Pokémon Legends Arceus Review
Published on 03/07/2022, 3898 words, 15 minutes to read
tl;dr: this game is easily the best Pokémon game in years. It has flaws that are apparent, but overall it doesn't rely too much on them in order for its core gameplay loop to function. If you've been on the fence about it and need the voice of a cartoon animal to convince you, you'll probably not be disappointed with it. You'll know within an hour or two if you like it or not.
Pokémon is a very important series to me. The Pokémon games were one of the first places that I was able to do some form of gender exploration. I spent hours crunching numbers and training up teams to battle competitively. I never really got anywhere with this, but it was important enough to me that my YouTube channel used to be nothing but commentary on Pokémon battles that I captured with my DS and a cell phone camera, using a "tripod" that I assembled out of legos.
However, the Pokémon 20 years ago when I was in high school is basically the same Pokémon game you can go out to the store and buy today. Most of the core Pokémon formula was set in stone by the point that Pokémon Diamond and Pearl came out. The core game loop was to talk to people to find out where to go next, buy items, fight and enslave wildlife, battle against trainers that want you to show your mettle and somehow end up preventing a CK-class reality restructuring scenario after the latest evil group of the month tries to use the power of a sleeping god to bend reality to their will. This core game loop has remained unchanged, but along the way various gimmicks, features and iterations were layered on top to give it a fresh coat of paint. Yet under the hood it was still the same Pokémon game with the same battle rules and the same overall flow.
Not to say that the core game in Pokémon games isn't fun, it's more of just that I've seen the same thing so many times that it's less new and exciting the 6th time around as it was magical and unique that first time. Also keep in mind that as a competitive Pokémon battler I have a very different experience than most casual players would.
Pokémon Legends Arceus is a defiant counter example of this same Pokémon game, and it really shows what a Pokémon game can be. It's a lot more like Monster Hunter than other Pokémon games have been. Instead of Pokémon hiding in the tall grass from you, you hide in the tall grass from Pokémon. You can get knocked out when Pokémon attack you. Getting knocked out makes you lose items, which are a lot more precious (money is scarce if you played the game like I did) and limited then they have ever been. The battle system has almost been thrown out and reinvented from a high level overview of how Pokémon battling should work. So much cruft and baggage has been thrown away, leaving things to a much more streamlined and enjoyable experience.
However a lot of the initial fan reaction to the game went something like this:
But that one trailer showed the game running like ass at 24 FPS and the trees look worse than they did on the 3DS. How can you praise this game if it looks like babby's first Unity game for an ancient android phone?
I have a theory on why Game Freak makes "horrible" trailers: they can't run their game on PC. They have to run it on dev units. They literally can't get a 4k60 trailer because they do not have hardware strong enough to render that. Additionally, they're probably running a development build of the game before all the optimizations are done. In a way Game Freak is actually the most honest developer I've seen in a long time. They show the game off with its graphical flaws openly visible because they focus on the gameplay rather than the games themselves. And because gamers in 202x, honesty is punished so of course they get the short end of the stick.
The game looks fine. The art style helps polish over some of the rendering weirdness they needed to pull to get it to run on a Tegra X1. Sometimes I really wonder what they could do if they weren't hamstrung to having to run the games on Nintendo hardware though. I'd really love to see what they could do if they had their games on Steam or at least without the overhead of emulation.
You can actually see this in the kinds of changes that they make to the core Pokémon formula over the years. Here's a high level list off the top of my head as I compare Pokémon Diamond to newer games in the series:
- Hidden Machines (HMs) have been totally ripped out
- New battle formats (triples, rotation, etc.) have been added
- Battle gimmicks (mega evolutions, Gigantimax, etc.) have been added
- Fully 3D environments don't constrain you to only be able to move on an invisible grid
- Lots of downtime was streamlined away
- Gyms were streamlined out in favor of plot-based challenges which are the moral equivalent of gyms anyways
- Soft lock and sequence breaking potential was removed
Hidden Machines contain field skills which you need gym badges to use. In Pokémon Diamond and Pearl there were 8 field skills you could get, and usually you needed to dedicate two Pokémon in your party of 6 to be "HM slaves" so that you could move around the world freely. This constrained your team building choices for the main path of the game significantly. Later Pokémon games streamlined these field skills out in favor of them just being things you could summon in when needed.
Pokémon Legends Arceus retains some of these, but it's much more focused on movement (running around fast, finding buried items, climbing sheer cliff faces, crossing water and gliding) than most of the other movement field skills in the past have been. However if you really want to, you can catch 6 Bibarels and walk across their backs to skip your way into high level areas. There is no way Game Freak would have let you get away with this kind of madness in other Pokémon games because you could soft lock yourself so easily that way.
Fast travel being unlocked right at the beginning really does change how you handle being soft-locked eh?
New Pokémon battle formats were added over the years. The most notable example that comes to mind is how Pokémon Black and White introduced Triple battles (each side sends out 3 pokemon at once) and Rotation battles (each side sends out 3 pokemon on a rotating platform that you can rotate between at the cost of a turn). Both of these lead to some really interesting and unique strategies, and created very memorable experiences. Along the way they also added Mega evolutions, Gigantimax and other gimmicks that can help you turn the tide of battle, but is also fairly hard for me to keep track of (and probably banned in Smogon grade competitive Pokémon anyways). The core battle system is still the same though. You can be confused and then hurt yourself in confusion, sleep and freezing are absolutely bullshit. Core parts of how your pokemon progress (such as Effort Values) are hidden from you, needing you to either hack your game to see them. If you try to run away from a fight, sometimes it doesn't work.
There's usually a consumable item that helps you recover from confusion, but you usually only get access to it after you suffer through the slog that is Zubat cave where I swear they programmed the AI with the express purpose of using Confuse Ray as much and as often as possible, even to the point of predicting when you'll snap out of confusion so it can re-confuse you instantly. I am so glad to see that gone.
In comparison, Pokémon Legends Arceus ripped out most of the battle system. The only battle option is singles. You choose if you want to battle a wild Pokémon or not by yeeting that sucker right in the face with one of your team. If you want to run away, you make your player character actually run away from the battle with no chance of failure. Confusion was ripped out of the game. Sleep and freezing are like burns instead of making you totally screwed and they wear off in a few turns. Special and physical attack/defense boosts and nerfs are combined instead of specializing too much in one over the other. Swords Dance is viable on special attackers. Pokémon that are 10-20 levels below you can be threats and can cause a party wipe if you're not careful. Alpha Pokémon pull TM moves into the movepool and can be a serious threat.
If this game allowed competitive battling against other players, the Resto Snorlax strat would be even more powerful...
Effort Values (EVs) are shown to you in the the Pokémon status screen. EVs are sort of like persistent stat bonuses, so them being visible lets you really customize how you balance out your team's strengths and weaknesses. As someone who got an Action Replay in part to see EVs of my Pokémon, this is an earth-shattering change. It makes it actually worth my time to try and raise up a team.
They also added move styles to the mix. Once a Pokémon levels up enough, they gain mastery in moves. This allows them to either use the move in Strong Style or Agile Style. Doing the move in either style costs two PP instead of the one it usually does, but they let you manipulate the amount of damage you do. Use a super effective move in agile style to avoid damaging it too much then throw an ultra ball to catch. You're given a lot more freedom.
Speed was totally thrown out and rethought from scratch. Speed controls the turn order instead of just a race to see who wins. The turn order can also be manipulated by strong and agile style moves. Strong style makes you slower in the turn order and agile style makes you faster in the turn order. This can change the tide of battle and can lead to you getting 3 or 4 attack turns in a row if you play your cards right.
These are just more and more reasons why I want to see what PvP battles in this game's engine would be like!
One of the biggest changes with the presentation is the fact that they made everything fully 3D as soon as the hardware allowed. This arguably happened when it did because the 3DS had an analog stick, which allowed you to move directly in any direction you wanted. It made sense for the flagship RPG Pokémon to follow suit. Pokémon Legends Arceus is a very vertical game. You actually explore the area. Walking into the Obsidian Fieldlands for the first time has that Breath of the Wild moment where the camera pulls back and you can really appreciate the scale of the area.
Pokemon walk around and go about their own business and then it's up to you to either fight them or assimilate them into your fold. You don't just run around, you dodge, roll and sneak your way over to Pokémon, baiting them with berries and then throwing a ball into its back to capture it even faster. Field Items let you make your own cover wherever you need it. Pokémon can knock you out, and when they do you actually lose things. I've lost Nuggets, experience candies and more to being careless.
It's worth noting that you can get those items back eventually, but in the moment being without your healing items can fundamentally change how you play the game.
Pokémon has a lot of downtime in its core event loop. When you enter a wild battle encounter in Pokémon, you have to wait for the opening animations while you send out your Pokémon and then wait for the move animations and then wait for the health and experience bars to drain down and scooch up. This makes for a lot of downtime that adds up a lot. Most of your time spent playing Pokémon Diamond is waiting to do things. Future games removed a lot of the waiting (and even gave you an option to disable a lot of the animations), but there's still waiting in the core formula of the game.
It feels like the game designers behind Pokémon Legends Arceus recognize how much downtime Pokémon has at its core and went out of their way to get rid of as much of it as possible. You can run around, have a battle and then win it in less than 30 seconds. If you aren't spotted you can catch 4 Pokémon per minute easily. As someone that grew up on the wait-heavy formula of older Pokémon games, this is unheard of to me. Here is an entire battle:
Yeah, that's it. Things that don't need to block the gameplay loop don't. Battles start and end quickly. It's glorious. You don't have to go to a move eraser or farm heart scales to have your Pokémon relearn old moves. Leveling up doesn't instantly present you with the choice to forget moves, you choose the moveset you want when you want to make that choice.
One of the main points where the game is lacking is in the story department, however in comparison to other Pokémon games the story both does and doesn't make sense. Pokémon Legends Arceus goes for a generic fantasy isekai* vibe.
*Isekai is the blanket term for all those "I got transported to another world" type stories. Think A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Space Jam, The Good Place, The Legend of Narnia and Konosuba.
You are some random 15 year old that noclips out of reality and has Pokémon God pull them into the past to catch 'em all. For a Pokémon game, this actually works a lot better, but it could be a lot better if they took the time to really make it a proper isekai. You just show up out of nowhere, are shown to be an absolute Pokémon prodigy and suddenly accepted into the fold of a fairly isolated village. Then you go about slowly discovering the CK class reality restructuring scenario at play while also following the commands that Pokémon God texts you.
[You criticize Pokémon for doing things that most isekai media does? Look at Konosuba. Kazuma basically shows up in that poor village out of nowhere and eventually works his way into be accepted into the community (after sleeping in horse stables) and occasionally getting instructions from Aqua and Eris. Space Jam has Micheal Jordan come out of nowhere and save the Looney Tunes from Space Capitalism with the power of a chaos dunk. If that ain't like the typecast definition of what an isekai is, what the hell do you WANT?
Okay yeah, you have a point. I guess that the story really does get the intended vibe across and most of the reason I think it's a negative thing is because I've been on a bit of an isekai kick as of late. If I wasn't like 15 animes into isekai stuff I'd probably like it a lot more.
The story doesn't really get in your way too much though, movement options are restricted by the story but this is how it is in every game these days. Most story progression is done through either getting enough Pokédex points to go up a ranking level in Team Galactic (the moral equivalent of gym badges) or completing story-based missions.
Another big thing they changed was the Pokédex. Catching them all isn't the end-all-be-all anymore. Now you actually have to experiment with them. Try feeding them berries, catch them without them spotting you, beat them using moves of a certain type, watch them use moves or styles of moves, learn more about them with side missions (the game calls them "requests") or the like. You actually feel like you're learning what the Pokémon do instead of just going down a list, even if you are fundamentally just going down a list.
I hope future games in the Pokémon series are like this game. My greatest hope for this game is that in comparison the the future games in this series, this game will be absolute garbage because the newer games will have polished and ironed out the rough sides in this game. They do exist and you can notice them pretty easily if you are looking for them, but most of the time I can appreciate the limitations as setpieces and focus more on the gameplay.
The biggest graphical issue I found was a bug in the anime shader in caves with water pools in them. It can make the borders render weird like this:
Note that I have really had to go out of my way to find that. The 99% case is that things look great. The game has such a beautiful aesthetic that I can forgive a fixable shader bug in a case that happens very rarely.
Overall, if you're burned out on the sameiness of Pokémon games, give this one a try. It is not earth-shatteringly good like NieR: Automata or Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but it is a step towards the perfect Pokémon game. It's worth a play.
Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.