirely replaced the old system of “Hidden Machine” moves usable for both traveling and puzzle solving on the overworld. While I welcome not having to carry a Bidoof with me at all times to break rocks, Legends: Arceus feels like it lost a little too much of itself without cool ruins puzzles to solve or interesting spelunking trips. With no suitable replacement for the traditional gyms, Rocket hideouts, and the like, there’s no meaningful build-up to major encounters and no moments of satisfaction that come from surviving a long excursion into a dangerous place with a powerful enemy at the end. I didn’t realize how much adrenaline conquering something like a Victory Road really gave me until it was suddenly missing.

What all this means is that what you’re doing for almost the entirety of Legends: Arceus’ first act is catching and battling, over and over again. And that system is strong enough that it does manage to keep things interesting most of the way, though admittedly after the first 20 or so hours of repetition I was starting to flag. Interspersed boss fights with powerful lord and lady Pokémon that actively mix up the action game mechanics of their battles help freshen things up, though I could have done with a few more actually challenging trainer battles than the story threw at me. But then I reached Legends: Arceus’ ending…or should I say endings?

When you see credits roll about 30 hours in, the “ending” you’ve seen is really more of an act one finale, leading directly into a robust second half with 20 or 30 additional hours of sidequests, battles, legendaries, and more. That on its own is great, and a lot of that extra content is pretty fun, too, including a seriously tough boss battle and some excellent legendary Pokémon hunts and fights that really make use of Legends: Arceus’ overworld creature-catching and item-use mechanics for interesting, strategic encounters. In fact, they made me wish more of the earlier Pokémon encounters had forced me to make better use of my toolset for stealth and stunning – those felt like missed opportunities in hindsight.

But one massive piece of Legends: Arceus’ second half sucks: finishing it. The actual, for-real ending is gated behind two absolutely massive and frustrating collect-a-thons. One of the tasks is to collect 107 of an item scattered across all six zones, with absolutely no guide as to where any of them are beyond the number remaining in each area. The other task is, unsurprisingly, capturing every Pokémon available – a job made agonizing by the fact that many are extremely rare. At one point, I spent several hours doing the following: leaving Jubilife Village for a certain area, flying to the very specific spawn point of a Pokémon I needed, seeing it was not there, warping back to camp, going back to the village to reset the spawns, and repeating until I found what I needed. I similarly spent hours sitting on a mountaintop, waiting for a space-time-distortion to appear in hopes that it might, maybe, have the Pokémon I needed. And if I accidentally made any of these Pokémon faint or flee, too bad. Do it all over again.

I spent several hours repeating the cycle until I found what I needed.

This is so, so far removed from the Pokémon fantasy I wanted to see the series evolve into. I understand that Pokémon has always had these kinds of obtuse, repetitive challenges for its rarest monsters (remember Feebas in Ruby and Sapphire?), but never have they been required to achieve a main story ending – not even back in the good ol’ days where catching ’em all was still the slogan. And given the modern reinvention of the series we see here, this sort of tedious mandatory activity should’ve been the first thing to be discarded.

If Legends: Arceus had hidden more of these rarer monsters behind puzzles or interesting sidequests or actual overworld mysteries, that would have been one thing. Instead, it’s just a lot of waiting, repetition, and luck (and, for everyone else playing it post-launch, presumably online guides) that I found immensely discouraging despite the enticing proposition of, you know, actually getting some form of resolution to the plot established in the first five minutes. On the bright side, online and local trading will be available at launch, which may speed up this process for some, but that doesn’t change the annoying nature of being told to go out and find something that’s just not there to be found the vast majority of the time.

So what awaits at the end of all this? I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it involves one admittedly fantastic, memorable boss battle, and then nothing. The story never really resolves. Multiple characters repeatedly hinted to have suspicious and interesting motives never explain who they are or what they’re really up to. One particularly tragic character never even gets an acknowledgment that his unresolved story is actually pretty messed up for a Pokemon game, much less a happy ending (or any ending, really). Questions raised early on in Legends: Arceus are never answered sufficiently, and even when you get back to town, no one remarks on the feat you’ve just accomplished. Maybe it was my own fault for being led to believe that there was some greater story being told here beyond “catch ’em all.” But after 64 hours, it was a wildly disappointing payoff for the work of finishing the longest main story a Pokemon game has ever had, even if the journey to get there was a lot of fun.

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