Review: Pokémon Legends: Arceus

On the timeline that we are currently on, GameFreak outsourced development on a Pokémon game to another developer, and then released a different Pokémon project just months later, in the cold of winter. And what’s more, this new Pokémon project blows everything that they have ever done clear out of the water.

No one expected this. This is the franchise that’s almost as famous as Madden for playing it safe. Since it’s inception, the Pokémon franchise has stuck to typical formulae for their releases, which have come to the point of being yearly installments where the most recent would be considered the definitive edition, and remaining current on the franchise required purchasing a new installment every year.

As Pokémon Legends: Arceus shows, GameFreak is willing to give a fresh take on a franchise that’s been regarded as among the most conservative. In fact, so much has apparently been poured into this one, that it’s more than a willingness, it’s a passionate desire.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus (hereafter Legends) takes place in Hisui, which is the Pokémon world’s region of Sinnoh as it would have been in centuries past (Sinnoh being inspired by the real-life location of Hokkaido). In this period of time, the people of Hisui are relatively few in number, and largely view the Pokémon creatures themselves as dangerous, and with some amount of suspicion. But then the main character comes along, and joins the Galaxy Team, a group of outliers that capture Pokémon and study them in their habitats.

As for how the main character got there, that could probably be called a spoiler, even though it happens at the game’s outset. However, it carries potentially huge implications for the Pokémon franchise’s branching timelines. In fact, the Pokémon community is already buzzing with speculation as to the impact that events in Legends would have in the continuity of Pokémon’s multiverse. So no, it’s not just some banal story about a kid from a small town collecting badges from gyms.

In Legends, the main character sets out on expeditions, where he (or she) catalogs data on a proto-Pokédex for Galaxy team. As you control him, he wanders freely about in one of the game’s immense open areas. I admit that I was a little concerned about this, as Pokémon Sword and Shield’s wild areas seemed like they’d be sprawling in early materials, but turned out somewhat small in the final game. Legends’ many areas may not be interconnected in the same way as in Breath of the Wild, but Legends’ wild areas are so huge in size that you’ll hardly feel confined. Not quite BotW, but the feel is almost the same. Better still, the Pokemon characters and other interactables such as trees and pick-ups are drawn from a considerable distance, which is another huge improvement over Sword and Shield.

Legends may not be the hyper-edgy game that some fans might be making it out to be, but it does have a bit of edge to it. Noticeably, there’s a connotation of danger from the Pokémon themselves. Pokémon can actually attack the main character, and if he takes too much damage at a time, he’ll be rescued, but lose a few items in his inventory. Players can capture Pokémon by throwing Pokéballs at them, though if they notice you first, that might not work. Even then, it’s still an option to send out a Pokémon, and battle the wild Pokémon one-on-one.

Except, it’s not always one-on-one. If there are other Pokémon nearby that notice you, they might join in and gang up on you. Interestingly, during battles, you can use the left control stick to reposition your character. Considering that it’s possible to take damage from being in an attack’s area of effect, it’s not a bad idea to stay out of the way. Adding to this is that the battle takes place on-location, rather than in some generic battle environment.

Over the course of your adventure, you’ll come across some Alpha Pokémon which, if you were to attempt to battle them, might give you a hard time. But if you can catch one, it might be a great asset, as they tend to come at a high level, with high stats and great moves. But, they might not obey until you progress in a certain way. My first one was a Golduck, but it disobeyed orders when I tried using it in battle.

Certain Pokémon are encountered as part of the story as “Lords”, which act as boss battles in this game. The battles with them involves avoiding their attacks while attempting to calm them with satchels, but only infrequently do you have the opportunity to use your own Pokémon during the battle. Other Pokémon still are the kind that you befriend, and they increase your mobility when called upon, which is handled in a way that is super-convenient. These can help you do things like cross water and climb cliffs.

One of the best mechanics that I’ve seen involves crafting your own items, which you get the capacity to do on-the-go early on. In most Pokémon games, stocking up involved buying lots of items at PokéMarts, which still remains in a certain way in Legends. However, you can obtain recipes so you can craft items like Potions and Pokéballs from items that you gather while on expeditions, which does a lot to make the expeditions feel really worthwhile.

Legends also brings some welcome changes to battles and Pokémon customization. One is that the Speed stat works differently, giving faster Pokémon opportunity to attack more often, rather than going first in strictly turn-based battles. Pokémon can also “master” moves, giving them the option of use “agile” or “strong” moves, which can offer more or less power and have an effect on turn order. This adds a lot more finesse to battles that was missing from many of the older games, not to mention a new element of strategy. Also, Pokemon no longer forget moves. While Pokemon still select from four moves during a battle, players can customize these moves from learned moves while outside of battle.

I can also point out that Legends is certainly harder than the core titles that Pokémon players would be used to. For a short while after getting started, I was surprised at how durable opposing Pokémon were, and their ability to consistently deal about 50% of my Pokémon’s HP in damage. Even level-grinding didn’t seem to result in as huge an advantage as it would in other RPGs in the franchise. Perhaps there was a change in the formula for damage calculation. Whatever the reason may be, I suspect that players wanting a higher level of challenge from the Pokémon franchise may appreciate Legends.

While many are comparing Legends to Breath of the Wild, I’ve heard others say that it’s more comparable to Monster Hunter. I haven’t played Monster Hunter, but if it’s anything like Legends, I’ve been missing out. But hey, has everyone already forgotten about Skyrim, all of a sudden? Skyrim did a lot to popularize this style of game, too.

In any case, it seems like more games are tending towards the freedom of an open-world adventure. While the story in Legends is linear, the gameplay has a sweet sense of freedom, and is certainly a blast of fresh air, which is something that this franchise has needed for a long time.

For those of you wanting to skip ahead to the score, here you go: Pokémon Legends: Arceus gets a score of 9.5 out of 10.

If you wrote Pokémon off as some nineties fad, then day trading might not be your thing.

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