Review: Pokémon Legends Arceus

Posted at: 2:00pm on 28th January 2022(Updated at: 11:45 pm 28/2/2022)

Imagine, if you can forgive me for imposing the thought onto your brains for a second, that nine months ago, a big blowout for all the best and brightest in the videogame multiverse is in full swing. Mario and Sonic are off in the corner comparing boot size, and Final Fantasy is drunkenly yelling something about “killing Chaos” to a busy dance floor. Meanwhile, Breath of the Wild, Monster Hunter and Pokémon are all getting a bit overly friendly with each other after a few too many drinks and, well, you know, one thing leads to another… Now, here we are with Pokémon Legends Arceus and a… complicated birth certificate.

See, while Breath of the Wild might be the most obvious inspiration – right down to Game Freak nicking the word ‘Legend’ for their own title – a lot of Pokémon Legends Arceus’ structure really owes primarily to Monster Hunter. And, for the most part, the surprising combination of these three colossal elements works incredibly well.

For the majority of the 30-40 (at least) hours you’ll spend with Legends Arceus, you’ll take part in ‘expeditions’ out into one of the five areas of the Hisui Region – an early and feral version of Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl’s Sinnoh Region. Much like Monster Hunter, these are self-contained maps full of items to harvest and creatures to find roaming around. Although you are neither under a timer nor ‘hunting’ a specific Pokémon, seasoned Hunters will recognise the general flow of learning the map and where to find particular items and Pokémon reliably. The large, intimidating Alpha Pokémon with their demonic glowing red eyes make a half-decent impression of a Monster, too. Once you decide that you’ve finished your expedition, you head back to the hub world of Jubilife City to prepare for the next and then head out again. There are story missions and optional requests you can complete whilst out in the wilds, but your main focus is always on exploring and finding Pokémon.

Much of the rest of the parent DNA is all Breath of the Wild. Game Freak makes a decent Cover Band attempt at copying the distinctive visual and sound design of Breath of the Wild to the point where the ‘inspiration’ is never unclear, but the execution typically falls a little short of the genuine article. Meanwhile, your character’s entire locomotion through the world is practically (and potentially, genuinely) copied and pasted right out of Zelda’s code, albeit with actions like gliding and climbing assigned to one of the 5 Rideable Pokémon you’ll unlock throughout – though mercifully without a stamina gauge in sight.

But, while the Monster Hunter and Zelda influences are played pretty straight, the Pokémon part of this equation undergoes radical shifts. In the process, despite the strong influences of its two other daddies, Legends Arceus not only still feels like primarily a Pokémon game, but that, perhaps, this is what Pokémon should always have been.

The feeling of heading out into the wilds, barely anything other than some Poké Balls and Potions in hand; exploring, finding and catching Pokémon has never felt as natural or tangible as in Legends Arceus. Dynamic Pokémon animations and reactions to your movement, even to your behaviour, make the world feel so much more alive than the now-clearly prototypical Wild Areas in Sword and Shield ever did. Just running and gunning it at a Pokémon is almost guaranteed to see it either flee or have a go at you directly. And that’s a real problem, as you are a much more delicate creature than a Pokémon and don’t have a comfy Poké Ball to return to when you get knocked out. Instead, you’ll lose a bunch of items you’d really wish you hadn’t, as well as potentially the chance to catch the Pokémon that brought you down in the first place.

With over 200 Pokémon in the Hisui Region to find and collate all of the data for in the very first PokéDex, you’ll have to do a lot of Pokémon catching. But, even here – the most familiar part of the entire series – the fat has been trimmed. Leaving behind what would once have been a frustrating slog in the traditional Pokémon paradigm and, instead, delivering on some of the most compelling gameplay in the series to date. For a start, not only are random battles a very welcomed thing of the past, but in some ways, any battles are. At least as an actual requirement to be able to catch Pokémon.

Instead, with a Poké Ball in hand and aimed – with the right trigger, not unlike Link’s bow – you can simply lob it at the Pokémon right away and cross your fingers that a few seconds later you’ll hear a satisfying fizz-pop sound and a notification that the Pokémon is yours to keep. By focusing on the Pokémon with the left trigger (yes, it’s Z-targeting from, you guessed it), you can not only see your current progress on researching this Pokémon’s species in your PokéDex and make it much easier to secure that your Poké Ball lands a hit, but also a traffic light icon showing the likelihood of you succeeding in catching this Pokémon right now. This indicator can change depending on your and the Pokémon’s actions, such as whether it’s aware of you, if it’s asleep, or if you’ve fed it something that will either distract it or have a boost modifier the catch rate.

However, should all else fail or if you suddenly need to defend yourself from an angry horde of Pokémon, you can switch to your on-hand Pokémon and throw one of their Poké Balls instead. This will immediately start a battle, but even here, the differences to over two decades of near-identical game mechanics are both stark and yet feel right.

​Gone are the long-winded animations and endless text as you transition to a separate battle scene. Instead, Zelda’s Z-targeting panoramic black bars come down to narrow your focus, and the battle begins right here, right now. You can even still move your character and camera around this scene – and indeed, you might have to if you want to actually see everything with some of the more giant Pokémon, presented finally at their true scale, in play. On your turn, if you want to, you could even choose to literally run away, both ending the battle and taking you out of harm’s way of the likely still pretty nonplussed Pokémon you’ve just left behind.

While battles are still ostensibly turn-based, the flow is much faster thanks not only to snappier animations and a bit less text but a new ‘Active Time Battle’ style system that assigns the order of those turns depending on several elements. Firstly, if you can get the jump on a Pokémon by striking them from behind, you’ll get the opportunity to attack first. But, if you’re in the opposite position and having to respond to coming under fire yourself, you’re going to have to endure potentially several attacks in succession before you even get a chance yourself. If you’re defending against several Pokémon at once – a common problem both in the wild and in trainer battles – this can really stack up against you and adds a level of challenge we rarely, if ever, see in other games in the series.

Another addition to this quirky battle system is the ability to ‘master’ certain moves – either through levelling up or by using a special item – and perform them in either an ‘Agile’ or ‘Strong’ technique. Agile versions of attacks are slightly weaker but faster, with quick and nimble Pokémon taking particular advantage of these to rack up successive attacks. The Strong style adds a bit more oomph to your firepower, but at the expense of handing a couple extra turns to your opponent, meaning it’s either best used by big, bulky Pokémon with high defences or to decisively end the fight right there and then.

​After over 20 years of the same fundamental battle system, you’d obviously be forgiven for thinking that any change to it at all would be blasphemy at worst and very weird at best. But, the truth is, this is potentially the best Pokémon battles have ever been and, like many of Legends Arceus’ reformulations in general, it all somehow comes away feeling immediately natural to the series. As if the dozens of other entries were only offering a simplified facsimile of interacting with this world, with these powerful creatures, and now here we are with the genuine article at last.

Older fans particularly, for whom the challenge of Pokémon, at least as a single-player game, is but a faded memory, will find that Legends Arceus delivers the least relenting, least forgiving vision of a Pokémon game since we were 10-year-olds that barely understood what we were doing. There’s a lot less focus on Trainer battles through Legends Arceus, with most of them weighted towards the end, but a lot of what is there stands out in particular as Game Freak waking up and choosing violence that day. To be clear, we’re not exactly talking Dark Souls Pokémon here. Still, if you’ve been completing other recent Pokémon games in a bit of a mindless haze, Legends Arceus is guaranteed to wake you up and make you start paying attention again.

In fact, it’s the narrow-minded focus on being a single-player game that really strikes at the heart of why Legends Arceus succeeds so well. For one thing, although trading between players is available, it’s also entirely unnecessary. You can catch every single Pokémon in the PokéDex yourself in a single save file. A new item styled after the Game Boy Link Cable even allows you to evolve Pokémon like Haunter and Machoke without trading – although their evolutions are also available in the wild.

​But more importantly, by abandoning the awkward compromise of also trying to be a (somewhat) balanced and rigidly structured multiplayer competitive game, not only has the battle system evolved into something greater but it’s offered up the freedom to deliver on true boss fights in a way previous games haven’t been able to. Whether that’s across the formidable Noble Pokémon fights – the majority of which are actually more like Zelda bosses where you have to learn and navigate the patterns of their attacks to strike them directly with calming balms before you can have a Pokémon battle with them – or against Trainers and even just stronger wild Pokémon with ludicrously broken stat boosts.

On a gameplay level, then, Legends Arceus not only delivers on the heady potential of all the big names in its genetic mixing pot but puts a striking step forward for the Pokémon series as a whole. In fact, the most significant disappointments boil down to how relatively quickly you run out of novel experiences with new lands and new Pokémon. Even if they’d doubled or tripled the size of the world and the PokéDex, it’s unlikely those feelings would get old even after hundreds of hours of play.

Still, there are a few other negatives worth mentioning. For one, the choice of Monster Hunter style maps over a Breath of the Wild style open world not only feels like further missed potential but also leads to quite annoying invisible walls to butt against – particularly once you’ve gained access to Hisuian Braviary’s flying abilities. Similarly, that ability to fly (or, really, to glide) ends up doing a considerable amount to make each map feel a lot smaller. As welcome as the ability is for the late game effort to Catch ‘Em All, it also dents a bit of the magic in the exploration of the world and the game would almost be better off without it entirely.

​Many pre-release discussions have focused on trailers’ muddy and even somewhat ugly visuals. While the good news is that the actual game runs and looks considerably better without Youtube’s en-crappening filter run over it, the unfortunate reality is that the Switch can only just barely run it. Dynamic resolution scaling is used aggressively throughout, with visible drops to well below 720p when docked in the busiest scenes. Even when hitting optimum resolution (which looks to my eyes to be more like 900p at best than 1080p, but I’m no John Linneman), there is heavy aliasing on basically everything. In fact, this aliasing is primarily why any footage of the game (including our own captures, exported at a ridiculously high bitrate) looks terrible. Practically any encoding algorithm just cannot handle the amount of visual noise that aliasing creates frame to frame, and the video comes out looking like the Hank Hill JPEG meme.

Combine this with the strong, striking art style and relatively low-resolution textures – even on main characters appearing dead centre in camera – and it can leave a lot of the visuals just being a bit… grungy in general. At times, it can look great with the right camera angle on the right scene, but it all just looks a bit too rough and ready a lot more times, unfortunately. However, none of these are exceptionally uncommon complaints about modern 3D games on the Switch, so it’s less an indictment of Game Freak in this case – who, at the very least, deliver on a pretty consistent framerate level in a way that even Breath of the Wild infamously fails at – and more at Nintendo’s continued lack of an answer to the Switch’s lack of ability to keep up with development. We can only dream about what this game could have been with the power of the PS5 or Xbox Series X behind it…

The story, meanwhile, also doesn’t quite deliver on either the promise of the epicness of a ‘Legend’ of Pokémon or on the potential of aiming for older players for arguably the first time since the exceptional Pokémon Black & White and Black 2 & White 2. The subject matters of war, religion and death that crop up throughout make it clear they’ve skewed the target audience age bracket a little higher. Still, there isn’t much in the way of a satisfying narrative, and any character development is more like flipping a switch at seemingly arbitrary points.

It’s impossible even to argue that the game’s core narrative is actually remotely complete when the credits roll as the central mystery surrounding your character can only possibly be answered by fully completing the PokéDex all the way up to the titular Arceus. Something you can only do once several post-game Legendary Pokémon missions are opened up to you. Let alone the reality that your access to all the rest of the Pokémon in all five areas was likely fleeting before plot-based reasons interrupted your Pokémon hunt through to the credits rolling. Many players might indeed walk away from the game without ever actually completing the protagonist’s story or even encountering all of the new Pokémon as a result.

​On the plus side, it has never felt so satisfying and entertaining to complete a PokéDex – even one that requires you to do a lot more leg work in catching and battling Pokémon to consider their data to be complete. And, putting Legends Arceus down for very long at any point, even after the credits, is genuinely quite tricky once you’ve gotten started. Although it lacks the scale and diversity of Hyrule and that “I’ll just do this one more thing before I get back to doing what I’d originally planned to… oh look a Korok” drive that made Breath of the Wild so indomitable, it’ll take quite a long time for the shine to wear off on just playing in this new Pokémon world.

Whilst there’s plenty of headroom left for the concepts in Legends Arceus to grow into something even better, there isn’t any question that this really does deliver on an authentic and engaging evolution of the series as a single-player experience. It might also make for some tough decisions at Game Freak as to how they can approach future Pokémon games from now on without feeling like far too much of a step backwards…

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