Video games have changed a lot since Pokemon Red and Green launched in 1996. They’ve grown bigger and wilder, with more to explore, more to see – more to do. For a long time, it felt like the Pokemon franchise hadn’t gotten the memo. While developer Game Freak was continuously making out great, mostly top-down Pokemon RPGs, it was hard not to feel like Pokemon just hadn’t changed since the mid-90s. That it had grown stagnant in old age. But with Pokemon Legends: Arceus, it finally feels like a tide has shifted.
Rather than relying on the franchise’s typical linear, gym-based progression structure, Pokemon Legends: Arceus breaks from the usual mould. It’s a bold experiment, one that takes the skeleton of past games and transposes it onto a minimalist open world-style journey that’s more liberating.
While there are still structural elements that make it a relatively straightforward narrative experience, the focus on mechanics and the gameplay loop means that freedom is more important than just following the story. More importantly, it means that you can guide your own magical journey. It’s an extremely welcome change, and one that encourages you to actually be in the game’s world, rather than acting as a temporary, flighty visitor.
Major issues with graphical capability may hold back some of the game’s grandeur, but it’s still a great step in the right direction for a franchise that’s often failed to innovate meaningfully.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a surprise in every way
It was hard to know what to expect from Pokemon Legends: Arceus, given how closely Nintendo guarded secrets of the game’s story and connection to past games Diamond and Pearl. Early trailers focussed on its gameplay: catching wild Pokemon and exploring in a vast, open world. But it turns out the game is far more surprising, and much weirder, than these initial trailers suggested.
Beyond the lack of structure, the most surprising thing about Arceus is that its narrative takes inspiration from classic ‘lost in time’ sci-fi adventures. In the game’s opening moments, the player character falls from the present to the past through a strange wormhole.
Who the player is, and why they’ve been caught up in this strange space-time disturbance, is a mystery that dogs the game – but, weirdly, not very closely. Once you’re given a set of Poke Balls and tasked with researching local Pokemon in the area, this story fades into the background as narrative takes a back seat to moreish, exploration-focussed journey.
Given the setup, it’s not a particular shame – the gameplay is strong and exciting enough to buoy the game’s entire 20-hour runtime, regardless of how inconsequential the story actually feels in the end. It doesn’t matter that the player character barely has a personality or backstory when you spend most of the game in a satisfying ‘catch ’em all’ loop that crosses multiple plains, tundras and forests.
As a newly-minted member of the Survey Corps in ancient Hisui, it becomes your job to find and catch (or defeat) the hundreds of Pokemon that roam the land as your team works to research every creature in the world. Your time is mostly spent using stealth to sneak up and catch unwitting Pokemon, or chasing down towering ‘alpha’ Pokemon that often flex uncanny and terrifying strength.
The free-roaming nature of the game means you can wander afield as your Pokemon battle – but the combat structure is still largely the same as traditional, turn-based Pokemon titles. You can use moves against other Pokemon, throw a Poke Ball, or take more turns based on your Pokemon power, but this is largely familiar territory.
What Pokemon Legends: Arceus does really well – and how it differs from past games – is in giving you new ways to interact with the wider world. Riding on the back of an Ursulana or Wyrdeer, you can travel through the open fields in multiple unique environment, all of which have thier own selection of Pokemon wandering, playing in swamps, or hiding on mountains. The further you wander, the more Pokemon you’ll discover – making every new location a real joy to explore.
If you’re game, you can even catch rare Pokemon by facing down their wandering, aggressive alpha forms. Although, be wary – this Pokemon game is one of the hardest yet, presenting a level of challenge that long-time players won’t have seen before. Even as a Pokemon veteran with a very balanced team, I found late-game battles extremely difficult, and often unfair.
Some Pokemon are so high-powered you’ll need multiple revives (and desperate, last-ditch attacks) to get through the battle with even one Pokemon remaining. Despite this, Arceus never feels discouraging. There are plenty of non-combative ways to gain experience and eventually power your way through tougher Pokemon battles, so even starting again never feels like a chore.
The pacing of the story occasionally meant I hit roadblocks, and needed to stop and grind for research points while reaching for the next goal post, but this process was still engaging enough that it pushed the action forward, rather than hindering it. The entire loop is very sleek and continues to feel exciting, even when it starts to become repetitive.
Despite innovation, there’s still more work to do
Pokemon Legends: Arceus is certainly an innovative game that stretches the Pokemon formula in new and surprising ways – but the experiment isn’t always a success, and it’s hampered by visuals that look poorly rendered, and environments that often feel bare.
Mountains tend to be bland and smooth, despite the game’s sky being incredibly detailed and coloured. Textures of trees and hills clip in and out, and Pokemon seen from a distance often have choppy movements, even in cutscenes. While the colours of the game are frequently gorgeous – the Obsidian Fieldlands have some particularly nice, calming forests – there are also moments when the scenery feels hideously dull.
There’s Skyrim levels of grey and beige in much of the mountain regions, and grass can clip strangely through landscapes. When I was walking through caves, I had strange white dots outlining my character. For a modern game, it looks particularly ugly at times – a fact that’s only underscored by the great leaps currently being made on other consoles.
Performance remains smooth throughout, but sudden texture clipping can be a real distraction, and it often takes away from the genuine beauty of the game.
Beyond these technical flaws is a real gem – but I couldn’t help but be disappointed by how the game looks, particularly when its opening chapters show off so many gorgeous, colourful shades.
Regardless, Pokemon Legends: Arceus has expanded on the Pokemon franchise in a big way, taking everything great about the original games and spinning much-loved mechanics into something fresh and original.
If this is the future of the franchise, it’s a very welcome change – and while the game is certainly in need of some visual improvements, there’s promise and excitement here that shines through every pore.
FOUR STARS: ★★★★
POKEMON LEGENDS: ARCEUS
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokemon Company
Release Date: 28 January 2022
A Nintendo Switch copy of Pokemon Legends: Arceus was provided and played for the purposes of this review.