Pokemon Legends Arceus is, in a word, surprising. The latest entry into this storied and occasionally controversial series better embodies the fantasy of catching Pokemon than any other game to date, but falls just short of brilliance. This semi-open world adventure presents a promising new direction for its stagnant franchise, though it struggles to fully deliver on said promise.
Legends: Arceus is unlike any other entry in the Pokemon series, and that’s precisely why it’s so exciting. Leaving concepts like gyms and trainers in the past, or more accurately the future, the focus of Arceus rests squarely on the formation of “the first pokedex.” You’re not a trainer, and your reason for exploring this world isn’t to do battle (though you’ll still have plenty of those). Instead, the player is enlisted into the Galaxy Team’s Survey Corps as a field researcher.
Rather than journey across an already populated region to conquer gyms and earn badges, Arceus sends players into the familiarly unfamiliar lands of Hisui, which will eventually become Diamond and Pearl’s Sinnoh, to learn about Pokemon and record their discoveries. In practice, this means players will be covering large swathes of land, catching hundreds of Pokemon, and unlocking new modes of travel to reach further into Hisui.
This new focus on exploration, however, is hampered by a disappointingly sparse world map with few activities beyond catching Pokemon and completing story content. The game features side missions, whose measly rewards are only sometimes worthwhile. The most rewarding quests in the game are those that unlock new items, hairstyles or clothes, while each map also features an optional mission to establish a new camp that players can travel to.
In my early hours with Arceus, I was charmed by the vignettes these side missions offered, which explore the blooming relationship between humans and Pokemon. Some of these quests also provided unique insight into more obscure aspects of the Pokedex, such as Drifloon’s propensity to abduct children, but as I got further into the game this premise lost its novelty and I started to ignore these missions completely.
Further complicating my relationship with these side missions were the limitations of its quest journal. Players can only track one quest at a time, either from the main storyline or among the many side missions, with no reminders of which quests were ready to be turned in. As my quest journal filled up I found myself struggling to remember which missions required which items and who had assigned them to me in the first place.
Thankfully, the main storyline of Arceus remains independent of these issues and offers a smooth and overall strong experience. The various characters, including the Wardens that fill the hole left by gym leaders, are as charming as those from any other entry. A stand-out for me was Arezu, who after assisting the player through one of the chapters becomes a permanent hair stylist at Jubilife Village.
Perhaps the strongest element of Arceus’ storyline are the boss fights with Noble Pokemon, which manage to combine the new movement and dodge-roll mechanics with traditional turn-based battles to create memorable and unique encounters. Some of these boss fights are a tad easy, but they inject a pleasant amount of variety and spectacle into the storyline. I was always looking forward to the next boss encounter.
If you’ve played a Pokemon game before, you’re probably used to fairly simplistic plotlines. Arceus is no different. The plot hinges on a rift in the sky above Hisui that appears to be sending Pokemon into a frenzied rage, which the player becomes essential in resolving thanks to their otherworldly skill with Pokemon. It’s not going to surprise you, nor is it the main draw of Arceus.
That draw is, of course, the Pokemon. Arceus shares much of its Pokedex with Diamond and Pearl due to their shared lore, but there’s a lot more variety this time around. GameFreak smartly analysed the roster of Pokemon and inserted enough new and familiar faces to ensure that players will have plenty of options to choose from. The big standouts are the Hisuian variants of existing Pokemon, whose delightfully unique designs and type-combinations made them obvious choices for my team. I won’t spoil which Pokemon received variants, but all of them felt distinct and inspired.
How you catch these Pokemon has also changed. Alongside the traditional “knock ‘em down to low HP and throw a ball” method is a more direct approach. Players can sneak up on Pokemon, using bushes or hiding behind rocks and trees, and catch them unawares. This style of play is further incentivized by the bonus given for hitting their backs, which gives you a better catch-rate or an advantage in battle.
Later in the game, a combination of aggressive Pokemon and sparse vegetation makes the stealth approach significantly harder. On one hand, I appreciate the way this ramps up the challenge, but I also found it frustrating as someone who enjoyed the new stealth mechanics. As you explore higher level areas, you may find Pokemon impossible to sneak up on. This definitely isn’t a stealth game.
Overall, Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a thrilling step for the Pokemon franchise, and introduces a new style of gameplay that I hope to see further expanded in sequels. Though it shows a lot of promise, the game fails to compete with other open world titles in presentation and variety. I’m stoked about the future of the series, but wish this particular entry aimed higher. Despite that lack of ambition, the game’s charm is undeniable and kept me engaged throughout. For the first time in a while, I’m excited to see what comes next for Pokemon.
Pokemon Legends Arceus
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: The Pokemon Company, Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 28 January 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.