The main Pokémon games are nothing if not reliable. Whenever a new entry hits store shelves, it’s a safe bet the title will provide an enjoyable experience that ferries gamers of all ages to different digital towns in the eternal quest to catch ‘em all. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a surprising break from that tradition, which is both its biggest strength and weakness.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a bold new direction for the franchise that borrows cues from open-world titles (as well as other modern experiences). The game cherry-picks its inspirations to provide an adventure that, while not quite as open-world as advertised, has wowed audiences and broken sales records. However, everything comes at a cost. In the case of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the game loses some of the DNA that made Pokemon games a global phenomenon but gains the seeds of a new, glorious chapter in the franchise.
Still, it is hard to deny that Pokémon Legends: Arceus excludes many of the features we have come to expect in contemporary Pokémon titles. The result is a game that may be less of a proper Pokémon experience than Sword and Shield or Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl but is ultimately (and somewhat ironically) a fun and solid journey.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus Nails the Glory of Exploration
Audiences have probably dreamed of a fully-open world Pokémon experience ever since the technology and know-how to make open-world games became commonplace. Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild only amplified that desire thanks to its award-winning open-world design that emphasized exploring off the beaten path to unearth untold riches (and the occasional deathtrap). While Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ Hisui region is more Monster Hunter: World than Breath of the Wild, it still channels the same spirit of wonderment and discovery.
Let’s get one thing straight: Pokémon Legends: Arceus might feature several segmented areas instead of uninterrupted land, but those locations are still huge. Players have a lot of ground to cover if they want to explore every nook and cranny, and that scope helps sell the idea that Hisui is a strange, untapped country where wild Pokémon flourish. Moreover, every Pokémon in the game has been given a glorious spit and polish to make them come alive. They don’t interact with each other on the level of, say, New Pokémon Snap, but each species still reacts differently to players. Some Pokémon curiously approach the main character; others run away, and some attack players on sight. And then there’s Mr. Mime, who occasionally pours himself a nice, refreshing glass of imaginary tea (a clear homage to the Mr. Mime interrogation scene in Detective Pikachu) and refuses to acknowledge the player while enjoying it.
However, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is more than just a vanilla Pokémon experience in a larger world. One of the game’s selling points is its stealth mechanic that lets players get the drop on unsuspecting Pokémon and catch them with one ball to the back of the head, no battling required (there’s also the Pokedex, which requires players to fill out various tasks before it can be completed). Those two mechanics synchronize to give audiences more tricks in their toolbelt. Say, for instance, a player encounters a giant Alpha Pokémon. They could fight the Alpha like any other Pokémon, but they would probably be wiped out by a non-stop barrage of Hyper Beams. However, with a properly-researched Pokedex, a Trainer could find out what food the Alpha likes, trick them into lowering their guard with a freshly-cooked meal and catch them from the safety of a smokescreen with significantly less effort.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus’ new approach to world design and catching Pokémon encourages experimentation and properly research a target. The result gives players a feeling of accomplishment as they take time to learn the ins and outs of a Pokémon that goes beyond type matchups and nature min-maxing, almost as if they’re real creatures. Even though the world of Pokémon feels more alive here than ever before, though, it comes at the cost of the signature magic of other Pokémon games.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus Is Missing Battle Mechanics, Multiplayer Connectivity, and Some of this Franchise’s Charm
Every video game and video game genre has growing pains, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus is no different. The game may be fun (very, very fun), but it is also flawed. Legends: Arceus is a blast in spite of its problems, which is surprising since many of them are so glaringly at odds with what it means to be a bona fide mainlinePokémon game.
When you normally think of Pokémon titles, you think of routes littered with wild Pokémon, Trainers to battle, and Gyms to conquer. Since Pokémon Legends: Arceus takes place when Pokémon were considered little more than wild, dangerous animals, Trainers are a rarity and Gyms a future dream. The closest the game gets to Gym battles are the Noble Pokémon, which can be frustratingly janky due to a reliance on dodging (which the developers haven’t nailed down yet) and gimmicky mechanics. This lack of series staples is a prime example of never appreciating something until it’s gone, as it turns out the alternative is far more frustrating. Plus, you can’t exactly bang your head to Gym Leader battle themes if there are no Gym Leaders to battle.
Speaking of fights, the franchise has survived for so long by, among other things, constantly tweaking its combat system. The first few games were fairly simple, but then Game Freak started adding new elemental types, rebalancing stats, splitting attacks into special and physical moves, and adding abilities. Each generation introduced new moves and features that altered the meta, which always kept professional Pokémon competitions fun and surprising, but Legends: Arceus strips most of that away. The game keeps all the type-advantages/disadvantages and the physical/special move split, but all the other fight-altering additions are completely absent. No held items, no Mega Evolutions, and no abilities except for a rare few like Regigigas’ Slow Start.
Aside from the new Agile and Strong styles that let players either hit faster or stronger at the cost of strength and speed, respectively, battles have basically reset to Gen 1 rules, which doesn’t bode well for the competitive scene. Then again, Pokémon Legends: Arceus stripped that away too. Yes, the game doesn’t have any multiplayer at launch, so gamers can’t compete with their friends in online arenas. They can still trade, but there’s little point in bothering with that mechanic since Pokémon that originally evolved through trading now only need the Linking Cord, and players don’t have to worry about edition-exclusive Pokémon to complete their Pokedex. The Pokémon franchise has cultivated such a strong and long-lasting fanbase because its community was built into the series since day one, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus all but abandons that. Plus, what’s the point in amassing an army of creatures with perfect stats if you can’t use them to devastate strangers online?
On a side note, while Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a great “large world” game, it focuses a little too much on that aspect for its own good. Think of the best open-world titles you’ve ever experienced. Odds are games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt come to mind. While those are stellar titles that downright perfect the art of open-world design, they still offer plenty of side activities that give players a break from the globetrotting grind. Pokémon Legends: Arceus doesn’t really offer anything like that. Sure, it has the balloon target practice and balloon race minigames (which challenge your throwing arm and speed) but they still rely on mechanics prevalent in the rest of the game world. Past Pokémon games have little side activities with their own mechanics, such as contests and making curry. They may be short, but they went a long way towards switching up the routine of battling Trainers and wild Pokémon (yet another example of not appreciating something until it’s gone. Fortunately, that can easily change…
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a Good Start, But a Sequel Can Improve It
Given the sales numbers for Pokémon Legends: Arceus so far, it’s hard to call the game anything other than a success. Legends: Arceus isn’t even half a month old, yet its sales numbers have already surpassed the lifetime sales of other Pokémon titles (most of which are spinoffs, to be fair). Nintendo and Game Freak have yet another golden goose on their hands. Even if the companies stick with the classic formula for subsequent titles, they would be wise to make another Legends.
As it stands, though, Arceus is more of an open-world adventure game (despite its lack of a real open-world) than it is a proper Pokémon game. Due to a lack of Trainer and Gym battles, as well as series-standard competitive multiplayer, the experience comes across like an adventure game about exploration with Pokémon mechanics added in as not quite an afterthought, but not quite the main focus, either. A hypothetical Pokémon Legends sequel could fix those problems.
Imagine, if you will, a game called…Pokémon Legends: Victini. Instead of focusing on a world where Pokémon are viewed as wild, vicious animals, the sequel’s world has accepted them and started to prototype the combat rules audiences have known since Gen 1. But, organized Pokémon battles are still in their infancy. The game could feature the same open-ish world with the same stealth mechanics, but it could also include dedicated Trainers and Gyms with battle mechanics more in line with previous Pokémon titles. Maybe that hypothetical game could even replace some Gym battles with races or other non-combative challenges to sell the idea that the organized Pokémon Gym bracket of its time lacked the defined rules of prior entries. Most importantly, that possible sequel would let players battle each other. This pipe dream of a concept would be one way to make a sequel that is both a huge change from the norm but also feels more like a proper Pokémon game than Legends: Arceus.
Nintendo and Game Freak were on the right path when they wanted to make a new Pokémon game that didn’t feel like its predecessors, but they might have gone a little too far and cut out some of the series’ magic (even if the result is still a blast). Well, you know what they say: Second time’s the charm.