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Pokemon Legends: Arceus review: When Pokemon ruled the Earth

Pokemon Legends: Arceus leaves the franchise formula behind in favor of interesting new ideas and mechanics.

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The mainline Pokemon franchise formula has been tried and true for 25 years. With concepts like Gyms, the Elite 4, a sophisticated Pokedex, and trainer battles all series constants, it was eyebrow-raising when we got our first look at Pokemon Legends: Arceus, an installment that essentially ditches every single one of those elements. What’s more surprising is how well it works. With Pokemon Legends: Arceus, Game Freak delivers a Pokemon experience that’s like nothing we’ve gotten before, while still being ingrained with the DNA and core philosophies of the series.

In the days of old

Pokemon Legends: Arceus is set in the Hisui region, a land that would later be known as the Sinnoh region, where the events of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl take place. This prequel story sees the player working with Professor Laventon and the Galaxy Expedition Team to create the region’s first Pokedex. Along the way, players will find themselves deeply intertwined with powerful forces and tasked with serving a greater purpose.

Longtime Pokemon fans will find a lot to love in the story of Legends: Arceus. There’s clever ties to future events, and interesting revelations about the Sinnoh region and how it became the land we see in Diamond and Pearl. The Pokemon franchise has always teased a deeper lore through books found in libraries and dialogue from NPCs, but Legends: Arceus dives in head-first.

Even if you’re not well-versed on franchise lore, Pokemon Legends: Arceus features a cast of interesting characters that I was always excited to spend more time with. The relationship between the Diamond Clan and the Pearl Clan, as well as their respective leaders, was particularly interesting.

A taste of the wild

Where Pokemon Legends: Arceus really breaks away from past games is in its move to an open-world format and the changes that brings for exploration and battling. One town serves as your home base, where you go to heal, shop, manage your party, change clothes, and rendezvous with the Galaxy Expedition Team. From here, you go on excursions to different sections of Hisui. These territories are vast and feature unique environments that house a wide array of Pokemon.

Every Pokemon in Legends: Arceus appears in the overworld, and you attempt to capture them by manually tossing a Pokeball from your satchel. The catch rate is influenced by several factors. Hiding in the tall grass where you can’t be seen increases the likelihood of catching a Pokemon; hitting one with a Pokeball from behind is a technique known as the “back strike” and will also boost the catch rate.

Each Pokemon also has a disposition that informs how it behaves and interacts with the player. Bidoof are relaxed and don’t pay much attention to the player, while Starly are much more skittish, running away if they spot you. Pokemon like Skorupi and Shinx have an aggressive disposition and will attack the player if they get too close. Learning each Pokemon’s disposition and how to properly approach them are key aspects of the exploration in Legends: Arceus.

Filling the region’s first Pokedex means you’ll have to catch a lot of Pokemon, but the process is simplified by how seamless capturing is. Pokemon appearing in the overworld isn’t a new concept, but being able to skip battles entirely and avoid sitting through an extra few seconds of animations is a godsend. You can even attempt to capture multiple Pokemon simultaneously if they’re in close enough proximity.

In addition to catching Pokemon, players will have to complete Research Tasks in order to do a Pokedex entry. Research Tasks are found within each Pokemon’s Pokedex entry and consist of objectives such as defeating a Pokemon, witnessing it use certain moves, take Agile and Strong Fighting Styles, and several more. It creates more work for the player, but I found it to be engaging and appropriate for the world and story that’s being told.

That said, Research Tasks do become a bit tedious in certain circumstances. For example, needing to witness a Chimchar use Ember a certain amount of times in order to complete Research Tasks towards its Pokedex entry. I evolved my Chimchar into Monferno without completing all of these tasks, meaning my only options were to catch another Chimchar and spam Ember on wild Pokemon, or battle a wild Pokemon and cross my fingers that it uses Ember. Allowing Research Tasks to retroactively complete for pre-evolutions of Pokemon you’ve obtained would make completing the Pokedex feel like less of a chore.

Living in disharmony

The relationship between people and Pokemon is so fragile during this time period, and it’s reflected in the gameplay. While there are shops that you can purchase basic items from, crafting is a major component. You’ll frequently need to create new Pokeballs and potions to aid you and your team in your journey.

Players craft using raw materials that are found in the field. Medicinal Leeks are often found in grassy fields and are used to make healing potions, while apricorns and metals are needed to craft Pokeballs and can be harvested from trees and rocks respectively. What’s neat is that you can send out your Pokemon to harvest these materials for you.

The satchel that players carry around has a maximum item limit, introducing resource management to the Pokemon series. There were often times that I found a rare item while exploring and had to make tough decisions as to what items I would discard. It’s yet another element that adds to the immersion in Pokemon Legends: Arceus.

Speaking of immersion, an aspect that this game absolutely nails is Pokemon size and scaling. Creatures in the overworld appear their appropriate size, with Pokemon like Luxray standing well over the player’s head. There are also size variations among different species, with Alpha Pokemon being gargantuan by comparison. I caught an Alpha Lucario that was roughly twice the height of my character. It’s a detail that makes these creatures feel like unique individuals, rather than a visually identical member of a species.

Reinventing battles

I was pleasantly surprised with how different battles are in Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Similar to catching Pokemon, the experience is entirely seamless, going from open-world exploration to a heated battle is as simple as tossing a Pokeball containing one of your creatures at one in the wild. Battles take place in real-time without any animation or transition to an enclosed battlefield. You’re even free to run around as your Pokemon does battle, standing by their side or commanding them from afar. It adds a level of realism to battling that will make it hard to go back to the fixed presentation of other games in the future.

There’s also a complete overhaul to weather effects, status conditions, and speed priority in battle. If you're adventuring through an area and the weather is foggy, that will remain true if you get into a battle. The foggy weather in particular means that Pokemon attacks will be less likely to hit. Weather effects have long been a factor in Pokemon battles, but the dynamic changes in the overworld organically present the player with unique challenges and obstacles.

As for status effects, moves like Hypnosis and Rest no longer put a Pokemon to sleep. Instead, the creature will become drowsy, meaning that it has a chance of not acting on its turn, and that its speed priority is lowered.

During battles, you can press Y to view the order in which the participating Pokemon will take their turns. This is influenced by their speed rating as well as moves that increase priority, like Quick Attack or Aqua Jet. If there’s a big enough speed priority disparity between the two Pokemon, one may be able to act twice in a row. On the other hand, you might end up getting attacked as soon as an encounter starts, before you can even select an item, swap Pokemon, or run.

Fighting Styles are a new battling mechanic in Pokemon Legends: Arceus that add another layer to strategy. Upon gaining levels, Pokemon will “master” a move, granting them access to its two Fighting Styles, Agile and Strong. Using a move in Agile Style will increase the Pokemon’s speed priority at the cost of damage. Strong Style attacks deal more damage while lowering a Pokemon’s speed priority. Learning how to use these to your advantage is key to mastering combat in Legends: Arceus.

I was excited by the new strategies that I was able to pull off with this new format. Stat-buffing moves like Swords Dance have become even more viable, as players no longer have to spend a turn getting an attack boost if they're able to manipulate the speed priority in their favor. That said, it was a bit disappointing that Pokemon abilities and held items aren’t present in this game, as they always prove to be another wrinkle to battle strategy, but there were only a handful of occasions that their absence took away from the experience.

Singing a different tune

The Pokemon games have never been the most visually impressive, but they’ve always had incredibly charming art styles. Pokemon Legends: Arceus looks like the Pokemon franchise trying to do its best Breath of the Wild impression, for better or worse. The open fields and sharp mountainous regions are nice, but there’s often pop-in with both textures as well as Pokemon. In some instances, Pokemon far off in the distance would move at a really low FPS. Some of these graphical limitations can be attributed to the Switch’s hardware, but it still feels inferior to the 2017 game it takes so much inspiration from.

Despite the game not being a technical marvel, I really liked the Feudal Japan-inspired look in Legends: Arceus. The kimonos, the wooden Pokeballs, the structures, it’s reminiscent of what we saw in the Johto region, while leaning even heavier into the Japanese themes. It’s also a return to form for the series, as we haven’t gotten a mainline game with a Japanese-inspired setting since Generation 4.

The Pokemon franchise is rich with memorable music and Legends: Arceus is no different. There’s songs that cleverly rework classic tunes associated with the Sinnoh region, as well as some brand new music that fits in perfectly with the new setting. Pokemon always uses music to set the tone, and the themes for battles and Alpha Pokemon encounters always convey that sense of urgency and intensity.

With more of an emphasis on exploration, there’s a lot more work being done in terms of sound designs. From the noise of the grass parting as you creep through it, hearing distinct Pokemon cries in the distance, or the heavy footsteps of a large Pokemon bearing down on you, the world feels much more lived in thanks to a suite of authentic sound effects.

The stuff of legends

Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a departure from the prototypical Pokemon formula, abandoning or reinventing old features in order to offer something new and unique. While it leaves a bit to be desired from a technical standpoint, there’s just so much to enjoy. A clever overhaul to the battle system, improvements to exploration, and a story that dives deep into franchise lore makes Pokemon Legends: Arceus an experience that will appeal to longtime fans, as well as those who may have grown tired of the series’ reliance on the status quo.


This review is based on a digital download code provided by the publisher. Pokemon Legends: Arceus releases on January 28, 2022 for the Nintendo Switch.

News Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

Pros
  • Battle system overhaul is excellent
  • Seamless transition when catching and battling Pokemon
  • Fascinating story that dives into Sinnoh lore
  • Crafting and resource management are a plus
  • Proper size-scaling of Pokemon
  • Refreshing art style and original soundtrack
Cons
  • Abilities and held items are noticeably missing at times
  • Research Tasks are tedious for some Pokemon
  • Texture pop-ins and lower framerates for Pokemon at a distance
From The Chatty
  • reply
    January 26, 2022 6:00 AM

    Donovan Erskine posted a new article, Pokemon Legends: Arceus review: When Pokemon ruled the Earth

    • reply
      January 26, 2022 6:26 AM

      Hmmmmmmmmm

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      January 26, 2022 6:28 AM

      Let’s have this be the Pokémon thread.

      Seems like a solid 8-9 so far: https://opencritic.com/game/12091/pok-mon-legends-arceus

      I’ve never played a Pokémon game but maybe this is a good place to start.

      • reply
        January 26, 2022 6:59 AM

        I’m in the same boat milleh.

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        January 26, 2022 7:23 AM

        I've tried to get my kids into pokemon twice now, once with Go and the other one that came out last xmas and neither hooked them. Glad to see this one getting good reviews but probably pass.

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          January 26, 2022 7:24 AM

          Yeah I would have a hard time recommending this to your kiddos if they didn't dig the other games you mentioned. Have you showed them Let's Go Pikachu or Eevee? Those are super kid friendly and probably the best introduction for newcomers to the series

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            January 26, 2022 7:45 AM

            Yeah sorry I meant Let's Go, they played for a bit - but at the time they struggled with reading which might have soured the experience. Maybe I'll have them give it another go.

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              January 26, 2022 8:47 AM

              Ah okay, yeah maybe worth giving one more shot when they're a tad older :)

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          January 26, 2022 7:39 AM

          Our kids are teens now and “too old” for Pokémon but when they were younger I tried and they hated how complicated the card game was and the DS games stressed them out with the constant surprise combats. I remember our youngest losing her mind because she just wanted to find a way back to her house and I had to explain this is a game about leaving home and going on an adventure and she cried and said “I just want to go home!” then got attacked by a swarm of like ten bird Pokémon, snapped the DS shut, and never played again.

          • reply
            January 26, 2022 7:50 AM

            I think what helped the games then were the cartoon's popularity. So they can kind of picture the games in that lens.

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              January 26, 2022 9:25 AM

              Animal Crossing and Minecraft and app games kind of ruined all other games for them. They wanted the a relaxing world where everything is under your control and at your pace and you’re rewarded just for showing up, instead of “ITS NOT VERY EFFECTIVE”

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        January 26, 2022 7:48 AM

        The last Switch one Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee is practically a remake of the classic Pokémon Gameboy Red/Blue and that was a great for its time game. I noticed it's a bit hard to find end of last year as I was going to gift it for someone who got a new Switch. I got the one with the mini pokeball controller and damn that thing sells for a lot now.

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