Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the breath of fresh air the franchise has desperately needed. It brings a new way to play and interact with Pokémon, transforming a formula that has gotten beyond stale after 25-plus years. It’s not a perfect affair, don’t get me wrong; there are issues with the presentation, graphics, and it will, at times, lean into familiarity a little too much. Still, this is what I want to see from the series moving forward.
Arceus is able to engage me in ways the recent releases simply could not. Despite my enjoyment of Pokémon through Generation 6 (Black and White, plus its sequels), the formula was getting super thin with Sun and Moon (Generation 7). It had gotten to the point where I completely skipped Gen 8 (Sword and Shield). Ironically, it’s those game’s wild areas that would serve as the inspiration for Pokémon Legends: Arceus.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is born to be wild
For the uninitiated, wild areas allowed players to encounter Pokémon on their terms. Randomly generated battles were thing of the past; if you wanted to engage a wild Pokémon, you’re free to do so. Wanting to skip by and ignore them? Not an issue.
Despite this, a bulk of Sword and Shield showcases the traditional gameplay and combat the franchise has stuck with for over 25 years. On the one hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Pokémon continues to sell like hotcakes. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Continued innovation leads to success. Failure to do so leads to a stagnant franchise.
Thankfully, Pokémon Legends: Arceus innovates in spades. Gone are the traditional mechanics for exploring a region and encountering Pokémon. The entire game is essentially one big wild area. Taking place in the Hisui region, which is actually ancient Sinnoh, Arceus shows us a world where humans and Pokémon don’t really co-exist like they do in the present age.
A great marriage of narrative and gameplay
This leads to the game’s narrative. It’s our job, as the player character, to observe Pokémon in action. We’re tasked with going into the wild and performing research tasks. These include anything from capturing Pokémon, defeating them in battle, using specific moves, and other tasks. It sounds mundane and tedious on paper, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus manages to make things engaging enough to hold my attention.
The gameplay loop does a great job of holding everything together. When people warn you that Pokémon are wild and unpredictable, they mean it. Each wild Pokémon you encounter will have its own behaviors and characteristics. Some are happy and jovial, others timid and shy. Some, particularly alpha and noble Pokémon, are aggressive. This leads to strategic gameplay in the wild.
Since we’re in the past, long before Pokémon and humans lived in harmony, your player character is always at risk. Any encounters in Pokémon Legends: Arceus run the risk of a wild Pokémon attacking you directly.
Danger lurks around every corner. Sort of.
There’s a definite inspiration from other games everywhere in Pokémon Legends: Arceus. One that comes to mind is Monster Hunter, given the nature of researching, observing, and tracking wild Pokémon. This is where some of the flaws in Arceus arise: the game isn’t as good as its inspirations.
As enjoyable as traversing the open world is, things come to a screeching halt once you actually engage in battle. Despite the real-time action as you complete research tasks, any Pokémon battling is done in the traditional sense: turn-based combat. I appreciate the effort made to mix old and new, but more often than not, it doesn’t work. It’s frustrating to be dodging incoming attacks from legitimately dangerous Pokémon and then sit and watch as two Pokémon take turns in battle. It’s a bit jarring.
What does work, however, is when your summoned Pokémon will battle multiple Pokémon at once. It’s a beautiful change of pace to not watch your enemies take their turn to attack you. In addition, it adds to the tension that exists within the game and its wild encounters. Yet it’s not enough to make me wish everything was real-time. I wish Game Freak would innovate more in this regard.
Sadly, there’s missed potential throughout the game
Where things really fall apart, though, is the game’s opening act. There is a lot to enjoy in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, but you also have to put up with a lot of frustrations. It’s mind-boggling to me that this is the same company that released Breath of the Wild.
I mean technically it’s not; Game Freak makes Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Nintendo EPD developed Breath of the Wild. Still, these are two Nintendo games with an entirely different focus on how to welcome a player into its world.
First, there’s the amount of handholding Arceus loves to do at the start. I understand that a well-established franchise has had its mechanics and systems turned upside down, but part of the fun is exploring and experimenting on my own terms. Whereas Breath of the Wild invites you in for a cup of coffee before asking you to make it from scratch, Arceus takes the opposite approach. It’s as if the game wants to invite you for a coffee, order it for you, and help you drink it.
It’s an issue that’s compounded by its presentation, or should I say lack thereof. Just like the game’s missions gave me Monster Hunter vibes, its story and character interactions reminded me a bit of the Persona franchise. Only, well, without voice acting, memorable characters, and an inspiring story.
Discussing the elephant in the room
Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: the game’s graphics. There are no two ways around it: they’re bad. Does that mean the game is worse for it? Yes, but not for the reasons you may expect.
Graphics, of course, don’t make or break a game. There are plenty of titles out there that don’t look sharp but are still top-tier quality. The bigger issue, however, is the world itself. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is filled with so much potential, so much wonder, and so much to discover. Yet it doesn’t live up to its potential.
I want to bring up Breath of the Wild again because the game is a literal work of art. Is it the best-looking game out there? No, but it works. Breath of the Wild is filled with style and wonder visually. It invites players to explore every nook and cranny of Hyrule. Pokémon Legends: Arceus’s graphics fail to live up to the potential of Hisui. I wish the game would draw me in with gorgeous visuals and breathtaking landscapes, but it’s just not there.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus has some serious shortcomings that keep it from being truly great
Pokémon Legends: Arceus feels like a game that is at odds with itself. In one corner, there are the new systems, mechanics, and features that drive innovation. In the other corner, there are the trappings of all the old Pokémon games.
The biggest offender is the game’s presentation. While the game’s story is enjoyable, I wish it drew me in deeper. Having to sit through several cutscenes of dialogue can be rough, especially without voice acting. These are issues I could ultimately live with, unlike the incredibly poor visuals.
There’s a great game within Pokémon Legends: Arceus, perhaps even an amazing one. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it to anyone. Completely my Pokédex has honestly never been this much fun and enjoyable. It calls back to the original generations before the formula started to become tiresome and repetitive.
Sadly, Arceus just cannot get out of its own way, holding it back from something more. Ultimately, it’s merely a good, very enjoyable game. It could have been so much more, though.