The Legend of Pokémon: A Breath of Fresh Air
When I started this website I said that I would be reviewing games that you can carry around in your pocket, so this review is only for those of you with cargo pants.
In the year leading up to the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus it was very unclear if this new entry in the pocket monster series was going to be good. The initial trailer, while trying to invoke Zelda: Breath of the Wild vibes, showed the game running well below 30 frames per second. That trailer had a few Pokémon moving at what seemed like <10 frames per second.
Now I've played a lot of Pokémon games, but I haven't finished any of the core entries since X & Y on the 3DS nearly 10 years ago. For me the games are fun but the formula has gotten so stale over time without much to spice things up. I wasn't even planning to purchase Pokémon Legends: Arceus (released on January 27th 2022) until I read reviews. It seemed like this game was either going to be one of the greatest entries in the series or a huge pile of crap. That's why it brings me such joy to report that Pokémon Legends: Arceus is incredible. At times incredibly ugly, but beauty is only skin deep.
Hard to look at, but you get used to it
Let's get the first impression out of the way. Pokémon Legends: Arceus runs at a fairly stable 30 fps (depending on the environment you're in) and looks great compared to other core Pokémon games. I'm not sure if that's a compliment to say that it looks great compared to previous Pokémon games, but it certainly is an improvement. The graphical style took some getting used to. It just isn't as impressive as similar open worlds like Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Genshin Impact (coming to the Switch one day). The Nintendo Switch has its limits, but I wish that developer Gamefreak had pulled in some Nintendo muscle to help polish the presentation. Pokémon in the background really do run at sub-10 fps and there is tons of graphical pop-in while exploring the world. Nintendo owns developers like Monolith Soft that have previously stepped in to help polish some of their biggest titles (BOTW, Animal Crossing, Splatoon) so it makes you wonder why that didn't happen here. It's not like Pokémon is the largest IP in the world or anything.
Getting acclimated with the presentation aside, character and Pokémon styles are similar to previous entries but the historical Japan setting combined with a fully rotating 3D camera helps elevate this game to the next level. Sure Pokémon Sword and Shield had a wild area where you could fully rotate the camera, but it's great to finally see Gamefreak integrate a real camera into their entire game. Welcome to gaming in the 2000s.
So while the graphics retain the classic Pokémon charm that we've seen previously, I really appreciate that The Pokémon Company is slowly but surely integrating texture into the Pokémon designs. Granted the Nintendo Switch is struggling a bit to run this game so the texture work isn't as great as something like New Pokémon Snap (developed by Bandai Namco), but it's still nice to see Gamefreak improving designs over time. With only 242 Pokémon in the game (as of February 2022) Gamefreak has also done an amazing job adding new animations. You can take your pocket monsters out of their balls at any time in this game and it's great to see them lounge/sit/boop your nose. Adding so many new animations to the Pokémon has really helped them feel more like living creatures rather than the previous static 3D models. Even with this game, The Pokémon Company has yet to reclaim the full charm that Pokémon displayed in their old 2D sprites before transitioning everything to 3D. They're getting closer though.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place in the Hisui region, which is actually the Sinnoh region of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl hundreds of years in the past. As such the game has some really great remixes of 4th generation Pokémon music. My only complaint is that a few musical loops repeat too quickly. I understand that the music in the main Jubilife City gets more instrumentation as the village is built over time, but the early version of the song was so repetitive that it was starting to drive me crazy.
Even if it takes some getting used to, this game's presentation is solid overall. I was just happy to see that it maintains a somewhat solid 30 fps unlike the early reveal trailers. Other than the horrible framerate in those first few trailers, they showed off a semi-open world that looked barren. Now that I've sunk dozens of hours into the game I can tell you that the world is indeed pretty empty, but luckily the emphasis on catching Pokémon balances things out.
Welcome to the grind
The Hisui region is fairly empty compared to similar open world games, but that's ok because everywhere you look there are Pokémon to catch. I'm actually of the opinion that 4 out of the game's 5 explorable zones all look pretty similar to each other (at least there's a snow zone at the end). When the inevitable sequel releases I'd love to see more regional variety and more ways to interact with the environment. Sure the elevation of the world varies and you can climb barren mountains, but none of it is that visually interesting. It would have been nice to see more caves, forests, or other new areas. At least there are hidden wisps and Unowns to find. Collecting Pokémon is clearly the main focus, and thankfully Legends: Arceus makes catching them all fun.
5 explorable zones doesn't sound like a lot, but they are tremendously huge areas. Each one presents a different variety of Pokémon to catch, and once you get a taste of exploring the world you'll never want Pokémon games to ever return to the old formula. Unfortunately before you get to explore you'll have to trek through a fairly lengthy tutorial. For a game that is trying to evoke Zelda: Breath of the Wild and for a game that has overdone tutorials in a plethora of previous entries, they sure haven't learned how to stop overexplaining every detail. You'll still want to make your way through the starting dialogue because exploring and catching Pokémon has never been better than this.
Gone are preset routes with an overhead camera. Gone are most trainer battles, although they still happen occasionally. You live in a world where people are afraid of Pokémon, and rightfully so because this is the first Pokémon game where they will straight up try to kill you. I still remember running into an alpha Snorlax very early on (alpha Pokémon are new big/angry versions introduced in this game) and how I had to run for my life as it shot hyper beams at me. This game's greatest strength is in exploring the world and catching Pokémon. You don't even have to battle Pokémon before catching them anymore as Legends: Arceus introduces stealth mechanics where you have a greater chance of catching the Pokémon if you sneak up on them and throw a ball. In previous games the Pokémon hid in the grass and jumped out at you. Now you hide in the grass and jump out at Pokémon. Poetry in motion.
You need balls to catch Pokémon. This game introduces crafting/material gathering, and I was throwing so many balls that I found I needed to craft new ones every time I returned to base camp. There are some interesting new items that you can craft such as a smokescreen to help you sneak up on unsuspecting Pokémon.
This game also brings back ride Pokémon, and while I understand that they help you traverse the semi-open world, the majority of them are not super helpful. The new Ursalana evolution (from the bear Pokémon Ursaring) only exists for a handful of story beats, and I just wish we could climb mountains ourselves instead of constantly having to call out Sneasler (a new evolution for Hisuian Sneasel).
The majority of new Hisuian forms introduced in Legends: Arceus are fantastic. I love how many Pokémon like Stantler or the aforementioned Ursaring got totally new evolutions, and other Pokémon have new variants/regional evolutions. Of particular note are the new starter evolutions for Cynadquil/Rowlet/Oshawott. Even though I thought they were all ugly when I first saw them, I chose Cyndaquil as my starter (clearly the only choice) and the new form of Typhlosion grew on me as I continued my quest.
Finally a Pokémon game with an interesting story? Well, no
The main goal in Pokémon Legends: Arceus is to complete the Pokedex, which is really all that I needed to set me on my journey. There is a lot of talking in this game, none of which is voice acted unfortunately. The actual story revolves around quelling noble Pokémon and trying to close a space/time rift that has opened in the sky.
I should also mention that fighting the noble Pokémon, essentially the bosses of each of the 5 zones, is totally different from anything we've seen in the past. Fighting noble Pokémon is almost like a shooter as you throw bags of their favorite food at them. If that sounds bizarre, well it is. And I don't think the mechanic even works terribly well, but maybe it's something that can be expanded upon in future games.
The main story is serviceable enough to move you along, but remember that this is a Pokémon game so I wouldn't expect anything too crazy. Jubilife City is full of side quests to complete as well. I really enjoyed many of the side quests that involve giving villagers their own Pokémon because then you get to see Pokémon start to live in the village over time.
Trainer battles are few and far between in this game, so when they do come up they're a spectacle. I enjoyed trainer battles much more than I usually do because I wasn't constantly trying to look out for trainers on routes that were waiting to ambush my progress. Something like 90% of trainer battles happen as a result of pushing the story forward, but random trainer battles actually are integrated into exploring the wild and they're always a fun surprise when they happen.
Battles now display the turn order, and you can influence the order with new agile/strong style moves. Strong style attacks will increase the move's power but at the cost of possibly allowing your opponent to attack twice in a row. Agile style allows you to attack more quickly, but at the cost of strength. There wasn't much need to use these new styles too frequently, but they are incredibly useful in a few situations.
Welcome to end game
Once you complete the story, Pokémon Legends: Arceus still has so much to offer. While many recent Pokémon games have focused their end game content on battling/the PVP scene, this game is mostly back to the "gotta catch'em all" core formula. Honestly filling out the Pokedex/ticking all of the check boxes for each Pokémon is extremely satisfying. The core concepts behind Pokémon really do cater to the collector in all of us. At least this collection is all digital, unlike my amiibo collection. Or my Pokémon card collection. Help.
I also greatly enjoyed hunting down shiny Pokémon, alpha Pokémon, and the occasional shiny alpha Pokémon. Because you run past so many Pokémon in this game, shiny hunting is much more enjoyable. Overall it seems like others have been finding shiny Pokémon more easily in this game. Even I've found a few, and I've never found any shiny Pokémon outside of Pokémon Go. I even found one just capturing screenshots for this review.
Otherwise there currently isn't any way to battle your friends in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and I think that's ok for now. It would be cool to see more features added in the future that might let us interact with others more, or at least let us transfer our babies to Pokémon Home.
Lastly I want to briefly mention the controls. You have a lot of newfound freedom in Legends: Arceus to throw whatever you want whether it's releasing Pokémon or throwing crafted items, but the controls do take time to get used to. I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally thrown a pokeball at a tree trying to gather berries or how many times I've jumped on a ride Pokémon when trying to pause the game. Pokémon Legends: Arceus has no good reason to map pausing to the up button on the d-pad. You will get used to the controls, but I don't fully understand the reasoning behind some of the button mapping (which can't be changed).
The greatest Pokémon game ever?
When I started Pokémon Legends: Arceus, I tweeted my initial thoughts:
I can now report that the appeal does indeed last for the long haul. And yeah I think the graphics are a little bit ugly, but they grew on me over time. What I will say is that the gameplay here is SO good that it overcomes any shortcomings that I ran into. I'm not sure if this is the greatest Pokémon game of all time, but it's the first time in forever that the developers have tried a fresh concept for the series.
Gamefreak really nailed the new concept for what a mainline Pokémon game can be, and because this entry is already breaking sales records I expect it won't be long before we see them refine this somewhat cut gem to a true masterpiece. With a base idea this good, it's easy to see how Pokémon Legends 2 (whatever it ends up being named) can become truly legendary. This game was a fantastic experience and I just can't wait to see what comes next.
Core gameplay loop is incredibly refreshing
Completing a Pokedex hasn't been this fun since Pokémon Red & Blue
Ugly graphics take time to adjust to
Story isn't particularly interesting
Can become grindy in the late game