Pokemon Legends: Arceus has the potential to be the Pokemon game of my childhood dreams, and it comes so close to being just that. By shifting the Pokemon formula to focus on enhanced open-world exploration, and the quest to catch 'em all, Pokemon Legends: Arceus has truly revolutionized the series for a more modern audience. But that's not to say that it's perfect, as there are a couple of elements that hold this experimental Pokemon game back from being the very best the series has ever been. What it is able to accomplish is impressive, particularly for a 25-year-old series that's always been a little rigid with its formula.
Release date: January 28, 2022
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Game Freak
Game Freak has cleverly accomplished this long-overdue evolution by essentially starting from scratch, teleporting us back to a point in time long before anything we've seen in the series to date. You're exploring the Hisui region, an early version of Sinnoh where there's just one major settlement. That's Jubilife Village, which acts as the central hub from which you'll head out on expeditions to explore the land, help the residents, and discover new Pokemon. It works well as a base of operations, and as a space that will gently grow and change over time with shops and other facilities. It's also filled with people who are desperate to share in your adventure and learn more about the Pokemon roaming the wilds of Hisui around them.
You are tasked with completing the locale's first Pokedex as part of the Galaxy Team's Survey Corp, which essentially boils down to three different formats – discovering a Pokemon, catching a Pokemon, and completing a Pokemon's Pokedex entry by completing research tasks to move up the knowledge ranks until you max out at 10. This can be accomplished by observing a Pokemon using a certain move, catching or defeating a specific number, or allowing it to evolve. I'm admittedly disappointed to find there aren't more Pokemon Snap-inspired observational research tasks, where watching a Pokemon's behavior becomes as important as catching or battling it, as the tasks you're given in Pokemon Legends: Arceus can feel a little repetitive – particularly if you truly want to complete your 'dex.
Regardless though, it's refreshing to discover that filling out your Pokedex really is your overall goal in Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Discovering every Pokemon and completing that Pokedex is what you're in Hisui to do, and, although other story quests will come along and distract you, the game is always pushing you to catch, discover, research, and evolve more and more Pokemon. Settle in, because you're going to spend a lot of time working through each of Hisui's distinct biomes, exploring the day and night cycles just to see what Pokemon may pop up next to be caught. It's a gameplay loop that feels more organic, more rewarding, than just moving from town to town looking for the next gym.
Gotta catch 'em all
By stripping away the quest to 'beat the Elite Four' and focusing on the 'gotta catch 'em all' aspect of the tried-and-tested Pokemon formula, it forces the story to focus on the Pokemon themselves, truly making them the star of the show in a way that no other entry really has. The series has always excelled in the joy of discovery, but rather than lurking in the long grass, you'll find your next catch wandering around in the overworld. You can spot something you've not added to your Pokedex and make your way over, allowing yourself time to pick the right ball, or the right Pokemon to attack it in advance. There's an extra layer of tactics at play, because if you're clever, you can catch a Pokemon without having to battle it – achieved by carefully aiming and throwing a Pokeball before it spots you, either by avoiding its eyeline or by using the long grass to hide your advance. If it spots you, the more timid Pokemon will try to flee, while the aggressive ones will attack.
What's more, Pokemon battles then happen in the world right where you're standing – to the point where sometimes your own Pokemon are completely obscured by the environment, particularly if they're smaller critters. Being able to move around the battle also helps give you a real sense of the scale, which is a particular joy for a lifelong Pokemon fan who used to try and imagine just how big a Ninetales would be in real life. It's that scale, combined with more interactive playable spaces, that help make Pokemon Legends: Arceus feel like it's set in a living world. You'll also use your Pokemon to gather crafting materials by breaking rocks or shaking trees, which can be used to craft items that'll keep them healthy or catch new friends. Meanwhile, there are a selection of special Pokemon you'll meet that are capable of carrying you to new locations. Your party Pokemon really are in a partnership with you at last.
There are also several other welcomed tweaks that make a big difference to how you interact in battles and with your party. For example, once a Pokemon has mastered a move – aka used it enough in battle – it can be used in either Agile or Strong Style stances, which not only affects its potential damage, but also the attack order of the battle. For example, using a move in Agile Style can allow your Pokemon to chain together two moves in exchange for a weaker initial attack, while Strong Style is more powerful, but will leave you open to your opponent unleashing a duo of moves in a row. Both use up more PP per attack too, so it's all about weighing up what to use and when, giving you a little more control over how a battle plays out. Of course, an attacking Pokemon could also unleash a Strong or Agile Style move, so there's an unpredictability to proceedings too.
That control extends to how you manage your party too. Evolution no longer happens automatically once a Pokemon has reached a certain level or met other criteria; in Pokemon Legends: Arceus, you'll be told when a Pokemon is capable of evolving and then you choose when to pull the trigger. Your Pokemon also gain new moves passively too, with each one instead added to a kind of move library for each Pokemon. You can then switch them out at will, whenever you like, which adds an extra level of nuance to how you build out your party.
Gotta befriend 'em all
It wouldn't be a living Pokemon world without some other humans though, and the shift from player vs player battles also allows the game to back away from repeating NPCs. There's no 'Beauty', 'Youngster', or 'Hiker' trainer types here; it's you, a world filled with Pokemon, and uniquely-named characters, even down to the smaller one-hit NPCs that you'll interact with throughout the world. It's these Hisuian residents that'll give you Requests, smaller tasks to balance out the core story Missions. Requests are always full of personality – testing your Pokemon knowledge and offering up insights into how the Hisui residents are learning to overcome their fears and work together with Pokemon. Some are more research based, but others are touching little personal stories that all help bring the world to life.
It also helps that the core story you'll unravel in Pokemon Legends: Arceus through its Missions is also the best it has been for years. It's surprisingly bleak at times, and not knowing where the narrative is taking you is such an invigorating change. Not having an Elite Four – or the Elite Four adjacent tournaments of Pokemon Sword and Shield - hanging there as the ultimate end is just as revolutionary for the series as shifting towards a more open-ended world structure. There's no spoilers here of course, but it involves a diverse cast of characters that you'll come to seriously care about, with so much time spent with them that it allows developer Game Freak to carve out its most complex and nuanced individuals yet.
However, it's worth noting that this is a game that is solely focused on the story – and as such it is a majority solo experience. If you're looking for a competitive Pokemon title, this isn't it. While you can trade Pokemon with other players, that's as far as the multiplayer goes. It's in keeping with the focus of the game being more on the Pokemon than the trainer-vs-trainer battles, but it definitely won't be the ideal experience for all Pokemon fans.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus really is the ultimate Pokemon fan experience, bar one glaring flaw – its visual performance. Given that the main draw is pushing into every corner of each map section, it's a terribly optimized world. Pop-in is a huge issue, as is the draw distance – which is so limited that, as you begin to move through spaces, trees will appear around you and textures won't load until you're really close to them. Even quest givers you can see marked on the map sometimes won't appear until you're basically on top of them. Pokemon too aren't visible from miles away, instead only spawning in the area directly around you. You might spot something flying in the distance, but if you do it'll be at such a low framerate, you might wish you hadn't.
These flaws are less noticeable in handheld mode, but it's disappointing all the same – particularly when you obtain Hisuian Braviary, which allows you to traverse Hisui from the air. While it might be the fastest way to travel, it only serves to highlight just how much the game is struggling to load the world around you. It's not even like the Switch hardware is creaking under the weight of the game's graphical potential, especially when you compare it to the wide-open spaces of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Such is the vast gulf between the two experiences from a visual and performance perspective, you'd think it was Pokemon Legends: Arceus that was the one to launch back in 2017.
Problems with the performance are the one thing holding Pokemon Legends: Arceus back from perfection. But when you're having such a great time with the actual gameplay, it's not enough to hold back this otherwise impressive swing into a new Pokemon generation, building on the foundations of the past with exciting new mechanics, a more open structure, and efforts made to address each of the elements that were becoming stale. Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a must-play game for any would-be trainers who prefer to spend their time appreciating Pokemon rather than putting them to battle.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch OLED with a code provided by the publisher.