Since the Switch’s launch almost five years ago in 2017, we’ve seen almost all of Nintendo’s flagship franchises receive substantial shakeups in some way. I say almost because Pokémon is yet to receive the same treatment, and its no secret that fans are clamouring for a new and innovative entry, that will push the series forward in the same way Breath of the Wild did for Zelda. That all changes now with Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a title that seeks to buck the trends and trappings that we’ve become so familiar with over the years, and while the end result might not be of the same caliber as Nintendo’s recent reinventions, there’s a lot that it does right, making for one of the best new Pokémon games in recent years.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place in an ancient Sinnoh known as the Hisui region, in a world and time where little is known about Pokémon and their origins. They’re treated more like wildlife as opposed to potential friends, and there’s a palpable sense of fear surrounding these creatures, and it’s your job as a Team Galactic Corps member to demystify the stigma surrounding Pokémon and fill out the Pokédex. Over time, though, it becomes apparent that there’s more going on in Hisui than meets the eye, as the all-important Noble Pokémon are becoming frenzied and out of control, causing damage to the environment, the people close to them, and themselves.
There’s no denying that the core plot of Arceus isn’t too far from something you’d find in a Monster Hunter game, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for with heart. While this isn’t quite the level of storytelling found in games like Pokémon Black and White, Arceus poses some interesting questions about what it means to catch Pokémon, and how they fit into the broader world. The idea of warring clans that have inherently different beliefs rooted in the same God is something that’s never been touched on in Pokémon before, and it makes sense here in Arceus given the setting and exploration of Sinnoh’s origins. Relationships between these clans and Team Galactic start off fragile at best, but you’ll slowly help build bridges between the cultural differences and beliefs that each faction harbors. None of this would’ve been possible without a diverse and likeable cast of characters to act as a lens into each of these clans, and while I wouldn’t describe them as deep or intricately written, it’s satisfying to watch them grow and evolve past their misconceptions to unite against a greater threat.
If you’re going into Arceus thinking that it’s just Breath of the Wild, but Pokémon, then you’re in for a rude shock. Firstly, Arceus isn’t truly open world. As you’ll progress, you’ll unlock zones to explore, each of them home to different species of Pokémon and Noble Pokémon. Each one is relatively sizeable, but not to the point that it feels like a chore to explore or traverse their environments. These areas are made even easier to explore with the addition of new base camps you can fast travel to, and the brand-new mountable Pokémon you’ll unlock over the course of the story. Whether it be the ability to mount Wyrdeer as you bolt across the landscape, or gliding through the open skies with a Hisuian Braviary, each one adds something unique to the gameplay loop, and flipping between them on a dime makes traversal seamless and satisfying.
While it’s freeing to be able to explore these open areas at your own pace, it’s a shame that there isn’t really a whole lot to see as you do it. Aside from the swathes of wild Pokémon to catch and battle, the number of times I saw something that piqued my interest can be counted on one hand. There’s just not a whole lot going on here, leaving the areas feeling relatively uninteresting and mundane. It fails to capitalize on the core allure of open world games and leaves these areas feeling somewhat unfinished.
Fortunately, while exploration is lacking, it’s hard to deny that catching and battling Pokémon while you fill up the Pokédex is the most addictive it’s ever been, which is largely thanks to the research system. As you catch and battle Pokémon, you’ll complete Research Tasks to fill out the dex entry for that specific Pokémon. Whether it be seeing them use a specific move, defeating them with a certain type, or just catching them, you’re always making progress on Research Levels as you play. It leaves every expedition feeling like it was worthwhile, even if you spend all your time catching random Pokémon and collecting crafting materials. Speaking of which, the ability to craft items is something that’s wholly new to Arceus, and it’s more than a surface level inclusion. A lot of the resources you’ll collect when you go on expeditions can be used to craft different types of Pokéballs, medicines, and much more. Not only does this save you money that you’ll no doubt need for other goods, but also provides a real sense of self-sustainability as you explore the world.
A lot of what makes filling out the Pokédex so satisfying is the simple act of catching Pokémon, which behaves quite differently in Arceus. While you can still catch Pokémon in the cathartic ways of old in battle, Arceus also allows you to throw Pokéballs outside of battle to catch them. Much like a third person shooter, you take aim and throw, with hits from behind having a higher catch rate than other throws. You can use stealth to manipulate this to your advantage, and different kind of balls incentivize different positioning and throw arcs to make the most out of them. Something like the Leaden Ball travels much shorter than the Feather Ball but has a higher catch rate overall. You can also use other thrown items to stun Pokémon, or even lure them closer to you with certain foods and berries. It’s a surprisingly robust and flexible system that incentivizes taking things slowly, while also understanding what you can do with your items at any given time.
Battling is mostly similar to other games in the franchise, with one key difference – the addition of Agile and Strong Style move variations. Once a Pokémon masters any given move, they can be used in an Agile or Strong format, costing extra PP, but modifying how they behave in battle. Agile Style typically does less damage but moves the casting Pokémon forward in the turn order, while Strong Style does more damage, but moves Pokémon back in the turn order. Some moves also gain accuracy benefits alongside the speed and power that’s inherit to each respective style. A lot of the early game battles are quite easy if you manage your items properly due to the EXP Share, but it was refreshing to find that the game got progressively more challenging as my party grew in power. Because enemy Pokémon can also make use of styles, it’s important to know which style is advantageous to you at any given time.
As you complete the main story, you’ll battle the frenzied Noble Pokémon in what could be considered boss fights. These encounters will have you dodging for your life in a mad rush, as you constantly look for openings to weaken these Pokémon down with throwable food, eventually opening themselves up to attack by your own Pokémon. Each one of these encounters is unique from the last, providing a much needed change of pace, and serving up some of the best moments Arceus has to offer.
In terms of actual content, there’s quite a bit here to sink your teeth into. Aside from the roughly 20-hour main story, there’s a plethora of side-quests to engage with. Most of them just boil down to bringing someone a certain Pokémon or item, but there’s a few standouts here and there that expand upon the world and characters you interact with between expeditions. There’s also the ever- present allure of filling out your Pokédex, and without spoiling anything, Arceus offers an end-game victory lap around Hisui that culminates in a fantastic final encounter.
One thing that Arceus undeniably fumbles is its visuals, detail, texture work, and overall visual polish. For the most part, character models, buildings, battle animations, and new Pokémon designs look great, but everything surrounding it is lifeless, muddy, and flat to look at. While there’s some visual variety in each of the explorable areas, the textures used to create the landscapes are completely lacking in detail. Couple this with a few weird visual quirks and inconsistent performance in docked mode, and it’s easy to feel like a lot of the game’s potential is hamstrung because of these shortcomings. The Switch definitely isn’t as powerful as other current hardware, but that isn’t an excuse when you have lookers like Metroid Dread and Super Mario Odyssey on the same console. Thankfully, it runs remarkably well in handheld mode, and the OLED screen helps a bit in bringing some of the duller textures to life.
THE SWITCH VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL COPY OF THE GAME WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Pokémon has been in dire need of a reinvention for some time now, and while Sword and Shield brought some new ideas to the table, Legends: Arceus serves as a solid jumping off point for future entries in the franchise.
While it might not provide the visual fidelity and exploration we might wish for in an open-world-esque Pokémon game, it does provide a satisfying and addicting gameplay loop, alongside a surprisingly enjoyable narrative to boot.
A captivating exploration of Sinnoh's ancient history
Smooth and satisfying traversal with mountable Pokémon
Catching Pokémon and completing the Pokédex is as addictive as ever
The Style system adds a newfound layer of strategy and depth to battles
Noble Pokémon fights are intense in the best way possible
Little to no incentive to explore outside of catching Pokémon
Muddy textures, lacking visual polish, and inconsistent docked performance