Pokémon Legends: Arceus - Pokemon Legends: Review
For better or for worse, Pokemon legend Arceus is at last the reinvented pokemon that fans have demanded for years. A lot of this transformation pays off, and we get to interact with creatures that have never felt more alive and more dynamic, but Pokemon's evolution is not yet complete because the semi-open world around all of that feels like an unimpressive afterthought due to its bland emptiness.
The way Arceus completely reimagines how you go about capturing and battling Pokemon is exemplary. You could toss a pokeball right away for a capture attempt, send out one of your Pokemon for a battle, or throw items to distract or stun them. That alone mixes things up quite a bit more than in any other Pokemon RPG.
Wild Pokemon react to you like actual creatures with distinctive behavioral quirks, including both cute flourishes and things that affect gameplay. Some Pokemon will flee the second you see them, requiring you to hide in tall grass to get a good shot in. Others might attack you directly, and you'll have to dodge roll or take a hit to your limited health bar.
And then there's the delicious terror of running across a massive, red-eyed alpha pokemon in the wild. There is nothing quite like getting kicked across the prairie by a giant fire-breathing rabbidash. But battling two has received an overhaul that adds a new strategic layer, most noticeably with the addition of strong and agile attacks that let you either give up future turns for an extra powerful move or sacrifice power to bring your turn back sooner, respectively.
It's a neat touch that feels inspired by Bravely Default's clever system, but that said, many wild encounters are over so quickly that it never comes into play. It's more helpful in longer battles, but if either you or your opponent is switching Pokemon in and out a lot, the turn order ends up shifting in weird and unpredictable ways, so this system could use a little fine tuning.
Between that and a lot of other changes, there's a lot to learn and adapt to here. Even for long-time fans, certain moves and status effects like rollout or sleep work very differently, and there are no held items or abilities either. The vast majority of these changes are for the better, tightening up battles effectively within the faster-paced damage-heavy framework.
Other major changes are noticeable outside of battle, like the ability to both evolve Pokemon and change their move sets directly from the convenient menu as soon as requirements are met. Arceus is also much more difficult than any Pokémon game in recent memory, in part thanks to the more demanding action mechanics, but also because Pokémon overall just seemed to do more damage.
And even early on, you can run across powerful monsters that can wreck your entire team. This is a welcome removal of Pokemon's historical training wheels, but it does lose a lot of the series' past accessibility, which is worth keeping in mind given its wide-ranging, all-ages fan base. And no, there's no easy mode.
In the world of Arceus, the dramatic differences in how you battle and catch Pokemon exist because you've been flung through time and space to a precursor of Diamond and Pearl's sino region, the sui region, so you're actively inventing both as you go. Filling out an entry involves completing bonus tasks unique to each, which can involve battling, witnessing them using certain moves, encountering them in specific circumstances, or finishing side quests.
Filling out the pokedex is necessary for progression milestones and rewards, but it's also a fulfilling task on its own when combined with the other new systems. Arceus's cycle of visiting a new area, working on the pokedex, and repeating proved enticing for hours, as fun as it was to catch and catch and catch Pokemon legends.
Arceus's brilliant new systems come with a major downside: they all exist within an ugly, empty world. With the singular exception of its pleasant skies, Arceus's region of Vesui is just not nice to look at. The textures are ugly and repetitive. The grass and trees are excessively simple and obvious, and the water effects are utterly bizarre; objects pop in and out at close range, and large wild Pokemon spotted in the distance run at an agonizingly slow frame rate that makes them look like stop motion animations.
We've seen too many pretty open world games on Switch now for this kind of thing to slide. What's more, while the overworld is massive in size, so much of it is functionally empty, lacking even interesting natural phenomena or roadside curiosities. The handful of landmarks it does have are frequently disappointing.
I saw what I thought might be a cool mountain cave, only to be a dead end inhabited by more zubat. Essentially, exploring and getting to know Hasue is entirely about cataloguing its Pokémon. The region itself is an underdressed, inelegant afterthought. Hisoui is also entirely devoid of anything resembling dungeons or puzzles, aside from one basic sort of dungeon about 20 hours in, lacking suitable replacements for the traditional gems and the like.
Arceus feels like it's missing meaningful buildup to major encounters and lacks the satisfaction that comes from surviving a long excursion into a dangerous place. Without that, the gameplay is almost entirely defined by its repetitive catching and battling. Sure, that alone is reasonably fun for a while, but interspersed action-heavy boss fights with powerful lords and lady Pokémon do help freshen things up.
But then I reached Arceus's ending, of sorts, when the credits rolled after about 30 hours. The ending you see is really more of an act one finale, leading directly into an additional 30 plus hours of side quests, battles, and legendary encounters. A lot of that extra content is pretty fun, including a tough boss battle and some excellent Pokemon hunts that fully embrace Arceus's strategic overworld creature catching mechanics.
But because of one massive piece of Arceus, the second half sucks. Actually, I finished it, but the true ending is gated behind two massive and frustrating collect-a-thons. That can take hours if you're not lucky with certain spawns, or in my case, able to trade with other players. I understand that Pokemon has always had its share of obtuse challenges, but never have they been required to achieve a satisfying ending.
Given how much else was reinvented here, this sort of tedious mandatory activity should have been the first thing to go, especially given that the ending you get out of it doesn't really do much to tie up the many story threads left hanging.