Let me be frank: Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a fantastic evolution of the Pokémon formula. It makes changes both minor and major to its systems to accommodate a shift to a quasi-open world format, retaining Pokémon’s charm while pushing the boundaries as to what the series is capable of. This doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, as there are still areas where Game Freak can improve both visually and in its battle system. Even so, Arceus is reinvigorating, effectively capturing the sense of adventure that the best games in the franchise invoke.
Arceus is set decades before other entries in the Pokémon franchise, focusing on the exploration and development of the land of Hisui, which would later be known as Sinnoh. As a newly minted member of Galaxy Team, which is based in the ever-growing town of Jubilife Village, your job is to go out into the field to collect and study Pokémon to complete the Pokédex. Along the way, you interact with members of the Diamond and Pearl clans, each of whom have different interpretations as to what the god Sinnoh is, and resolve a strange phenomenon related to the Noble Pokémon of each of the game’s regions.
It’s a story that is satisfying from beginning to end, one that offers plenty of surprises that make Arceus arguably one of the best games in the franchise from a writing perspective. Taking us back in time to an era in the Pokémon world where humans and Pokémon were not living in harmony means that there are frequent discussions and mentions how terrifying and dangerous these strange creatures really are. People are routinely injured, and it’s clear that while the main character’s ability to bond with Pokémon is welcome, they are often treated with suspicion. The evolution of the villager’s relationships with Pokémon, and how it affects the growth of Jubilee Village, was always a pleasure to watch unfold.
“Let me be frank: Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a fantastic evolution of the Pokémon formula.”
Speaking of which, Jubilife Village is a star in and of itself. Containing a variety of resources at your disposal, including a farm for growing materials, multiple stores, and a training centre, it serves as the hub area which you will return to many times over the course of Arceus’ journey. With each request and mission you complete, Jubilife Village slowly evolves from a makeshift set of buildings into a more comprehensive and bustling centre of activity where Pokémon and humans work side by side.
Though many of the requests you handle are simple — i.e., catch a Wurple and give it to this guy — the changes these requests bring about serve as a constant reminder that you do have an impact on the world.
And what a world it is. Across Arceus’ biomes, you will journey across mountaintops, swamps, grasslands, and the ocean observing and collecting Pokémon. Each area you visit feels vast, and were it not for the ability to ride certain kinds of Pokémon, traversing the world would take some time. From a technical standpoint, Arceus frequently loads in objects and models only when you are a set distance to them, which is par for the course for many games on the Nintendo Switch.
The art direction does much to overcome this, but even so, there is often a notable lack of objects in the field, with large grasslands dotted with only a few trees or rocks being a common sight. That being said, I did not experience any lag, slowdown, or other technical issues throughout my time with the game.
The shift to a quasi-open world with complete camera control also means that catching and battling Pokémon is different. You can see every single Pokémon on the field, and getting into a battle with them results in a smooth transition to a battle that still takes place on the field, one where you can circle and move around while your Pokémon fight. While Pokémon’s classic turn-based battle system is mostly intact and will be familiar to anyone who has played a turn-based RPG before, whittling down your opponent’s health before throwing a Pokeball is not the only way to catch Pokémon.
In the field, you can sneak up and surprise wild Pokémon by throwing a ball to catch them without needing to fight them. But just throwing a ball at the first Pokémon you see often does not result in a catch. To effectively catch Pokémon, you have to observe and understand how a Pokémon behaves and what its likes and dislikes are. For a Bidoof, that means you can walk up to it without fear because it won’t run away or attack you, allowing you to use berries to distract it in order to throw a ball at its back, which always increases catch success rate.
But dealing with a Geodude instead, which will attack on sight and does not care one bit for berries, means having to use minerals and stealth in order to optimize your chances of success. While there are only a handful of behaviour types that Pokémon follow, I found that there was a great deal of variety to how Pokémon interacted. Murkrow are my nemesis, because they have repeatedly spotted me across large distances to chase me down and ruin my attempt at catching other Pokémon. Combine that with craftable items, different ball types, and the large amount of food and resources at your disposal, and catching Pokémon never feels tiresome or boring.
Of course, catching Pokémon serves a purpose: filling out your Pokédex. Each Pokémon has multiple entries associated with it, such as ‘Catch Pokémon X times’ or ‘Witness Pokémon using X move’. For each entry that you complete in the Pokédex, you advance that Pokémon’s research level. Complete ten entries for a given Pokémon, and that Pokémon’s entry is considered mastered. You receive experience for each entry you log and master, which goes towards acquiring star badges that denote your rank in Galaxy Team. New ranks means new items and ball types available for crafting, as well as increasing the maximum level in which Pokémon listen to your commands.
Which is always important in Pokémon games, though particularly so in Arceus’ case. Trainer battles are, perhaps surprisingly, relatively straightforward and rare in terms of design, with only the occasional battle proving to be complicated. That is not true of wild Pokémon battles, which are a noticeable step-up in difficulty no matter their form.
Each Pokémon is more than capable of knocking out opponents in two to three moves regardless of type advantages, should you not invest time and resources on upgrading your Pokémon’s stats. Properly training and raising your Pokémon goes beyond simply levelling them up now, and ensuring that their stats and movesets are well-rounded is key to success. This is helped by the ability to change a Pokémon’s movesets at any time, which greatly increases your team’s versatility.
“Pokémon Legends Arceus is a successful reinvention of what the Pokémon series is capable of.”
This is made more important by the frequency of 1v2 a-nd 1v3 battles, where you have to take advantage of the new Style battle system. In short, when Pokémon master a move, you have the ability to adjust the properties of an action via making it Agile, which makes the move quicker and potentially allows for back to back actions, or Strong, which makes the move more powerful but delays the next action to allow the enemy multiple attacks in a row.
To keep track of this, Arceus has a turn order that you can view at all times to strategize how you should adjust your moves. This system introduces another layer of depth to the battle system, one that mostly works. I say mostly because there are times where actions do not directly follow the turn order, even without accounting for agile and strong moves, and the game does not adequately explain how to best make use of these systems. Even so, it’s an addition I welcome, particularly in the face of the more difficult and engaging battles trainers can find themselves in.
Coupled with the design of the world itself and the exploration mechanics, playing Arceus is invigorating. At one point in my playthrough, I spent an hour delving into a side quest that saw me solving an ancient mystery. I had to first uncover what the legend was, decipher how to fulfill its conditions, and then dive into a gruelling battle that saw me catch my first Legendary Pokémon. Few quests are similar to this, but it’s these surprises that emerge through the intersection of Arceus’ gameplay systems that make me want to keep exploring the world and catching Pokémon, even after I’ve seen the story through to the end.
I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack, which is easily the highlight of the game. From soft piano melodies to sweeping orchestral symphonies to techno-inspired battle music, Arceus sounds incredible.
Pokémon Legends Arceus is a successful reinvention of what the Pokémon series is capable of. There are still things that Game Freak can improve upon, but if this is what the future of Pokémon holds, I cannot wait to see where we’ll journey to next.