There’s the saying that goes like this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That has been the way with the Pokemon games throughout its 26 years. But sometimes, it takes a complete reinventing of the wheel for one to realise that they’ve been doing something wrong this whole time.
And that’s the way I’d describe Pokemon Legends: Arceus. It takes a major overhauling of the familiar formula of the series to realise that, despite being the biggest media franchise in the world, it could be so much more.
Despite its flaws, Pokemon Legends: Arceus is by far the best game in the series. Having been disillusioned since Sun and Moon, Legends not only feels like a breath of fresh air, it feels like a rebirth.
Granted, those who still follow the series religiously will know that some of the changes here were first tested in Sword and Shield. But even then, Legends would go on to make so much further improvements that you get the feeling that this is the way Pokemon games should be played all along. That, and future games need to be like this.
Fluidity Befitting The 21st Century
Beyond graphics and an ever expanding roster of pocket monsters and moves, Pokemon as a video game series rarely deviates from its tried and true formula. Unfortunately, this means that common pet peeves are rarely addressed, let alone resolved.
One example is the obnoxious amount of dialogue boxes that pop up all the time. Picked up an item off the floor? Here’s a dialogue box telling you what you’ve picked up. Press the confirm button, and instead of being allowed back to the game, you’re often greeted by another box that tells you that you’ve placed said item in the appropriate compartment or pocket of your backpack.
Not in Pokemon Legends: Arceus. You get a slight popup on the right of your screen, but otherwise your fluid gameplay is uninterrupted. A recurring random event is happening somewhere in the map? Rather than interrupting you with a dialogue box, the game just notifies you with a line telling you what’s happening at the top of the screen, much like notifications on your phone.
Pocket Monster Hunter
It’s not just the major reduction in gameplay interruptions either, as gameplay itself is a lot smoother. Because of the setting in Pokemon Legends: Arceus, wild Pokemon don’t always have to be battled in order to be captured. Often, all you need to do is to sneak up behind them and toss a Poke Ball. Because if this, there’s no need to go through the battle transition if you don’t want to. Sneak up behind that critter, toss a ball, confirm the capture, and move on, all without any menus or dialogue boxes opening up.
But what if you do get spotted by an aggressive creature? You can still choose not to send out your own Pokemon and do battle. The aggressive monster will chase you and launch attacks, and you as a frail human being can only take a certain number of hits before going down.
Your health, in this sense, is indicated by the corners of your screen getting stained with black ink. When it turns red, it means one more hit and you’ll black out and lose some items, instead of money the way previous games did when you lost a battle. It’s only when you’re no longer being pursued by the wildlife will your own health start to regenerate. Again, all this happens without any menus or dialogue boxes.
To achieve this, your Pokemon team and throwable consumable items are easily accessible via the ZR trigger on the Nintendo Switch. You can cycle between them with the L and R bumpers, and swapping between your team and your items is done with the X button instead. All this means that you can throw a lure, catch a wild Pokemon, head to a tree with berries, send out one of your partners to collect said berries, and move on to the next area, all without interruption.
The only part of this whole process that will take you to the menu is crafting. While you can craft potions and such, for the most part you’ll just be making Poke Balls and its more advanced versions. But even then, as you forage while looking for Pokemon, you’ll have enough materials to craft dozens at a time.
A Pokedex That Makes Sense
Filling up your Pokedex also now feels like proper field research, as it should. In prior games, getting an entry into the Pokedex was as simple as catching a specific Pokemon. In Pokemon Legends: Arceus, you’ll have to perform multiple research assignments to do so. This may include catching multiples of the same critter, defeating a few in battle, seeing them use specific moves or even evolving them.
This may sound like an even greater chore than in previous games where you just have to have owned every creature once. And without the gameplay changes, that would be true. But with the way Pokemon Legends: Arceus plays, you can catch multiple of the same Pokemon within minutes. After all, you don’t have to deal with multiple menus and dialog boxes getting in the way.
On that note, it’s worth mentioning at this point that Pokemon Legends: Arceus is strictly a singleplayer game. There’s no counterpart either, which is very unlike the usual releases in the series. And this is a good thing, simply because you don’t need to buy basically two copies of the same game if your friends are not fans of the series.
There’s the old trading system that you can use, either with people around you or over the internet of you have the Switch Online subscription. But beyond that, the Pokedex can be completed without ever needing to engage in any of that. Pokemon that need trading can be evolved using a consumable instead. For those that evolve by holding a specific item while being traded, said items are also turned into consumables.
Meanwhile, evolution is also no longer locked behind leveling up. As long as conditions are met, like being at least at the required level, you can get your partners to evolve at any time from the menu.
Familiar Turn-Based Combat, With A Twist
While the overworld was overhauled quite significantly, the combat only has minor tweaks – with one main exception. And that is the change from a true turn-based system to a Conditional Turn Based Battle (CTB) system. If you’re unfamiliar, then picture Final Fantasy X, where you can tell who moves when, and faster characters may move twice before others. Many moves have also been simplified, and the number of moves themselves have also been reduced.
Overall, this makes for a more straightforward gameplay, but it can also result in some mechanics abuse. It would also clearly be problematic if this battle system was used for PvP, but since this game has none, it’s not as big an issue. Either way, this may be one element that, if it gets reverted, I wouldn’t consider a bad thing.
While the implementation of CTB may be iffy, the other systems like the way Pokemon can freely relearn past moves, and at any time, should be retained for future games. This not only makes for a lot more flexibility to the initial playthrough, but also an easier time getting a competitive team together. Ditto the concept of effort levels, as opposed to the invisible numbers of individual values and effort values, the first of the two also being an RNG nightmare.
Lore Dump With A Pinch Of Retcon
When it comes to story, Pokemon has never been a serious contender. So if you’re looking for the next AAA blockbuster, you’re looking at the wrong place. But what Pokemon Legends: Arceus has in spades for fans is a ton of lore, and a bit of retconning.
You start off as a teenager in the modern world, complete with a smartphone. Then the Pokemon god Arceus picks you up and drops you into the distant past, where the eponymous creatures are not seen as pets or helpful animals, but wild beasts to stay away from. And as fate would have it, the first person you encounter is Professor Laventon, the one who is studying Pokemon.
And so starts your journey in the ancient land of Hisui, where people mostly fear Pokemon rather than live with them side by side. The only notable exceptions to this are select members of the Diamond and Pearl clans, who worship the deity Sinnoh. As you can tell, there are may references and throwbacks to previous games. The Johto, Galar and Alola regions are even mentioned by name.
As you catch more Pokemon in the name of research, the need to use them for battle also gradually becomes more important. Not only do you need them to protect yourself from the more vicious wildlife, there is also the need for those who have Pokemon to battle one another. This is so that their partners become stronger, and therefore better at protecting people. As a result, this is implied to be the start of the tradition of people being Pokemon Trainers.
Then there are a couple of things that potentially can be classified as retcons. The most prominent one being the Poke Balls themselves. Prior games, as well as the TV shows and movies, depict them as being scientific inventions that turn wild critters into energy for storage. In Pokemon Legends: Arceus, Professor Laventon claims that they are a recent invention by the game’s timeline. And since there’s no technological wizardry going on yet, it’s explained as simply making use of a Pokemon’s ability to naturally shrink themselves to fit the container.
Another retcon is also a spoiler, so read this paragraph at your own risk. As mentioned, the region of Hisui is basically ancient Sinnoh, with the Diamond and Pearl clans worshipping a deity with the same name. It would be after the events of the story that we see a suggestion that the region’s name got changed into what it is called today.
Nitpicks, Because Nothing Is Perfect
Naturally, no game is perfect and neither is Pokemon Legends: Arceus. So in addition to the CTB battle, here are a few other issues with the game that can be improved. For one, the map of Hisui is segmented, and thus it’s not a true open world. Not entirely a problem, but to get to one area to another, the game makes you return to the village first, which is unnecessary and annoying when you’re on a catching spree.
Then there’s the lack of what’s colloquially known as the National Dex, as in the true complete Pokedex for all 905 currently existing Pokemon as of Generation VIII. Once upon a time, your average player of the series would expect to complete the Hisuian Pokedex, face the true final boss, and then unlock the National Dex, as the games between Generations III and VII have. But since Game Freak has said that from Sword and Shield onwards, the National Dex won’t be a thing, this is expected, even if still disappointing.
Finally, there’s graphics. Being a Nintendo-exclusive series in its entirety, the game would always be limited by the platform’s hardware. But even then, there’s often a glaring difference in detail between the Pokemon and the world. Not much to say about this that hasn’t been said before; this is also expected, even if still disappointing.
I’ve said this at the start of the review, and I’ll say it again: Pokemon Legends: Arceus is the best game in the series by far. The overworld gameplay shakeup is absolutely the best thing to have happened to the series since its inception. That, combined with the way the Pokedex works in this game, makes it a fresh and fun experience until you’ve completed it.
In terms of story, it’s definitely shorter than your average Pokemon game. But since the earlier bits of progression is tied to your Pokedex progress anyway, it will feel a little longer than it actually is. I took it slow, taking my time to fill up as much of my Pokedex as possible as I go along with the plot. And I’ve only finished the main story after 50 hours in, with the post-game content still waiting. So as a game, it’s by no means long. But because it is so much fun compared to before, there will come a time when you wish it was longer.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus seriously sets a new bar for the series. But while it’s a bar that’s not easy to surpass, I wonder sometimes if it’s one that Nintendo, Game Freak, and The Pokemon Company, would bother chasing. After all, the series is notorious for having good features come and for no obvious reason. Examples include having your lead Pokemon follow you outside its Poke Ball, the PSS (Player Search System), Vs Seeker and Battle Frontier, to name a few.
Here’s hoping – and I’m crossing my fingers so hard I’m almost dislocating them – that Pokemon Legend: Arceus becomes the basis for the future of the series. It’s sort of understandable that the recently announced Scarlet and Violet, a contrived reusing of Red and Blue, can’t do it, but moving forward, games in the series really should emulate this formula. But if they don’t, then we’ll just have to look back at this game and remember it fondly as the best Pokemon game of all time.