Pokémon fans were ecstatic when Arceus, the newest Legendary Pokémon, was unveiled in February 2021. There was a lot more openness to the world than in Sword and Shield, and it appeared to be set in a different era than the “modern” timeline, but it also promised a more intense and immersive gameplay experience, with the titular creatures actually being able to hurt the player. After just over a year of some of the biggest franchise hype we’ve seen since at least the run-up to the Galatian dual-versions, this was the result.
Legends: Arceus carries a heavy load. Anecdotally, critical reaction to the series has not kept pace with its commercial success on the Nintendo Switch over the past three years. In Sword and Shield, cuts to the Pokédex and the Wild Area drew criticism, and opinions on Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, which quickly gained a reputation for being at least a little buggy, were equally divided. However, these games did nothing to alleviate my fears that the franchise’s heyday was on the Nintendo DS, where titles like Diamond and Pearl and Heartgold and Soulsilver reigned supreme two console generations ago. Because of this, the fact that Legends: Arceus is good is a huge relief to me. That’s excellent work. Although even the most cynical corners of social media seem impressed, this appears to have been confirmed by fan reaction, and it has become the second-fastest selling Switch game ever.
After a quick induction into the Galaxy Expedition Team, a small band of foreigners attempting to make a new life for themselves in an oft-hostile land, the player’s journey into Hisui begins. As a result, the protagonist assists Professor Laventon in creating the region’s first Pokédex, which helps the team better understand the obstacles they face. There is no longer a “pocket dimension” where battles were fought in previous titles, and wild species can be caught in real-time as they attempt to flee (or more often, attack) the protagonist. This is a first for a main series Pokémon game. Because of this, the game has a sense of flow and immersion, two of the primary reasons it’s so enjoyable. The Trainer’s world and the Pokemon’s world are now one and the same, and it’s far from a safe world at that. Previously, creator Satoshi Tajiri stated that the dark and eerie Pokémon Adventures manga was the most accurate depiction of the world he imagined in his mind, but Legends: Arceus must surely be a close contender.
However, Legends: Arceus does not feel like a “true” open-world experience. Instead, the player travels between five large maps, with the burgeoning community of Jubilife Village serving as the game’s central hub town. With the exception of special rideable Pokémon like Wyrdeer and Braviary, the map is large enough to satisfy any adventurer’s appetite, even before the map is reduced by the inclusion of the game’s titanic landscapes like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s. The majority of these settings appear to be fine. It’s hard to notice the polygonal mountains, assets popping into a noticeable degree from the air, and light-dappled gridlines of water from a distance when the player’s attention is focused on delivering a back-strike Poké Ball capture to an unsuspecting Shinx when the player’s attention is focused on delivering a Poké Ball capture. Legends: Arceus’ Hisui is immediately compared to Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which isn’t always a good thing. However, the way the player interacts with Hisui is where Legends: Arceus triumphs. While the grasslands, forests, and mountains may be goblin-infested obstacles on the way to the next shrine or quest location, they are also where the player actively wants and needs to be in order to catch Pokémon and make progress in the game. There are many benefits to catching Pokémon, such as expanding the Pokédex and increasing the player’s rank, which in turn increases the player’s cash rewards for purchasing items that can be used to catch even more Pokémon.
The traditional battle system has been dramatically reduced to accommodate the game’s fast-paced transition between combat and travel, with hundreds of moves and all abilities removed from the formula (with a new speed system to boot). For the most part, this speeds up wild battles and keeps the player close to the action, but when it comes to encounters with other Trainers, this has a noticeable drawback. Many of the battles between two teams of Pokémon often devolve into a slugfest in which the winner is determined by which team has the most members; adding a layer of complexity to these few, usually, plot-relevant battles would be greatly appreciated.
Legends: Arceus, like every modern Pokémon game, has a significantly reduced selection of species, with only 240 of the full National Pokédex present. There are a few familiar monsters in later areas, such as Graveler and Mothim, but overall there is enough variety to keep each landscape from feeling either too thin or overly packed. Despite the fact that some of these monsters will be instantly recognisable to the player, this is far less restrictive than it first appears. The relentless aggression of even the most innocent species may catch adventurers off guard more often than they expect. A reputation on social media for harassing players is well-deserved, and without long grass to effectively hide in (especially in some of the more mountainous areas), evasive action against foot-high terrors can be oppressive, or at least tedious.
Many of the game’s flaws can be grouped together under the broad heading of quality of life and convenience. Legends: Arceus certainly has its share of friction – supplies may need replenishing, and the protagonist may require some form of rest – but this is taken to a new extreme in some places. While Professor Laventon’s Pokédex updates are tedious, it’s even more so when the player is searching for legendary Pokémon or mass outbreaks in the post-game and has to return to the hub town to do so instead of simply warping there. Even more annoying is the tiny satchel the protagonist is given to carry around an overwhelming variety of foodstuffs and secondary crafting knickknacks that require constant management of inventory. For a game like Legends: Arceus, crafting is an essential part of exploration and survival games, but there are likely to be 30 percent more items than necessary in the game’s crafting system, making it a prime target for improvement in future releases.
Despite its many flaws, Legends: Arceus is a worthwhile experience for those who enjoy role-playing games. Although these annoyances don’t seem to be the result of a lack of effort or passion on the part of Game Freak, they are hardware limitations, minor oversights, and miscalculations that will be addressed in future installments. These issues are easier to spot because the game gets so fundamentally right; Game Freak has produced a title that is perhaps the most immersive and faithful rendition of the Pokémon world to date, and perhaps the most exciting game of the franchise in more than 10 years.
“Revolutionary” is a word you’ve probably heard a million times before, but Legends: Arceus is a game-changer for Pokémon. All Switch owners should read this, according to this reviewer.