After 25 years, we got a glimpse of what Pokémon can become with Sword and Shield having some open world elements; the zone-based locations are finally coming to an end thanks to Pokémon Legends: Arceus – a game that is by several miles the best Pokémon game to date with a much-needed enhancement to their overall formula and storytelling. However, as an RPG it falls short in almost every regard, including its graphics – despite it looking great for a Switch game, it can look a lot better.
The Birth of the Universe
Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place in feudal Sinnoh called Hisui, where Pokémon ran wild without the coexistence of humans. A Time-Rift appears over Hisui where you as a player is launched out of it with no real memory of what you were before that point. Naturally you on a shore that is later known as Prelude Beach, which is set outside of Jubilife Village. You are found by the professor of the village who quickly sees your affinity with commanding and capturing Pokémon, which leads to your main quest of the game – complete the first ever Pokedex. You will quickly find out that several clans warred against one another many years ago, and ever since a peace treaty has been made in hopes for a better future. One lingering problem though, how do we live side by side with the vicious Pokémon? That’s where the Poke Ball comes in – by capturing and studying these creatures, we can learn their behavior and figure a way to coexist.
But what about the major Time-Rift above the highest peak of the mountains? Well, apparently this is not the first time it has happened – what’s new now is how the rift has been sending out these lightning bolts that targets the Noble Pokémon of the land, causing them to frenzy. Of course, we as players offer to quell these beasts which starts off the mainline plot of the story.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ story is straight forward but probably the best since Gold and Silver given the dynamics of time traveling, clan conflict, wild Pokémon actually trying to kill you and somehow bringing mystery to a franchise we are so familiar with. Sure, the game has its quirks but overall, it’s a darker story that befits the years of experience that GameFreak developed. It’s at a point where it finally feels like a step forward for the franchise, instead of reiteration of the same plot points over and over again. My issue, where it won’t matter to some, is that the main story is focused entirely on the time rift and Noble Pokémon, yet nothing regarding Arceus. It is only after the credits roll where we get the namesake’s focus – and even then, it’s not enough given who you are as a player isn’t answered.
Formula Revamped with a lot of Drawbacks
Pokemon Legends: Arceus is the start of a new era for the series. It hits almost all the bells and whistle of how the series can become one of the best RPGs ever made: it’s finally open world, albeit still zoned similar to Monster Hunter: World, player perspective during battle, getting attacked by Pokémon, being able to sneak and capture Pokémon without battling, exploring uninterrupted, revamped turn-based formula; all of which is something I longed for since I was a child. Being a fan of the franchise since I was 5, I wanted nothing more than to play Pokémon in the way Legends: Arceus is – but so much time has passed, and technology stronger than the Switch could have produced something like Legends: Arceus, many years back.
The improvements lie in the core elements of the franchise – Pokémon hunting and capturing has never felt better. Previously, you would have to go into tall grass, or inside a cave to wait for a traditional encounter, weaken the Pokémon in battle and throw some Poke Balls. Sword and Shield revamped it a bit by adding some open world zones where you can actually see the Pokémon Roaming and choose to either avoid or battle. This would still bring you to a faded-to-black screen and into a turn-based arena with traditional Pokémon camera angles, but it was a decent step forward into realizing Pokémon’s true potential.
Before I get into the battle and roaming, I have to talk about the new quest structure this game has. This time, there’s no Pokémon League to go after or Red to battle – instead you will join a governing group The Galaxy Expedition Team. Basically, you will be surveying Pokémon, capturing and studying them to complete the Pokedex; there’s 242 Pokémon to capture in this game. The progression system is based on Pokémon captures, how you capture them, battles, witnessing moves and evolution. In turn, you will get Survey Points that goes towards your overall ranking that caps at 10 stars. Each rank would net you crafting recipes and the ability to have Pokémon obey you up until lv100; It’s a familiar concept flipped by the goal of completing Pokedex rather than gathering badges. Crafting plays a huge role in this game, you can naturally buy items from the Merchant Guild, or craft them yourself. They require materials you gather when free roaming, or when completing side missions – and happily they’re not asking players to find insurmountable amounts mats to be comfortable. There is this one person that ask you to pay them to increase your satchel size, but he’s a total rip off (and the only way to increase your bag size.) The first few times you increase your bag cost you 500 yen, which is then raised by 1000 yen and keeps climbing. It’s truly garbage and I hope GameFreak patches it.
Another new addition to Pokémon is the Request – they’re designed to give you more context to how the people live in Jubilife, and serves more of a fetch-quest thing rather than real tangible, worthwhile side quest. Truly, I absolutely despise doing any request in the game as they net you almost nothing in return, not even good storytelling. Sure, some elements can improve village properties like farming mats or finding a new outpost in the wild to fast travel, but because there’s no voice dialogue or intriguing animations to look at – it’s so incredibly boring to do.
This goes hand in hand with the overall story telling of the game – there’s very little effort put into the animations that reading the dialogue just feels absolutely monotonous. The balance between the insurmountable text and visual storytelling is unfavorable.
The Freedom of Battle
This time around, you are completely free of camera cuts and forced battles. Legend’s: Arceus allows the player to freely roam the environment with full camera control, inspired by Breath of the Wild design, however you like (almost.) You can sprint, summersault, crouch, hide and examine every creature you see. If seen, you aren’t forced into battle, but instead can flee – Pokémon can attack or ignore you based on their nature. Speaking of attacking, they will, for the most part, try to kill you. Like, Nintendo tries to make it family friendly by having you faint into camp – but no, they’re trying to eat you alive. The sense of Dead by Daylight is very real when an Alpha Pokémon is after your very soul. The chase is serious, most of the time your Pokémon won’t be able to combat it and your only option is to flee. The exhilarating feeling, I got from my first alpha encounter was very welcoming as I haven’t felt this way for a Pokémon game, ever. In addition to exploring Hisui with freedom are these periodic Time-Distortions where you’ll be entering them to gather rare materials and Pokémon; honestly, my overall favorite element of Legends: Arceus.
When you do get into battle, a number of core elements has been revamped – the game is still turn based, but you can roam around the battle with your character freely, even when an attack is happening. Be careful though, you can get damaged by it if too close. First, the turn-based structure has been altered with a collapsing element, because now you can do Agile or Strong versions of your attacks. Agile is, you’ll hit weaker but have a chance to attack again based on your Pokémon Speed stats. Strong is making the attack stronger but you will most likely get attacked twice. This sort of element brings a lot of strategy to the game which I welcome greatly. But for the most part, especially in late game, I found that the system needs patching; often than not, I am attacked by Strong attacks, twice – having multiple Pokémon faint in almost every encounter. Same goes for Agile where my Luxray is clearly faster than a Empoleon, but I still get outmatched. It’s very frustrating when trying to Alpha farm Pokémon and my team wipes because the new gameplay element works entirely against me, in turn causing me to craft materials and wasting them. the cool thing though is when your team wipes, you aren’t sent back to camp immediately, instead you yourself would have to flee from the raging Pokémon. Again, that sense of tensity is very real.
Another element I really enjoyed is the ability to switch between moves that your Pokémon learned and having the choice on whether to evolve them or not, even if they met their level requirement. No more force evolving Pokémon and pressing B to cancel or choosing which move to skip or forget. This level of freedom really eases the cumbersome nature Pokémon has had for so many years. Additionally, inventory management is far cleaner and much more manageable – Pokémon and Items are both in one page so healing and reorganizing is faster than ever, sprinkled with a modern overall UI design. I like.
For those, like myself, that loves to EV/IV train and use Zinc and Protein to max out stats – it’s still here, but different. Now, these hidden stats are called Effort Level; the higher the effort level of a stat, the better it’ll be. The Zinc and Proteins? They’re now called Dust – where it’ll perform in a way to level up Effort Levels. I dabbled a bit for the sake of story progression, but since there’s no breeding or online battling, I haven’t had the desire to actually focus on it.
Yes, there’s no freaking breeding or damn online battling. Talk about a step tumbling backwards – I understand that this is a time where it’s at least 100 years before the harmony of humans and Pokémon – but battling is ever present here amongst the clans and you can trade online….so like, why? Did GameFreak fear that the Agile/Strong element would be too imbalanced? Was the new Effort Level too difficult to refine? No one would really care and it’s not like patching it in the future would be an issue. I just don’t get it.
Alongside the improvements of gameplay, however, is traversal. You will be taming Warden Pokémon that will help you with navigating the vastness of Hisui; Wyrdeer will help you dash across the planes while Sneasler will help you climb the mountains with ease. It’s truly awesome and makes exploring so much better. I was surprised by the ease-of-use switching between each Warden; when jumping off a cliff, just tapping A would bring up Braviary without issue, or if I let go and fall into the ocean, Basculegion is ready to swoop me. This sort of improvement, I’m all in for.
The Presentation isn’t all that Bad
Let’s get one thing straight – The Nintendo Switch is just the Wii U, but portable. It is hardware that barely competes with the PS3 – however, it is enough to actually push Pokémon Legends: Arceus to better quality than what we have available. Overall, the art direction is very nice and clean – character models are as expected for a Pokémon game, which is not bad. They’re detailed and all have personality, however the texture quality is muddy most of the time, even when docked – and the draw distance suffers greatly. Lighting and shadows are almost nonexistent, but the day and night cycle are suitable. I recommend players to play in handheld mode because the game looks better in a smaller screen.
Because the game is vast and wide, draw distance will be the biggest culprit in limitation – when soaring the sky with Braviary, it is immediate that pop-in occur with just a few feet from you; terrain formation deforms regularly as you traverse the region. Even with each of the 5 main biomes looking relatively beautiful, it’s still not enough to cover the shortcomings of GameFreak’s engine.
All of this is to be expected from the Nintendo Switch, but when you see Breath of the Wild and how magical that game looks, it is a wonder why GameFreak didn’t just use its engine – Legends: Arceus clearly took inspiration from that game, might as well take the engine too.
Moving Forward with Time
Pokémon Legends: Arceus does almost everything superbly – from revamping their battling formula to exploration. This truly brings out the best in the franchise – however, its shorthanded RPG design with incredibly mundane side quest and very little to uncover pales in comparison to games like Ni no Kuni – an RPG that pretty much mastered creature battle back in 2010. Although it’s 12 years too late, for longtime fans like myself, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a new beacon for future fans, and I hope GameFreak continues to improve on this new approach.
REVIEW SCORE: 7.5/10