Pokémon Legends: Arceus Review - So close, but no cigar

Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a strange one, I won’t lie. Its modern sensibilities seem at odds with its past.

The world of Pokemon is this vast, awe-inspiring utopia, where people and Pokemon work, play and live together. You might have them as a pet or for work, or even in most cases for sport. These critters are your life companions, with a majority of the franchise’s ‘Gotta Catch ’em All!’ motto regularly failing to account for the fact that a large majority of them are wildly dangerous beasts, ranging from dream eating Hypnos to gargantuan time-traveling monsters like Dialga.

As Pokemon has progressed through time, it has unfortunately lost that edge it had many, many years ago. These confident kids who strode out on their own to become Pokemon Masters were now doe-eyed and aspirational, filled with wonder instead of a grit of being ten years old and leaving your single mother to go on an adventure.

The only piece of media that still keeps within this is the manga, but it’s so wildly off-brand, I’m positive the people at the Pokemon Company have just given up trying to reign it in.

Strange Detours

Pokemon Legends: Arceus then is something of a detour from our usual stops in the release schedule. Every now and then, Pokemon tries to do something new, either by bringing in different genres like in Conquest, which was a strategy game.

Or they lean hard into the cute weirdness bestowed upon it many years ago with an entire game dedicated to watching TV with Pikachu. As it turns out, Pokemon Channel was actually a front for just earning a singular Pokemon for Ruby and Sapphire back in 2003.

No, Arceus mainly seems to come from the cloth of something like Colesseum or Gale of Darkness, aiming to use the core mechanics found in the mainline games and do something new with them.

While Colesseum was a confident game about exorcising the man-made devil out of Pokemon (seriously), which knew its limits and worked within them, Legends is a miasma of a step forwards and gripping onto the past out of fright.

Hand holding

Falling straight out of the sky and into the world of Hisui, your little fellow finds themselves not only in a place they don’t recognise but in a different era of time itself. You meet the professor of the game, learn to catch Pokémon and eventually find yourself at the lowest rank of the Survey Corps., tasked with helping complete the Pokédex.

While the game tries to have its ‘Breath of the Wild’ moment with you, showing you the expanse you can run around in as you step over a crest of land, it doesn’t do this within the first five minutes, instead, leading you on for nearly a good half hour before allowing you to even get a whiff of it.

This is where a major issue arises with Pokemon Legends: Arceus, as the clear desire to let the player loose within this world is there and eventually does come to fruition, it consistently hinders this potential by dragging you back into its plodding story, filled with just about every Pokémon cliche you can think of.

Seen it all before

Here we have everything from a late-stage heel turn and subsequent change of heart post-battle, to world-ending calamities and another young trainer you’ll have to do battle with at certain intervals.

It took me about two hours before I was allowed to be free to do what I want to do and when it does? It’s great! In fact, I enjoy walking around the various areas despite their meager substance and genuine ugliness that graces every aspect of them. It’s maybe the first Pokémon game in a long time that actively encourages you to find yourself in situations you just couldn’t possibly outmatch at certain points.

Pokémon Spelunking

Exploring consists of being dumped into a segment of the overall world (Monster Hunter style, which, will come up in a bit) and you’re given carte-blanc to go gather materials for crafting, throwing Pokéballs at the different Pokémon that populate the world, and doing battle to build up data for the Pokédex.

It’s the experience of catching a Pokémon and building up the Pokédex that is made fun once again. While in other Pokémon games it’s a one and done situation, with maybe catching double of something for breeding or replacing with a higher level, as with Pokemon Legends: Arceus, you’re required to catch as many versions as you can to meet the various requirements to ‘complete’ the entry.

This whole removing the modern niceties of every single game in the series with actual effort needing to be put into the game is fascinating to me. The actual urgency of needing a particular Pokémon to go into the ball to just tick off that last requirement to earn the points to rank up can get quite intoxicating.

Curve ball

Throwing the Pokéball might be one of the biggest nuisances of the game. It doesn’t particularly arc as the animation depicts, but goes straight and then sort of curves out if it goes far enough. Not once in the 30-something hours I was in the game did I feel like I ever grasped the aiming, feeling as if the need for a Gears of War-style grenade guide would have been better suited than an overly large reticle.

Your biggest threat isn’t that your Pokémon will faint from battle, leaving you stranded, it’s now that teeny little Paras, the lowliest creature in prior games, spotting you in the grass and it, plus other six around it, swarming you with poison blasts. You can dodge all you like, but the Pokémon in this game are relentless and getting surrounded, then ‘blacking out’ and losing your chance at a rare Pokémon is as welcomed as a gut punch.

The fundamentals of the game actively go against the old and it’s a bitter rivalry that serves no one. This is especially true in the battles.

Anything new to show?

Pokemon Legends: Arceus still uses the classic turn-based battling system from previous games, with minor changes being that you can walk around them and the UI – namely the massive black bars that appear – obscures information like the opposing Pokémon’s health.

For a game that seems to be adamant about being a true step forward, clinging to this antiquated and sterile method of a Pokémon battle is bizarre. They even still do the static-like hops and slides across the world to do attacks, instead of every move featuring an animation. While I understand if they were to put all 900+ Pokémon in to take some shortcuts, the roster of creatures has been severely culled to ensure that catching every Pokémon is doable as asked by a glowing light at the start.

Where the game seems to break away from the classic battles and further highlight the one-foot in the past mentality, is that the larger fights against the Pokémon Lords, five Pokémon that need their rage quelled due to the world being torn apart at the seams.

Boss Battles!

These aren’t exactly the most complex boss fights in the world but offer a challenge lost in a majority of the battles. They require you to dodge, learn about the invincibility frames on the roll, and actually put your aim to the test as your health doesn’t regenerate after being hit.

While I wouldn’t want every battle to be like this – it’d get really tiring – things like the adding in control for the Pokémon directly could go a long way. My Steelix shouldn’t have to rely on the dice roll of the system as to whether it can or can’t faint, while my player character is fending for their life or being ignored entirely because a polite turn-based battle is happening.

It feels like all the work they’ve put into making these Pokémon feel a bit more dangerous than usual is scuppered when the random Machoke will wait its turn to swing.

Open-world-ish

Pokemon Legends: Arceus is not an open-world game. It’s actually a very good Monster Hunter clone in disguise, but instead of each quest you take on leading to a monstrous boss fight in your chosen biome, it instead sees fit to fill the game with a glut of dull fetch quests.

Plus, much like the story, these too are filled with the same brain smoothing dialogue as the rest.

Over the course of the game, you’ll unlock a few ‘exploration Pokémon’, which allow you to fly, climb, hunt for treasure, and speed across the world by land or water. These replace the traditional HMs with their unique moves for traversing the world and act as those abilities like climbing that Link had in Breath of the Wild.

However, whereas Breath of the Wild or Monster Hunter Rise gave you almost every tool out the gate to properly get around with some difficulty, but not preventing you from trying, Pokémon Legends feels closed off until the final three are unlocked and the time between getting these can be so long, that by the time you have acquired them, you might be ready to never play the game again.

You won’t be climbing without the Sneasler or even swimming with Pokémon you want without Basculegion, making initial exploration of the areas before these underwhelming.

Though, once you go through it again, you’ll realize it is just even more arid land with maybe a few extra Pokémon to pilfer.

No lessons learnt

What it has failed to take from Monster Hunter’s more recent entries is that no one particularly wants to run back and forth between characters to deliver quest items. Give me the option of turning things in at a centralized point, because ducking in and out of menus to set new waypoints to the various members of the village is tiresome at best.

The most egregious is that one questline is halted by unlocking various biomes, much like the exploration Pokémon you acquire, rendering one of the most useful items in the game – Ultra Balls – to be trapped behind a particular quest wall rather than being unlocked over time like in prior games.

Poké-kokey

I don’t mind that each location is its own thing, as this clearly is yet another Switch game designed around the behest of the hardware it is on and the game does run smoothly most of the time too. This game definitely feels like a better quality product than Sword and Shield, with the changes made to the formula in certain places making me forget the okay-ish Diamond and Pearl remakes.

But I can’t help but have this twinge of ‘what could have been’ and cynicism about this fresh brand of Pokémon games, where huge strides have been made to make things easier (like a Link Cable item to evolve trade-only Pokémon by yourself) and the overworld presenting a sense of danger without randomization. The thrill of catching something and filling a Pokédex is genuine fun throughout the entire time in the game.

All the pieces are there for something great and it so nearly makes it, but ultimately doesn’t ever reach the heights that may have been possible. There is still something in it that provides enough magical moments to push the score up, but it could and should have been much more.

An excessive story that does nothing to warrant its constant hounding, as well as a battle system I don’t think fits in with the rest of the experience, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is this constant battle of old and new, with the old now looking like an aging apple amongst the fresh fruit.

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