The Sinnoh region prequel Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which was revealed earlier this year, is the biggest departure the series has seen. Set in the distant past and using a feudal Japan backdrop to tell its story, you’ll play as one of the first trainers to set out and complete the region’s first Pokédex by surveying, capturing, and researching Pokémon. Arceus foregoes the traditional and the familiar RPG elements with an action battle system instead of the traditional turn-based format we’re used to seeing in each game.
My initial impression was that the game sounded too good to be true. For years now, the Pokémon series has moved forward incrementally. I’ve always been a fan and continue to be, but the series felt stagnant and it felt like there was very little innovation happening with each new entry. Sure, new locations are nice and so are revisiting old favourites like we did last year in Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, but they were the exact same games from 20 years ago.
Along comes the announcement that The Pokémon Company and Game Freak wanted to try something different — giving birth to Pokémon Legends: Arceus. So, now we’re days away from the game’s launch and I’m sure you have a lot of questions.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the evolution the series desperately needs
I was a bit taken aback to learn that the game isn’t really open world. It’s structurally closer to Monster Hunter so don’t go in expecting a massive open world. Instead, you get several giant areas to explore around the Hisui region that is connected to Base Camps. The core gameplay loop is preparing for the area, heading out into the area, capturing and battling Pokémon, completing sidequests before returning to Base Camp to deliver your survey results. To unlock new areas, you’ll have to do this a couple of times before moving to a new area. While it isn’t as deep as I thought the system would be, it is fun and when looped with the other mechanics, works well.
I believe Pokémon Legends: Arceus will be a divisive title for fans and the problem I find is keeping their hype in check and painting a picture before being hands-on with the game. That said, I did expect an open world similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. What I discovered was the game instead takes inspiration from Monster Hunter. I don’t hate the hub areas that bring Hisui together. Each area does feel a bit barren and aside from a handful of other humans, the only other thing to see is the wild Pokémon. Within these areas are a dozen of familiar Pokémon, and at first, there isn’t much variety but this becomes a non-issue the more you play and expand your Base Camp.
What was old is new again
Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ story is one of the better stories the franchise has seen, but only when compared to series standard. The mainline series hasn’t had an entry where the story has been a must-experience but given this game is more narrative, I’m happy to report the change is welcome; I can say I hope this is the direction the series decides to continue moving toward. Fans have continually asked for innovation and it’s satisfying to see the developers listen to feedback and elevate the series.
Going in, I was curious to learn how the developers would replace gym badges that basically every Pokémon game used to show progress. Given the situation and when the game is set, gyms are nonexistent. Instead, as part of the Survey Corps., you will earn Stars and level up. Each Star level you unlock brings rewards including more money for surveying and controlling higher-level Pokémon and story progress is tied to earning more stars.
You’ll need to survey each area while surveying the wild Pokémon. Your task is to catch and observe each Pokémon and complete a checklist of tasks to complete the Pokédex. You can hide in tall grass, crouch, and follow Pokémon but be wary — if you intimidate the wrong Pokémon, you’ll be in for a surprise as they will attack you.
Generally, you can capture as many Pokémon as you want and are encouraged to capture several of the same creatures. The new mechanics of being able to target a wild Pokémon and then freely tossing a Pokéball to capture them is energizing given we’ve performed the same task for decades with very little change. Some Pokémon require you to be hidden as they are skittish and will disappear from the area. Some will attack you on the spot and engage you in battle, and it’s a nice change to not worry about walking through tall grass before finding a random encounter
One of the more innovative things to come to Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the new twist added to battles — something better than Mega Evolutions. I’m talking about the Agile/Strong mechanics added to battles, one that can turn the tide in battles. Another new feature you’ll notice is the turn order system that ties into the Agile/Strong style system, and it’s some of the best mechanics we’ve seen in a long time. Agile moves are weaker, less accurate and you’re able to get one extra turn before your opponent can strike. Strong moves hit harder but favour your opponent and give them an extra turn. Not every Pokémon has the option to pick between these moves and you’ll need to master a move before even being able to use them in battle.
The game’s focus is on discovering and capturing wild Pokémon. There aren’t many trainer battlers like in previous games because the idea of partner Pokémon is still new with the Hisui region and many prefer to keep their partner with them at all times. That doesn’t mean you won’t be battling trainers though as these are tied to the story and even some exciting boss battles. Even wild Pokémon can be challenging and I think this was done to make up for the lack of trainer battles.
Back to Sinnoh, We Go!
I’m also impressed by the uptick in difficulty battles now offer. I was in an early story battle with a Pokémon one level below me. I wasn’t too worried about going in but soon learned I needed to pay attention to what I was going up against. With half my team wiped out, it was down to the wire. There’s a great way to learn the basics and improve your skills and once you unlock the dojo, it’s worth meeting Zisu.
Zisu is the trainer of the Survey Corps. and is in charge of the Pokémon dojo in Jubilant Village. Her role is to help you learn new moves and become a force in battle. One of the ways you can learn to move for your partner is through battle and also through Zisu’s dojo buy purchasing moves. You can use items like Grit Dust to raise your partner stats or use a Seed of Mastery to master your move set.
Pokémon whose eyes glow red are called Alpha Pokémon. Alpha Pokémon are larger than others and may know moves that are rare for their species and are often challenging foes that can be caught. Occasionally you’ll come across a Noble Pokémon, bosses related to the plot that has you throwing items at them to calm them down and you can’t capture them.
Sidequests are new to the series but they aren’t anything particularly exciting. Most of them all amount to catching or battling a Pokémon. You do gain rewards for completing these but the entire system feels half-baked and primed for improvement going forward.
Crafting makes its first appearance and while it took forever to come to the series, having the option to make potions, revives, and Pokéballs on a whim is most welcome. You can unlock more recipes throughout the game and you’ll need to ensure you have all the ingredients to make items but not having to worry about visiting town to stock up on supplies is something I don’t want to see the series leave behind. You can find tons of crafting material out in the wild by sending your partner out to gather items.
It pains me to write this after gushing over so many things I enjoy about Pokémon Legends: Arceus but the Nintendo Switch once bottleneck’s graphics. I’m confident other reviewers will agree when I say that Arceus falters graphically. The game cannot hold a steady 30 frames per second when playing docked, I had fewer instances of this when playing handheld but it is still an issue. I do like the Pokémon models and the world of Hisui but the draw distance really end up working against the game.
Evolutions and learning moves have also changed and I’m not sure the change is what the series needs. Normally, when your partner is about to evolve, the process will naturally occur and you’ll watch the animation happen before meeting its new form. Now, the entire process is relegated to the menu — you won’t know your partner is ready to evolve except for a flashing icon next to its name. You have to open the submenu and confirm you want your Pokémon to evolve. On the plus side, you decide when you want to evolve your Pokémon so no need to worry about cancelling an evolution.
Learning moves has the same issue here, too. You might go up maybe five levels and not realize you have a new move you can assign to your Pokémon. I do like the changes but being notified of these important moments would alleviate the issue I have. I do like that your Pokémon won’t forget moves and instead you can activate the moves you want to equip from a menu.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is proof that the developers are willing to step outside their comfort zone. Does the game get everything right in its first outing? No, but that’s okay — Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the first step in a new direction and it’s one I hope the developers continue to explore going into the next generation of Pokémon. Having seen where the series began and where the series is now, I can see the developers are ready to evolve alongside their series and you’ll be able to see that when you get your hands on Pokémon Legends: Arceus.