- Release Date (NA): January 28, 2022
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak
- Genres: Action RPG
If there's been one thing fans have been begging Nintendo to develop, it would be an open-world Pokemon game. The task of freshening up the now 25-year-old formula of Pokemon games tends to fall to the hands of third-party studios, resulting in new and interesting takes on the ever-popular franchise, such as Pokemon Snap, Mystery Dungeon, or Colosseum. This time around, however, mainline Pokemon developer Game Freak has decided to try their hand at crafting a unique experience; hopefully, it's one that fans have been waiting for.
Pokemon has been grappling with the issue of stale gameplay for quite a while now. Where exactly the tipping point is can depend on when you entered the series, but it's fair to say that later entries have aimed for less content and more linear experiences despite the constantly increasing popularity of the series. That's likely why Pokemon Legends Arceus has such hype and cautious excitement behind it, as burnt-out fans see something that could possibly serve as a breath of fresh air to a stagnating franchise.
In Legends Arceus, there's just enough of the familiar core Poke-concepts that you should be well accustomed to, mixed perfectly together with new additions that make for the most engaging Pokemon game in years. Since the setting takes place in ancient Sinnoh, it lets the game try a lot of new things that would otherwise feel out of place in a regular entry. In this world, Pokemon are still new and unknown; Pokeballs have only just been created, and hardly anyone knows how to use them...except for you.
But just because you can throw like a star baseball pitcher doesn't make you a Pokemon Master right out of the gate, because in this world, Pokemon are savage. One of the first things you're told is that if you don't watch out, a wild Pokemon will straight-up attack and kill you. Of course, you'll only black out, but characters will go out of their way to mention that Pokemon and humans don't get along, and unwitting people have been attacked and slaughtered by what you'd normally expect to be a harmless cute creature. It can be a little unnerving, but it also serves as a great way to introduce one of the biggest parts of Legend Arceus's gameplay.
Instead of conquering Gym Leaders and the Elite 4, your aspirations as a trainer in Hisui are more academically focused; your goal, bestowed to you by Arceus of all things, is to fill out the very first Pokedex. This isn't the modern-day, though, and your Pokedex, normally a high-tech device, is nothing more than a notebook here. Since creatures aren't automatically registered, you'll need to learn how each and every one of the Pokemon in Hisui looks and behaves. In order to do that, you'll have to catch 'em all, many, many times. Filling out the Pokedex requires you to complete research tasks, which range from using a specific type attack on the Pokemon, to catching a certain amount of them. The objectives are varied, and it makes filling in pages of the Pokedex feel incredibly rewarding. It also subtly gets you to switch up your team constantly, making sure you really get to use and know the Pokemon you're catching.
As you catch Pokemon and train them, you'll also be helping foster Jubilife City as a bustling place for humans to live alongside and coexist with Pokemon. There's progression and development, which is rather rare for a Pokemon game. Townspeople will ask you to do things for them, too, giving you a wealth of sidequests to complete whenever you want to take a break from the dangers of exploring.
Which is good, because the main gameplay loop involves a lot of exploring different areas, each with different themes. There are swamps, mountains, fiery volcanos, oceans, tundras--if it's somewhere a Pokemon might live, then you'll likely be venturing there. It's not technically an open-world, as the locations you visit are separated into different zones, but they're large enough to keep you running around for a while. A likely comparison you might make is with Monster Hunter; you pick a specific place, get your items and hunting gear (Pokemon team) equipped to your liking, and go on an expedition with the express intent of bringing home new gear and captures.
Since Pokemon are roaming in the overworld now, you'll be able to spot them and choose how you want to approach. You could handle it in a classic manner, by tossing out a Pokemon that has a status effect move and getting your opponent into red HP, or you can now stealthily sneak up behind them and toss a Pokeball at their back, slinking back into cover before anyone knows you were ever there. The new style is seamless, letting you find cool Pokemon and capture them without the repetitive whittling down of their health, which is especially useful for when you need to catch specific genders, sizes, or amounts of a certain Pokemon.
Of course, you won't always pull off a perfect stealth capture. Sometimes you'll miss, and other times, craftier Pokemon will escape and defend themselves by attacking you. In fact, some Pokemon are just outright jerks, and will see you from afar and target you, making you the prey. It's equal parts jarring and amazing to be chased down by a Pokemon 30 levels higher than you, one that could decimate your team, giving the game some thrill and challenge. With all those elements in play, there's actual cohesion to the world, and plenty of opportunity for dramatic moments, such as finding an Eevee, only for a Floatzel to come running across the beach, ready to ruin your entire life, scaring off the Eevee and knocking you out in one fell swoop. Defending yourself is an option as well, since you now have access to a dedicated dodge roll button and you can always send out your own Pokemon, but with strong Alpha Pokemon on the loose, there's always an element of unease and tension, keeping you on your toes.
For all the positives that this game has, it won't be winning any awards for its graphical presentation. The Nintendo Switch continues to underwhelm massively; while comparing Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda might be looking at apples and oranges, Breath of the Wild is nearly five years old, and looks and runs leagues better than Legends Arceus could ever hope to. In a general sense, the game looks simply alright; the sprawling landscapes and vistas are great, if a little low res, and the Pokemon appear to be the same 3D models we're long become used to, but there's some serious stuttering in handheld mode that is beyond aggravating. Let alone the fact that any human characters were distracting enough to make me almost laugh at.
Honestly, visual detail is usually not my main focus with a game, and while you can question what Game Freak should or shouldn't be doing with their budget, Legends Arceus looks passable enough to get by. The issue for me is the hitches in framerate that happen whenever you get into a battle, and specifically only in handheld mode. Playing docked never brought up any concerns, but once I started playing portably, the game would go into the single digits when fighting or going into my inventory, at completely random intervals. Perhaps a patch might improve things post-launch, but as things are right now, it only serves to remind me that the Switch is old, and in desperate need of some extra horsepower.
Taking heavy cues from other games, Pokemon Legends Arceus feels like a step forward in every aspect. For those wary of disruption to their expectations from a Pokemon game, the changes and improvements are woven perfectly into the classic formula that you've come to know and love; the differences are apparent, and make for an entirely fresh and exciting experience, while still balancing the things that have made Pokemon a beloved franchise for so many years.
- Actual challenge in a Pokemon game
- The new gameplay elements are engaging and fun
- Completing the Pokedex is actually worthwhile
- Handheld performance
- I wish there were more Pokemon in the game