Pokemon Legends Arceus review

Pokemon Legends Arceus has arrived as the first ‘big’ first-party potential blockbuster of the year. Gamefreak and the Pokemon franchise have been in a rut and fans have been calling for a shake-up in terms of mechanics, and Pokemon Legends Arceus is a step in the right direction. When it was first announced we wanted to hail it as Pokemon Breath of the Wild, however, it turned out much more like Pokemon Monster Hunter. There are some real improvements here though, and they have me optimistic for the future of the Pokemon franchise once again.

Pokemon is one of the most successful entertainment franchises out there in the world right now. The Pokemon Company prints money off the back of Pokemon games such as Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, Sword and Shield, and Pokemon Go. These recent entries haven’t quite been able to live up to the success of the early entries, and that’s led to plenty of remakes including Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee and the very recent Diamond and Pearl remakes. Game Freak finally announced they were deviating from the familiar formula with Pokemon Legends Arceus. This was going to iterate on the Wild Area’s seen in Sword and Shield, and finally, we’d see Pokemon out there in the wild as we’ve wanted for years.

Pokemon Legends Arceus sits in a strange place. It’s not a mainline Pokemon entry, this is its own side quest of a game, much like the Let’s Go series. It feels like an experiment, that if successful, features of this game could be worked into the main series. Having spent 10s of hours with the game, I hope they bring in a lot of elements from Arceus because this is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokemon game for years.

Pokemon Legends Arceus is set in the Hisui region, which is supposed to be a long time ago. It’s similar to a feudal-Japan version of the Sinnoh region we visit in Diamond and Pearl, so there is some familiarity with the landscape. This is a time before humans and Pokemon lived side-by-side, they still live out there in wild regions and wooden Pokemon balls have only just been invented.

The structure of the game is interesting. We have the main hub town called Jubilife Village. This is where we start out, having dropped through seemingly a time portal in the sky to arrive in the Hisui region. Jubilife Village is where the Monster Hunter comparisons come from as we use this as our base, and go out each day to scout out, hunt, and study Pokemon. It’s not like Breath of the Wild where we can simply walk to something we see in the distance from Jubilife Village, it’s much more contained into zones where we have to load between each one. There is a sense of Breath of the Wild freedom when we get to one of our open destinations, but it’s not quite the open-world Pokemon adventure we may have wanted after the first trailer.

In terms of the story, you sign up to be part of the Galaxy Team. These are recent arrivals in this land where existing Diamond and Pearl Clans argue over differing versions of their gods. Strange lightning has come out of the sky and shocked their Noble Pokemon causing untold damage. It’s up to us to find out what happened to the Noble Pokemon, all the while studying and recording details of all the Pokemon in the region in Hisui’s first Pokedex.

Our Pokedex here is a book, and we have to study, catch and carry out multiple tasks per Pokemon to learn about them. There are plenty of inspirations from Pokemon Go in here in the observation techniques, which is a nice touch, and a decent departure from the longstanding mechanics we’ve been playing over and over for 20 years. Each Pokemon has a long list of research tasks. For example, you have to catch them a certain amount of times, battle them to observe moves and defeat them in battle. There’s a variety of ways to catch the Pokemon by sneaking up on them without them seeing you and hitting them in the back with a Pokeball causes them to be confused. There’s a decent variety to the quests which offers up some good variation.

This is where the gameplay loop starts to form. Rather than starting out in a town, heading up the road and battling Pokemon along the way through random battles, and work your way through a list of Gym Leaders. Here there are no Gym leaders or random encounters, and it’s all very refreshing. In Pokemon Legends Arceus we see Pokemon out in the wild, and it’s great to see their relative size compared to you. A Slowpoke is HUGE, whereas a Pikachu is as small as you’d expect.

As you make your way through the Hisui Region you’ll collect Research Points by filling out your task list in the Pokedex. Research points are like XP, which lead to leveling up and gaining Star Ranks in the Survey Corps. Rank up your stars and complete the main story quests and areas will open up with newer, higher leveled Pokemon. The gameplay loop doesn’t sound very enticing on paper, but when you get stuck into it, it’s definitely the most satisfying and addicting Pokemon experience I’ve had for many years. I found Sword and Shield, plus Diamond and Pearl a bit of a slog at times, but here I am quite happy to spend hours researching and catching Pokemon.

Pokemon Legends Arceus has plenty of personalities. The idle animations of the Pokemon are fantastic, breathing life into them. The audio cues, the little sounds you hear when you are out there in the world, the patter of rain. With the burst of fireworks when you successfully catch a Pokemon, it feels like Game Freak has injected new life into the franchise with these little touches.

Pokemon has always been about catching, but Pokemon Legends Arceus adds a little something extra here too. You can walk or sneak up on Pokemon and throw the rudimentary wooden Pokeballs at them to catch. There’s the little wait and then they either burst out of the trap or get caught. Often you’ll have to sneak because some Pokemon have the need to run away – I spent hours trying to catch an Eevee which is a rare spawn early in the game, only for her to run away a few times.

Catching the Pokemon has been reinvigorated, and to accompany this there’s a decent crafting set of mechanics too. Crafting has had its place in previous Pokemon entries, although here it’s much more front and center. There’s a crafting bench in the main town, plus you have a little mobile crafting unit that you can take out for excursions. The landscape is full of crafting materials, such as berries in the tree, healing plants on the ground and you combine these together to make Potions and Revives for your Pokemon to help out in battle. One neat feature here is you can throw a Pokemon against a tree and it’ll remove all the berries in one go.

The battle system has been given an overhaul too. It’s still turn-based, but there’s a load of quality of life improvements here. For example, you can move around when you are battling, which shouldn’t be underestimated in how much this improves battles. Effects from fire, ice, and paralysis tend to be shorter and easier to recover from. Plus you have the new Agile and Strong style moves. The strong style will increase the attack damage but will be slower, and Agile moves may be faster but you’ll inflict less damage. The battle system is probably the area of the game which is most similar to other Pokemon games, and not in a good way. The turn-based nature of battle can sometimes feel a little random. You could argue Gamefreak wants to not veer to far from the main formula, but when you have experimented in so many other areas, why not try here too.

There are Alpha Pokemon and the mini-boss encounters which switch things up for the battles and offer plenty of challenges. You’ll be out there roaming about in the wild and you’ll come across a very large Pokemon with glowing red eyes, indicating an Alpha. Quite often these are multiple levels above you and can hand you a beat down. The Noble Pokemon boss battle is good fun too, where these huge, god-like Pokemon revered by the people of the island are enraged, and we have to throw their food at them in the form of calming balms. The name sounds silly, and the concept is pretty weird, plus the controls aren’t that great either. You have to throw food at a Noble Pokemon, until you can throw out a Pokemon to whittle down their health to zero, without losing your Pokemon or blacking out from the fight. It’s kind of mechanics soup and doesn’t really manage to pull itself together in a coherent way.

There’s plenty to like here from Pokemon Legends Arceus. I love the exploration, crafting, and collecting Pokemon. All that feels great. The performance does let the game down. If you have been following the conversation then you will recognize the discontent from the graphics. I’ve heard the game described as a Gamecube port to Nintendo Switch. It does beg the question of why Gamefreak, who owns the largest entertainment franchise in the world, why can’t manage to have up-to-date graphics in their games. Breath of the Wild, a year-old game at this point, looks much better. The characters and the Pokemon don’t look too bad at all, it’s the environments that really let the game down. Textures and scenery pop in all too often, and the grass for example looks terrible.

It does make you wonder why Legends Arceus is in the state it’s in. It may be down to the fact Gamefreak sells hundreds of millions of copies of the game, and they don’t need to polish it. However, if they did it would take the game from being above average to great. With the right graphics and performance, which could easily be attained on Nintendo Switch, this could have been one of the best games of the year for sure. There’s enough innovation in here that it could have been a great entry. Unfortunately, it’s let down by the performance. I understand it was developed in only a few years, but if that’s the case slow down a bit and take your time. We just got some remakes late last year and it always seemed the release of BD and SP was going to be too close to this release.

With that said, I have enjoyed my time with Pokemon Legends Arceus, and I’ll be going back to it again. The story is a little weak, and the sheer amount of dialogue at the start of the game is funny because there is way too much when there’s no voice acting in the game. It’s the gameplay though, the exploration, catching pokemon, actually seeing your pokemon out there in the wild for the first time, relatively sized against one another, it’s very cool. If you are a fan of the franchise, then I’d recommend picking this one up. This does give me hope for the future of the franchise and it’s going to be very interesting to see where we go from here, and which elements from Pokemon Legends Arceus Gamefreak decide to keep in future releases.

Developer: Gamefreak
Publisher: Nintendo/Pokemon Company
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 28th January 2022