Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the latest installment in the historic Pokémon franchise. For over 25 years, Pokémon players have enjoyed a top-down camera style that is synonymous with a level design rooted in the GameBoy era. Following the success of Pokémon Sword and Shield, Game Freak and The Pokémon Company continue to dabble in modern game design. With that, we have reviewed their latest evolution.
Platform // Nintendo Switch
Price & Release Date // $59.99, January 28th 2022
Developer & Publisher // Game Freak, Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
The New Level Design In Pokémon Legends: Arceus
In Pokémon Legends: Arceus there is a slightly different level design but it still feels familiar. A single town hub called Jubilife Village exists in the center of the map. The village will act as any town or city would in a previous Pokémon game. From there, you receive side missions, visit shops, craft, and store your Pokémon.
There are well over 20 missions in this area where the townspeople will give you items as a reward. Jubilife Village is also home to the Galaxy Expedition Team and their headquarters. Their headquarters will serve most of the main story beat.
From Jubilife Village, there are five major regions to visit. Each region has its own theme like snowy mountains or warm beaches. These themes are reminiscent of previous Pokémon games; however, Arceus evolves the series with these vast open regions. The five regions combined feel like one gigantic open-world game. Although each area is locked off by a significant loading screen. Plus you can not traverse between them, you must travel back to Jubilife Village first.
So Pokémon Legends: Arceus is not a large open-world game like The Witcher or Breath of the Wild, although it can often feel like one. When you are in one of the five regions there is so much to experience. As soon as you enter a new area, there is this rush of excitement with all of the new Pokémon you encounter. Having the open-world areas separated does not dampen the experience as each section feels substantial.
Each region is fun and unique, I enjoyed them all equally. The new design works well for the franchise going forward as long as it continues to deliver an atmosphere that is as exceptional as Arceus has. The warm beach and snowy mountains are clearly defined areas of the game through their atmosphere. Fans of the Pokémon franchise are going to take to how the areas feel like classic Nintendo levels. For instance, the lava-protected volcano, the bogs, the snow, the water are all tools Nintendo has used for almost 40 years to define areas, spaces, and levels as their own.
The New Encounter System In Pokémon Legends: Arceus
Catching Pokémon in Pokémon Legends: Arceus is significantly more enjoyable than previous Pokémon games. Thankfully, random encounters are a thing of the past. The Pokémon in each region are there right in front of you to dynamically interact with. The method used here is significantly more immersive than the old random encounters.
When you first spot a Pokémon you get to decide what happens. You can just keep moving along if the Pokémon is too strong or if you already have caught it. You can choose to battle that Pokémon by selecting one from your team, then throwing your Pokémon at it. Finally, you can feed wild Pokémon a number of different items that will lead to a dynamic interaction.
The Pokémon can take what you have thrown its way and become distracted eating, it can become enraged or disinterested. You can also throw just about any object in your inventory at a wild Pokémon for your own entertainment. Now catching Pokémon just makes more sense and feels more dynamic and immersive.
The Evolved Gameplay System
If you elect to enter combat with any of the wild Pokémon in Arceus, most of what follows come straight from any other Pokémon game. There is still a turn-based system with a menu that looks just like you are imagining. How the Pokémon classes and moves work is very much the same.
New this time around is the evolution. Pokémon can evolve from the things you do freely in the open world. With that, no longer do evolutions happen after battles. Level status screens now pop up on the UI, this includes if any Pokémon in your party is ready to evolve. From the menu, you can elect to manually evolve a Pokémon. This way of evolving Pokémon feels less stressful, we have all at one point or another accidentally skipped an evolution or evolved something we did not mean to.
Removed this time around are Technical Machines (TMs). You can no longer teach new moves to your Pokémon via a TM. Moves are now obtained automatically as Pokémon evolve. Along with this change, the hospital in each town has been replaced by a campfire where you rest and heal your Pokémon. The box in the hospital has been replaced by “Pastures” where stored Pokémon are kept. These small changes felt like welcoming additions that allow Arceus to be different not just for the sake of being different.
Arceus has a tremendous number of items to collect. A large majority of the items are traditional berries. Although many of the items are now used to craft Pokeballs, potions, and revives. This addition to the gameplay makes Arceus feel deeper than previous Pokémon games. Having to collect a large number of specific items gives the open world more depth and purpose. The crafting system is a fantastic addition and a true departure from the Cram-O-Matic in Pokémon Sword and Shield. This is a whole new gameplay loop that has never been introduced in the series.
The Story and Campaign
I found the story and campaign in Pokémon Legends: Arceus to be a significant weakness in its overall esteem. The story begins with you falling out of the sky with your cell phone and landing in a time hundreds of years away. How the story begins feels like the writing team was having trouble telling their story, then just decided to have the protagonist magically fall from the sky. Meanwhile, at no point in the game does our protagonist ever attempt to go home, nor do they ever mention it.
Following the rough beginning, the story progresses as just about any other Pokémon game would go. You pick between the three starters with the professor and you encounter some roadblocks along the way. What is new this time around, the game fails to develop any real antagonist. In Pokémon Sword and Shield, you must take on Team Yell. With Pokémon Legends: Arceus that never develops and while there is a legitimate story, your critical path is mostly about discovery. I will not give any of that away here.
Another moment in the campaign and story that I found disappointing was just how much of the main campaign takes place after the credits roll. You can take the critical path through the campaign in about 20 to 25 hours, without catching all of the Pokémon. Returning to the game following the credits to finish my Pokedex, you will discover there are three to five hours of the campaign left after the credits. This serves no purpose and dilutes the ending of an already mediocre story. Once you roll credits in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, please go back and experience the rest of the story.
The Music In Pokémon Legends: Arceus
I found the score in Pokémon Legends: Arceus to be unexceptional. Pokémon games from every generation have iconic tunes. There is nothing in Arceus that really does it for me. While the score is not terrible by any means Arceus for sure is missing the catchy jingles in each region. There was also a missed opportunity to have a nice feudal Japan-era remix of the battle song that exists in nearly every Pokémon game. This time around the battle song feels trivial.
In the campaign, you use a flute to summon a special type of Pokémon for flying, swimming, and climbing. When you unlock each traversal ability there is a cut scene where you learn the technique. During this cutscene, you play the flute and the only sound that comes out is a short “du-do” as if you just threw a Pokéball. Another missed opportunity to have a nice song play, a constant theme in the campaign.
The Visuals In Pokémon Legends: Arceus
It is a good thing that this is a true open-world Pokémon game that feels rewarding and immersive because the visuals can often take me out of the game. I do not have a high bar of expectations for Switch games in the generation of teraflops. Yet Pokémon Legends: Arceus somehow looks worse than 2017’s Breath of the Wild. The five years between the two most significant Nintendo Switch titles speaks volumes of the disconnect between Game Freak and Nintendo.
Some of the visuals do not make sense, the trees that have items hidden in them look great. While the random pine trees around the map are straight from the sixth generation of consoles. In dark caves, there are white outlines around each character, as if it were something I poorly cropped in Microsoft Paint. Outside of that, the rest of the game is on par with other first-party Nintendo titles. Many of the Pokémon look fantastic and I gushed every time I saw one for the first time.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the perfect building block to where the series is headed. With Pokémon: Let’s Go and Pokémon Sword and Shield, the three games feel like the first steps towards something bigger. If you can get past its looks, Arceus is the best Pokémon game on the Switch. While it may never be as iconic as some of the previous Pokémon games, it has deep gameplay systems and a map that feels extensive. Arceus is full of small moments where you get to experience Pokémon from a new perspective.