If before it the series was a progressively stagnant product that showed no wish to advance, after it the possibility that Pokémon will abandon inertia to fulfill its potential needs to be considered, because Pokémon Legends: Arceus feels a lot like the first step in that direction
From the very start, the Pokémon franchise was never really one to evolve by leaps and bounds. Sure, especially during its initial generations, the series was able to bring forth plenty of additions that enriched both the strategic value of its battle system and the world in which its adventures took place. But as a whole, the Pokémon experience consisted of the same basic loop involving catching monsters, assembling a team, battling trainers, beating gym leaders, and gaining access to the competition that would determine who is the best of all. For a while, from a critical standpoint, the property was able to get away with only boasting small increments, much thanks to the strength of its formula and the addictive nature of its gameplay. But as years passed and generations came and went, the fact that the franchise had stagnated became increasingly apparent. After all, following decades on the market, while even the most traditional RPGs had greatly moved forward during that period, Pokémon remained mostly stuck in place.
Truth be told, however, stagnation was never really the series’ main sin; though it was obviously a very notable issue for many longtime fans. The greatest problem was that, in certain areas, the property had even regressed. If the first few Pokémon games had complex caves, daunting gauntlets of trainers, relatively engaging plots, and even a few portions that allowed one to get lost in the world, recent generations – more specifically the pairs of Sun and Moon as well as Sword and Shield – opted to greatly simplify matters. Maze-like caves were replaced with linear paths; battles against regular trainers and gym leaders became incredibly easy; plots were so thin they were almost driven out of existence; and any sense of exploration was taken away by artificial elements that forced players to go in a certain direction. Given that despite its mixture of stagnation and regression the franchise kept selling astonishingly well, one had to wonder if Game Freak would ever change the course they had taken.
In comes Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Discreetly announced in the lull between generations, the title quickly caught the attention of both devoted fans and those who had grown cold towards the franchise due to the simple fact that it looked like the game would present exactly what the property needed; that is, a heavy dose of evolution. And little by little, as details on the project came to the surface, it was clear the adventure was seeking to change the series’ formula to an unprecedented degree; one that promised to kick Pokémon out of its sleepy state ad truly bring the charming creatures to a setting more aligned with the contemporary gaming scene. As it turns out, the final package delivers on that promise quite well, easily ranking as – at least – the most enjoyable entry in the franchise since its turn towards 3-D.
To prove it is not kidding around when it comes to changing the status quo, Pokémon Legends: Arceus breaks the mold from the start. After hearing instructions from a not-so-mysterious celestial being, the main character is literally dropped into the world of Pokémon as he falls from a dimensional rift in the sky. Although the starring trainer is certainly surprised by such a situation, those familiar with the franchise will be even more shocked than the protagonist when they discover the time period in which they landed precedes the one of the main games by quite a margin, meaning people’s relationship with the titular creatures is vastly different from what players are used to and, consequently, some staples of the property are nowhere to be found.
Although some folks living in the Hisui region have Pokémon, most of the population is afraid of them, which is not surprising since research on the monsters is scarce and Hisui is a barely colonized continent, consisting only of a small village that tries to protect itself against a vast wilderness filled with unknown beasts. Showing a knack for both facing and commanding Pokémon from the start, the protagonist is soon enlisted by the Galaxy Team, a partially military and partially scientific group that dares to go out into the wild to expose themselves to multiple dangers whilst catching, battling, researching, and frequently getting beaten down by Pokémon. As such, rather than focusing on matters such as trainers, gym leaders, and the Pokémon League (all of which do not exist in the time period when the adventure takes place), Pokémon Legends: Arceus is all about braving the unknown.
It almost goes without saying that, at heart, the core battling mechanics of Pokémon are still intact. The creatures engage in turn-based combats where victory often depends on either good strategy or simply picking an attack whose type is very effective against the rival Pokémon. As they win battles, they accumulate experience points and level up. At all times, the protagonist can carry six monsters around, with the additional ones that are caught being sent to a ranch from where they can be selected and placed in the team to replace another creature. Finally, although important strategic elements like held items and abilities, which trigger certain effects in battles, have been dropped, other features such as natures (which determine the distribution of a monster’s stats) and Effort Values (which allow players to have some influence over how stats grow as Pokémon level up) have been retained; with the caveat that Effort Values are earned via items that are dropped by foes rather than by battling.
The sole addition that comes on this front is one that brings a new interesting strategic element to the table, perhaps compensating for the absence of held items and abilities. Once Pokémon have mastered a move (that is, after they have used it a certain amount of times), they will gain access to two styles of the attack: one Agile and another Strong, which can be selected via the L and R buttons. The former style lets the monsters attack more quickly, perhaps even allowing more than two moves to be used in a row, but diminishes the power of the hit; the latter, meanwhile, delivers a stronger blow but might let the foe chain a sequence of attacks in case they survive. Needless to say, making the right choice between what style to use and when can make a big difference in the result of a battle, and CPUs know pretty well when to take advantage of those variations.
The biggest changes implemented by Pokémon Legends: Arceus are actually related to the environment; both in how it is setup and in how both players and monsters interact with it. And with those two shifts, the game succeeds in not only greatly refreshing the property, but also in mustering a gameplay experience that has excellent synergy with the quest’s basic premise of a world where Pokémon are mostly seen as dangerous beings.
For starters, instead of the recent linear routes and lifeless towns, the world of Pokemon Legends: Arceus is formed by large open biomes. Including vast green fields, a sunny beachfront, and a rocky mountain, the game contains five of those areas, and they are a clear evolution of the Wild Area introduced by Sword and Shield. The difference is that while in those games that great concept was a nice side-dish that was unfortunately not fully realized, the biomes of Pokemon Legends: Arceus are a main course that was very well prepared, for they are large, filled with geographic features that make most of their subareas distinct, and brimming not just with interesting nooks and crannies, but also – of course – with distinct Pokémon of various kinds and levels; meaning it is not rare to come across a creature that is far above the strength threshold that the protagonist is able to handle at the time.
It is in that relationship between wild monsters and hero that lies the second major positive change operated by Game Freak in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Taking full advantage of the game’s rich environments, Pokémon are no longer found as random encounters in grass; instead, they appear as fully animated sprites hanging out in the wild. Truth be told, that was a move that – to a degree – had been executed by recent entries in the franchise; more specifically, by both Sword and Shield as well as the Let’s Go duo, which had offered a mixture of random combats and natural sprites. Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though, is notable because besides taking that mindset to the next level and totally abandoning creatures hidden in grass, it also uses the fact Pokémon move around the field to benefit its gameplay.
As the protagonist walks out of Jubilife Village for the first time and into the game’s initial biome, it is easy to see why people are so scared of Pokémon, because even though some of the creatures are pacific, many will target players as soon as they are in sight. And, for the first time ever, the hero can actually be hit by the monsters and even faint as a consequence of their attacks, which will cause the protagonist to be carried back to the area’s base camp and lead to the loss of some items in their pouch. As such, when going out into the wild, being aware of one’s surroundings is not a bad idea; and the same goes for learning how to use the dodge move (triggered by the Y button) and being extra careful about, for example, an angry Snorlax that is extremely overleved for the region where he is found.
However, if Pokémon can get an upper hand on the protagonist without even entering a turn-based combat, the same is valid the other way around, because Pokémon Legends: Arceus turns the act of catching the monsters into a game of sneaking around and using resources. Sure, old-school trainers can take the traditional route and throw a ball containing one of their Pokémon to immediately begin a duel (without any sort of transition to another screen), weaken the wild creature, and then catch it. In the case of tougher monsters, that is the best course of action, since they are unlikely to give in without a fight; and in the case of monsters that have spotted players, that is actually the only option, since Pokémon that have become aggressive cannot be caught without a battle.
Yet, it is also possible to employ a more crafty approach. For instance, the environment – especially patches of tall grass – can be used so that the protagonist stays out of sight by crouching, sneaks near the Pokémon without being seen, and throws a Pokéball in their direction; if they are hit from behind, there is even a bonus the increases the likelihood of a successful catch. Additionally, items such as specific types of food that are liked by each species can be thrown to lure them; smoke balls can be used to obscure their view, which is a strategy that is particularly good when it comes to Pokémon that get scared too easily; and a few other strategies are also possible.
The best aspect of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is how it takes advantage of its improved world design and of the gameplay shifts that come with it. Nowhere is that more blatant than on the somewhat dual nature of the title’s main quest. Mostly, progressing the central story concerns going into each biome and calming down the local sacred Pokémon that has, for some reason, gone on a rampage; and invariably, before facing the creature, the protagonist will have to perform a task so that the monster’s warden trusts them enough to give them access to the place where the Pokémon dwells. Despite those twists and turns, it would be perfectly possible for one to ignore wild Pokémon as well as the freedom of exploration in order to make a beeline for the markers on the map. But Pokémon Legends: Arceus would lose a lot of its charm if played in such a way, and that is where the game’s scientific venture comes in.
Just like he is enlisted to quell the frenzy of mighty Pokémon, the protagonist is also the member of a research team that knows the risk of letting unskilled folks roam into more dangerous areas. Consequently, in order to prove their worth and gain access to new biomes, players will have to rise in rank inside the organization, with each star that is earned opening the way to a new area. And the points that are summed towards that promotion come from a task that is very familiar to longtime fans of the franchise, but that to the people of Hisui is uncharted territory: filling up the Pokédex.
Given Pokémon are somewhat mysterious entities in Hisui at the time of the adventure, though, that process is a bit different this time around. Although merely catching a creature will cause them to be registered in the Pokédex and earn players a few points towards a rank, entries in the list are only totally filled once they reach a level of ten, and that is done by clearing a series of mini-quests related to the creature, including simply catching them, capturing them without being seen, defeating them in battle, witnessing them use a specific attack, and even watching them evolve for the first time. With each goal that is cleared, the level of research related to a Pokémon goes up.
Totally filling the Pokédex is a time-consuming endeavor that will only be tackled by the most devoted players who seek full completion, but everyone who wishes to get to the end of the game and unlock the final biome will have to put a degree of effort (and even a slight dose of grinding) into the task. To some ears, it might sound like a harsh measure by Game Freak to force players to explore the world and catch every monster they see. But in truth, to most who tackle the game, that will not be the case, simply because throwing oneself into the open wilderness of Pokémon Legends: Arceus is not a chore; it is actually a major delight. And the fact there is a Pokédex that needs to be filled, a team that needs to be assembled, and Pokémon that need to be trained turns exploration into an integral part of the title’s main gameplay; creating a synergy between world design, gameplay loop, and setting that is rather wonderful.
To boot, the Pokédex is not alone in making exploration worth it. Pokémon Legends: Arceus has nearly one hundred sidequests that involve all sorts of tasks, from the simple gathering of items to the enticing tracking down of rare creatures. It also boasts a multitude of especially brutal wild Pokémon (which are called alphas and are denoted by a mighty stature as well as threatening red eyes) that will pose a challenge to anyone who is looking to defeat or catch them. It has very meaty post-game quests, including one that unlocks an extra ending once all nearly 250 Pokémon are caught. At last, drawing inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the game pushes the idea of making do with what natures offers, because through most of the adventure players will be short on cash, being forced – therefore – to rely on collecting resources in the wilderness to craft them into essential assets like potions, revives, and even the vital Pokéballs.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a game that implements much needed changes to a series that was stale in some areas and regressing in others. It carries a plot that, despite hitting on a few Pokémon cliches, is a breath of fresh air thanks to the unique setting that surrounds it. It potentially extends a solid twenty-hour adventure that is accessible to everyone into a much longer threshold for devoted aficionados thanks to strong optional content. It has a surprisingly satisfying degree of challenge, which was a trait that the series’ latest entries sadly lacked. It exhibits astounding synergy between story, gameplay, and design, as the research-based setup of the quest works as a perfect companion to the pleasant but not overwhelming vastness of Hisui. And more than bringing the joy of exploration back to the franchise, it assembles an open world unlike anything the property had before it.
Not everything in Pokémon Legends: Arceus is excellent. The opening and closing segments of its plot are a little heavy on interruptions and cutscenes. Its visuals, despite showing evolution, are still behind what is expected of a major franchise that generates so much revenue. Its Pokédex could have been slightly bigger, as there is a visible repetition of previously seen monsters in later areas. A way to warp between different biomes would have been welcome, since going from one area of the continent to another always involves returning to the village and walking back to the gate to select a new destination. The fact battles against other trainers are minimal might bother some. Even if its usage of mounts – which are unlocked little by little and allow players to move faster via the ground, sea, mountains, and even the air – makes world traversal a breeze, the protagonist’s movements are a bit clunky in irregular terrain. Finally, on a note that is also related to the main character’s movements, the boss battles – which alternate sequences of dodging attacks with sequences of turn-based battling – suffer a bit in quality due to how the controls and physics are not ideal for an action-focused setting.
Yet, compared to what it does right, the stumbles of Pokémon Legends: Arceus are minimal, because the level of life it breathes into one of gaming’s most beloved franchises has immeasurable value. If before it the franchise was a progressively stagnant product that, due to extreme commercial success, showed no wish to advance, after it the possibility that the Pokémon series will abandon inertia to fulfill its wonderful potential needs to be considered, because Pokémon Legends: Arceus feels a whole lot like the first step in that direction.