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Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review

To go forward, we must first go back

Despite my love for it, Pokémon is a franchise that has been bereft of creativity and felt rather cynical in its later iterations. Sword and Shield had some mixed reception, but if you asked a lot of long-time fans, it felt like they were a set of games that were made to simply exist and meet the bottom line, rather than being the labour of love that the series used to be. While Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl definitely felt like love letters to the original Generation IV games, they weren’t exactly made by Game Freak. As a result, people were still skeptical about Pokémon Legends: Arceus, as it is the first game made by Game Freak since the backwards Generation VIII games, and it is also a departure from the traditional formula that the series has grown so comfortable with over the years. Thankfully, my skepticism was proven to be unfounded as this game may just be one of my favourite Pokémon titles in a long time.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus [PLA] is set in the region of Hisui, an earlier iteration of Sinnoh. The main character is sent back in time by Arceus, in order to resolve an issue regarding a space-time rift that has opened at the peak of the Coronet Highlands. You are dropped just outside of Jubilife Village with nothing but the Arc phone, and are discovered by Professor Laventon. From here you are enlisted in the Galaxy Team, and are tasked with earning your keep in the Village. One thing you will quickly notice is how technology has barely progressed in this game. Pokéballs are quite primitive in comparison to their current-day counterparts, using a zipper-like locking system to trap the Pokémon and a little firework in the top that shoots out upon a successful capture. While it may seem a little odd at first, this historical setting allows for the game to feel unique in the best way possible.

Very quickly you are given the Pokédex and are told to begin researching, something we’ve been tasked with many times over, but where this game differs from the main series is how you research these Pokémon. Let’s be real, the Pokédex has always been a bit of an overpowered piece of technology. Just capturing a single Pokémon allows for the magical piece of technology to give you every little detail about the species in a matter of seconds. This is now how it works in PLA. Instead, you are tasked with actually observing specific tasks and completing certain activities to help increase your research level on each Pokémon. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to catch ‘em all, but you feel like you are actually researching Pokémon and each Pokémon’s research tasks feel slightly different to one another. Whether it be watching a Pokémon use a specific move, or feeding them in the wild, there are a variety of small activities for you to do in your efforts of completing the Pokédex. It’s a small change in the grand scheme of things, as collecting all the Pokémon is still very much at the core of the PLA’s experience, but it’s a welcome change of pace regardless. Even collecting all the Pokémon is much less of a hassle than it is in the traditional line of games, due in part to there being only one version of the game. Everything is self-contained and can be played independent of other players, but trading still exists for people that are having trouble, however it is by no means required like it normally is. Pokémon that normally require trading have been reworked to evolve using specific items to circumvent this new design choice.

Pokemon-Legends-Arceus-2

PLA’s biggest departure from the main series is in its core gameplay. Those who have played the previous games are probably familiar with the gameplay structure of the Pokémon games, but PLA takes a more flexible approach to its gameplay. You can explore up to five different biomes which all house unique Pokémon. Rather than encountering Pokémon in the grass and encounters being random, you instead hide in the grass and patiently stalk your target. Sometimes you are the hunted though, and some Pokémon can attack you at random which introduces a whole new level of terrifying. A lot of Pokémon can only reliably be captured when caught by surprise, but being able to hit each Pokémon from behind with a Pokéball will always prove to be beneficial. A lot of comparisons are being drawn to Breath of the Wild, but I think that’s a bit unfair on PLA. Yes, there is that large scale and collecting of resources and such, but they are entirely different. Comparing the two does a disservice to the both of them.

There are, of course, some new mechanics, and most of them are pretty interesting. Pokémon can spawn in an Alpha state, whereby their stats are a little higher than normal and they are massive in comparison to their normal counterparts. These can be terrifying but offer a bunch of bonuses, including extra experience points. Probably one of the most significant changes has to do with the combat. Rather than be turn-based, battles occur using a timeline and priority system. People that have played games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be familiar with timeline systems, where you can see who can do what in between your turns. Where PLA mixes this up is with its Style system. When you choose an attack, you can choose to use it normally, or you can choose to either use Agility or Strong style. They have their benefits and drawbacks which counter one another and can change the timeline based on its usage. The speed stat of a Pokémon still plays a factor in determining the order of the timeline, but your move choice makes more of an impact in this battle system. It definitely isn’t perfect, and could use some refinement as it is a bit too easy to exploit, but it feels like a nice change compared to the tired systems that the series has been used to for 25 years. In terms of balancing, the game focuses a lot less on stat-changing moves and instead just allows you to more easily brute force your way through. What makes this game even more fun is how this minor change allows for the opponents to be equally as threatening to you. I don’t think I’ve had this much difficulty with a standard run of a game since, maybe when I first played Pokémon Black. PLA does not shy away from sweeping your entire party. It can be a little frustrating as sometimes the game just will not let you counter, but for the most part it’s enjoyable like this.

Just because this game is set in a historic version of Sinnoh, does not mean that only Gen IV Pokémon will appear, instead there are a number of Pokémon included from later generations. Pokémon like Goodra, Lilligant, and even a couple of legendaries are a part of the game’s roster, but they are included in a way that doesn’t feel like a complete disrespect of the Sinnoh Dex. These Pokémon are mostly unique forms so it feels like they may have lived in the land once but then migrated to live elsewhere.

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My favourite thing that has been done in PLA is the way that Game Freak has used familiar faces to call back to the original Gen IV games. You can easily recognise who the original characters are descendants of, and even Team Galactic has its roots in the land of Hisui. What’s crazy about this last point is that Galaxy Team (the predecessor to Team Galactic) is actually not totally evil in this game. It’s all familiar yet different in the best way possible. It’s not so based on familiarity that newcomers will feel misplaced when playing the game, but there’s enough DNA of the original character designs that long-term fans will feel a sense of wonder and nostalgia when playing through the story.

Much like how PLA uses familiar faces to call back to Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, the music found within PLA does similar things. You hear very familiar melodies and motifs which help give familiar players a sense of placement in the world. There are also tricks used in frequent areas like in Jubilife Village, which features a pseudo-dynamic soundtrack that slowly and subtly expands as the village develops. Little tricks like this help breathe new levels of life and variety into the areas of the game. New players will just feel like the main hub area is developing, whereas people that have played the original Gen IV games will see the areas slowly develop into the land they once knew. As a long-time fan, I really enjoyed this and the final fight of the game has some of my favourite music in the entire series.

The point that this game really loses me is in its visuals and performance. Now, I don’t expect every game to run and look as good as Forza Horizon 5, but I still don’t excuse it when a game looks as bad as PLA and runs in an average state. Pokémon Sword and Shield also looked terrible and ran like garbage, so it seems Game Freak really don’t know how to work the Unity engine very well, but PLA serves as a perfect example of how it’s not always the Switch’s limited power that causes games to look and run worse than the rest of the market. General environment textures are muddy and bland, and the meshes that are used to create the different foliage and grass details clip a lot. There is a lot of texture popping, and the animations of Pokémon in the distance play at a horrendously low framerate even when you aren’t even that far away from it; this isn’t the Switch’s fault, this is a case of poor optimisation. In saying this, not everything about the game looks bad. The general character models, including all the Pokémon look quite good. The rest of the world, however, does not. Alarmingly, even with how low the visual quality is for PLA, the game still only runs at 30fps. There is more than enough processing power in the Switch to render this game at 60fps, but Game Freak has a habit of tying the game’s framerate to its actual speed (people that have unlocked framerates on their games have noted games running at double/triple speed for instance).

Final Thoughts

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a healthy departure for the Pokémon series. It seems that the simplification of its core battle mechanics, coupled with changes to age-old systems have made the game much more challenging and varied. Exploring the landscapes of Hisui, properly researching Pokémon, running away from giant, angry versions of Pokémon – it all just makes such a more authentic feeling experience. I truly do hope that Game Freak continues with the formula as a spinoff series, as I find Pokémon is at its best when there are a variety of different types of games to play, to help break from the monotony of the main series.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher

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Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review
The Land Before Time
It’s nice to play a Pokémon game that feels like it was made with love. Pokémon Legends: Arceus sure is not perfect, but it’s a loving attempt to take the series in a different direction, and it mostly nails it.
The Good
The new formula is fantastic, especially the timeline-based battle system
Giant Pokémon are awesome and terrifying
Pokémon research actually feels like research
A good level of challenge
Excellent use of familiar faces and music
The Bad
The game looks terrible
Really average performance
New battle system can be easily exploited, both by yourself and the AI
8
Get Around It
  • Game Freak
  • The Pokémon Company/Nintendo
  • Switch
  • January 28, 2022

Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review
The Land Before Time
It’s nice to play a Pokémon game that feels like it was made with love. Pokémon Legends: Arceus sure is not perfect, but it’s a loving attempt to take the series in a different direction, and it mostly nails it.
The Good
The new formula is fantastic, especially the timeline-based battle system
Giant Pokémon are awesome and terrifying
Pokémon research actually feels like research
A good level of challenge
Excellent use of familiar faces and music
The Bad
The game looks terrible
Really average performance
New battle system can be easily exploited, both by yourself and the AI
8
Get Around It
Written By

Jordan lives and breathes Dark Souls, even though his favourite game is Bloodborne. He takes pride in bashing his face on walls and praising the sun. Hailing from the land of tacos, he is the token minority for WellPlayed.

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