The Pokémon series finally takes a bold step in a new, exciting direction, but also leaves a lot behind.
Back in the summer of 2016 a strange phenomenon suddenly brought gaming to mainstream attention. In parks and on sidewalks all over the world large groups of people were wandering around seemingly pointing their phones at random objects. The Pokémon Go fever was raging, and everybody and their grandmother went about searching for that elusive Snorlax or was busy earning badges by battling in Gyms. The phenomenal success of the AR game illustrates just how addictive catching cute monsters can be - even divorced from any storyline or involved mechanics. But is the concept strong enough to support a regular game? With Pokémon Legends Arceus for the Nintendo Switch developer Game Freak finally gives us an answer.
Pokémon Legends Arceus can best be described as a combination of new and old elements, being neither a mainline entry nor your typical spinoff. The game is set in the Sinnoh region, which was recently (re)visited by millions of players in Pokémon Shining Diamond/Brilliant Pearl. This time though there are no telephones, railroads, or other modern conveniences. Pokémon Legends Arceus takes place in the late 1800's, and Hisui (as the region was known back then) is a nearly unexplored wilderness filled with both wonders and dangers outside the protective walls of Jubilife Village.
Built around a gentle river and consisting of wooden houses and small crops, the idyllic town serves as your base of operations. One of the earliest joys of the game is seeing how Game Freak has bought the usual elements of the long running series to live in the new setting. For example, your Pokémon are no longer stored away in a computer, instead roaming freely in the pastures, while The Pokémarts have been replaced by small street vendors selling useful items and crafting materials. Jubilife Village is also home of the Galaxy Expedition Team: an organisation dedicated to the study of the Pokémon. Initially you - an unknown newcomer - are drafted into their so-called Survey Corps and tasked with exploring the region and catching every Pokémon you encounter.
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In the earlier games it never really made sense why you had to complete the Pokédex. One should think that with Pokémon being a natural part of people's lives and plenty of scientists studying their every move and variation, scattered recordings from a bunch of ten-year old children wouldn't make much of a difference. In Pokémon Legends Arceus the people of Hisui have only just started to domesticate Pokémon, and each little observation makes a tangible difference. You are not only tasked with catching a Pokémon, but also studying their behaviour. This can be done in a variety of ways such as defeating them with a Grass Move or catching a certain number of the species while remaining hidden. Completing entries in the Pokédex earns you resources such as money, Poke Balls and berries. Crucially, it also levels up your Galaxy Rank, which is necessary to progress the story and undertake expeditions in new areas.
With Hisui still being relatively unexplored, there are no roads or even tracks connecting the different regions. Instead the game serves up five huge chunks of land that can be explored in every nook and cranny. Compared to the Wild Areas of Pokémon Sword/Shield, this is much more impressive with varied scenery such as a cold and hostile region nearly imprisoned by snow-capped mountains to idyllic meadows more suited for picnics than battles. Also, the roaming Pokémon now seem a natural part of the environment - not random enemies distributed by some algorithm. Still, Pokémon Legends Arceus feels like a game better suited to handheld play. Blown up on a huge OLED display it's hard not to notice faults in the presentation. Compared with a game such as Monster Hunter Rise, the open areas of Pokémon Legends Arceus look flat and lifeless with simple textures and a draw distance, that is nothing more than acceptable. Lacking environmental effects such as the wind bending trees and bushes or dynamic lighting, exploring rarely rewards you with any majestic sights, and the huge visual potential of Hisui remains largely untapped. The world of Pokémon Legends Arceus is surely a breath of fresh air, but certainly no Breath of the Wild.
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You might not notice the visual shortcomings though, as you're always busy collecting resources, battling Pokémon and progressing through the ranks. Outside of the rather succinct main story, Game Freak keeps you occupied by serving up a huge selection of side missions, which for the most part also revolve around catching Pokémon. Challenging not only your skills but also your knowledge, the best of these have you identifying a specific Pokémon based on a vague description or a blurry photograph.
Besides netting you rewards, completing missions has tangible consequences for the community. An elegant Pokémon might inspire the hairdresser to try some daring new cuts or a strong Pokémon such as a Geodude turns out to be a capable farmhand, which in turn helps in the growing of crops. And advancing the story opens up new opportunities for crafting and navigation. Seeing your village grow as you learn more about the world of Pokémon, is extremely satisfying, and provides an organic insensitivity to what has usually been a rather arbitrary pursuit of pure numbers. That being said, a lot of the missions still feel like filler, and you might end up longing for more variation, set pieces or other objectives.
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With the catching of Pokémon taking centre stage in nearly all aspects of the game, Game Freak deserves praise for having polished the experience to near perfection. If you have played any prior Pokémon game, you're probably familiar with the hassle of being attacked out of the blue by a low level Zubat or Rattata. Now you finally get to exact your revenge, as small or weak Pokémon can be caught, without battling, by simply sneaking through the tall grass and throwing a ball directly at them. Distracting Pokémon with berries or hitting them in the back for a surprise attack improves your chance of catching them dramatically, but that being said, sometimes a traditional battle is the only way forward.
The core mechanics haven't changed. Each Pokémon can learn up to four moves belonging to specific elements with different strengths and weaknesses compared to other elements. It's a bit like Rock-Paper-Scissors, except back in the day you probably needed a spreadsheet to remember if Ghost bested Bug or Dragon held the advantage over Water. In line with the newer entries, Pokémon Legends Arceus informs you which moves are effective against your current opponent, and overall battling is quite streamlined with some of the more advanced features being cut. This includes the ability to equip your Pokémon with items and battling with two Pokémon at once.
On the other hand, wild Pokémon or even other trainers have absolutely no moral qualms about attacking in flocks. In these cases, you have to pay extra attention to a new tactical dimension - agile and strong attacks. The latter does more damage than normal moves, but is slower, while agile attacks lets you attack with rapid speed (sometimes even two times in a row) dealing less damage. All moves can eventually be used in either the agile, normal or strong stance, and which one you choose might end up affecting the order of attacks, a mechanic known from many tactical turn-based RPG's. In terms of complexity, this is no Disgaea, heck, in many ways it's not even Pokémon Sword/Shield, but the added tactical dimension still provides for a satisfying combat system.
Yet the main improvement is not combat itself. Rather it's in how quickly you enter and exit battles. Instead of dragging you away to some abstract dimension, battles take place exactly where you encountered the Pokémon. This helps immersion immensely and, crucially, also speeds up the process. Winning no longer drags you through screens of text, and if you are really in a hurry, you can even start running towards the next challenge, before the final attack has landed. Battle animations are also, just like moves such as Gust and Quick Attack, simple, but effective, and this is the first Pokémon game in a long, long time, where I haven't disabled them completely.
It should also be noted that, while the world lacks glistering cities and puzzles to wrap your head around, it feels much more exciting to explore than in earlier games. Adding a sense of urgency, wild Pokémon might attack you, forcing you to dodge with the Y-button or engage them in battle. Your newfound acrobatic skills also come in handy when battling the enraged monsters: Huge, shining Pokémon that have featured heavily in the marketing leading up to the release. They are not that exciting battle - you just have to dodge their simple attack patterns and spray them with soothing balms - but, once defeated, they turn into handy mounts letting you navigate water, high slopes and eventually fly through the air.
In short, Pokémon Legends Arceus is a great game. But all my praise comes with one major caveat. Perhaps more than many other series, everybody plays Pokémon for a different reason, and if you like the series for anything other than the pure addictive joy of catching and battling Pokémon, you might end up disappointed.
Take the story. Looked at analytically, this is probably the most coherent story since Pokémon Black/White touching on the relationship between humans and Pokémon (as a stand-in for nature) in a way that is neither overly moralistic nor too casual. Unfortunately, it's told in the blandest way possible with boring characters, uneventful cutscenes and villains so unthreatening, they make good old Jessie and James look like Jason from Friday the 13th. Of course, Pokémon has never exactly been Shakespeare, but in the earlier games, the characters at least had sufficient time to evolve and build relationships. Here they pop and disappear faster than a wild Pokémon, resulting in a story that is at the same time both simple and impossible to keep track of. If you're in it for a light but entertaining story you're probably better off playing Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin instead - that game also has voice acting, which is sadly still missing from the Pokémon series.
Of course, quite a dedicated community also love the number games, the pleasure of breeding near-perfect Pokémon and improving their stats for online play. This aspect has been somewhat toned down, yet there are still "hardcore" elements to tinker with such as Effort Points (or EVs) for different stats. Even better, forgetting and relearning different moves no longer require you to visit any particular place and can be easily managed in the menus, even when you are out exploring. While there are no online battles you can still trade Pokémon with your friends, though, being one of the earliest settlers of Hisui, I didn't get to try it out. Compared to earlier games, this half-spinoff doesn't really expand the Pokédex, adding only a handful of new Pokémon (that mainly serves as mounts), while I can't imagine the so-called Hisuian forms of old-timers such as Voltorb will set the world on fire either.
Before playing Pokémon Legends Arceus I was quite skeptical, and judging from comments online, I was far from the only one. The game seemed a mishap of different styles and influences with seemingly no coherent vision. Now, having played through the game, I can safely say that the game, surprisingly, delivered the most focused and satisfying experiences in the universe for quite a long time. With smooth gameplay, streamlined movement and solid mechanics, I was rarely bored while exploring Hisui. But to be honest, I wasn't always having fun either. A lot of the usual trappings, from sprawling cities to a plethora of side activities have been sacrificed in recreating the same experience that had millions wandering the streets in summers past. Whether you want to jump on the train now or wait for it to reach more exciting locations, therefore ultimately comes down to your personal playstyle.
7 / 10
Freely exploring Hisui is a joy. Core mechanics are as solid as ever. An incredibly streamlined experience. Helping citizens and expanding the village is intrinsically rewarding.
Disappointing story. Presentation suffers from lack of atmospheric details and voice acting. A lot of former elements have been sacrificed.