Review: Pokemon Legends: Arceus for Nintendo Switch

Pokémon fans have dreamt of an open-world Pokémon game for decades, and while Pokémon Legends: Arceus is not technically fully open-world, being more like Capcom’s Monster Hunter series by having a main hub and multiple large open areas, the game feels like a much needed breath of fresh air for the franchise. Sword and Shield teased the idea of free-roaming gameplay by having 360° camera control within the “Wild Area,” and Legends: Arceus takes the concept to entirely new heights. Obvious comparisons can be made to 2017 GOTY winner The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but Pokémon Legends: Arceus holds its own in differentiating itself, and despite its flaws, provides an experience that makes the RPG adventure a must-have for any Nintendo Switch owner.

Apart from spin-offs, the juggernaut Pokémon series has stuck to relatively the same formula for over 25 years, making the unique gameplay style and differing mechanics of Pokémon Legends: Arceus feel that much more exciting and innovative. Although an argument could be made that Legends: Arceus is in and of itself a spin-off, as there aren’t two different versions of the game like the Pokémon series is generally known for, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company have implied on the official Japanese website that it is indeed a core mainline title. Taking place prior to the events of Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl, which received timely Nintendo Switch remakes late last year, Legends: Arceus is a prequel through and through, telling the origin story of the much beloved Sinnoh region.

A mysterious space-time rift has opened in the sky above the Hisui region, and you, the player, a 15 year old with unprecedented Pokémon catching and battling abilities, have fallen straight from it, holding virtually no knowledge or memory as to how nor why. You carry nothing but the ‘you’re not from around here, are you?’ clothes on your back and a device known as the Arc Phone, used to view a map of Hisui, featuring important waypoints, markers, a convenient mission/request checklist, and the ability to teleport between select locations. Greeted by Laventon, a Pokémon Professor with the dream of completing the region’s first Pokédex, he leads you to a place known as Jubilife Village. Here, you’re to become a member of the Survey Corps as part of the Galaxy Expedition Team, an organization conducting research on the Hisui region and its many different species of Pokémon. Laventon will also offer you a starter Pokemon of your very own, having you choose between Rowlet (grass/flying type), Cyndaquil (fire type), or Oshawott (water type).

The story of Pokémon Legends: Arceus follows the Galaxy Team’s mission in discovering the purpose of the rift in the sky, and its potential connection to the “almighty Sinnoh,” who is believed to be a god that created the universe that Hisui is located in. Lasting debates over whether Sinnoh is the ruler of time or the ruler of space caused the forming of rival groups, the Diamond and Pearl clans, in which members consist of a leader, and wardens, who are responsible for caring for nobles; special Pokémon descended from ones said to be directly blessed by Sinnoh. Both clans independently have relations to the Galaxy Team, and when lightning from the rift suddenly starts striking the nobles, turning some of them to potentially dangerous frenzies, the clan members will be of much help on your journey in keeping Hisui safe and solving the mystery of the rift. While the plot isn’t super in-depth, the many interesting and well-written original characters you’ll meet during your playthrough glow with personality, more than making up for the mostly predictable narrative.

Completing all of the necessary story-based missions to see the credits roll took me just under 17 hours of gameplay, with very little grind necessary. New missions are obtained by continuously visiting the Galaxy Team’s headquarters located within Jubilife Village, the game’s central hub filled with citizens, shops, a pasture to swap out your Pokémon, and much more. Optional side-missions, known as requests, can be received by talking to the citizens of Hisui that have a request icon above their head. More are unlocked as you progress through the main story, and they each offer rewards of varying quality and importance for completing them. Some feel like chores more than others, but thankfully, they’re never required. For currently activated missions and requests, a waypoint is handily set on your Arc Phone, giving you an easy to follow guidance marker showing you where to head next, making it near impossible to get lost in the large open areas you’ll be sent to explore. Much like in Sword and Shield, the inclusion of autosaves is a lifesaver (no pun intended), but the feature can be disabled in the settings if desired. There are a few hours of additional, and more challenging, post-credits story content as well, not counting the gratuitous amount of time you’ll have to spend filling out the Pokédex to unlock the game’s true ending. 

For those unfamiliar with the Pokémon series, the Pokédex is a catalog of all the different types of Pokémon that you’ve seen and caught. While most of the past games depict it as an electronic device, the one in Legends: Arceus is a paper document folder, making you feel like an old-timey researcher. ‘Research Tasks’ are a big aspect of the Pokédex this time around, requiring you to meet certain conditions for each Pokémon to max out their ‘Research Level’ to 10. Catching the Pokémon without being spotted, defeating them in battle, or witnessing them use specific moves, are a few of the tasks that you’ll be, well, tasked with. Every time you return to Professor Laventon to provide a progress report, you’ll earn research points for the number of tasks you’ve completed and species with newly completed Pokédex entries. Earning enough points will move you up in the ranks of the Galaxy Expedition Team, and higher level ranks are needed to access certain locations. Pokédollars are also rewarded for each report, which can then be spent at shops or merchants to buy items, upgrades, crafting materials, and new recipes. 

Items, such as different types of Poké Balls and healing supplies, can be obtained in one of two ways; the first is to purchase them using your hard-earned in-game money, but the second is much more self-sustaining. A brand new crafting mechanic has been introduced in Pokémon Legends: Arceus, allowing you to efficiently use the materials collected on your adventure. A crafting kit is available on your person at all times, making stocking up on items easier than ever before. There is no shortage of materials spread throughout Hisui, so as long as you take the time to stop and pick them up, assuming you have enough storage space left in your inventory satchel and didn’t leave any necessary materials back in a handy storage chest, you don’t have to worry about heading to a shop in the case you’re lucky enough to run into a rare shiny and need a Poké Ball ASAP. While smaller things such as flowers and mushrooms can be grabbed with the simple push of the ‘A’ button, berries growing on trees and tumblestones from rocks require the assisted strength of one of your Pokémon, which can be sent out to do so in just a few button presses.

As far as gameplay goes, most of the traditional series elements are here, reimagined by their implementation. One of the biggest notable absences though, that may be disappointing to some, is that there is currently no method for participating in Link Battles. If you were hoping to battle your friends through online or local communication, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, the ability to trade your Pokémon hasn’t gone anywhere, but it has lost some level of importance since, again, there is only one version of the game. All the 242 Pokémon, new and old, across multiple generations, with the inclusion of the eternity of Gen 4, are available to find and catch right out of the box.

Traveling across the Hisui region to find and catch ‘em all in order to complete the Pokédex in Legends: Arceus is charming, immersive, and just darn fun. I found myself more than once getting happily lost exploring in the vast open areas, each one a different biome from the last, ignoring the current mission and failing to notice the hours that have gone by. Upon finding a Pokémon you wish to catch, holding down the ‘ZR’ button when a Poké Ball is equipped brings up a crosshair for aiming using the Right Stick. This is also the method used to send out one of your Pokémon to collect materials or start a Pokémon Battle, with the ‘X’ button used to swap between items and Pokémon being equipped. Motion controls are turned off by default, which I thought was unusual, but it can easily be enabled in the settings. Holding down ‘ZL’ allows you to directly focus on a nearby Pokémon, granting not just easier aim, but also quick Pokédex access to view their research tasks. Indicators for how easy they’ll be to catch, as well as their current research level, are also clearly shown. 

Miraculously, you can attempt to capture multiple Pokémon, and even collect materials, at the same time, as there is no loading or interrupting animations while you wait to see if you made a successful catch. When preparing to strike though, be careful as to not let the Pokémon spot you, as it can cause them to either run away or begin to attack, making them unable to be caught directly. It’s important to be sneaky by crouching down, preferably in tall grass so as to not be seen, because taking too much damage from their attacks can result in a black out, causing you to respawn and tragically lose a number of the collected items from your inventory in the process. To avoid this, you can simply run away, use the dodging mechanic which doubles as a jump, or initiate a Pokémon Battle, as weakening a Pokemon during battle will make it easier to catch.

If the bread of the Pokémon franchise is catching, the butter is most definitely battling. Unique to Legends: Arceus is the ability for your trainer to fully move around while engaging in a battle, granting you with the ability to view the action from many different angles, making it feel much more real, as if it’s happening right in front of you. Six total Pokémon can be in your party at once, each of which earning differing amounts of XP (Experience Points) for surviving Pokémon battles, catching Pokémon, and being fed candies, amongst many other deciding factors. Gathering enough XP will cause your Pokémon to level up, making them stronger and earning more HP (Hit Points) in the process, with the chance for them to learn new moves (which can be changed or swapped using your satchel), master previous ones, or meet the necessary requirements to evolve. New moves and the mastering of moves can also be purchased using Pokédollars at the Training Grounds in Jubilife Village. HP acts as health, which can be restored using the proper healing items, but if it becomes fully depleted, the Pokémon will promptly faint. Once a Pokémon faints, it will no longer be in play until either a ‘Revive’ item is used, or you visit a camp for recovery after the battle has ended. Multiple camps will open in each location as you progress through the game, and you can teleport to them by using the map on your Arc Phone.

As for the actual battles themselves, your team of Pokémon are up against others in competitive turn-based combat, with the action order being decided by Speed stats. Using a move, swapping a Pokémon out for another, or using an item, counts as a turn. Every Pokémon, as well as their respective moves, have different elemental types such as Fire, Water, Grass, etc. There are 18 types in total, and understanding type matchups will allow you to more easily use effective moves against your opponent, bringing you to choose your team for battles accordingly and inflict as much damage as possible. Fortunately, you aren’t expected to remember all the type mashups, as pressing ‘X’ for more info during a battle will show you the effectiveness of a move, as well as the exact level of Power and Accuracy. Not all moves are attacks though, as some instead affect Defense and Offense stats, or even the action order. Every move has PP (Power Points), with every use decreasing the number by one until it reaches zero. Then, it must be recovered with the Ether item or by resting your Pokémon at a camp. As if the Pokémon battle system wasn’t strategic enough, Legends: Arceus introduces Strong Style and Agile Style moves, allowing you to sacrifice either action speed for more power or more power for action speed, in exchange for some additional PP.

There is also another kind of battle in Legends: Arceus that comes in the form of quelling the frenzies of noble Pokémon. Learning the pattern of the enemy attacks to swiftly dodge them is key to victory in these trainer vs. Pokémon boss battles, as you throw balms at them like Poké Balls to empty their frenzy gauge and cure them of their powerful curse. You’ll partake in five of these frenzy battles throughout the main story, each more difficult than the last. Upon causing brief vulnerability periods, there will be an opportunity to send out your Pokémon for a traditional Pokémon battle against the noble, and if you win, it will raise the effectiveness of the balms. These frenzy battles are intense and engaging, requiring quick reaction times to dodge the attacks. However, even the most difficult of the bunch only took me a couple of retries, without me ever even having to send out my Pokémon to weaken the nobles. When managing to black out and fail, the game will immediately give you the option to either restart the battle or continue the battle. Continuing the battle restores your character back to full health, leaving the opponents gauge at where you previously left off. I opted to always restart the battle to give myself more of a challenge. 

On a technical level, Legends: Arceus does what it sets out to achieve, though the internet was quick to point out and critique the major graphical differences from modern games such as Sony’s PlayStation exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn and it’s subsequent sequel Horizon Forbidden West. Not only would the Nintendo Switch, a lightweight, portable, handheld console, be incapable of running graphics of that fidelity in the first place, but, in my opinion, a cartoonish anime style fits the Pokémon series much better than a realistic one would. Appreciating Legend: Arceus for what it is rather than what it’s not, it’s oftentimes quite beautiful, especially during certain weather conditions as part of the day/night cycle, with the colors noticeably popping on the screen of the Nintendo Switch OLED model. That isn’t to say the game is visually impressive, far from it, as even though it has an excellent lighting engine and appealing character models, the textures are frequently of subpar quality, and shadows can occasionally appear pixelated. This is likely a necessary sacrifice to keep the framerate at a mostly smooth but somewhat unfortunate 30fps, with only occasional drops, never feeling like it’s greatly hindering the actual gameplay experience.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is not a perfect game, but it certainly comes close. It’s a fantastical innovative RPG that’s suitable for both longtime Pokémon fans and those that are brand new to the series. While it doesn’t come without its faults, containing graphical issues, a predictable plot, and too low of a difficulty level for my taste, the positives abundantly outweigh the negatives. With polished and highly satisfying battling and catching mechanics alongside the childhood dream-come-true of being able to properly explore the world of Pokémon in a large open 3D space, Legends: Arceus is one of the best exclusive games available for Nintendo Switch, and I absolutely can’t recommend it enough. There’s so many more exciting things to discover in the world of Hisui that this review fails to even mention (mostly spoilery stuff), and I hope you take the chance to partake in them. Here’s hoping that the ‘Legends’ series doesn’t stop with Sinnoh. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Pokédex to complete.

8.5/10

A copy of Pokémon Legends: Arceus was provided to My Nintendo News by Nintendo UK for the purpose of this review.


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